Reloaded Forward Group is Full of Upside

Pop quiz, hot shot. Can you name all of the forwards vying for a spot on the Sabres roster this year? No cheating.

The Sabres enter camp with a hefty roster bolstered by two years of rebuilding. As a result, fresh faces abound and it isn’t too hard to leave out a name or two while you’re penciling in lines.

Tim Murray’s first 18 months have brought Evander Kane, Jamie McGinn, Ryan O’Reilly (and brother Cal), Zach Bogosian, Josh Gorges, Cody Franson and Robin Lehner (among others) to the Queen City. Oh, and two guys named Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel, too. As a result, trying to ferret out exactly who will be on the opening night roster isn’t an easy task.

Obviously Eichel is going to be at the center of attention throughout camp. After all, where would the Sabres marketing team be if they couldn’t show us Jack Eichel doing Jack Eichel things with people who aren’t Jack Eichel? All kidding aside, I’m beyond ecstatic to see him in preseason action after his play in development camp (especially the 3-on-3 tournament) and at the Prospects Challenge. I just hope the Sabres don’t run him into the ground as they try to promote him the team.

The number of potential position battles for a team starting to turn the corner out of a rebuild isn’t that surprising. The forward group has the most potential for upheaval as there are upwards of 15 players who could conceivably push for a roster spot for the October 8 opener.

Dan Bylsma will have the ability to juggle a handful of incredibly talented forwards through the top-six and he could even run into some trouble depending on how he wants to split the unit. Between Eichel, Ennis and Kane, the Sabres have three dynamic talents who seem to excel with the puck on their stick. Putting two (or even three, I suppose) on a line together could affect their share of the puck while they’re on the ice.

However, given Ennis’ limited experience playing with Ryan O’Reilly at the World Championships, you’d assume that those two are likely going to be seeing a lot of each other – as they did to start camp today. The Sabres could also do far worse than a top line of Kane-O’Reilly-Ennis, so I’ll hardly be heartbroken if Evander Kane and Tyler Ennis are playing on a line together.

Eichel likely slides in on the “second” line for the time being and the first day of camp indicates that he’ll be sharing time with his housemate, Matt Moulson. If those two have half the chemistry that Moulson had with John Tavares, I think the Sabres will be in fine shape. Who their winger will be is another story.

Rolling the dice and pushing Sam Reinhart to the wing with another rookie would be a large gamble that I’m not sure the coaching staff wants to take. At least not right off the bat. Brian Gionta could slide in on the RW to give Eichel more veteran help, but I think I’d like to see Jamie McGinn in that spot.

It may be seem like a lofty spot to put McGinn, but he’s a big body who is no stranger to finding the net; he scored 19 goals in each of the last two full seasons he played. McGinn’s size should open up space for Eichel and Moulson to create while also giving Eichel another veteran presence to lean on, if necessary.

Should the top two lines play out the way I’ve laid them out, the Sabres will have a plethora of options for the bottom six. It’s my feeling that determining the bottom six will be a more drawn out process than the same process will be for the top two lines.

There are a minimum of eight and a maximum of 12 players who could push for time in the bottom six and there is likely a maximum of eight spots available to those players.

Obviously you can write Zemgus Girgensons in as the third line center and probably flank him with Marcus Foligno and Brian Gionta. However, Johan Larsson and Sam Reinhart could also play a role in one of those spots as well. However, I’d be comfortable allowing Reinhart to start the year in Rochester to not only lessen the load on the roster itself but to provide him with an opportunity to grow his game in a slightly more controlled atmosphere.

Reinhart starting the year in Rochester wouldn’t be a punishment in any way, shape or form. It would simply be a solution to keeping him in as many game situations and playing big minutes. While he could certainly fill a role like that in Buffalo, starting him in Rochester could provide both the team and player more long-term benefits.

The leftovers leave us with Deslauriers, Legwand, McCormick and Larsson for the fourth line. Pat Kaleta can certainly push to make his AHL deal and NHL one and there’s still a good chance that either Jason Akeson, Cal O’Reilly or Tim Schaller get a look with the big club too.

O’Reilly could serve as an incredibly valuable piece for Rochester this season and Akeson’s value to the Amerks will fall close to that of Cal O’Reilly’s. So, there could be some value to the organization to keep the Amerks competitive, particularly since both of those players wouldn’t be in the same offensive role in Buffalo as they would be in Rochester. On the surface, it’s more likely that O’Reilly sticks around compared to Akeson but Tim Schaller could potentially steal the final forward spot from one of the two. While it’s encouraging that Kaleta got an AHL deal, he wouldn’t just need to impress the coaches but he’d also need to impress enough to grab an NHL deal. That could be a tougher ask than some may think.

So a rough look at how I’ve penciled out the lines looks something like this:

Kane – O’Reilly – Ennis

Moulson – Eichel – McGinn

Larsson/Foligno – Girgensons – Gionta

Deslauriers – Legwand – McCormick/O’Reilly

Give credit to Tim Murray for how he’s reshaped this group of players. There are five new names on that list compared to last year and three of them reside in the top six. Murray didn’t just add actual, NHL talent to his roster this season, he added serious top-end talent to a roster that was otherwise devoid of it the last two years.

After two years of watching a forward group with one quality line, the Sabres are prepared to ice a team that could conceivably have three lines capable of contributing on a regular basis. There’s also a strong veteran contingent present on the roster this season, something that ought to help guide the likes of Eichel and Reinhart (whether he starts in Buffalo or Rochester) through this transition.

The Sabres have certainly set their mentality on winning and should their forward group perform above expectations, they could even surprise some people this season.

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