As the Sabres open their preseason campaign this evening against Minnesota, portions of the reshaped roster will be front and center for the first time. While this includes players like Jack Eichel, Buffalo’s beefed up blueline will be on display as well.
Buffalo returns most of their defensive corps from the end of the 2014-15 campaign as Zach Bogosian, Josh Gorges, Rasmus Ristolainen and Mike Weber will all see significant minutes this season. However, Mark Pysyk is expected to be in Buffalo full-time along with new additions Carlo Colaiacovo and Cody Franson. Those new faces should each play their own role in turning the corner after two years of woeful defensive results.
While Ristolainen will remain on the shelf for a little while longer due to a pre-camp injury, the club opened camp with a pretty clear picture of what their defense pairs will look like. Gorges is skating alongside Bogosian, Weber is paired with Pysyk while Colaiacovo and Franson are the next pair up. One would presume that Ristolainen steps in with Pysyk when he’s healthy, but that’s hardly set in stone at this point.
Based on the current pairings, it would seem that Gorges and Bogosian will serve as the team’s top pair with Pysyk and Ristolainen potentially seeing second pairing minutes. Colaiacovo and Franson are likely best used in manageable situations – something Murray mentioned after signing Franson – which would be ideal for a third pair made up of two veterans who can contribute offensively.
Assuming Weber is penciled in as the seventh man for the time being, he will likely be utilized when Dan Bylsma is looking to ice a heavier lineup or even a defensive corps with more of a tendency to stay at home.
Depth beyond the top seven is far more impressive than it was just a year ago. Of course, the top seven is far more impressive than it was a year ago. Jake McCabe is the prohibitive favorite to be the first call up and I’d be surprised if he wasn’t recalled on a fairly regular basis. Chad Ruhwedel, Matt Donovan and Bobby Sanguinetti all have NHL experience and while they’ll each see more time in Rochester than Buffalo, they provide fair replacement value should the Sabres be hit by an injury bug.
The unit, as a whole, is going to be vastly improved. Adding Franson – whose numbers are reflective of a quality contributor – Pysyk and Colaiacovo to a unit which featured Andre Benoit and Andrej Meszaros last season gives the Sabres a trio of (likely) second and third pair players who aren’t just more capable at the NHL level, but who are capable of making a positive impact on many of the fancy stats which the Sabres were woefully insufficient in last season.
Prior to camp opening I expected to see Ristolainen claiming a spot in the top four along with Pysyk and Bogosian. That fourth spot was something of a question mark for me. Franson, in a second pair usage is an incredibly effective player. However, Gorges would provide a bit more balance from a defensive perspective while also giving the top-four one lefty. While it could be argued that a top four of Bogosian, Franson, Pysyk and Ristolainen could be a more effective group, it also groups all of the right-shot and all of the left-shot defenders together. Even if there’s a minimal emphasis placed on the handedness of each pair, that’s not an ideal scenario.
It seems as if Dan Byslma has had that exact thought given how the beginning of camp has played out. I’d expect Ristolainen to claim Weber’s current spot with Pysyk once he’s healthy. Although it would be a supreme vote of confidence if he would up skating with Bogosian on the team’s top pairing. That would also likely slide Gorges to the left of Pysyk, which may just be the most ideal scenario for the Sabres as they enter the season.
Things should clear up once Ristolainen is healthy as Pysyk and Franson are the only two true locks for the final roster playing on the blueline this evening. McCabe, Ruhwedel and Donovan will also be in the lineup, giving the defense corps some Rochester flavor. But Pysyk and Franson could easily wind up on the team’s second pair to start the year, but we’ll need to wait for a few more preseason contests for that to play out.
Either way, I have high hopes for the blueline this season. I think Pysyk is underrated by many fans and adding him, Franson and even a full season of Bogosian should bring positive results for the Sabres.