The return of the World Cup of Hockey coincides nicely with the Sabres’ resurgence. The puck will drop on the event over two years after Sam Reinhart was selected in Philadelphia, casting one of the largest stones of Buffalo’s rebuild.
As the Sabres continue to grow from cellar dweller to competitor, their roster will gain more and more notoriety. Jack Eichel already commands a great deal of attention and players like Reinhart, Ryan O’Reilly and Rasmus Ristolainen are growing into stars in their own right. Thanks to the format of next fall’s World Cup, the Sabres will have an opportunity to have a number of players represent the team at the re-tooled international tournament.
The introduction of the North American Young Stars and European All Star teams opens additional for many of Buffalo’s players to step onto the Air Canada Center ice next fall. Some of the names that will follow are going to be no brainers in terms of participation while others will be admitted long shots. Here’s a look at which Sabres players will be, at the very least, on the watch list for next year’s World Cup.
Jack Eichel – Young Stars
Might as well get the easy one out of the way early. While there’s no concrete proof of this, the Young Stars team was likely formed in order to showcase Eichel and his 2015 Draft compatriot, Connor McDavid. Eichel’s early returns has Buffalo buzzing and he’ll be a centerpiece of the Young Stars roster next year. Outlook: Roster Lock
Sam Reinhart – Young Stars
Compared to his nine-game tryout last season, Sam Reinhart’s play is worlds better. The improvements he made to his game haven’t just allowed him to keep up at the NHL level, but become a valuable top-six forward. The lone challenge I’d expect Reinhart to have is the competition he’ll face from players closer to the 23-year old cutoff. Sean Couturier, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Alex Galchenyuk all fall under the cutoff and their experience and two-way play (particularly the two former centers) make them strong contenders to lock down roles with the Young Stars. I’d gather Reinhart will be able to make or break his resume over the rest of this season, but it will be an uphill climb. Outlook: On the Bubble
Jake McCabe – Young Stars
McCabe has had his fair share of ups and downs through the first two months of the year. A player who was likely expected to spend a majority of his time in Rochester, McCabe has been a tremendous addition to the Sabres’ blueline this year. He’s helped balance the left side and he’s showing a great deal of potential playing in some significant situations. Like Reinhart, McCabe faces a longer road to a roster spot due to some of the bodies who likely sit ahead of him on the pecking order. Without even considering handedness, Aaron Ekblad, Seth Jones, Dougie Hamilton and Morgan Reilly are almost certainly locks, leaving three spots for McCabe to try to sneak into ahead of Matt Dumba, Noah Hanifin, Jacob Trouba and others. Outlook: Outside the Bubble
Zemgus Girgensons – European All Stars
Girgensons’ slow start offensively and reduced role in the forward ranks (and Sabres social media) have left him as something of a forgotten man. While that assessment is hardly fair to make, Girgensons has managed to fly under the radar for most of the season as he simply isn’t at the focal point of the team as he was the last two years. While his offensive output is down compared to last year, I’d expect him to be a strong contender to make the European team. He may not play a prominent role with the likes of Anze Kopitar, Thomas Vanek and Marian Gaborik on the roster, but I’d expect Girgensons to be in Toronto representing the Sabres next fall. Outlook: Near Lock
Rasmus Ristolainen – Finland
Ristolainen’s transformation into a number one defenseman seems to be on-track, if not ahead of schedule. He’s handled major minutes in difficult situations with ease this season. His offensive output has skyrocketed and it would appear there is still more to come from the young Finn. The Finnish blueline at the World Cup will probably be pretty young but you can expect Ristolainen to serve as an anchor for the unit. Outlook: Roster Lock
Robin Lehner – Sweden
Barring an offseason injury, Henrik Lundqvist will be the starter for the Swedes next fall. That’s a stone-cold lock. It’s also likely that old friend Jhonas Enroth serves as his primary backup. However, the third goaltender spot isn’t set in stone and the Sabres might just have one of their two young netminders steal that roster spot. Lehner’s injury leaves things very cloudy in terms of the Sabres crease, let along Sweden’s. Had he been healthy all season, and played, well, I would have assumed he and Enroth would have fought for backup duties. This injury and lack of playing time probably put him in a backseat even to players like Jacob Markstrom or even Anders Nilsson (who has played quite well for Edmonton). He’ll need a very strong spring to reestablish himself for the Swedish team. Outlook: On the Bubble
Linus Ullmark – Sweden
Ullmark’s age and lack of NHL experience are the two biggest detractions he’ll have to deal with. However, he’s played quite well in his short time in North America and if that play continues I could see the Swedes bringing him to the tournament for exposure. With Lundqvist locked in to start and Enroth providing quality insurance, putting Ullmark in the third spot to see how the senior team operates could be a long-term move by the Swedes. After all, Ullmark probably has the best long-term outlook when you compare him to Markstrom, Nilsson, Eddie Lack or Johan Gustavsson. Now, do they risk that type of move in a short tournament? I’m not sure. But either way, Ullmark’s play will be what guides their hand. Outlook: Outside the Bubble
Ryan O’Reilly – Canada
O’Reilly has been a major contributor at recent World Championships for the Canadians during his time in Colorado. Just last year he combined well with Tyler Ennis to help the Canadians grab gold. His play this season has been sublime and it doesn’t appear he will be relinquishing his top-six role any time soon. Despite his superb play, he shares citizenship with many of the world’s best offensive players. While it’s certainly feasible that he could grab a spot a la Brenden Morrow or Mike Richards at the 2010 Olympics, he’s probably a long shot due to the Canadian’s incredible depth. He might be in the conversation, but I think he’s a long shot. Outlook: Outside the Bubble
Evander Kane & Tyler Ennis – Canada
See O’Reilly, Ryan for each of these high-flying weapons. While each provide the Sabres with phenomenal offensive skill, they’re simply too far down the overall pecking order when it comes to the final roster. While they’d almost certainly be right in the mix for a Canada-B team, they’re simply victims of a numbers game. Even a goal scoring explosion from one of the two (or both) to close this season probably wouldn’t put them on the radar when you consider the embarrassment of riches Canada boasts at forward. Outlook: Long Shots
I think O’Reilly is on the bubble, with a legitimate chance to make Team Canada (unlike Kane or Ennis). Why? Versatility (W or C), ability to play PK, face-off skills, performance at 2015 Worlds, and overall make-up & leadership. Hope he makes it.