With the rookie tournament and start of training camp checked off the list, the only thing standing between the Sabres and opening night is the preseason. The team’s six game preseason slate kicked off yesterday with a visit from the Carolina Hurricanes, and there are a handful of questions that we should see answered between now and the opening faceoff on October 5.
New GM Jason Botterill’s first task was to revamp a defensive corps that was suspect to say the least. Analytics darling Cody Franson and Dmitri Kulikov have departed and in their place Boterill went out and acquired Nathan Beaulieu from the division rival Canadiens, then swung his first major trade to bring in Marco Scandella and old friend Jason Pominville from the Minnesota Wild. The additions of Scandella and Beaulieu, plus making the signing of free agent Victor Antipin official, leaves the blue line in much better shape than it was a few months ago.
Now the questions is not only who plays with who, but who plays in general? Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe are known quantities at this point and should slot in somewhere in the top four, although they might not be paired together. Zach Bogosian is, in my opinion, the Sabres’ best skating defenseman. If he’s able to stay healthy he’s very well suited for Phil Housley’s system. Scandella was acquired to be the top four defenseman the Sabres were in desperate need of, so he’ll certainly get a chance to prove Botterill was right in acquiring him. Beaulieu and Antipin seem to have the ideal skill set in regards to not only moving the puck up the ice but joining the play, and Josh Gorges will be out to prove he can contribute on a nightly basis. Not to mention Brendan Guhle looked to be NHL ready in his three game cameo last season. That leaves eight defensemen fighting for six spots (nine if you count camp invitee Cody Goloubef). What Housley and Botterill opt to do with the likes of Guhle and Gorges will be worth watching.
Reinhart will get a look at center in camp and at the beginning of the year, that much is certain. What remains to be seen is if he can be a productive centerman at the NHL level. Nearly all scouts are on the same page when it comes to Reinhart in regards to the belief that he projects as a winger in the NHL and is best used as such. Can Reinhart prove them wrong and contribute 50-60 points as a center? If he can it would give the Sabres depth down the middle that few teams in the league can match.
The Top Six
Reinhart’s move to the middle also relates to who is going to fill out the Sabres’ top two lines. Prior to the news of Reinhart playing center it was believed that the line of Kane-Eichel-Reinhart would be sticking together. With that no longer being the case, a question mark has opened up on the wing. Jack Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly are the furthest thing from question marks, as they form a very respectable 1-2 punch down the middle. I’d expect Evander Kane to flank Eichel on the left side and Kyle Okposo to fill a spot beside O’Reilly. This likely means that Jason Pominville gets tasked with filling a spot somewhere on the top two lines, and leaves one vacancy to fill. With Reinhart moving to center it likely bumps Zemgus Girgensons to the wing and gives him an opportunity to battle for a top six spot along with new signing Benoit Pouliot. The injury suffered by Alex Nylander more than likely takes him out of the running, at least to start the season.
Dan Bylsma took the brunt of criticism last season, and rightly so. His style of play, 100 foot stretch passes on the breakout and all, didn’t win him much support both in the locker room and amongst Sabres fans. It’s up to Phil Housley to not only play a more attractive style of hockey, but to do a better job of putting the players at his disposal in a better position to succeed. Housley has talked about wanting to move up the ice and attack as a five man unit. He certainly has much more mobility available on the blue line, but often philosophical changes take some time to bear fruit. It will be interesting to see the changes Housley has put in place, both subtle and obvious, and how close the Sabres are to playing how Housley wants them to come opening night.
The Penalty Kill
Special teams were feast and famine for the Sabres last season. The power play was the best in the league, while the penalty kill was a dumpster fire. Gone are assistant coaches Bob Woods and Terry Murray, and Davis Payne and Chris Hajt have come in as their replacements. It’s certainly reasonable to expect the power play to take a bit of a step back, but it’s vital that penalty kill corrects what ailed them last year in time for the start of the season.