The Sabres kicked off training camp on Thursday of last week which doesn’t make this much of a preview since camp is nearly seven days deep.
Even though I’m tardy with this post, I still wanted to put a few thoughts together on the players the Sabres have in camp, particularly after seeing the first group take on the Penguins at Penn State.
Buffalo sent a veteran-heavy roster to Happy Valley and needed overtime despite tripling the Penguins in shot and bottling a 4-1 advantage against a roster that was much lighter on NHL talent. The result really couldn’t matter any less given how lopsided the rosters and the possession was, but there were a few high points to take away from the evening.
Conor Sheary did a few things that should give you confidence he can occupy Jack Eichel’s right wing, Henri Jokiharju and John Gilmour showed off their wheels and each netted a goal to boot. Eichel, Rasmus Dahlin and Jeff Skinner can probably hang out in a suite and eat popcorn for the rest of preseason while Ralph Krueger and Jason Botterill figure out the roster.
In light of Monday’s preseason tilt and the fact that I’m nearly a week late in offering a camp “preview”, I thought I’d try something a little different in terms of this post. I’ll highlight a few players and positions that stand out to me while trying to avoid some of the more traditional training camp storylines.
The Risto Situation
Rasmus Ristolainen has been in trade rumors all summer, but camp opened and he’s still here. So now everyone is asking; will they or won’t they? Are they even planning on doing it? Where does he play if he stays?
All of that is going to sort itself out. One way or another, a final decision will be made on Ristolainen and that will be it. I’m not as interested or concerned in what they do with him but how it affects the rest of their right handed defensemen. Particularly Henri Jokiharju. Even if Ristolainen is gone, the Sabres will have five righties once Zach Bogosian is healthy. If Ristolainen stays, I can’t see a situation where Jokiharju sticks with the big club. Especially since he’s waiver exempt. But he’s one of the key players I’ll be watching during preseason. He exhibited his excellent skating ability against the Penguins and added a goal for good measure. I’d much rather see him in Buffalo than Rochester. But he may be a victim of circumstance should nothing change on the Ristolainen front.
No Drama In Goal
There isn’t much to talk about when it comes to the goaltenders this year. Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark as set as the starters and once Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen is healthy, he’ll split time with Andrew Hammond in Rochester. Jonas Johnasson will serve as Hammond’s backup until Luukkonen is healthy and then he’ll platoon to Cincinnati and take the lion’s share of their minutes with camp participant Michael Houser backing him up.
The only room for change would be if Ullmark has an utterly disastrous preseason and Hammond blows his doors off. Ullmark’s play would need to be truly terrible for that to even happen, so don’t look for much drama in the way of goaltenders as camp progresses.
Trimming the Fat
Jason Botterill had a fairly decent summer in terms of adding skill and depth to the lineup. However, almost all of that stands to be overshadowed should he not figure out how to rid the roster of some of the dead weight that plagued another bottom-five finish. It’s almost inexpicable that Botterill opted to tender contracts to every joker who saw time in the bottom six last year before tossing in a few more veterans for good measure.
JS Dea, Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson, Curtis Lazar, Vladimir Sobotka and Scott Wilson all make NHL money no matter where they play. Kyle Okposo is still around, as is Remi Elie. The Sabres have at least 10 players vying for one of four roster spots on the fourth line and as the extra forward. In another world, there would be a real opportunity for Rasmus Asplund or CJ Smith to win an NHL job. There’s even a reality where JS Dea offers the Sabres a different, yet effective fourth line center. Instead, the depth chart is packed with players who offer little to nothing to the Sabres present and future.
Botterill and Krueger realistically need to figure out how to rid themselves of two players from the group of incumbents prior to October 3. They’d probably be better served by ridding themselves of four of the usual suspects from the last few seasons of misery.
Sobotka seems destined for a European loan, but anyone is right to worry until a deal is officially announced. I think Girgensons is a strong candidate to be a “surprise” cut prior to the end of camp and those two moves would open the door for someone to step into a full-time NHL role.
If the Sabres opted to send Scott Wilson to Rochester, it would conceivably create an opportunity for two new faces to step into Buffalo’s bottom six. CJ Smith seems to be getting fighting chance based on early line combinations and if two spots were opened, I could see the Sabres keeping Ruotsalainen as an extra. It would allow him to stick around and grow into the North American game while avoiding the sticky European out in his contract.
Set it and Forget It: Jake McCabe
All of the talk about Buffalo’s blueline has revolved around Rasmus Ristolainen. For good reason too. He’s been surrounded by trade rumors and the club has brought in three right handed defensemen since February. The left side of the defense corps is more straightforward. Rasmus Dahlin is going to lock down the top pair and Marco Scandella will likely start the year on the third pair, playing easier minutes until Lawrence Pilut is healthy. McCabe hasn’t gotten too much attention in terms of gossip, he’s been penciled on to Buffalo’s second pair all summer and that’s pretty much been it.
How things shake out when Pilut returns will be curious, but for the time being it will be Dahlin, Scandella and McCabe. McCabe will likely see ample time on the penalty kill and will be responsible for some fairly arduous minutes. A partnership with Colin Miller would be fun to see as you’d hope Miller’s strong underlying numbers would help lift McCabe and both are more than willing to lay a big hit. It wouldn’t be the sexiest pairing, but it has the makings of a steady, effective second pairing.
Preseason Pets: Andrew Oglevie, John Gilmour
There’s almost always a few players who pop during preseason play for one reason or another. A few years ago, Cliff Pu stuck around until late in camp and earned a lot of praise. Brendan Guhle was impressive in his first camp prior to getting injured. Derek Grant is a Sabres preseason legend. I typically try and find a few players to keep an eye on for personal interest and this year Oglevie and Gilmour are the two I’m most interested in watching.
Even with Buffalo’s overcrowded blueline, Gilmour probably has an outside chance at earning a spot with the big club. He has all the traits of a modern NHL defenseman and he flashed that skillset on his goal against the Pens. Gilmour’s blazing speed makes him hard to overlook and his ability to contribute offensively is enticing. The one outstanding question is how he’ll hold up defensively against better NHL competition. Even though the left side of Buffalo’s defense is fairly set in stone, I think Gilmour’s skillset is going to earn him a longer look in camp.
Oglevie is in a slightly different situation as Buffalo’s bottom six has far too many NHL holdovers for him to realistically jump on the depth chart. CJ Smith and Rasmus Asplund are more realistic picks to sneak into the Sabres lineup on October 3. Oglevie has been a personal favorite of mine going back to his initial prospects camp last summer. He’s a speedster who always seems to be around the puck. He does a good job finding soft spots in the offensive zone and I feel that he has the skillset to become an effective NHL player. If the Sabres were looking for a speedier, more skilled fourth line, I think he’d be a perfect candidate. I just don’t see him cracking the lineup this year. But he’ll still be worth watching during the preseason run he gets.
Is Olson ELC Worthy?
Aside from the handful of minor leaguers who are in camp with only AHL contracts (Kevin Porter, Sean Malone, Michael Houser etc.), Kyle Olson is the only true tryout player in training camp this year. He’s without an NHL contract and is eligible to return to Tri-City as an overage player should the Sabres opt not to sign him. But he’s a curious case. He had a decent year in the WHL with 21 goals and 70 points. He impressed enough at the Prospects Challenge to get a look in training camp and he’d plug in relatively high in the Sabres thin stock at right wing.
The big question is whether or not he’s worth an NHL contract. The Sabres have 46 contracts on the books at the moment and it’s hard to say if they’d want to use one of those last few on Olson. I don’t know nearly enough about Olson to say if he’s worth a contract but given the Sabres’ need for more skill in their pipeline, it seems like he’d be a worthwhile gamble.
How Long Is Cozens Here?
The overcrowded bottom six won’t just affect some of the more intriguing players who spent time in Rochester last year, it might keep Dylan Cozens from getting a nine-game cameo to start the year. It’s worth noting that he may not have been in line for a cameo based on Botterill’s preference for slow-cooking prospects.
The Sabres are thin at center and right wing, two positions Cozens could step into. There’s an argument to be made that if Cozens’ camp and preseason was stellar that it would be worth taking a look at him in a few regular season games. But the sheer volume of bodies pushing for spots in the bottom six doesn’t leave much wiggle room to take an extended look at Cozens. Combine that with his thumb injury from the summer and the smart move is to sort out the other roster questions without another body complicating matters. Besides, a big year in Lethbridge and playing a key role on the Canadian World Junior team always felt like the best plan for Cozens.