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Gaustad's injury to test Sabres' depth

The Buffalo Sabres are proud of their depth. They have 15 forwards who played at least 37 NHL games last year, so they feel they have the ability to overcome an injury or two.

They won't have to wait to find out.

The Sabres continue their exhibition season tonight in Minnesota, and it'll be their first of possibly a dozen games without Paul Gaustad.

The center had surgery Tuesday to repair a torn ligament in his right thumb. Recovery is expected to be a minimum of three to four weeks. The regular season starts in nine days.

Gaustad was injured Sunday during the second period of a 2-1 loss to the Wild. His last appearance on the ice was a fight with defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron, but Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said the injury occurred one shift prior to the scrum.

"You work hard all summer to get to this point, and to lose him in an exhibition game is frustrating and disappointing," Sabres right wing Jason Pominville said. "Obviously, we're really disappointed, but it's an opportunity for some body else to step in and do a job."

It's nothing new. The Sabres have been without key forwards for much of the past two seasons, and they've often excelled in their absences. Maxim Afinogenov and Tim Connolly were gone for long stretches last year. The team had a ridiculous run of injuries the year before, with players going down on an every-game basis at one point.

"We've been not lucky with injuries," center Derek Roy said.

This time, the Sabres are getting a replacement almost immediately. Center Adam Mair, who had offseason knee surgery, will be cleared to play in the preseason finale Sunday in Detroit. He said Tuesday he feels good and is ahead of schedule.

"He's been skating with us, practicing with us," Ruff said. "He hasn't been in a contact situation, but we really feel he's chomping at the bit, and if he's ready, Adam immediately comes to mind.

"You've got options, and the next couple games we'll play around with those options."

With Mair's return, the opening night lineup would have Roy, Jochen Hecht, Connolly and Mair at center. Ruff had discussed moving Gaustad to wing when Mair returned, so that opens a spot for one more bubble player to float into the season.

Clarke MacArthur has had a decent camp, and so has rookie Nathan Gerbe. Plus, left wing Mathieu Darche played 74 games for Tampa Bay last year. He has experience.

In fact, Ruff's main worry isn't who'll take Gaustad's roster spot and become a fourth-liner. It's determining who deserves to play on the first three scoring lines.

"You've got guys battling for camp every single year," forward Patrick Kaleta said. "It doesn't matter how old you are or how many years you played, there's always a guy looking to take your job. With Goose hurt, it opens it up even more."

The Sabres certainly have people to take Gaustad's ice time. But it'll take more than one person to fill his roles. He is the team's key centerman on faceoffs. He anchors the front of the net on the second power-play unit. He kills penalties. He's among the most well-liked and respected players in the dressing room.

It's those areas where he'll be missed.

"It's a tough guy to replace," Roy said, "but on the other hand guys have to step up and play different roles and play bigger roles."

There are 15 players who won't be competing for Gaustad's spot. The Sabres trimmed their roster to 32 players, which is nine more than the opening night maximum of 23.

First-round pick Tyler Myers was sent to his junior team, while forward Philip Gogulla elected to return to Germany and was loaned to Kolner Haie of the German Elite League. The other 13 players -- goaltenders Jhonas Enroth and Adam Dennis; forwards Tyler Bouck, Jimmy Bonneau, Colton Fretter, Marc-Andre Gragnani, Derek Whitmore, Felix Schutz, Colin Murphy and Josh Vatri; and defensemen Mike Card, Mike Kostka and Paul Baier -- were sent to Portland of the American Hockey League.


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