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With Sabres' roster hit by injury, competition for jobs continues

Dan Bylsma wanted to have the Sabres’ roster wrapped up by now. He usually dresses the opening-night lineup for the final preseason game, which gives players a chance to get accustomed to their roles.

That’s not going to happen Friday. Not even close.

Buffalo will finish its seven-game exhibition schedule in Ottawa (7:30 p.m., Radio WGR-AM 550), but the game will feature a makeshift roster. Ryan O’Reilly, Kyle Okposo, Dmitry Kulikov and Zach Bogosian will be out with injuries, while Rasmus Ristolainen remains unsigned.

Roster hopefuls such as Alexander Nylander, Casey Nelson, Brendan Guhle and Hudson Fasching could get one more chance to show they belong. That means Bylsma has more roster uncertainty than usual with the 2016-17 season starting Thursday.

“I’m still a little hesitant to finalize that given the situation on the back end with the defensemen and Ristolainen still unsigned,” the coach said in KeyBank Center. “Especially on the defensive side, it’s still going to be guys competing for opportunities.”

The Sabres started training camp with one spot available at forward and defense. There’s probably still just one opening up front, but the blue line is certainly in flux.

Kulikov hasn’t skated since suffering a butt bruise last Friday. He was checked into the door to Toronto’s bench, which opened on contact. Bogosian skated on his own before practice Thursday to start his comeback from a groin strain suffered Sept. 29. Though Bylsma is confident the Sabres will sign Ristolainen before Montreal visits Thursday, the defenseman’s spot is in pencil, not ink.

That’s as many as four blue-line positions available. There are four defensemen competing for them: Justin Falk, Taylor Fedun, Guhle and Nelson.

The Sabres have given Nelson the greatest opportunity to shine, using him in prominent pairings and on the power play. Fedun has been unable to play because of a foot injury. Guhle, the Sabres’ second-round pick in 2015, is earning a long look after watching nearly all of the other junior-eligible players get sent home.

“It’s cool to know that I’ve really, truly made it this far, but I want to keep going,” Guhle said. “I don’t want it to be over yet.”

Sabres General Manager Tim Murray is high on Guhle, and he could opt to give the 19-year-old a nine-game tryout.

“It’s definitely a little nerve-racking,” Guhle said. “There’s a lot of unknown for me. I’m not asking too many questions. I’m just trying to do my own thing and play my best.”

The competition at forward is also a four-way fight. In addition to Fasching and Nylander, Derek Grant and Cal O’Reilly are still around.

“It’s definitely a challenge coming in and trying to prove something to everybody,” Fasching said. “You definitely get the feeling you’re competing for spots. The competition’s high.”

Each forward brings something different. Fasching is a power forward who can control plays down low. O’Reilly is a responsible playmaker. Grant has shined as a two-way center with size and scoring ability. Nylander, the first-round draft choice, has the speed to create plays.

“My goal for this year is to make the team,” Nylander said. “I’m just going to work my butt off to try and do that.”

Similar to Nelson, the Sabres have given Nylander the best opportunities. The 18-year-old has manned the point on power plays and skated with Jack Eichel.

“It means they believe in me and they know I can be a good player and I can play, which I think I can do,” the right winger said. “They’re giving me an opportunity, and I need to take it.”

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Ryan O’Reilly suffered back and midsection spasms during the Sabres’ exhibition Wednesday. He is not expected back on the ice until Sunday at the earliest. After facing the Senators, Buffalo will take Saturday off.

“He should have a few good days here of rest, treatment and rehab,” Bylsma said.

Okposo has a bruised knee after getting hit by a slap shot in practice Monday.

“He’s gotten better each day to this point in time, so it’s continuing to improve,” the coach said.

Kulikov may skate on his own Friday. Defenseman Tyson Strachan, signed to a minor-league contract, is also expected on the ice to test his ankle sprain. There is no timetable for prospects Dan Catenacci (hamstring) and Nicholas Baptiste (back).

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Bylsma is confident the Sabres and Ristolainen will work out a new deal before the season starts. The restricted free agent is still practicing with the team.

“We all believe we’d be better with Risto in the lineup,” Bylsma said. “I think it will get done, and I think we’ll have him in the lineup on the 13th.”

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The Sabres sent six players to Rochester, including goaltender Linus Ullmark and defenseman Erik Burgdoerfer. Justin Bailey, Jean Dupuy, Cole Schneider and Brady Austin were demoted for the second time. Buffalo sent them down Saturday but recalled them for the back-to-back road games Tuesday and Wednesday.

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