The injuries started to pile up for the Buffalo Sabres. Nothing was seemingly serious or long term, but there were still repercussions throughout training camp. Looking for line combinations became problematic with top center, Ryan O’Reilly, out with back issues and newly acquired right winger Kyle Okposo questionable for opening night with a bruised knee.
Competition for that final defensive spot suffered as well with Zach Bogosian and Dmitry Kulikov resting their ailments for the majority of the preseason.
But there was a definite silver lining. Other players stepped up. Roles were filled. Opportunities seized. Organizational depth started to become a reality.
“You look at the injuries we’re dealing with right now ... and we’ve still got a deep lineup,” Sabres captain Brian Gionta said on Sunday morning in KeyBank Center. “Add those pieces back into it and I really like our depth.
“We’ve got guys that can move up and down the lineup, play different roles. Guys have bought into what we’re trying to do, whether you’re asked to be a third or fourth line guy or asked to be in the top two scoring lines, guys are willing to go up and down.”
The Sabres were off on Monday, returning to the ice Tuesday when the team must set its 23-man roster as the NHL season opens on Wednesday with the Sabres first game Thursday in KeyBank Center against the Montreal Canadiens.
As training camp closes down, defenseman Josh Gorges has seen both veterans and rookies step up their games and find ways to contribute.
“At the start of camp, we talked with coaches about an opportunity to show a first impression,” Gorges said. “Where do you stand? Where do you want to stand? Where do you fit in? I think a lot of guys, older guys and especially the young guys, are grabbing hold of that opportunity. After that it’s up to coaches to decided who’s around and who plays where but I think a lot of guys have stepped up and shown they’ve taken strides from either previous years or that they really want to be a part of what’s going on here.”
Several new players have been battling for roster spots and getting noticed, forward Derek Grant foremost among them. The 26-year-old is entering his sixth year of professional hockey and while he has played with the Ottawa Senators and the Calgary Flames is looking to make his first NHL roster out of camp.
He’s made one heck of an impression, notching six points (three goals, three assists) in six preseason games which is not necessarily what coach Dan Bylsma expected.
“What did I think of Derek Grant coming in here? Where did I think he could possibly be in our team? I thought he could be a good, responsible, defensive centerman,” Bylsma said.
“I know the statistics and his goals from last year (Grant scored 27 goals in 36 games for the AHL Stockton Heat) but really didn’t anticipate seeing him provide daily offense for the team and he has been able to come in do that. Do the other roles, do the defensive aspect of it, play a good, solid game in the middle of the ice and in a third-fourth line checking role. Good on the penalty kill. He’s stepped up on draws for us. … He’s been able to, in two scrimmages and the exhibition games he’s played in, to be a factor on the score sheet.
“When roster time comes on Tuesday, there’s still uncertainty with the injuries, but it would be tough to imagine a way he could have done more to earn making our team.”