When Benoit Pouliot arrives at Sabres training camp, the newly signed left winger will have to prove where he fits. It could be the second line. It could be the fourth. It’ll be up to him.
He won’t be alone.
One of Jason Botterill’s goals when he arrived in Buffalo was to build the organization’s depth and create competition. After a couple of big trades and a flurry of free agent signings, the general manager is happy he’s done that.
“You go into a draft, you go into free agency, you’re trying to accomplish things,” Botterill said Saturday. “We are very happy with what we accomplished on the back end. We still want to change things around from an offensive standpoint up at the forwards. We’ll continue to talk to people to see if there’s some fits that can certainly make us better and maybe make us a little quicker up front, but we are happy.”
On paper, the Sabres are better now than when the season ended. So is Rochester.
Basically the only players who should feel comfortable in their roles are Jack Eichel, Ryan O’Reilly, Kyle Okposo and Rasmus Ristolainen – and they’re not the type to rest on their laurels.
“There’s always going to be competition for spots,” Botterill said. “There’s going to be openings. As a group, we’ll continue to look at the possibility of signing more players if the right fit is there over the next couple of days or from a trade perspective over the next couple of months.
“Whether it’s this week or waiting more toward training camp or the start of the season when some teams may face a cap situation, we’re always going continue to look to improve our team.”
The players will feel the heat when they arrive this fall. There will be at least 21 forwards fighting for 12 starting jobs. There will be 12 defensemen who want a spot in the top six. The crease will be crowded, too, after Saturday’s return of goalie Chad Johnson.
Botterill and new coach Phil Housley will have a lot to evaluate.
“Anytime there’s change, there’s always opportunity for new people coming into an organization,” said Johnson, who signed a one-year, $2.5 million deal. “For me, seeing the changes there was a positive.
“To be able to come back and be a part of the organization again and have that drive to win and get back in playoffs is special for me. I always felt like there was unfinished business. I see the organization going in the right direction. They’re committed to winning. That’s what I want to be part of.”
Johnson’s arrival will push Robin Lehner to be better and shove Linus Ullmark back to Rochester, where he played 55 games last season.
“I think he could handle the backup role in the National Hockey League this upcoming year, but it’s also as a young goalie, I’m a big believer that he needs to be playing,” Botterill said of the 23-year-old. “With the scenario of having Robin and Chad, and Ullmark in the three-hole, it’s a real strength of our organization. If there are injuries along the way, we’re going to be well-prepared.”
After trading left wings Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno on Friday, Botterill looked to Pouliot to fill the hole. The 30-year-old became a free agent Thursday after Edmonton bought out the final two seasons of his five-year, $20 million contract. The Sabres gave him a one-year, $1.15 million deal.
Pouliot had just eight goals and 14 points in 67 games last year, then got blanked in 13 playoff games. He doesn’t feel he needs to reinvent himself, though. The speedy 6-foot-3, 200-pounder just needs to return to form. He had 33 goals and 70 points in 113 games the previous two seasons, including time alongside star center Connor McDavid.
“Since I’ve been in the league I don’t think I’ve had a tough year like that,” said the No. 4 overall pick in the 2005 NHL Draft. “It’s frustrating, and I was really frustrated the whole year. I couldn’t get the game going, not that I didn’t have a chance because they gave me a chance. It was just to figure my game out, and I didn’t do that.
“At the end of the year I was playing a little bit better, but for me it’s to show up and be ready right away and bring back the game I used to play. ... I can put the puck in the net.”
Johnson and Pouliot were the biggest signings of a whopping eight made by Buffalo.
The Sabres gave one-year NHL deals to forwards Jacob Josefson ($700,00) and Seth Griffith ($650,000). They signed right-shot defenseman Matt Tennyson to a two-year deal that transitions from a two-way contract to a one way in the second year. Forwards Kevin Porter and Kyle Criscuolo earned two-year, two-way deals. Goalie Adam Wilcox signed a one-year, two-way deal to join Ullmark in Rochester.
“We wanted to certainly continue to add depth to our organization, to strengthen Rochester but also put us in a situation where if we ran into injuries up in Buffalo that we would have players that could come in and contribute at the National Hockey League level,” Botterill said.
There’s no doubt there will be opportunities to contribute for many players. Exactly who will earn the chance will be determined by them.
“Looking at the roster and breaking different teams down going through this process, it made sense for me to come back there,” said Johnson, who went 22-16-4 with a .920 save percentage for the Sabres two years ago. “There was some changes made, and I just felt like it was a good opportunity for me to come back and be a part of the new era, I guess, in Buffalo and try and continue the success I had there when I was there two years ago.”