Jason Botterill made it clear the Sabres’ prospects will get their shot. If they play like NHLers, they’ll be in Buffalo.
That’s good news for Justin Bailey, Nick Baptiste, Evan Rodrigues, Casey Nelson and others.
The bad news is it’s easier said than done.
Performance is the main consideration for any roster spot, but it’s not the only one. Contracts and waiver exemptions also come into play. When competition is fierce, the secondary considerations increase.
The prospects are going to have to clearly win jobs in order to get them.
“It’s important that young players learn how to fight for their position and fight for ice time so when they get to the National Hockey League level they’re comfortable with that and know how to handle that situation,” Botterill said after increasing the Sabres’ depth through trades and signings.
When the Amerks’ season ended, Baptiste and others felt they were bidding farewell to Rochester forever. The recent additions may force them back or encourage them to work harder.
“If one of our young players – whether it’s training camp or the start of the season in Rochester – steps up, we will always find the opportunity to get them up into the National Hockey League and give them a chance to have success,” Botterill said.
Here’s an updated look at the Sabres’ depth chart, taking note of any contract situations that could hurt or help a player’s chance of being in Buffalo. A waiver exemption, based on age and experience, allows the player to be sent to Rochester without the risk of being claimed by another team. A two-way deal pays a higher salary in Buffalo and a lower one in Rochester.
Positions are based on last season, though Botterill and new coach Phil Housley could change things up. Bailey, for example, moved from right wing to left. Rodrigues moved from left wing to center. Sam Reinhart has fluctuated between right wing and center.
Jack Eichel, Ryan O’Reilly, Johan Larsson, Zemgus Girgensons, Jacob Josefson, Rodrigues (waiver exempt), Kevin Porter (two-way deal), Sean Malone (waiver exempt, two-way deal), Kyle Criscuolo (waiver exempt, two-way deal).
There should be a six-player competition for four spots. Eichel and O’Reilly will center the top two lines. Larsson, Girgensons, Josefson and Rodrigues will fight to anchor the third and fourth.
Buffalo’s ability to freely send Rodrigues to Rochester hurts the 23-year-old. His skating ability is a plus for a team that is putting an emphasis on speed. Josefson has spent the last four seasons in the NHL with New Jersey and will make $700,000 whether he’s in Buffalo or Rochester.
Rodrigues and Girgensons have spent time at left wing, so that’s an option for the coaching staff. It could be a legitimate one.
Evander Kane, Benoit Pouliot, Matt Moulson, Nicolas Deslauriers, Bailey (waiver exempt, two-way deal), C.J. Smith (waiver exempt, two-way deal), Alex Nylander (waiver exempt, two-way deal).
Kane is the unquestioned top-line left winger. Botterill says Pouliot can fit on the second, third or fourth lines. Moulson was a fourth-liner under previous coach Dan Bylsma. Deslauriers is an energy guy. Bailey had two goals and two assists in 32 games with Buffalo. Smith was a healthy scratch after signing out of college. Nylander wasn’t ready for prime time.
In other words, there are serious question marks at left wing. The Sabres may have to add more or slide a center into the spot.
Kyle Okposo, Reinhart, Jason Pominville, Seth Griffith, Baptiste (waiver exempt, two-way deal), Hudson Fasching (waiver exempt, two-way deal), Eric Cornel (waiver exempt, two-way deal), Vaclav Karabacek (waiver exempt, two-way deal).
Three spots are taken with Okposo, Reinhart and Pominville. That could lead to a stiff battle with Baptiste, Fasching and Griffith.
Griffith has the double bonus of earning $650,000 wherever he plays and needing waivers to be sent down. Fasching earned an opening-night job last year but had his season derailed by a groin injury. Baptiste led the Amerks with 25 goals in 59 games and has the speed the Sabres need.
It should be the most interesting competition in camp.
Marco Scandella, Nathan Beaulieu, Jake McCabe, Victor Antipin (waiver exempt, two-way deal), Josh Gorges, Justin Falk, Brendan Guhle (waiver exempt, two-way deal).
Botterill traded for Scandella and Beaulieu, so the GM obviously has high hopes for them. McCabe was a world junior captain for Housley. Those are the three likely starters.
Antipin has extensive experience playing the right side, so he should shift there. Falk makes $650,000 in the NHL or AHL. Guhle will get time to develop.
Gorges makes $3.9 million, but the 32-year-old will have to make a big push to avoid being the seventh defenseman.
Rasmus Ristolainen, Zach Bogosian, Nelson (waiver exempt), Taylor Fedun (two-way deal), Matt Tennyson (two-way deal).
Ristolainen will be the No. 1 defenseman. The other two spots will be determined in a three-way competition with Bogosian, Antipin and Nelson.
The Sabres hired Housley to improve the defense, and reinvigorating Bogosian’s game will be high on the to-do list. After five successful seasons in Russia, Antipin gets to test his skills in North America. While Nelson doesn’t need waivers, his contract will pay him $650,000 no matter where he plays.
Robin Lehner, Chad Johnson, Linus Ullmark (waiver exempt), Adam Wilcox (waiver exempt, two-way deal), Jonas Johansson (waiver exempt, two-way deal), Jason Kasdorf (waiver exempt, two-way deal).
While there will be competition for playing time, the roster breakdown seems clear. Lehner and Johnson will be in Buffalo. Ullmark, who will make $750,000 anywhere, and Wilcox will be in Rochester. Johansson and Kasdorf will play for Cincinnati of the ECHL.
Botterill isn’t done reshaping the roster. He has room for six more contracts and continues to talk trade.
Based on what it looks like now and taking into account the contract stipulations, here’s a projection of the Sabres’ opening-night lineup.
Eichel will center Kane and Reinhart. O’Reilly will be in the middle of Pouliot and Okposo. Larsson will center Girgensons and Pominville. Josefson will be between Moulson and Fasching.
For the defense in front of Lehner, Scandella will skate alongside Ristolainen. Beaulieu will play with Antipin. McCabe will reunite with Bogosian.
While the prospects have potential, they have work ahead if they really want to avoid the American Hockey League.
“We have some good young players down there that we’re excited about at forward and certainly on defense, too,” Botterill said. “Hopefully, it’s a scenario where they get excited about getting up to Buffalo, but also with that excitement produce better down there and have a more successful team.”