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Inside the Sabres: College free agents could like openings in Buffalo

Jason Botterill isn't going to fix the Buffalo Sabres by Monday's trade deadline. The general manager is expected to make significant moves, of course, but there will still be holes everywhere in the organization.

That actually could be a good thing as college free agency approaches.

When NHL unrestricted free agents look for contracts, they weigh everything from dollar amounts to weather to schools for the kids. College free agents primarily want to play right away.

The struggling Sabres offer that chance.

"The biggest thing for me was just the opportunity that was here," said Sabres center Evan Rodrigues, who signed with Buffalo after completing his Boston University career in the spring of 2015. "I thought there might be a spot that I could come in and take right away."

The mindset was the same for defenseman Casey Nelson, who signed in March 2016 after finishing his junior season at Minnesota State. His adviser compiled depth charts of NHL and minor-league rosters, and they examined which teams offered an immediate opportunity.

"It came down to a couple, but there was a perfect fit," said Nelson, who played seven games in Buffalo immediately after signing. "I wouldn't change a thing."

NCAA teams are wrapping up their regular season this weekend. Conference tournaments are the opening week of March. The seniors and underclassmen who are ready for the next step will be hearing from the interested teams that have been watching them all season.

"I had a few teams, and it took me about a week just to talk to people, lay out the pros and cons," Rodrigues said. "Sometimes it comes down to just a gut feeling, and I weighed out pros and cons, and it looked like Buffalo had the most pros.

"Buffalo just seemed like a spot that was right for me."

Rodrigues played two games for Buffalo during his first professional season and upped that to 30 last year. The 24-year-old is a regular now, skating as the second-line center with Jack Eichel injured.

Nelson's advancement has been just as rapid. After his seven-game debut, the defenseman appeared in 11 games for the Sabres last year. He proved himself during the opening half of this season in Rochester, and the 25-year-old is now performing well with Marco Scandella on Buffalo's shutdown pair.

Nelson says once players are in an organization, it doesn't matter if they're a first-round pick, prized free agent or college signee. They'll get ice time if they can play, which is why it's important to pick a club with openings.

"Once you're to this level, you're all on the same playing field," he said.

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The college players and their advisers should see plenty of open field in Buffalo. Though Rochester has a winning record, the Amerks are keyed by minor-league veterans. Goaltender Linus Ullmark, defenseman Brendan Guhle and left wing C.J. Smith, who signed as a college free agent from UMass-Lowell last spring, might be the only bona fide prospects who appear ready to advance to Buffalo soon.

Here's a look:

* With the impending departures of Evander Kane and Benoit Pouliot, left wing is barren. A signee would have to compete with only Zemgus Girgensons, Scott Wilson, Smith and Alex Nylander, plus anyone who arrives via trade.

* The battered and bruised defense corps could use help. Nelson, Josh Gorges and Justin Falk will be unrestricted free agents at the end of the season. Guhle could jump up. The other Amerks defensemen under contract for next year are Taylor Fedun and Matt Tennyson, who have proved stopgap measures.

Buffalo's group could make things intriguing for the top college free agent on the market, Daniel Brickley. The Minnesota State defenseman was teammates with Nelson as a freshman, and he's stepped into Nelson's puck-moving role on the right side. Brickley had nine goals and 30 points in the opening 33 games for Minnesota State, which won the Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular-season title.

NHL teams are also meeting with Bemidji State defenseman Zach Whitecloud, who has a solid all-around game.

* The centers in the Sabres' organization are Eichel, Ryan O'Reilly, Rodrigues and Johan Larsson, with Sean Malone and Kyle Criscuolo in Rochester. Casey Mittelstadt and Cliff Pu are coming soon, so Buffalo might not be the ideal landing spot for middlemen.

* Not long ago, the Sabres seemed stacked at right wing. The development of Nick Baptiste, Justin Bailey and Hudson Fasching hasn't gone as planned, however, so there's certainly room.

Princeton right wing Max Veronneau has 12 goals and 41 points in 28 games. Buffalo-born Andy Sturtz leads Penn State with 13 goals and 37 points in 32 games.

Botterill, who spent four years at the University of Michigan, is fond of college players. Looking at Botterill's old team, he has good reason.

Forward Conor Sheary, who signed after leaving UMass-Amherst, is a key member of the Pittsburgh Penguins' run as back-to-back champions. Forward Zachary Aston-Reese, signed from Northeastern, just put up four goals and six points in his first nine NHL games.

The Sabres could use that influx of talent, and college free agents who do their homework will see that.

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