ROCHESTER – In American Hockey League history, few first-year players have established themselves as stars as quickly as high-scoring Sabres defense prospect Lawrence Pilut.
Just 15 games into his career, Pilut is tied with Chicago Wolves forward Daniel Carr for the AHL scoring lead with 22 points. Pilut also has a league-best 19 assists. The slick Swede’s plus-16 rating trails only Carr’s plus-18.
At his current pace, Pilut would compile a staggering 94 assists and 109 points over a full season with the Rochester Americans.
Those gaudy numbers would shatter the AHL record of 74 assists and 96 points St. John’s Maple Leafs defenseman Chris Snell established in 1993-94.
“He’s that new age defenseman that people are looking for,” Amerks defenseman Zach Redmond said.
What does that mean? Pilut, 22, is an undersized (5-11, 181 pounds), speedy defender who breaks the puck out of his own end well.
“You don’t necessarily have to be big and strong back there,” said Redmond, who anchors a point on the power play beside Pilut and is also enjoying an MVP-caliber season. “You can be agile and be just as effective or maybe ever more so. That’s kind of the package that he brings, he’s just quick and he sees the ice well. It’s very deceptive.”
Pilut’s days in the AHL could be limited. Chances are he won’t last a full season in the minors. At some point, injuries will probably force the Sabres to recall a defenseman. Pilut is the likeliest candidate.
"I’m sure he’ll be up in Buffalo in only a matter of time,” Redmond said.
Not surprisingly, the NHL has long been Pilut’s goal.
“My thoughts were here, I wanted to come over,” said Pilut, whose American father, Larry, played professionally in Sweden. “It (felt) like if I kept developing and doing my thing out there, hopefully that chance would come someday.”
His opportunity materialized because he enjoyed a breakout season in 2017-18 that attracted NHL teams. After leading the Swedish Hockey League with 30 assists and 38 points in 52 games, he earned top defenseman honors.
“How it went for me as a player and how I grew throughout the season came more and more interest (in) coming over,” Pilut said. “My dream, of course, has always been to come over and play. Basically, last year was a chance for it and I took it.”
Undrafted but undaunted
While Pilut went undrafted, he was a well-known youngster, according to Sabres assistant general manager Steve Greeley, who recruited and ultimately landed him.
Greeley said teams had kept tabs on Pilut, a regular for Sweden at international events, for years.
“You kind of wait for a sign maybe they’re popping and that they’re becoming worthy of an NHL contract and potentially being an NHL player,” Greeley said. “He’s a guy that had been tracked for quite some time just because of his success on the international stage in Sweden.”
In Pilut’s draft year, Greeley said he showcased a style “very similar to what we’re seeing now.”
“He’s a puck-moving defenseman that I think has elite deception and very high-end hockey sense,” Greeley said.
But Pilut did not possess the physical maturity to draw interest from NHL teams then.
“Still kind of an undersized defenseman,” Greeley said. “But he’s become much stronger, and with that, his skating has improved, his ability to defend has improved.”
Pilut said: “It wasn’t the whole world for me that I didn’t get drafted, I just kept on going and had fun playing hockey.”
Then last season, after playing around 10 or 14 minutes for years, Pilut started skating around 22 minutes a night.
“That was a little bit of an indicator that this kid’s body is maturing, he’s really turning into an NHL prospect,” Greeley said.
Right away, Greeley said Pilut and the Sabres had a mutual interest. After their first meeting, Pilut started following the Sabres closely. He liked the development aspect of the organization and the brand of hockey played at the NHL and AHL levels.
On May 15, the Sabres signed Pilut to a two-year, entry-level contract.
“It’s a great group here, it felt like a lot of fresh, young faces,” Pilut said. “It feels like this organization is really professional and very high striving, so that’s a really big thing. I had a really good conversation with Steve Greeley about it. It sounded very good.”
Pilut recorded a goal and two points in his Amerks debut Oct. 5 and hasn’t slowed down yet. So far, he has only two pointless outings.
Amerks coach Chris Taylor said Pilut has been improving every game, reading plays better on the smaller North American ice surface.
Pilut has been lethal quarterbacking the power play, compiling two of his three goals and nearly half his points.
“We’re thrilled with the start,” Greeley said. “The points speak for themselves. I think what we’ve been really pleased with is just seeing how quickly he’s adapting to North American hockey.”
In Sunday’s 4-3 come-from-behind road win, he extended his point streak to eight games by scoring the first of the Amerks’ three third-period goals. He also assisted on Redmond’s winner against the Hartford Wolf Pack.
“You can just tell he takes the game seriously, he wants to be there, he does all the little stuff off the ice, away from the rink to make sure that he can succeed,” Redmond said. “He’s always positive, he’s always got a good energy about him.”
The biggest knock on Pilut is usually his ultra-aggressive style. While his speed might help him recover in Europe or the AHL, it will be tough to play like that in the NHL.
“He has recovered,” Taylor said. “But in the NHL, you have to be a little bit more patient on those, and he’s going to learn that and he’s going to learn that here, because there’s some really good players here that could be playing in the NHL.
“He’s going to find out quick, that, hey, sometimes you have to just relax, take it all in and sit back and trust the other guys to do their job instead of always moving up and getting in the guys’ faces, so he’s learning that process.”
Pilut said he likes “to be involved in everything I can.”
“It feels like I’m on the right path right now to tone it down in some bits," Pilut said, "and just listen to … the way I see the ice, just try to back off from it and play it smart."
If Pilut embraces that new mindset, he could earn a recall from the Sabres.