If you scratched out the Buffalo Sabres' defense corps on paper over the summer, you had quite a logjam. It's not that way now, as things are sorting themselves out in a way new coach Ralph Krueger said he hopes soon stops.
The Sabres announced Thursday they won't have a potential top-pair player for the start of the regular season as Brandon Montour will be out for an undetermined period after suffering a hand injury in Tuesday's preseason loss at Columbus.
Montour, acquired last year at the trade deadline from Anaheim, likely was looking at the No. 1 slot on right defense opposite Rasmus Dahlin. He had looked solid in camp after coming back from an MCL injury to his knee suffered playing for Team Canada at the World Championship in Slovakia in May.
The Sabres ruled out Montour for the final four preseason games, which open Friday night at Toronto, and Krueger said it's highly doubtful Montour will be on the ice for the season opener Oct. 3 in Pittsburgh.
"I wouldn't expect him right off the hop but pretty soon thereafter," Krueger said after practice in KeyBank Center. "At the moment, we're going through camp with this situation and we'll work on it. He can keep his lower body moving, which is important. He's worked so hard after the (knee) injury to get up to speed. So if there is a positive in this, it's that. At least he can keep his legs."
"He's a very big deal," Dahlin said. "He's been doing a lot for our team. It's not fun when that happens. But he will probably be back soon and everything is going to be all right."
Montour had three goals and seven assists in 20 games for the Sabres last season. He averaged 21 minutes, 46 seconds per game with Buffalo. The 25-year-old has been durable, missing just two games over the last three years with the Ducks and Sabres.
Montour's absence puts the Sabres down four defensemen, although this is the first surprise injury. Buffalo will start the season minus Zach Bogosian (hip) and Lawrence Pilut (shoulder), who are recovering from offseason surgeries. Matt Hunwick (neck) has been ruled out for this season as well, and likely will retire.
The Montour injury might also put the brakes on any discussions the Sabres are having about trading Rasmus Ristolainen, who was back in his role as the team's No. 1 right-shot defenseman Thursday by default.
"I'm quite pleased that we have the depth, I have to say honestly," Krueger said. "You wouldn't want the depth to creep in this quickly but it gives us opportunities, so we feel confident that we can start with a solid D-corps group. We weren't sure on the mix. There's a few players we all know would be in that top six, but generally, there were some question marks.
"This gives us an opportunity to get to know the six that will eventually be starting, with some excellent players pushing when they come back. So it is an opportunity, but we'd like to stop it here with the testing of our depth."
The Sabres shuffled their practice groups Thursday, leaving Dahlin with Ristolainen and Marco Scandella with newcomer Colin Miller. Henri Jokiharju, acquired in a summer trade with Chicago for Alex Nylander, was skating on the left side (his off side) with Casey Nelson.
Jake McCabe and newcomer John Gilmour, who scored a slick goal in Monday's exhibition opener against Pittsburgh, were the big names on defense in the second group.
"We've got other D that want to play a lot of minutes," Dahlin said. "We've got a really good D corp going on. You have to battle in practice and every single game. We only get better from that."
Jokiharju, 20, has been intriguing to the coaches and looked strong in Monday's game. He split last year between Chicago and Rockford of the AHL and is pushing to start this season in the NHL, although getting a boost from others' injuries is not how he'd prefer to stick.
"I don't really want to think about that kind of stuff," Jokiharju said. "It's tough to see a teammate get injured, hard to see that."
Jokiharju prefers the right side and Krueger said both Jokiharju and Miller could conceivably play either side. The off side might give Jokiharju a chance at more offense, setting him up for more one-timers facing the middle of the ice.
"If I have to play the left side, I'd be fine with it, too," Jokiharju said. "It's just hockey. I'm OK with that. You have to be strong in the neutral zone and defensive zone. In offensive zone, it's pretty fun to play the left side."
Krueger said Ristolainen and newly acquired winger Marcus Johansson, who sat out the first two exhibition games, will get in the lineup this weekend, but neither was in the lineup announced Thursday night for Friday's game. That would mean they would play in Saturday's return match against the Toronto Maple Leafs in KeyBank Center. The coach said it's a possible a few players may appear in both games.
No. 1 pick Dylan Cozens is getting his second game Friday on a thin roster that doesn't include the likes of Dahlin, Jack Eichel or Jeff Skinner.
The other forwards are Casey Mittelstadt, Kyle Okposo, Conor Sheary, Tage Thompson, Vladimir Sobotka, C.J. Smith, Remi Elie, Arttu Ruotsalainen, Curtis Lazar, Kevin Porter, Jean-Sebastien Dea. Jokiharju will be on defense with McCabe, Gilmour, Will Borgen, Zach Redmond, Brandon Hickey and Jacob Bryson. Linus Ullmark and Andrew Hammond will be in goal
The Sabres are likely to make many roster cuts on Sunday, as the Rochester Amerks open camp on Monday. The Sabres had 45 players skating on Thursday, as defenseman Casey Fitzgerald and winger Scott Wilson joined Montour on the sidelines. They are listed as day to day with lower-body injuries.
"It's just continuing here for the new coaching group to really see where the opportunities are for everybody," Krueger said. "Left sides, right sides. We're looking at other synergies. We'll see after the two Toronto games, we'll be making some decisions."
The Sabres completed the last of their four camp practices with two groups of players on Thursday. They're taking Sunday off and will have just one practice group when they return to the ice Monday. The next practice open to the public is Sept. 26 in LECOM Harborcenter.