John Gilmour received the pass on the tape of his left-handed stick, blew by an out-of-position Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman and skated toward the net with the speed of a forward.
Penguins goalie Casey DeSmith barely moved his glove before the puck hit the back of the net Monday night at Penn State. Gilmour's goal, the Buffalo Sabres' first of the preseason, was the first tangible evidence of the speed with which new coach Ralph Krueger wants the team to play with the puck.
"Of course, the goal caught everybody's attention," Krueger acknowledged Friday morning.
However, the Sabres expected that sort of play from Gilmour. The defenseman's remarkable speed and skill made him a priority signing when free agency opened July 1. They're more interested in seeing what the 26-year-old can do without the puck.
Playing strong in the defensive zone could help Gilmour emerge from a position battle that has intensified with the absence of Brandon Montour, who will miss an undetermined amount of time because of a hand injury. Gilmour's next test will come tonight against the Toronto Maple Leafs, who will have Auston Matthews in the lineup when the puck drops at 7 p.m.
"It's nice with the puck but we need to first of all get a strong defensive foundation here, which we could then explode out of hopefully," Krueger continued. "John shows that potential, so we're excited to work with him here and seeing him in action again today."
In addition to Montour, the Sabres will be without Zach Bogosian (hip) and Lawrence Pilut (shoulder) at the start of the regular season. Matt Hunwick is not expected to play this season because of a neck condition. Though Gilmour still faces difficult odds, he's been given an opportunity to showcase his skills on the power play and earned a more prominent role as the game progressed at Penn State.
Gilmour finished with two shots on goal and a plus-2 rating. Most important, he did not make any egregious mistakes with defensive-zone coverage or puck management. The performance was the latest example of Gilmour's progress since he joined Hartford, the New York Rangers' AHL affiliate, in 2016-17.
Gilmour scored six goals among 25 points with a minus-39 rating in 76 games as a rookie. Like many young players, he struggled to transition from college hockey to the professional game. Last season, Gilmour ranked second among all AHL defensemen in goals (20) – which was a Hartford franchise single-season record for a defenseman – and points (54), trailing only Rochester's Zach Redmond (21) in the former category. Gilmour was named an AHL all-star for a second consecutive season.
"My defensive play has gotten better every year since I’ve turned pro," Gilmour, who won an NCAA Championship with Providence in 2015, said. "It was definitely a learning curve going from college to the pros. The forwards are a lot better. There’s world-class talent. The best players in the world. I think I’m defending just fine. I’m using my feet and stick to defend well. It’s all about effort in the D zone."
Gilmour has played 33 NHL games with the New York Rangers, scoring two goals among five points with a minus-14 rating. The former seventh-round draft pick became the first rookie defenseman in Rangers history to score a game-winning overtime goal, accomplishing the feat against the Vancouver Canucks on Feb. 28, 2018.
Despite his upside, Gilmour's future is uncertain. Since he's on a one-way contract, Gilmour would need to clear waivers in order to be sent to Rochester at the end of camp. He likely would be an attractive option for teams in need of a defenseman. The goal against Pittsburgh was not an isolated display of skill, either.
"That’s something I try to bring to the table every night," Gilmour said. "I try to showcase my speed every night. That goal was a good example of it. I’m going to try to make plays like that all the time."
Ullmark in goal
Linus Ullmark will receive the start in goal Friday against Toronto and will play longer than he did Tuesday against Columbus, Krueger said. Ullmark stopped 19 of 20 shots before he was replaced by Andrew Hammond with 10:12 left in the second period.
The Sabres will have Gilmour, Will Borgen, Zach Redmond, Jacob Bryson, Jake McCabe and Henri Jokiharju on defense. Meanwhile, here are the lines they will deploy against Toronto:
Sabres' forward lines tonight at Toronto. Still trying to figure out defensive pairs. A lot of rotating going on ...
— Lance Lysowski (@LLysowski) September 20, 2019
The Sabres will face their most difficult test of the preseason to date tonight in Scotiabank Arena. The Maple Leafs' lineup will include Matthews, Andreas Johnsson, Alexander Kerfoot, William Nylander, Cody Ceci, Morgan Rielly and goalie Frederik Andersen.
That means Sabres fans likely will get to see Mitch Marner, Kasperi Kapanen and John Tavares on Saturday night at KeyBank Center. Goalie Michael Neuvirth also confirmed to reporters that he will face the Sabres on Saturday.
Story topics: Buffalo Sabres