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Lawrence Pilut 'excited' to return to Sabres after whirlwind two years in Russia

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Final: Buffalo Sabres 4, LA Kings 3 OT

Buffalo's Lawrence Pilut during second period action.

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Lawrence Pilut excused himself from a family barbeque on an idyllic August evening at his in-law’s home in Sweden to recount a whirlwind two years in Russia that ended with his return to the Buffalo Sabres.

Pilut, now 26 years old and recently married, expressed gratitude for Traktor Chelyabinsk, the Kontinental Hockey League club with whom he signed in the summer of 2020.

In Chelyabinsk, the seventh-largest city in Russia, Pilut showcased a mature two-way game from the left side of the club’s defense. He improved his instincts in the offensive zone, further developed his awareness without the puck and, even as an import, emerged as a vocal leader in the dressing room.

Pilut couldn’t return for another season, though.

“I just felt like, for me … I couldn’t go back,” he told The Buffalo News.

He, like many other imports in the Russia-based professional hockey league, wanted to immediately leave the country when Russia invaded neighboring Ukraine in February.

Morally, Pilut said he didn't want to continue.

However, Traktor Chelyabinsk was unwilling to let Pilut or any other import out of their contract early. Determined to leave on his terms, he proceeded to lead the club to the conference finals and averaged 21:05 of ice time while totaling eight points in 15 playoff games.

As soon as Traktor’s season ended, Pilut and his fellow imports began their exodus home. For the three months that followed, Pilut tried to get out of the final year of his contract in Russia. Negotiations dragged on for months. But in the end, he got his wish. And as soon as the Sabres received confirmation, General Manager Kevyn Adams signed Pilut to a one-year, two-way contract worth $750,000 in the NHL.

“It was hectic,” he recalled. “I mean, we couldn't really do anything. Me and the other imports were all under contract. We couldn't really leave or anything like that. .... But as soon as the season kind of ended, we just took the first plane home as quick as we could. It was a really weird time to be over there.”

Pilut was careful with his words when describing the ordeal. He prefers to look forward and doesn’t want to dwell on the past, even when it comes to his final season with the Sabres in 2019-20. His first stint in Buffalo was dotted with adversity and ended abruptly.

An American Hockey League all-star with the Rochester Americans in 2018-19, Pilut had a strong debut season in North America. In the NHL, he showed promise under former Sabres coach Phil Housley. Pilut was poised and fearless with the puck, but he, like everyone else on the roster, had some challenges in defensive-zone coverage in Housley's man-to-man system.

Pilut was exceptional with the Amerks, though. He helped the club reach the Calder Cup Playoffs with 26 points in 30 games, but their season ended with a postseason loss in which Pilut suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery that summer.

Housley was fired and replaced by Ralph Krueger, whose system didn’t fit Pilut’s talents, either. He contributed while in Rochester despite the late start because of recovery from surgery and appeared in only 13 games with the Sabres before the Covid-19 pandemic halted pro sports leagues around the globe.

"It went a little up and down for me personally," he said. "I couldn't really find my way back to my old game in a way. I tried to make the best out of every opportunity I got and I think, well, I tried to do the best that I could on the ice all the time and whatever happened, happened. I'm not looking back at it at all."

When the Sabres were unwilling to give Pilut a one-way contract, he left for Russia. Given the uncertainty surrounding the return-to-play plans for the NHL and AHL, the KHL was an ideal development opportunity for Pilut. He averaged more than 20 minutes of ice time during his two seasons in a physical league that features speed and skill.

During his first season with Traktor in 2020-21, Pilut’s 28 points were tied for 11th among all KHL defensemen. He averaged 21:07 of ice time and showed improvement in every area of his game. While Pilut produced fewer points in his final season there (11 in 40 games), he looked like a more mature, confident defenseman.

“Even with the second season, it felt really good,” he explained. “I felt like I grew more as a person, even if the points didn't really come, I still played a very steady game, I feel, and then when playoffs came, it was kind of another level for me to try to get going even more. … I think I've developed (into more of a well-rounded player), to find a steady state every game I'm out there.”

From afar, Pilut always kept an eye on Buffalo and Rochester. He wanted to monitor how his former teammates were developing, who was still with the organization and who departed. Much has changed since Pilut was with the Sabres from 2018-20. Most of the hockey operations department is different, Don Granato replaced Krueger and the NHL roster is among the youngest in the NHL, led by Rasmus Dahlin and Tage Thompson, among others.

"Just to see these guys develop more and more than the way they play, the way they take responsibility out there, is amazing," he said. "They're young guys, but they take so much responsibility with the team and everything. They've grow so much as a players. It's awesome to see. ... I feel like it's just a positive thing for me to come there now with all these guys developing so much. They want to push for something better."

The opportunity ahead excites Pilut. He’s among four defensemen who joined the Sabres on two-way contracts last month, a group that will be compete for roster spots in a camp that will include Dahlin, Owen Power, Mattias Samuelsson, Henri Jokiharju, Ilya Lyubushkin, Jacob Bryson and Casey Fitzgerald.

Pilut hasn’t booked a plane ticket to Buffalo yet, but he plans to arrive sometime in early September. And while his surroundings will be familiar, he will notice how much has changed in the organization, and in his own game, since he departed for Russia two years ago.

“Obviously, I've been in Buffalo before, but now it feels like a totally different organization in a way, with all the new staff and everything around it,” he said. “I still know a lot of guys that are still there.

"For me, it's very nice to come back to something I know a little bit about, but at the same time, I feel like it's such an opportunity to come there now with a little bit more routine, a little bit more developed as I am as a player and a person. To come into the team in a new way with everything around it, I think it's gonna be awesome. I'm very excited to get back to work over there."

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News Sports Reporter

I've covered the Sabres and National Hockey League for The Buffalo News since November 2018. My previous work included coverage of the Pittsburgh Pirates and University of Pittsburgh athletics for DKPittsburghSports.com.

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