The Buffalo Sabres have held three practices with a shorthanded roster – only 15 skaters and three goalies skated Thursday – since last playing a game Jan. 31.
Yet, barring any disruptions related to Covid-19, the team will host the New York Islanders in KeyBank Center on Monday night.
Four of Buffalo’s top defensemen are on the Covid protocol list: Rasmus Dahlin, Rasmus Ristolainen, Jake McCabe and Brandon Montour. Five forwards have also been unavailable: Taylor Hall, Dylan Cozens, Curtis Lazar, Tobias Rieder and Casey Mittelstadt. Coach Ralph Krueger is away from the team while recovering from Covid-19.
It’s unclear if any of the above will be able to rejoin the Sabres in time for the scheduled puck drop. Reinforcements are expected to arrive in time for practice Saturday, though, as General Manager Kevyn Adams will recall players from Rochester following the Amerks’ game Friday night in Cleveland.
Forwards C.J. Smith, Jean-Sebastien Dea and Arttu Ruotsalainen, and defenseman Jacob Bryson could be among those promoted. In addition to filling out the active roster, the Sabres must also have the minimum four players on the taxi squad.
The Sabres have gone four consecutive days without adding a player to the Covid protocol list, but it's unlikely any of the nine will be able to play against the Islanders if cleared before Monday. After all, none have skated since before the pause Feb. 2.
"I think a lot of it is out of your control," said center Eric Staal. "We did what we were supposed to do and could do and then this happened and it’s unfortunate. But you come to work every day to compete and practice and get better. With what we have now, we’ve been doing that the past couple days. It’s felt good and we’ll continue to do the same thing building towards Monday and then hopefully getting more guys back as we go and putting this behind us and enjoying the process moving forward. I mean, that’s all you can do and for the most part everyone’s done that so far.”
The Sabres have not played a game since Jan. 31, a matinee that led to the temporary shutdown of their season. Buffalo, still 4-4-2, may have to play 46 games in as few as 86 days, between Monday and its scheduled regular-season finale May 8. The two matchups postponed this week – both against the Washington Capitals – have yet to be rescheduled.
The Sabres played poorly in their final four games before the pause. On one hand, they earned five of a possible eight points against the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils. However, Buffalo totaled only five even-strength goals during that span and fell apart defensively against the Devils.
The problems will likely be exacerbated if the Sabres must play without Hall, a former Hart Trophy winner widely regarded as one of the top forwards at even strength in the NHL. Lazar and Rieder have scored three goals apiece, tied for second-most on the team, and are key cogs on the penalty kill.
If the four defensemen remain out, the Sabres will likely have Will Borgen and Brandon Davidson make their season debuts. Tage Thompson may also be in the lineup for only the third time in eight games.
The Islanders, meanwhile, have played three games since the Sabres’ pause, including regulation wins over the Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins. Rather than spending time scouting the Islanders, the Buffalo coaching staff had players focus on their own games during the pause by sending out video clips.
“Now we can zero in on the issues we have, the things we’ve done well and, quite frankly, the first five or six games I felt like we really played well and we didn’t get the results we wanted,” said assistant coach Steve Smith, who may step in as head coach if Krueger can’t return in time for the next game. "So, we did our best to send out video clips that were confirmations of the things that we did well. There was a few learning moments here and there that we tried to discuss with the players but overall there’s been so much positive that we’ve tried to stick to the positive.”
Sabres General Manager Kevyn Adams is part of a 10-person advisory group that will assist Chris Drury in selecting the U.S. Men's National Team for the 2021 IIHF World Championship.
Drury, a beloved former Sabres forward who played three memorable seasons in Buffalo 2003-2007, is amid his sixth year in the New York Rangers front office. He serves as associate general manager of the NHL team and general manager of the Rangers' American Hockey League affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack.
The event this year is scheduled for May 21 through June 6 in Riga, Latvia.
Adams, who is in his first season leading the Sabres' hockey operations, is joined on the advisory group by John Vanbiesbrouck and eight other active general managers: David Poile, Don Waddell, Stan Bowman, Jeff Gorton, Lou Lamoriello, Bill Guerin, Tom Fitzgerald and Bill Zito.