Is It Time for the Buffalo Sabres to Play Their Young Defensemen in 2014-15?


It goes without saying that the Buffalo Sabres have had a busy offseason.

General manager Tim Murray has spent his summer retooling the Sabres’ lineup, adding some veterans to the mix along with a likely high draft pick.

But as the team begins to take shape as training camp inches closer, the biggest question mark has to be what the defensive corps will look like when the puck drops on October 9.

Going into the offseason, the defense was the brightest spot on the Sabres’ roster. While its performance in 2013-14 was not great, the future looked bright for the group.

For the 2014-15 season, it seemed like the group would be relatively predictable.

Tyler Myers, Christian Ehrhoff and Mike Weber would be the returning veterans. Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov would have every chance to make it in training camp. If they did not, Ristolainen would head down to Rochester and Zadorov back to London of the Ontario Hockey League.

Chad Ruhwedel and Mark Pysyk had likely earned their stripes in Rochester and would see more time in the NHL. Jake McCabe would be the wild card, with his camp performance determining whether he started in Buffalo or Rochester.

And then Murray went nuts.

A few days before the June 30 deadline, Murray used an amnesty buyout on Christian Ehrhoff in what can only be described as a surprising move.

Then, in an equally shocking move, Murray was able to convince Josh Gorges to waive his no-trade clause in Montreal and accept a trade to the Sabres for a second-rounder in the 2016 draft.

Next came the free-agent additions, with veterans Andrej Meszaros and Andre Benoit joining the fold. Meszaros signed a one-year, $4.12 million deal while Benoit inked a one-year, $800,000 deal.

Depth defenseman Tyson Strachan signed also signed a one-year, two-way, $650,000 deal to likely play with Rochester most of the year. 

In the blink of an eye, the plan on defense was turned on its head.

Now, with the Sabres going from three pro-caliber defensemen that have played more than 65 games in the NHL to five, the window for the young guys has shrunk considerably.

Of the names brought in on defense, only Benoit could potentially see time in Rochester this year. After a solid season with the Colorado Avalanche last year, that is pretty unlikely.

Essentially, barring injuries, the competition will end up being for the Sabres’ sixth and seventh spots on defense, with the seventh man getting a healthy dose of the press room.

So what will the opening-night defense look like?

The logical school of thought says Myers, Weber, Gorges, Meszaros and Benoit will definitely suit up, with Ruhwedel and Pysyk likely rounding out the roster.

Of the newcomers, Gorges and Meszaros are locks assuming they don’t have any injury issues between now and the beginning of October.

Benoit showed he could log second-pairing minutes in Colorado, playing the fourth-most even-strength minutes per game on the team while posting a very solid 28 points in the process. He may not have the same opportunity minutes-wise with the Sabres, but he should be a solid third-pairing guy at least.

The real question is how much time the young guys will get.

The hard part is pretty much every young defenseman that played NHL minutes last year has a case for why they should be in the NHL.

Pysyk has played most of two seasons in Rochester and will not benefit from another year at the AHL level, even with top-pairing minutes.

Ruhwedel played extremely solid hockey during his time up last year and looked even better in his time in Rochester. His development could probably use more time at the NHL level.

Ristolainen is a top prospect in the NHL and should be handled responsibly, but you don’t want the kid to toil at the AHL level for too long. He also looked much better in his second stint in the NHL and could be beyond the AHL as well.

Zadorov trounced the OHL when he returned to London last year, and while he cannot play in the AHL this year, he’s simply too good for the OHL to make staying there another year worth his or the Sabres’ while.

McCabe is the toughest case to make because, while he didn’t look out of place in his NHL stint, he could use some AHL minutes to get better.

Realistically, the Sabres need to err on the side of prepping for the future and putting the young guys in the best positions to succeed for that seemingly bright future.

That’s why, barring injuries, Pysyk and Ruhwedel will likely be on the NHL roster on opening night. 

Pysyk has been one of the better defenseman in Rochester for awhile now and likely needs more NHL minutes to improve. In his 44 games last season, Pysyk posted the second-highest Fenwick percentage (45.2) among Sabres blueliners and steadily improved as the season progressed.

Ruhwedel is a bit more of a toss-up, but he also played well in his stint last year. He finished fourth in Fenwick percentage (44.3) among defensemen. He’ll never wow you with his offensive abilities, but he moves the puck well and plays a solid overall game.

Ristolainen will benefit from 20-plus minutes a night in the AHL to start but will probably be the first guy to come back to Buffalo if/when an injury happens.

McCabe will definitely start in the AHL, and the Sabres will hope to see progression similar to Pysyk‘s during the season.

Zadorov is the toughest call simply because he is only allowed to play in the NHL or OHL, and he is already one of the best defensemen in the OHL. The jury is out as to whether he can be an everyday NHL player right now, but the bigger question is whether another year in the OHL would be more detrimental than beneficial to his long-term development.

Odds are it would not be, as he’ll play as much as any other OHL defenseman this season and he will almost certainly represent Russia at the IIHF World Junior Championships in Canada this year.

Prior to July 1, the conversation involving him was much, much different. With the addition of the veterans, however, Zadorov is likely one of the biggest “losers” in this situation.

So, overall, the opening-night defensive pairings could look like this:

  • Tyler Myers ─ Josh Gorges
  • Andrej Meszaros ─ Mark Pysyk
  • Mike Weber ─ Andre Benoit

This would leave Ruhwedel as the seventh defenseman to start, and based on Weber’s performance last yearwhich can only be described as very poorhe may get a shot to be the sixth blueliner sooner rather than later.

How this group will fare is another story, but it will not look much like the group that took the ice last season.

Regardless, one can expect that it will certainly not make too much of a difference in the standings this upcoming season.


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