Sunday, September 22, 2013

As the preseason gets a bit tougher, spots on the Sabres roster are tougher to come by

Winning the first three games of the preseason basically says that one team's mix of youngins is a little beter than another on a given night. Vets sprinkled in with recent draft picks and second-year AHL'ers in the right combination vs. the right combination of the same doesn't really amount to much in the grand scheme of things.

Which is not to take away anything from the players who are busting their ass to make a good impression on the Sabres brass. Winning, as well as getting on the score sheet, is good for confidence, but as the preseason moves forward the chaff gets separated from the wheat and the competition becomes a little more NHL-like. A little tougher.

The Sabres have lightened the ship. They sent five back to their junior clubs--draft picks Nicholas Baptise, Justin Bailey, Justin Kea, Logan Nelson and free-agent signee Connor Boland--on Monday.

On Friday before this weekend's home-and-home with Toronto, the Sabres really took a chunk out of the training camp roster by cutting 14 players. They assigned 12 players to Rochester:  forwards Colin Jacobs, Eric Locke, free agent signee Jonathan McGuire, Jonathan Parker, Kevin Sundher, Shawn Szydlowski, and Frederick Roy; defenseman Alex Lepkowski, and Matt McKenzie plus goaltenders Connor Knapp, Nathan Lieuwen and Andrey Makarov.

They also announced that defenseman Nick Crawford was sent to Rochester pending waivers while defenseman Brady Austin and free agent forward Peter Trainor were assigned to their junior clubs.

The team just announced that they're down to 35 players after six more were moved off of the roster. Forwards Daniel Catenacci and Phil Varone along with defensemen Jerome Gauthier-LeDuc "of Earl" and Tim Schaller were sent to Rochester.

Jamie Tardiff was also sent to the Amerks, pending waivers.

Former Minnesota 1st-round pick Colton Gillies was released from his pro tryout contract.

The Sabres will need to get down to 23 players by September 30.


This is where things get pretty interesting for the Sabres, whittling away 12 players from their roster to get down to the league max.

The Sabres will have one less goalie before they hit the ice for their opener at Detroit on October 2.

Although there's always the possibility that Jhonas Enroth will be moved, odds are that either Matt Hackett will be sent to Rochester or Ryan Miller, who's in the last year of his contract, will be traded.

The battle for the remaining 11 roster spots is mostly on defense and rounding out the bottom-six forwards.

Save for one possibility.

Joel Armia was selected with the 16th overall pick in the 2011 draft by the Buffalo Sabres. Since then he's been plying his trade in his native Finland playing in the top league against men.

“You play against grown men that are stronger,” Armia said. “They know how to play hockey. So that’s been a big difference in my development.”

At 20 years old he still has a long way to go in his development despite having played against men. And as he begins his first season in North America, he'll also be acclimating himself to a smaller ice surface.

But one thing that can't be denied is the skill package Armia brings.

Kris Baker of and has Armia ranked third in his 2013-14 prospects rankings saying, "Armia's size and speed have the look of the Sabres' next scoring line threat off the wing [and] will immediately compete for NHL minutes when he brings his scoring hands to North America in 2013-14."

Baker also mentions Armia's quick release, sense for open space and tip skills as attributes that might allow him to make the jump right to the NHL this season.

Armia has played in two preseason games, has one goal and one assist, both points while playing on the top line with Thomas Vanek and Cody Hodgson.

Vanek had some good things to say about the kid after the game, “You can see that he puts himself in good spots,” he said. “Those are things you can’t teach. You either have it or you don’t, and he seems to have it.”

Armia definitely has the "it" factor. But a willingness to fully engage on a consistent basis in all three zones is what he'll need to show.

If he can do that in the remaining preseason games, there may a chance for him to earn a spot out of camp.


That Armia as a talented right-winger should make Vanek happy.

For some reason Vanek seems to have an aversion to playing on the right side despite his right-handed shot. Having Armia on the right while he stays in his comfort zone on the left side certainly would make him happy.

To open preseason, Vanek was on the right with Hodgson in the middle and Marcus Foligno on the left. The trio formed a pretty good line. Foligno scored two goals with that line at Columbus.

Last night Vanek and Hodgson had the night off while Foligno was on the left side of Tyler Ennis, who was playing his first preseason game at center. Drew Stafford was on the right.

The trio almost single-handedly lead the Sabres to a playoff birth in 2011-12, but fell on hard times last season and were split up.

They regained their magic last night as the Sabres top-line. Although being somewhat limited on the score sheet with Foligno scoring a goal and Ennis garnering an assist, they looked real good as a line carrying the play much of the night.

The fate of Armia, as well as which side Vanek plays on, may very well rest on the play of this trio. If they continue to work well, a top-nine could feature Vanek/Hodgson/Armia and Foligno/Ennis/Stafford.


The other line should pretty much be etched in stone:  Mikhail Grigorenko centering Steve Ott and Ville Leino.

At 19 years old, Grigorenko will be entering his second NHL season. Because of NHL rules he is ineligible for the AHL. He can either play for the Sabres or be sent back to junior.

Sabres GM Darcy Regier has already said that Grigorenko will be with the big club.

And his best chance for success will be on a line with Ott on his wing.

Grigorenko is big--6'3" 200 lbs.--and his highly skilled. He tops Baker's list of Sabres top prospects. But he is also having a rough time acclimating himself to the NHL game.

His skating is average at best and he looks disinterested at times.

In his first preseason game, he finally kicked it into gear and looked like he could hang with the big boys. That was with Ott and Leino.

He looked good last night playing on that line again.

Sandwiched in between was a stint with Ennis on the left and Brian Flynn on the right. Grigorenko really didn't fare that well.

With Regier's insistence on Grigorenko being with Buffalo, his best chance for success would be with Ott on the left and Leino on the right.


There is quality competition at the forward position. But there's even more quality competition on defense.

Locks for the top six are Tyler Myers, Christian Ehrhoff, and Mike Weber.

Rookie Mark Pysyk is coming off of a good 19-game stint with Buffalo last season, and has looked even better this preseason. He looks to be a lock for the top-six as well.

Hank Tallinder was traded for in the off season and should be the veteran mentor of the defense corps. He and Pysyk had some excellent chemistry when paired together in the first game.

Probably the only question in the top-six is Weber's partner.

The Sabres traded for Jamie McBain at the draft and he has shown enough to be a reserve/bottom-pairing d-man. He also has no waiver options.

Chad Ruhwedel came straight from college into a 10-game stint with Buffalo last season. He played well, but can be sent to Rochester without clearing waivers. "Rudy" could also use some seasoning in the AHL.

The Sabres will probably carry eight defensemen like they did last season which essentially leaves three players vying for two spots.

The veteran of the group is Alexander Sulzer. He came over in the Hodgson trade with Vancouver and is a solid bottom-pairing d-man. The Sabres re-signed him to a one year contract this summer.

His veteran presence isn't really needed with the big club, but he could get claimed should he be exposed to waivers.

Rasmus Ristolainen was the teams first round pick (#8 overall) in the 2013 draft. After two years playing in the Swedish Elite League, he was said to be NHL ready. And he sure looks the part.

He looked real strong in the first two preseason games before taking a step back vs. Carolina. Last night vs. Toronto he got that step back.

Despite his "NHL-readiness" a short stint in Rochester may be the best way to go for him as he learns game-to-game management, an area which affected him in that third preseason game.

Brayden McNabb has been playing in Rochester the last two season after four seasons with Kootenay of the WHL.

He has the size, 6'5" 215 lbs and offensive instincts to make the team out of camp. And he's also having a pretty good preseason.

Jon Vogl rightly points out that McNabb is making a strong case to be on the Sabres opening day roster.

"Not long ago," writes Vogl, "McNabb was the Sabres’ hot prospect on defense. Buffalo figured his physical skills would plug a hole on the blue line for years to come. A few drafts, trades and injuries later, McNabb is almost an afterthought."

McNabb is in the middle. He's not a rookie any more, and with only 25 NHL games under his belt he's not a veteran either.

But a one goal, two assist night vs. Carolina certainly garnered some attention for the former 3rd round pick. "McNabb shined in his second game of the exhibition season. He ripped a slap shot home and directed two pucks toward the net that were tipped into the cage." continued Vogl.

If McNabb continues to get noticed for the right reasons, he may earn himself the opportunity to not only make the team, but get some bottom-six minutes as well.

2013 first round draft pick Nikita Zadorov should get one more game to whet his appetite for the NHL. He'll be headed back to junior next week.

The Sabres visit Toronto tonight and a good chunk of players will be playing their last preseason game for the club.

Just a part of the process.

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