The top-five defensemen headed into the 2015-16 are pretty much a lock. Defensemen Rasmus Ristolainen, Zach Bogosian, Josh Gorges, Cody Franson and Mark Pysyk have all made their mark for the team in one way or another and all that's left to figure out is, who the No. 6 d-man will be.
In the mix is 32 yr. old, defensive defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo whom GM Tim Murray signed for depth. Edmond, OK native and puck-mover Matt Donovan was up with the NY Islanders last season but only played in 12 games and was signed by the Sabres after the Islanders opted not to qualify him. Buffalo rookie Jake McCabe is the fans choice but he still needs to iron out some inconsistencies in his two-way game and Rochester is as good a place as any to do that. Puck-mover Chad Ruhwedel who's shown a nice scoring touch in Rochester has yet to turn heads in Buffalo.
Eighteen year old Brendan Guhle, a 2015 second round pick (51st overall) has piqued the interest of many with his advanced skating, athleticism and acute hockey sense but, why rush the kid? Another year at Prince Albert (WHL) with the Raiders playing top minutes is a logical step. Of note: Murray has already signed him to his entry-level deal.
And then there's 27 yr. old Mike Weber. The Pittsburgh, PA native, who will be entering his eighth season with the club, is the longest-tenured Sabre.
The Sabres drafted Weber in 2006 with the 57th overall pick as a physical, hard-nosed defensive-defenseman--the antithesis of many soft-but-skilled players that made up the team. His first appearance with Buffalo was during the 2007-08 season with the Sabres transitioning from the "Ferrari" years to "the core" years and he played in 16 games for the club during their failed playoff push. He was a plus-12 in those games. Weber spent the next two seasons playing in Portland, the Sabres AHL affiliate at the time, before staking his claim to a roster spot beginning with the 2010-11 season.
Weber, who's not known for his offensive acumen, had career numbers that year posting four goals and adding 13 assists with a rating of plus-13. The Sabres playoff push for new owner Terry Pegula was a success but they would lose to the Philadelphia Flyers in seven games. Weber had a solid series but was known mostly for clearing the crease in front of Ryan Miller, especially noted pest, Daniel Carcillo.
The much-maligned Weber sunk with the rest of the team beginning with the 2011-12 season posting negative plus/minus ratings in the high-teens and twenties three consecutive seasons. The last two years were especially brutal as management jettisoned every ounce of talent that would get any kind of return in a trade in a scorched-earth rebuild. In the process, napalmed players like Weber were left to stand in the rubble with fans cheering for losses.
With the 29th place Arizona Coyotes in town late last season and the battle for a spot in the top-two of the 2015 NHL Draft, Buffalo many fans at First Niagara Center openly and adamantly cheered the 'Yotes on with some of the most vociferous standing proud while decked out in their Sabres regalia. It didn't sit well with Weber.
"[Losing] is extremely frustrating for us. We don't want to be here. We understand where we are. We understand what this team's doing, what the organization's doing, the place we've put ourselves in. I've never been a part of something like that, where the away team comes into a home building and they're cheering for them. Again, I respect our fans. I love our fans. I show up to work everyday to whatever I can for them, and to play hard for them and my teammates...
"This is two years in a row now. Physically, mentally, this sucks. To compound things, you have your home fans cheering against you. Again, I've never been a part of that. Obviously, what doesn't kill ya makes you stronger, I guess. But this is a whole new low right now."
It was a situation that shouldn't be wished upon any team and fanbase, yet it's one that has the team ready to climb from the basement in earnest beginning this season.
Everyone's in a better place now and Weber, the 2015 Buffalo Sabres Unsung Hero Award winner, "can't stop smiling" when talking about the upcoming season. "You've seen the frustration, the pain, the misery that has been the past two seasons," he said while walking into training camp. "What a difference an off-season will make.
"Management told us leaving here last year that they'd make the necessary changes and they held up their end. Now it's the fun part. It's nice to finally go into a season where we're competing for a playoff spot."
Whether the team has enough to compete for a playoff spot, which would mean a 35-40 point increase over their 54 point total from last season, remains to be seen, but early indications are that the team will be much improved, at least up front. The blueline remains a work in progress as gaps remain in the d-corps.
As mentioned, either Weber or Colaiacovo could end up in the No. 6 role with the other being the reserve. During the preseason Weber has seen plenty of ice time with ample logging top-pairing penalty-kill minutes with Franson during the split-squad games.
Weber has been in a Sabres uniform for a long time and has earned the respect of the organization. Although fans may want him out, he has shown the propensity to face adversity while offering his best. Although he's no Larry Robinson, he knows who he is, the type of game he can play and where he fits on the team. In a season that includes many roster and position changes, a known, NHL quantity, however minimal in the skill department one might be, helps stabilize things.
With the increase in talent that's on the team right now, Weber should be smiling. He best two seasons were when the team had actual talent around him as opposed to him having to log way too many minutes in a role beyond his capabilities. It wouldn't be surprising to see him rise to respectability this season in a role more suited to his talents, with forwards who can score and help on defense and a team that's attacking instead of being sitting ducks in a shooting gallery leaving him to clear the crease and defend his teammates. Which is exactly what you want him doing on the third-pairing.