The cool thing about the Buffalo Sabres adding top-six forwards in Evander Kane, Ryan O’Reilly and Jack Eichel is that not only does it immediately legitimize the Sabres top two lines, but it also pushes the other forwards down to a level more in line with their individual capabilities. And the depth
In the past few years the Sabres lacked true top-line talent and in turn were really thin at the lower levels of the depth chart to the point where the last two seasons, especially the last one,
While the Buffalo Sabres were dressing a lineup that featured as many as 10 players ticketed for Rochester of the AHL, the Wild were gearing up for the regular season and dressed most of their opening night roster in their final preseason game. "It was two teams at two different levels," said head coach Dan Bylsma after the game.
This huge discrepancy in talent trickled down to the Amerks as well. They opened up their preseason by getting walloped by the Binghamton Senators 8-2. The baby Sens had a team that was also fortified by having a parent club playing most of their opening night roster.
Tonight's home game against the Columbus Blue Jackets will be the Sabres last of the preseason and what hits the ice will constitute much of their opening night roster, injuries not withstanding.
Which brings us to the fourth line.
The Sabres opened up their preseason in Minnesota and on the ice to start the game was Johan Larsson flanked by Marcus Foligno on the left and Nic Deslauriers on his right. The line got on the scoreboard late in the first period on a beautiful breakout lead by Larsson and textbook attack that had Foligno with the shot on goal, both Larsson and Deslauriers crashing the net and Deslauriers pouncing on a juicy rebound.
Larsson had been a player that piqued Bylsma's interest since the Sabres new coach started going over his roster in early summer. He had seen Larsson on tape but not at ice level and he was curious as to what others coaches and scouts had to say about his game. “They liked him a lot,” Bylsma said of Larsson last week. “They thought he played a hard, kind of a sandpaper, gritty game. They scouted him as such. That’s what he’s going to bring to the table. Hard to play against, and that’s what he’s got to bring for our team."
The coach played Larsson a lot in that Minnesota game and he came away impressed with what the 23 yr. old, former second round pick (2010, 56th overall) of the Wild had to offer. "[Larsson] played an awful lot for us," said Bylsma after the game. "He took 19 draws for us, a lot in key situations, and we depended on him a lot in this game. Penalty kill, on face offs and in between (Foligno and Deslauriers,) I thought he did a good job." Larsson finished the game with an assist, and a team-high plus-two rating in nearly 18 minutes of ice time.
Veteran David Legwand, who came over from Ottawa as a part of the Robin Lehner trade, came into camp as the presumed fourth line center, but Larsson's strong camp and solid preseason may have him in the driver's seat.
It wasn't all that long ago that the team had Larsson in a depth role as he was unable to transfer his game to the NHL-level. In Rochester he had upped his production to 40 points (15+25) 44 games and was a noted pest. But every time he got the call to Buffalo last season he struggled. It wasn't until after the trade deadline that Larsson finally passed through the NHL threshold.
Larsson started out on the fourth line post trade deadline and played his way to the top line to finish the season. In his final 17 games centering the top line he scored five goals and added eight assists on a last place team. “I got the opportunity to play with good players, so that helped,” said Larsson of centering Matt Moulson and Tyler Ennis. “I got a little more ice time, and the confidence came. It was rolling.
“It helped me a lot, gave me a lot of confidence than I can play in this league at that level. It was kind of huge for me having that in my head.”
Larsson has turned himself into a bona fide top-nine forward with enough upside to stake a claim to a top-six role or in the very least be a solid top-six fill-in. Although the fourth line is below his skill-level, it shows just what kind of depth GM Tim Murray has with his forward group. And for Larsson, top-nine might not be that far away as Bylsma is not all-in on Sam Reinhart in that role. Bylsma has Reinhart playing center and wing and is looking for linemates that the 19 yr. old can mesh with.
Reinhart, unlike Larsson, can be sent to the AHL without clearing waivers so it's an option should the organization deem it so. And Larsson, unlike a highly touted second-overall pick like Reinhart, has had to pay his dues while constantly overcoming failures and inconsistencies. Which is exactly what the AHL is for.
Foligno is another player who might be playing a notch below his talent-level, although to this point in his career, fourth-line duty on the wing is a place where he can develop further in a bottom-six role.
Visions of a young Cam Neely danced through Sabreland when Foligno hit the NHL with a vengeance. The 6'3" 226 lb. powerfoward served notice during his first NHL stint in 2012 by scoring six goals and adding seven assists in his first 14 NHL games. He was on a line with Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford and they almost single-handedly propelled the team into the playoffs that season.
That kind of success was rather unfortunate for Foligno as he forgot the type of player he was.
Foligno was drafted in the fourth round (2009, 104th) as a hard-working powerforward who was relentless on the forecheck, could lay out a bone-rattling check and drop the gloves while also having enough offense to project out as a top-nine winger. But it would seem as if he lost his aggressiveness while trying to channel John LeClair.
For the next two seasons, Foligno was trying to find his way in an especially difficult environment. He played exceptionally well for Rochester when the NHL locked out their players in 2012 scoring 27 points (10+17) in 33 games before the league started up again in January, 2013. From then, tumult ensued. Head coach Lindy Ruff was fired, Ron Rolston was promoted and the purging of the core was beginning in earnest.
Eventually Rolston was fired and gritty head coach Ted Nolan replaced him.
Nolan had his deficiencies, but he managed to help more than a few players find themselves during a very difficult time for the franchise, and Foligno was one of them. For Foligno, it's no surprise that Nolan, who once coached a Buffalo squad known as "the hardest working team in hockey," got him back to creating opportunities through hard work on the ice. Foligno went from scoring 19 points in 74 games that season to scoring 20 points in 57 games last season. It's a figure that projects out to 12 goals and 17 assists over an 82 game schedule or which is solid production for a 24 yr. old, bottom-six player.
In the first trade of his own volition, Murray traded two players and two picks to the Los Angeles Kings for two "heavies." One of those players was Deslauriers.
Deslauriers was drafted by Los Angeles in the third round (2009, 84th) as an offensive-minded defenseman. During his third season with the Kings AHL affiliate in Manchester, Monarchs head coach Mark Morris was approached by Kings special assistant to the GM, Jack Ferreira with the idea of switching the 6'1" 230 lb. Deslauriers to wing. The move worked.
According to Jon Rosen of LA Kings Insider, Delauriers' play down low impressed the coaching staff. Deslauriers had all the physical attributes of one "who wouldn’t be out of place when attempting to withstand the rigors of competing at a higher level," while pointing out that in Deslauriers, "there’s also a good deal of talent inherent in [him]."
It was a move that benefitted everyone in the Kings organization, including Deslauriers. “I think [it took] the first 20 games to adapt being a forward, and now I help the guys on the back end a little bit when there are some guys that get called up," he told Rosen just prior to his trade to Buffalo.
And what's good for LA is good for Buffalo too.
Deslauriers packs a punch while playing an aggressive game with a crazed look on his face. He can work the wall and outwork an opponent. He can drive the net and wreak havoc in the crease while also having enough finish and puck skills to be a regular contributor. He's fearless in his game and fearless when he drops the glove, but he's not a goon.
Last year was his first full season in the NHL and he gathered 15 points (5+10) in 82 games while playing third and fourth line minutes. Deslauriers has 99 NHL games playing forward so he's still adapting to the position and he still has upside.
It's a brave new world for the Sabres this season as forward depth has placed everyone in a position to succeed in a role that's at least equal to their skill level which is a far cry from last season.
A Larsson/Foligno/Deslauriers line has the potential to drive the opposition crazy and Bylsma knows it. While making his media rounds just after being hired, he mentioned both Larsson and Deslauriers by name saying, "Deslauriers had a great year on the third/fourth line. Larsson is a guy who in the last 30 games, [after] I'd talked to a couple of coaches, is tough to play against. He was a gritty player, played a hard game and they had to watch [him] when he was on the ice and take note of him."
Add in Foligno and you have a young, aggressive fourth line that teams will need to watch and take note of.