Buffalo Sabres GM Tim Murray has done a lot of work putting together a lineup to his liking. He's come a long way since this lineup to open the 2014-15 campaign:
Matt Moulson, Tyler Ennis, Drew Stafford
Cody Hodgson, Sam Reinhart, Brian Gionta
Marcus Foligno, Zemgus Girgensons, Chris Stewart
Nicolas Deslauriers, Cody McCormick, Torrey Mitchell
Josh Gorges, Tyler Myers
Andre Benoit, Andrej Meszaros
Mike Weber, Rasmus Ristolainen
In the Press Box--Brian Flynn, Tyson Strachan, Nikita Zadorov
That said, despite fortifying his roster with young-vets like Ryan O'Reilly, Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian and as of July, Kyle Okposo, he still has some holes to fill.
In June Murray took a calculated risk sending third-rounder to the Nashville Predators for the rights to Hobey Baker-winner, Jimmy Vesey. Although the Sabres gave it their best shot, Vesey (in a curious move considering what other teams had to offer) opted for the NY Rangers. The 6'3" 195 lb. Vesey would have had the opportunity to land in a top-six/top-nine role in Buffalo despite not having any pro experience.
With him out of the equation, there is a top-six slot on the left side that needs to be filled. How will Murray do it?
Let's take a look at the contenders.
Before last season's rocky start with a new coaching staff and suffering two concussions before being shelved for the season, Ennis showed the versatility, skill and spunk to stick in a top-six role despite his 5'9" 160 lb. frame. Ennis was drafted as a center and played center a majority of his career before shifting to right wing in 2014-15 as part of a very good trio with LW, Matt Moulson and Zemgus Girgensons, who centered the top line. Last season he was shifted to the right side again before going down to injury. Could he make the shift to the left-side? No reason he couldn't. He has the speed, quickness, skill and hockey-sense to do so but won't hope to do so until he the ditches east-west dangle solo-show and uses his linemates much more often.
What's that? He isn't even signed yet. That would be correct. And he's coming off of a very poor season, you say? Yup, sure enough. And what about Moulson who's a left-winger? Uh huh. Show is. But assuming he will be re-signed, Girgensons is the second-best option to play along side either Jack Eichel or Ryan O'Reilly. I for one am not willing to dump a 6'1" 203 lb. 22 yr. old with just over 200 NHL games through the most trying times a youngin can go through. If you're gonna slot Vesey in the top-six/nine after four years at college, perhaps Girgensons four years as a pro beginning when he was 18 should be considered a learning experience at the pro-level.
This was a spot for Moulson's taking last year and, quite frankly, he screwed up. Murray implied that Moulson didn't focus upon the work needed to produce at the level the new coaching staff wanted him to. Perhaps he was busy indulging a little too much in the comforts of home while he and his family were playing the role of billet for rookie Eichel. Regardless of what happened, the $4M man has a number of things working against him including his slightly below average skating which doesn't help when the head coach wants up-tempo. Both he and Girgensons had very poor seasons under new head coach Dan Bylsma and the youngins are knockin' at the door. It will be a tell-tale year for both.
One of the aforementioned youngins is the Buffalo Sabres first round pick in 2016, Alexander Nylander. The 6'1" 180 lb. native of Calgary, Alberta was selected 8th-overall for his top-notch skill and speed of which Murray said after selecting him, "He’s the whole package. I think after the Pittsburgh win you hear people talking about speed and that’s what we’ve been trying to do the past couple of years and we don’t have enough of it yet. We’ve made great strides and to get a guy like him that we think is a top six forward, just fit into our blueprint.” The jump from junior to the NHL is huge and training camp will go a long way to determining whether or not Nylander can make that jump. Yet, anything outside a top-six role in Buffalo for him probably means he's headed to Rochester for a year of seasoning.
Murray could tap into free agency and go after the likes of Jiri Hulder, the 32 yr. old former Detroit Red Wings draft pick who played for the Florida Panthers last year. Hudler did have a couple of real strong seasons with the Calgary Flames two and three years ago but he made $4M last season and the Sabres won't pay him that much and if he's going to accept less, he'll probably want an immediate shot at the Stanley Cup. A team like the Chicago Blackhawks, who were also in on Vesey, would seem to be a good fit in that scenario.
Twenty-five year old Brandon Pirri is another possibility. A 2009 Hawks draft pick, Pirri was traded to the Florida Panthers for a couple of draft picks after his entry-level deal expired and last year the Cats traded him to the Anaheim Ducks for a 6th-rounder at the trade deadline. An NHL minimum salary would be about right, but why do that when there are other options.
If Murray has a trade in the works for a bona fide left-winger, it hasn't leaked yet and I highly doubt he'll go after the Rangers Rick Nash like some have suggested so it might be safe to say at this point that what you see is what you get on the left side. And for this season, and this season alone, it might suffice.