Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Building the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres roster--The forward reserves

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 10-03-2016

In building the third line of the Buffalo's roster just before the Sabres hit camp on September 22nd, we eschewed the "safe bet" of slotting in 37 yr. old Brian Gionta on the third line and opted to place up-and-coming 21 yr. old right wing Justin Bailey in that slot. It didn't exactly work out that way, however, as Bailey was among 17 players sent to Rochester.

Moving Bailey out and Gionta up opens up a slot on the fourth line that should come down to two players--Nicolas Deslauriers and upstart Derek Grant. Two young forwards, Hudson Fasching and Alexander Nylander, are in camp and will make their case for a roster spot as the week progresses. The Sabres have three more preseason games--tomorrow, Wednesday and Friday--before their regular season opener vs. Montreal on Thursday, October 13th.

The safe bet for the 12th and 13th forwards spots once again is on the vets beginning with a known quantity in Deslauriers.

There's a shiny new toy in Buffalo thanks to Sabres GM Tim Murray signing Grant in the off season and he's having himself a whale of a preseason. But as we found out when it came to the Buffalo Bills, "winning the preseason" might be great, but it's the regular season that counts and Deslauriers might get the nod on the fourth line when the season starts.

For as poor a season as Deslauriers had in 2015-16, he still managed six goals for the club, which is more than the zero goals Grant has scored in his limited, 40-game NHL career. The 6'1" 212 lb. Deslauriers gained a reputation as a wrecking ball with a crazed look during his first full season in the NHL and was good enough to hit the scoresheet for five goals and 10 assists in 82 games.

That said, scoring is good for a fourth-liner but a player like Deslauriers is there to wreak havoc when he's on the ice. That's where he ran into trouble last season and that's why his performance was generally panned. In 2014-15 Deslauriers lead the team in hits by a large margin with 261. Last season that dropped to 206 and was only a handful more than Marcus Foligno, who had 193. His ice-time dropped from 11:52 to 10:19 and his fight-card went from seven two years ago to five last season.

Granted, Buffalo's dynamic changed when they went from head coach Ted Nolan two years ago to Dan Bylsma last season, but Deslauriers' role did not. Heading into last season we wrote that "He's fearless in his game and fearless when he drops the gloves, but he's not a goon." That's not what we saw last year and we haven't seen a lot of it yet in the preseason.

The Sabres can use a tough, physical presence up-front who's a tad psychotic but can also skate and contribute in a limited, fourth-line role. Two years ago it looked as if they found one in Deslauriers but last season he took a step back, which was troublesome. If he can't rediscover what endeared him to the team, he'll find himself on the bench.

One of the players that may end up sending Deslauriers to the press box is Grant. The 6'3" 202 lb. former fourth-round pick of the Ottawa Senators was signed by Murray in July. Murray was assistant general manager for the Sens in 2008 when they plucked the center with the 119th overall pick.

Since being drafted by Ottawa, Grant has been paying his dues in the AHL to the tune of 173 games in six seasons. The 27 yr. old has tallied 55 goals while adding 47 assists playing mostly for the Binghamton Senators. Last season he signed on with the Stockton Heat (CGY) and was having a breakout season before being felled by a broken jaw. In 36 games for Stockton he scored 27 goals and added 18 assists.

For as good as Grant has been in the AHL, he's yet to be able to transfer that success in his limited time with NHL clubs. He's played in 40 games over the course of three seasons but is still looking for his first NHL goal while registering only three assists.

Bylsma and company have been smitten with Grant this preseason and dependent upon which way the team wants to go and how the line combinations work out, Grant could find himself in the opening night lineup. "He’s building trust in his game with the way he’s playing,” Bylsma told the gathered media last week. “You have to earn the trust in your coach. You have to earn the trust in your teammates with your game. I’m pretty sure he’s been doing that."

Grant has certainly made a strong case to be on the opening night roster. Some of his main competition--Bailey and William Carrier--have already been sent to Rochester. Nicolas Baptiste was having a good camp before he was injured. He too will be sent to the Amerks once he's deemed fit to play and the only other player that might give him a run is Fasching, who made his mark in a seven-game stint for the club last season. Someone will get the spot but even Bylsma is willing to wait this one out. “Is it a person who could play in a specific spot?” Bylsma asked rhetorically last week. “Is he a jack of all trades? Can he play different positions, center and wing? Or is he an element player that is going to add a certain element, a speed element or physicality to the team?

“That’s part of the competition. We’re going to see how that plays out.”


With three more preseason games to go in a four-game span--all of them on the road--nothing is set in stone at this point and the coach wants the players that were sent down to be ready. “There’s going to be opportunity sooner than later,” Bylsma told the press this past weekend. “With injury situations and bumps and bruises we have, there may be an opportunity for some of those guys to join us on that trip.

“They’ve been sent with that message don’t hang your head here. There’s going to be opportunity, and it could be coming shortly. A lot of guys have the opportunity to earn maybe one or two more games."

With that said we'll keep things as is for the possible 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres Roster.

LW, Evander Kane / C, Ryan O'Reilly / RW, Kyle Okposo
LW, Tyler Ennis / C, Jack Eichel / RW, Sam Reinhart
LW, Matt Moulson / C, Zemgus Girgensons/ RW, Justin Bailey
LW, Marcus Foligno / C, Johan Larsson / RW, Brian Gionta 
Nicolas Deslauriers, Derek Grant

D, Rasmus Ristolainen/ D, Dmitry Kulikov
D, Zach Bogosian/ D, Jake McCabe
D, Cody Franson / D, Josh Gorges

G, Robin Lehner
G, Anders Nilsson

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