Friday, October 7, 2016

Building the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres roster--The Contenders

Published by, 10-06-16

Based upon last season,the construct of the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres roster leans towards having 13 forwards, eight defensemen and two goalies. However, GM Tim Murray and head coach Dan Bylsma are looking at a situation where a number of forwards are battling for the 13th forward spot while as of now there seems to be only one veteran NHL defenseman who will stick in a depth role.

Forward Derek Grant, a July 1 signing by Murray, has forced his way into the conversation by playing in five consecutive pre season games and having an impact in most of them. Last night Grant stepped in when both Ryan O'Reilly and Daniel Catenacci were pulled for precautionary reasons in Buffalo's 3-2 shootout loss vs. the Carolina Hurricanes.

Bylsma has had nothing but praise for the 6'3" 206 lb. forward and he continued with it last night pointing out Grant's pass to spring Evander Kane for Buffalo's first goal while also being a key contributor on a 4-on-3 overtime penalty kill. "[When] you're trying to earn a spot on the team, you're trying to find a role as a player coming in, you can clearly see where Derek Grant could be a factor for our team," said Bylsma to the post-game media.

Nicolas Deslauriers scored the game-winner in Buffalo's 2-0 shutout win vs. Buffalo in the Kraft Hockeyville game the prior night and has looked pretty solid throughout this preseason. Deslauriers was in a bottom-six/checking line role last season and there's no reason to believe that he'll be anywhere else but there heading into the season.

With Grant and Deslauriers looking like shoe-ins for the 12th and 13th forward slots, the rest of the field may be shut out unless the team goes with another forward on the roster. Originally we went with Justin Bailey in the bottom-six and although he'll more than likely be headed back to Rochester, Bailey did score a game-tying, short-handed goal last night which may have earned him one more look in the Sabres preseason finale at Ottawa tomorrow night.

All that said, here are a few other forwards who may be contenders to make the final roster:

--Alexander Nylander is a very gifted player with quick skating ability and a great pair of hands. Many have likened his uneventful preseason performance to that of Sam Reinhart's nine-game NHL stint with Buffalo in 2014. And it's an apt parallel. When Nylander was on the wing with Jack Eichel and Reinhart, he did get into the flow with his two very talented linemates but was unable to finish. He was just a bit off and it may simply be a matter of catching up to the game a bit. A bottom-six role is no place for a talent like Nylander and with the top-six pretty much set, there's nowhere for him to go except Rochester. Which is a good thing as he'll be able to get a feel for the speed and the rigors of the pro game while also providing an opportunity to work on his consistency which was the only knock on him in pre-draft scouting reports.

--Murray made the trade for Hudson Fasching with the 6'2" 204 lb. winger making his NHL debut last season. Fasching scored a goal on his very first shift and looked very solid through all seven games he played for Buffalo. He has the size and skill as well as NHL skating ability to contribute in a top-nine role for the club but a little seasoning may be in the offing. Fasching can and would play a checking role if that was his ticket to the big club however, in similar fashion to Nylander, why place him in that limited role when he can get accustomed to the pro game in Rochester while playing top minutes?

--Thirty year old Cal O'Reilly, brother of Ryan, had a pretty strong finish to his season when he was called up to Buffalo scoring seven points (3g +4a) in 20 games . A career minor-leaguer, Cal can hold his own on the fourth line but he also has the kind of leadership capabilities that are needed in Rochester.

On defense the top-six in Buffalo is set with Justin Falk almost assuredly coming in as the seventh defenseman. Dependent upon how the Sabers construct the roster, that could be it. But more than likely they'll go with eight defensemen, especially in light of the fact that after their home opener next Thursday, the Sabres hit the road for a three-game Western Canada road trip.

Barring an acquisition by Murray there's really only one choice to fill in as a depth defenseman and it's based strictly on the spot on the roster and it probably won't be Brendan Guhle.

There's no doubt that 19 yr. old Guhle has all the makings of a top-four (or higher) NHL defenseman and that's the point with him in regards to the roster. Last year Guhle had an impact to the point where he might have at least got himself a nine-game stint with the club based on his stellar performance. An injury derailed that process and he was sent back to junior where he had a stellar season for the Prince Albert Raiders (WHL.) After the Raiders season ended he played six games in Rochester and looked the part of an up-and-coming NHL defenseman.

This off season he's looked solid, but not as spectacular as he did last year. Everything is still there--the skating, the athleticism, the poise and positioning--but what's not there right now is an NHL spot worthy of his talents. Do the Sabres keep him in Buffalo as a depth defenseman or send him back to junior for one final year? Methinks the latter is in the cards.

Eric Burgdoerfer has made a pretty strong case to stick with the club in a depth role on defense. The 27 yr. old minor league veteran who has scratched and clawed his way up from a four-year ECHL start to his career has looked solid on the ice for Buffalo this preseason. Burgdoerfer has a poise to his game, the hockey smarts to make the right play and he has a pretty big frame to handle the rough stuff as witnessed by his roughing minor while protecting the crease in front of goalie Robin Lehner on Tuesday.

Burgdoerfer is also an interesting case study in the perseverance of a possible late-bloomer. The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute graduate signed with the Bakersfield Condors in 2010 and spent four seasons with the team. He went from 16 points (2+14) in 68 games his first full season to 22 points (11+11) in 67 games his final season. Burgdoerfer then headed east playing for the South Carolina Stingrays, an affiliate of the Washington Capitals and their AHL Hershey Bears.

After a short, three-game stint with the 'Rays, Hershey called him up to the AHL where he stuck. Burgdoerfer played in 58 regular season games that season scoring a goal and adding six assists while playing in the top six. He re-signed with Hershey and last season he had six goals and 14 assists in 74 games. Bears head coach Troy Mann said at the time of his re-signing (via Tim Leone of,) "He's a guy that moves his feet very well. He's a mainstay on the PK. He's one of our top PK guys."

Said Burgdoerfer of his slow climb (vial the Leone piece,) "You can just never give up. Keep working hard and do the right things and eventually you get rewarded."

Burgdoerfer may get rewarded again with a spot on the big club when all's said and done. He's shown through preseason that he can hold his own and a depth role would be a good fit for both him and the team. According to cap-friendly, he's on a one-year, two-way, waiver-exempt contract that pays him $575K in the NHL and $80K in the AHL.

There's one more game tomorrow to finish off the preseason and some decisions to make after that. How this all pans out remains to be seen but here's what we have so far:

Building the 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
Justin Falk

G, Robin Lehner
G, Anders Nilsson

The contenders:  Forwards Alexander Nylander, Hudson Fasching, Cal O'Reilly; defense Brendan Guhle, Eric Burgdoerfer

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