State of the Sabres: Opening Night Roster

Well hockey fans, the time has finally come. After watching the Washington Capitals climb to the top of the National Hockey League mountain just three-and-a-half months ago, the slate for all 31 teams has again been wiped away clean. An entry draft, free-agent frenzy, rookie development camps, prospects tournaments, training camps and preseason all stood between the end of one campaign and the beginning of another. And what an offseason it has been!

The Buffalo Sabres orchestrated one of the most active offseasons in the league since April. Even with final rosters due at 5:00 p.m. Eastern time on the eve of the regular season’s first games, general manager Jason Botterill could still be found negotiating trades and making waiver claims to solidify the 23-man submission. The team in Rochester has benefited, too. There have been hundreds, maybe even thousands of predictions as to how the Sabres’ lines will shake out come Thursday. Only Phil Housley knows the final answersomething he will keep a secret until Thursday night.

Buffalo Sabres head coach Phil Housley
Buffalo Sabres head coach Phil Housley begins his second season with the team on Thursday night against the Bruins (Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports)

However, the official roster out of training camp has now finally boiled to the surface. After much deliberation from fans and experts alike, the list is the one that, pending something unforeseen, includes all Sabres who will dress to battle the Bruins on Thursday. Each player, whether brand new or familiar to the fan base, faces questions and commentary regarding his contribution to the success that the Sabres hope to achieve. A new season, team, and journey to the playoffs have arrived.

Buffalo Sabres Forwards

Jack Eichel, ‘C’

As of Wednesday, Oct. 3, the Sabres have officially named their newest captain, the 19th full-time designation in team history. Kept quiet by the organization but not without incessant speculation as the season drew closer, the question as to whether or not the team would go into Thursday without a ‘C’ has been answered. Few would argue that as Jack goes, the Sabres go. A new era has begun.

The star center, now entering his fourth year in the league and the first of an $80-million contract, will act as a tone-setter for the entire team. Botterill did him a great service by adding former Hurricanes winger Jeff Skinner to his line, but it is ultmately up to Eichel to decide how big of a leap he makes this season. Fans will hold their collective breath between now and Thursday in hopes that the 2018-19 season does not open as it did two years ago. Sincere congratulations go out to this incredibly humble and hard-working young man.

Kyle Okposo, ‘A’

Okposo’s 2017-18 season marked his return from a brain injury at the end of the prior year. His life both on and off the ice was derailed for close to six months by a medical episode that has since been described in great detail. Kyle is lucky to have returned to his previous playing shape, and there should be no shortage of motivation to perform.

The 30-year-old enters the third year of his seven-year contract with a dual responsibility in both the locker room and on the wing. He is one of six roster players in his 30s alongside one of the youngest groups in the league, and he was awarded a letter as an alternate captain on Oct. 3. With abundant talent around him, the Sabres will need his 50-60 point production and a strong presence in the room. Kyle is capable of both.

Jeff Skinner

Skinner waived his no-trade clause in Carolina to join the Sabres. The Markham, Ontario native grew up just two hours from Buffalo and is entering the final year of a $34-million contract. A change of scenery and motivation for a new deal may be just what No. 53 needs to exceed all expectations.

Playing on Eichel’s wing with Reinhart on the opposite side is the best first line that the Sabres have generated in years. None of the three players has tallied more than 64 points in a single NHL season. On a team that failed to break the 200 goal mark in 2017-18, this trio will look to lead the scoring charge. A best-case scenario is that Skinner, Eichel, and Reinhart will combine for over 200 points. Skinner has a chance for a career year entering his prime in search of a new contract and sizeable raise.

Jason Pominville

Pominville turns 36 next month. The winger returned for his second tour with the Sabres last season by playing in all 82 games, contributing 16 goals and 34 points. Similar to Okposo, the young forward core will look to No. 29 for a strong presence on the bench and in the locker room.

Jason Pominville
Jason Pominville is the oldest player on the Sabres roster to begin 2018-19 (Andy Martin Jr.)

Regardless of a letter missing from the front of his jerseys, “Pommers” has a dual role to play. Botterill wants to squeeze as much out of the durable winger and his $5.6-million contract as possible. Likewise, Pominville enters UFA status at the end of the year, hoping to sign what could be his final ticket. Will it be with Buffalo? Sabres fans are going to see “The Mayor of Pominville” give everything that he has to the city and team in 2018-19.

Patrik Berglund

Berglund is well aware of the influx of Swedish talent that has entered the NHL in recent years. The big-bodied forward was one of those import players 12 years ago, a former first-round selection by the St. Louis Blues. Botterill saw the benefit of surrounding the handful of young Swedish players on the Sabres roster and lurking within the pipeline with a fellow countryman with a decade of NHL experience.

Included as one of the players in the Ryan O’Reilly trade, he carries a salary of $3.8 million until after the 2021-22 season. His seasoning and leadership as an international player will serve the team well as the up-and-coming imports learn how to succeed in the NHL. The Sabres hope that in addition to his mentoring, he can contribute the 15-20 goals that St. Louis was accustomed to seeing.

Sam Reinhart

A bridge contract is bittersweet. The job security of a long-term deal offers peace of mind and eliminates the distraction of another negotiation period just a few years down the line. The bridge deal that Reinhart signed in September provided a nice raise for the soon-to-be 23-year-old winger, but also comes with a mission: produce and prove your true worth. How badly does he want to come to the table in a few years with two 30-plus goal seasons under his belt? How much will he step into the mix as a leader?

Sam Reinhart Sabres
Sam Reinhart has much to prove for the Buffalo Sabres this season. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

There is no doubt that Reinhart is an immensely talented hockey player. Likewise, it is expected that he will play with two of the premier young talents in Eichel and Skinner. Botterill has set the stage for young Samson to take that next step and show that the player who tallied 25 points in the second half of last season can sustain production for a full 82 – and then some.

Vladimir Sobotka

Blockbuster trades often include players to sweeten the deal for either side. When Sobotka came to Buffalo via the Ryan O’Reilly trade, the St. Louis Blues received one player (with his $7.5-million salary) and the Sabres welcomed a slew of veterans, a prospect, and futures. One of those veterans was Sobotka, a 31-year-old journeyman who has played with the Boston Bruins, St. Louis Blues, Avangard Omsk (KHL), and internationally as a member of the Czech Republic since entering the league in 2007-08.

The 5-foot-10 forward carries with him a $3.5-million salary for the next two seasons, something that Blues GM Doug Armstrong needed to get off of his payroll in order to sign ROR. He is coming off of arguably his best season as a pro, playing in 81 games and adding 31 points. Sobotka’s toughness will serve him well on the penalty kill, and as a member of the “30-and-older” club, his voice in the locker room will help to guide the young core.

Conor Sheary

Botterill knows Conor Sheary very well. The two-time Stanley Cup champion arrived in Buffalo via trade to bolster the top-six forward lines. He also brings to the locker room an injection of grit that only comes with playoff experience. The 26-year-old had missed the majority of the preseason due to injury but is not expected to be kept out of the lineup come regular season play on Thursday.

Sheary already has 57 NHL playoff games under his belt. Though he is a newcomer, the Winchester, MA native and former UMass (Amherst) captain will demonstrate a different type of leadership. He was in the same position just a few years ago, learning from steely veterans, as many of the Sabres’ young players are in now.

Conor Sheary
Conor Sheary (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

The winger is extremely fortunate to already have his name etched on Lord Stanley’s Cup twice, and he knows that those experiences do not come cheap. As the season progresses and the Sabres venture closer to a playoff position, Sheary’s voice and level of play will help dictate how the rest of the team responds.

Zemgus Girgensons

Girgensons has been with the Sabres organization since 2012. He was drafted 14th overall, just two selections after former Sabre Mikhail Grigorenko, and has now endured five difficult seasons with the club. This is the final year of the bridge deal that he signed in 2016. While his ceiling as a first-rounder has not reached as high as some would have hoped, the 24-year-old is out to prove that he is worthy of playing significant minutes in the NHL.

It was unclear whether or not he would make the final roster out of camp, especially after Botterill claimed Remi Elie off waivers from the Dallas Stars. The young, grinding, bottom-six forwards are an important part of the overall makeup of a successful team, and both Zemgus and Remi fit that mold. The competition established in training camp continues into the regular season, and it is yet to be seen who will get more ice time. How will Zemgus respond?

Tage Thompson

The St. Louis Blues have a very talented prospect pipeline that includes the likes of Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas. Any team involved in a trade with Blues GM Doug Armstrong often tests the waters to see just how untouchable those players are. Botterill was unable to acquire a name from the very top of the Blues’ prospect list, but in addition to draft picks and veterans, the Blues did part ways with former 2016 first-round selection Tage Thompson. The 6-foot-5 forward, who turns 21 at the end of October, sees a clearer path to the NHL with Buffalo than what he experienced in St Louis.

Related: Thompson is Ready for the Sabres Roster

He needed to have a strong camp to sway the Sabres’ management not to send him down to Rochester for additional seasoning. And that is exactly what he did. Fans are still watching the preseason highlight goal against Toronto, and it is clear that given this opportunity to shine, he has risen to the occasion. How will it translate to the regular season? Thompson played 41 games with the Blues in 2017-18. With a full schedule looming ahead, is Thompson ready to contribute consistently?

Casey Mittelstadt

Welcome to the show, kid. After a six-game, five-point cup of coffee at the end of a long 2017-18 season, the 2017 first-rounder entered his first NHL training camp with expectations to make the team. A top-six center vacancy emerged with the exodus of Ryan O’Reilly, and many penciled the talented 19-year-old in as his replacement.

Sabres center Casey Mittelstadt
Sabres rookie center Casey Mittelstadt has made the pro team out of his first training camp (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

The optimism surrounding the young American is not something to gloss over, but his development will take time. Mittelstadt has relied on his finesse and stick-handling to accompany speed and a high hockey IQ. In all likelihood, those skills will translate to the NHL level, but not without a significant string of games with the Sabres first.

The idea of watching both Rasmus Dahlin and Casey Mittelstadt grow into high-caliber Sabres players in the years to come is exciting. The biggest question for Mittelstadt as he mixes in the top-six, facing some of the best hockey talent in the world night after night, is how quickly will he adjust? The Edina, MN native enters the league with an abundance of confidence, and now the reality of full-time NHL hockey begins Thursday night. Many eyes will focus on No. 37 to see how this progression takes shape.

Remi Elie

Life can change very quickly. One day the Stars are deciding which part of Texas one of their young forwards will reside in, and the next he is moving to Western New York.  That is the reality for Remi Elie, and a stark example of how the business of hockey is conducted. The 23-year-old former second-round pick from Green Valley, Ontario grew up closer to Montreal than Toronto or Buffalo. His journey to the NHL began in Dallas (and Austin) but now continues in Buffalo.

Remi Elie Buffalo Sabres
Remi Elie, formerly of the Dallas Stars, was acquired through waivers by the Buffalo Sabres on Oct. 2, 2018. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It has become clear that Botterill will create both depth and competition throughout the Sabres’ and Americans’ rosters throughout the season. Claiming Elie on the day that final rosters were due makes a statement that the best players available are going to help the organization rise to prominence. Perhaps a change of scenery and a chance to contribute at the NHL level is just what Elie needs, but the real question becomes how will those bottom-six players with the Sabres, or the Americans who were sent down recently, react to this acquisition?

Evan Rodrigues

Oh, what a year it may be for Evan Rodrigues. Training camp was not easy for any of the Sabres mainstays, prospects or bubble players. Evan made the cut. In the final year of a two-year deal, the 25-year-old who has bounced between the Sabres and Americans since 2015 will contribute bottom-six minutes this season. If ever a year to achieve double-digit goals at the NHL level, this is it.

The speedy and versatile winger will not be expected to skate with the top lines as was speculated before Botterill brought in Skinner and Sheary, but his production while on the ice is still just as important. Along with scoring 10-plus goals, Rodrigues could stand to improve his two-way game and post a positive plus-minus this season. The Sabres’ overall success is strengthened by consistently productive minutes from role players like Rodrigues. Keep an eye on blocked shots, penalty minutes, and other less attractive statistics if his point total does not continue to climb.

Buffalo Sabres Defense

Rasmus Ristolainen

Ristolainen spent the majority of his offseason in Finland getting stronger. The young defenseman is entering the third year of a $32-million contract signed in 2016 and is expected to log top-pair minutes this season. He has contributed 127 points in 234 games the last three years, a model of consistency on a blue line that has seen its struggles to stay healthy and productive.

With help from a particular high draft pick and a familiar group of teammates returning in 2018-19, what version of Ristolainen will Sabres fans see this year? How much leadership on and off the ice will he display when adversity strikes? Will his career high 45 points be eclipsed, in addition to showing improvement in the defensive zone? It has not been easy enduring a rebuild year-after-year, but the future is now. The skillful Ristolainen is as important to this team as any other player, and his drive to compete should be on display each night beginning Thursday in Buffalo.

Zach Bogosian, ‘A’

It is no secret that the now 28-year-old defenseman has had a hard time staying healthy since joining the Sabres in 2015. He has played in a total of 159 games over parts of four seasons, contributing only 43 points. The song remains the same before the team enters 2018-19, as he is ‘iffy’ for Thursday’s season opener due to a lower-body injury suffered in a preseason game. He spent most of the summer rehabilitating his hip after having surgery to repair a nagging injury.

No. 47 has two years left on a $36-million contract, and so fans can expect to see him in the lineup when healthy. Similar to Ristolainen, enduring a rebuild is not easy, but there is hope in a new season with improvement on all fronts. His presence in the locker room is something to take into consideration as well. In a few years, how will we remember Bogosian and his time with the team? He has the opportunity to step into an expanded leadership role, but that is only if he can stay healthy enough to remain on the ice.

Marco Scandella

An argument could be made that Scandella was the Sabres’ unsung hero of 2017-18. After arriving in Buffalo from Minnesota via trade last summer, the 28-year-old defenseman did not miss a game this past season. His 22 points were one off of a career high. He was a reliable top-pair player who will look to improve upon that performance in 2018-19.

Marco Scandella Sabres
Marco Scandella looks to improve on a strong first season with the Buffalo Sabres. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

No matter which Rasmus he is paired with as the weeks go by, the established two-way veteran will act a tone-setter both on the blue-line and in the locker room. He has earned every penny of that $4-million contract, often called the best player in the deal that brought him over from the Wild. After holding players accountable last year for a lack of team pride, how will his voice affect this new group?

Nathan Beaulieu

Beaulieu left much to be desired in his first season with the team. The 25-year-old former first-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens contributed just nine points in 59 games. Now entering a contract year, the Stratford, Ontario native has a choice to make. Botterill brought him in to push the pace of play and feed his speedy forwards through the neutral zone. He will need to endure that role consistently and do what is necessary to diminish his reputation as a defensive liability.

“There were some highs, there were some lows, but the biggest thing was to figure out what I was doing wrong and really let it soak in so it doesn’t happen again,” Beaulieu said. “We had a long offseason, I took a couple of weeks to let it go through my mind and see where everything went wrong. You don’t really know how big of a funk you were really in until you get out of it. It was a good stepping stone for me, and I believe as a person and as my career goes on, I feel that was going to be good for me.” (from, courtesy of WGR550, Sept. 16, 2018)

Perhaps having a second year under Phil Housley’s defensive system will be a boon for production in either zone, but one thing is for certain that the speedy Beaulieu will need to minimize mistakes. He has a bounty of weapons and outlets with him on the ice, and a general manager who is helping decide his fate after this season. Which No. 82 will take the ice beginning Thursday?

Rasmus Dahlin

The hype surrounding this year’s No. 1 overall pick is real. Sabres fans, having watched their team come up short in the draft lottery for first overall both in 2014 and 2015, surely expected the same outcome this year. But instead, the card drew crossed swords and a collective fan base rejoiced at the thought of welcoming Rasmus Dahlin to Buffalo.

Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin
Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin will play in his first NHL game on Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018 (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

Flash forward five months and, as expected, he has made the opening night roster. Demonstrating his characteristic humility, the 18-year-old Swedish phenom denied his place on the team until it was official, but it was all but certain that he would help the Sabres battle Boston to open the season. Now that the preseason has passed injury-free, the question becomes simply how will Dahlin perform when facing NHL-level talent?

The longest season he has endured was last year, appearing in 41 SHL games. The Sabres will play their 41st game on Jan. 3, 2019 against Florida. There is no doubt that Dahlin is an incredibly gifted and ultra-competitive athlete who will stay in shape year-round, but the toll that 80-100 NHL games has on a teenager’s body can be grueling. No. 26 is somewhat of a wild card for the Sabres this season. Fans could bear witness to a slow start, or a high-level never before witnessed right out of the gate. The fun starts Oct. 4.

Casey Nelson

Casey Nelson signed a two-year, $1.625-million contract with the Sabres last spring. He entered camp motivated to impress coaches and management, ultimately playing his way onto the Sabres’ final roster with a stellar preseason. Appearing in four games, the 26-year-old contributed two goals and an assist with a plus-2 rating. A small sample size as compared to what he will endure in the regular season, but it was enough for Botterill to keep him in Buffalo.

Sabres defenseman Casey Nelson
Sabres defenseman Casey Nelson has made the final roster out of training camp. (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

And though he will see bottom-pair minutes to start, will Nelson be ready to step into a full-time role when injuries occur? Players like Brendan Guhle are sitting by the phone waiting for that call-up. No. 8 better bring everything he has to both practice and games if he wants to hold onto his position with the team. That is the type of competition and outcome that Botterill and Housley both have in mind. Congratulations to Nelson on making the team.

Jake McCabe

Jake McCabe is another player on the Sabres’ 2018-19 roster who is playing for a new contract. It is also suspected that he will be paired with Rasmus Dahlin to begin the season. The combination of those two factorsthe motivation to earn a raise and decreased pressure with ample skill on the other side of the blue linecould equal a big year for no. 19. His floor is low, there is no denying that, as the soon-to-be 25-year-old registered only 12 points last year and 14 two seasons ago, but those statistics are in the past.

This season is a chance for him to show that he is worthy of a top-four defensive salary. He is capable of logging the TOI and production that players of that caliber typically contribute. McCabe is a player that fans should keep a close eye on in the team’s first 10-15 games. It is anyone’s guess as to how the team will perform as a unit and what their record will be in the first few months of the season. But McCabe, a player with much to prove who has been a part of the organization since 2012, can help steer that direction with every shift.

Related: Sabres Sleepers for 2018-19 Season

Buffalo Sabres Goaltenders

Carter Hutton & Linus Ullmark

At long last, the time has come for the 32-year-old Hutton to take the reins as a team’s starting goalie. The Sabres signed the free agent on July 1 after spending two years in St. Louis and three in Nashville. The journeyman backup is coming off a career year in which he finished with a .931 save percentage and 2.09 goals against average in 32 games.

Linus Ullmark Sabres
Linus Ullmark will serve as backup to Carter Hutton to open the season, but there will still be ample opportunity to contribute in 2018-19 (Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports)

The Sabres’ goalie woes have been ongoing since Ryan Miller was traded to St. Louis in 2014. Might this finally be a reprieve? Could an improved forward and defensive roster be strengthened by reliable goaltending? Hutton was brought in not only to repeat his 2017-18 season but also to provide another veteran voice in the locker room. The “30-somethings” group on the Sabres’ roster was carefully curated to compete at a high level while bringing the young core along in their development.

Hutton’s backup and goalie partner in Buffalo is one of those players who has come a long way since joining the organization in 2012. Ullmark is in a contract year, and so it behooves him to take advantage of every opportunity that he has to contribute when Hutton gets the night off. It is realistic to believe that Ullmark will one day get his own opportunity as a team’s starter, and this year is a big step to that end.

The 2018-19 Buffalo Sabres begin their regular season journey against the Boston Bruins on Oct. 4, 2018. The latest questions surrounding each player, the team, and organization as a whole will be answered in due time. No one has a crystal ball, but it is realistic to see this team competing for a playoff spot come 2019. It will not be easy, nor should it, and a complete team effort is necessary to rise up through the ranks in one of the toughest divisions. Botterill and Housley have worked tirelessly to get to this point. The players are prepared to begin a new era of Sabres hockey.