While the Buffalo Sabres did not make any huge changes to their roster this offseason, their defense core will have a different look this year. Mattias Samuelsson and Owen Power played in some games last season but will now be with the team full time. They also brought in Ilya Lyubushkin to provide a heavy and tenacious presence on the blue line. They have done a great job of investing into their defense core and this season they are finally going to see some major returns on their investments. But how exactly will they choose to deploy these talented players? We already have some indication of pairs they could turn to based on last season, but the way they have structured this blue line gives them options to layer strong duos throughout their lineup.
Mattias Samuelsson and Rasmus Dahlin
We got a sneak peek of the Rasmus Dahlin and Samuelsson pair towards the end of last season, and they seemed to gel in their limited minutes together. Coupling these two involves moving a left-handed defenseman to the right side, which is definitely a major adjustment that isn’t seen very much league-wide. With the Sabres’ buildup of talent on the left side, this was always going to be a reality and Dahlin is a really strong candidate to do so. He is one of the smoothest skaters both on the team and in the NHL, allowing him to cover up any mistakes made on his off side.
This pair works in the traditional sense of what a defensive duo should be. Samuelsson has blossomed as a defensive defenseman, limiting other teams’ offensive output and providing limited amounts himself. Dahlin is on the verge of becoming one of the league’s best offensive defensemen, and he has only scratched the surface of what he will be able to accomplish. Having Samuelsson worry about the defensive aspects of the game should free Dahlin up to explore his skillset and carry the puck more often. Head coach Don Granato’s system emphasizes having defensemen jump into the play, and pairing Samuelsson with Dahlin theoretically gives the latter the green light to pursue the offensive side of the game more frequently, while having Samuelsson concentrate almost exclusively on defense.
Owen Power and Ilya Lyubushkin
This is essentially a brand new pair for the Sabres, as Owen Power only played in eight games last season, and Lyubushkin was signed during free agency. Power flashed what he will bring to the table with his strong defensive play and ability to transition to and sustain a strong offensive attack. Lyubushkin is a defense-first defenseman who will factor heavily into the team’s penalty-killing units. He also brings a level of physicality and a willingness to block shots to a unit that was lacking in both categories last season.
Combining these two players almost replicates what the Sabres created on their top unit. A highly-touted, high-caliber defenseman who can play all over the ice without hesitation, and a defense-first partner who can shut down the other team’s attack. This also will provide Granato with a strong top-four he can rely on consistently throughout the season. They have done a nice job building their depth on the blue line and they have some exceptional players filling out their top two pairs.
Jacob Bryson and Henri Jokiharju
A line that would be a return to something the Sabres have tried previously, Jacob Bryson and Henri Jokiharju skated in 33 games together last season. Both were in the top three in minutes among Sabres defensemen, and having them play further down the lineup could benefit them significantly. They were likely playing too many minutes as the second and third defensemen, and having them on the bottom pair should give them more favorable matchups on the ice. They still have important roles with the team, but will have significantly fewer responsibilities with lesser minutes. This also gives them a dependable bottom pairing, as both are capable defensemen who have shown that they belong at the NHL level.
The depth the Sabres have built gives them the ability to make a change if they don’t like what they see. First, they brought back Lawrence Pilut who has the ability to step in and play right away if needed. He is only 26 years old and has not even begun to show what he can do in the NHL after being overlooked by previous administrations, and he provides them with an intriguing option to explore in the future.
Casey Fitzgerald is also back with the team after playing over 30 games last season. He will likely factor more with the Rochester Americans, but should the Sabres have a rash of injuries, he is a stable option they can use in a pinch. They also signed Kale Clague, who played most recently for the Montreal Canadiens. He too will likely factor in Rochester but is another solid defenseman they can rely on if needed. Teams run out of defensemen every season because of injury, and Buffalo has put themselves in a strong position with eight or nine defensemen capable of playing in the NHL.
The Sabres’ top six is as impressive of a unit as you are going to find around the NHL. They have invested heavily into this core with two first-overall selections and a second-round pick rounding out their top three. After years of searching, they finally have a stable defense core in place which should lead to a better team overall. They have spent the last few seasons trying to outscore the opposition, but now they actually have the ability to stop the other team’s attack. Combined with what should be a strong offensive unit and improved goaltending, these defensive pairings complete one of the more cohesive teams the Sabres have had in a very long time.
Zach Rohde is a Buffalo Sabres Contributor for THW. Growing up in the Buffalo area during the late 2000s, the Sabres success fueled his passion for hockey. He has written about the Sabres for another site in Buffalo previously, and covered Buffalo Sports for a brief time as a freelance sports assistant for Spectrum News Buffalo before moving to a full time position in general news. Twitter: @ZachRohde