The defensive corps of the Buffalo Sabres underwent a radical transformation over the summer of 2021. Their longtime top pairing of Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe departed via trade and free agency, respectively, forcing the team into a redesign. One of the first moves it made was bringing back an old friend by signing Mark Pysyk to a one-year deal.
A Sabre from 2010 to 2016, Pysyk is far from a Norris Trophy candidate, but he was a welcomed veteran addition to a team that suddenly lacked in that department. The hope was that he could help bring an end to the Sabres’ defensive woes as well as provide leadership, and he delivered in both departments.
A Familiar Face to Sabres Fans
After being taken 23rd overall by the Sabres in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, Pysyk played parts of four seasons for the club and had a few memorable moments, including the infamous “butt goal” that was arguably the highlight of Buffalo’s dismal 2013-14 campaign. Though his potential was high (albeit unproven), then-general manager Tim Murray saw fit to trade him to Florida Panthers in the summer of 2016 for Dmitri Kulikov, an ill-advised move that aged very poorly.
In what turned out to be one of many disastrous trades made by Murray, Kulikov spent a single, highly disappointing year with the Sabres, while Pysyk blossomed in Florida and turned in four solid seasons with the Panthers. He moved on to the Dallas Stars for the COVID-shortened 2021 season but struggled and was not re-signed, opening the door for his Buffalo homecoming. After donning uniform No. 3 during his original tenure, he switched to no. 13 upon returning to the blue and gold.
Pysyk Quietly Had Strong Season
Signing the 29-year-old, if nothing else, was reassuring for Sabres fans, as they knew exactly what to expect from him. Pysyk has never been a flashy offensive contributor, but his defensive capabilities have always been very good, and that was exactly what the Sabres needed. McCabe was the team’s only viable defensive defenseman, and his departure created a big void in the lineup. Bringing back Pysyk, who embodies the same style, filled that hole and allowed youngsters like Rasmus Dahlin and Henri Jokiharju to continue their progressions.
The Sabres dealt with a logjam on defense this season that affected every blueliner on the team. Players were constantly shuffled in and out of the lineup as head coach Don Granato attempted to find the best top-six possible. Pysyk was one of the very few who didn’t seem affected by this, as he managed to have a strong season yet fly under the radar. The Edmonton native suited up for 68 games, posting three goals and nine assists alongside a minus-4 rating that was best on the team amongst defensemen that played at least 50 games. He also reduced his penalty minutes, taking only 16 (the first time he’d taken less than 20 in a season since his first with the Panthers).
Pysyk also emerged as a leader on the Sabres this season, as evidenced by Granato naming him an alternate captain when Kyle Okposo was injured. He became a mentor to the team’s many young defenders and played well with everyone he was paired with. Granato shifted his focus to the younger defensemen towards the end of the season, and Pysyk sometimes found himself on the outside looking in as a result. But he handled it in stride, knowing it was what was best for the team. That type of selflessness doesn’t come around often.
Sabres Should Absolutely Re-Sign Pysyk
When the Sabres traded him in 2016, Pysyk was a still-young player trying to prove he belonged in the NHL. He returned five years later as an established veteran that had an immediate positive impact on his team and provided a stabilizing presence. With a host of young defensemen returning next season, the Sabres would be making an enormous mistake by not having him return as well.
Dahlin, Jokiharju, Owen Power, Casey Fitzgerald, Jacob Bryson and Mattias Samuelson all figure to be on Buffalo’s opening night roster in the fall. The one commonality between them all is that Pysyk is the one they look to for poise and guidance. With him on board as well, Buffalo has the makings of a very good top-six that could perhaps help the team finally, at long last, return to the postseason.
Pysyk’s Grade for 2021-22: B+
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