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This is the fourth piece in a series of articles that will evaluate players competing for spots on the Buffalo Sabres opening night lineup. Each article will focus on a particular position. Disclaimer: A Jack Eichel trade could blow up this analysis at any moment.
The departure of Rasmus Ristolainen marked a new version of the right side on defense for the Buffalo Sabres that is a bit thinner in competition than other positions. Whereas at centre and right wing, there are seven players in the running and five players vying for spots on the left wing, only three names come to mind as locks to make the roster on the starboard side of the team’s back end.
Henri Jokiharju, Colin Miller and Mark Pysyk will all make the roster. But the number of minutes those three get will, of course, will be determined out of the gate by the kind of training camp they have. Opportunities for players coming up could push them to play with more of an edge and ebbs and flows of the season, and potential injuries could also spur opportunities for some lesser-known players. That goes for the entire squad in all positions.
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Jokiharju’s Connection With Rasmus Dahlin
Jokiharju played well in the second half of last season, which helped his linemate, Rasmus Dahlin, with a bit of a resurgence and earned him a 3-year contract that he signed this month. Barring any surprises, expect these two to form the Sabres’ top pairing to start the season, with the Finish defender on the right side.
Jokiharju’s eight points in 46 games last year makes for a modest 35 in 153 career NHL games, played with the Sabres and the Chicago Blackhawks. He is a young player playing a tough position. Defenseman are famously late bloomers, and with this year’s Sabres roster, there will be plenty of room to grow into a solid minute-eating role as a puck-moving defender. Expect Rick Jeanneret to describe some more of Joki’s “dipsy doodles” through the neutral zone like those he sprinkled throughout his first season in 2019-20.
The Blackhawks were high on this player before they traded him to the Sabres on July 9, 2019, in exchange for Alex Nylander, and fans have noticed why. With Nylander fighting for a spot, he may not get on a Blackhawks team with tough competition for roles. It’s looking like the Sabres might have won this trade.
Colin Miller Has Something to Prove
Miller ended last season as a scratch, and will start this one with something to prove. For general manager Kevyn Adams, that something might be what he is worth on the open market. He is a pending unrestricted free agent at the end of the year.
Whether or not he will be given the playing time in key minutes is hardly a question. Head coach Don Granato will need to rely on the 28-year-old grinder and his veteran experience, which includes a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2018 with the Vegas Golden Knights. He will play with either new addition Robert Hägg or youngster Jacob Bryson. As I mentioned before, he is under contract for one more year at $3.85 million. Expect 100-plus hits from Miller and just maybe, a new team by the trade deadline.
Pysyk’s Sabres Reunion
Pysyk returns to the team that drafted him 23rd overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. He signed a one-year, $900,000 deal in late July. Last season, the 29-year-old played with the Dallas Stars in a limited role, notching four points through 36 games. The Sabres traded the defender in 2016 to the Florida Panthers to move up in that year’s draft and select Rasmus Asplund. They’ve benefited already from his departure. This year we’ll find out how beneficial his return will be.
Pysyk ranked first with the Stars last year in both generating and limiting shot quality 5-on-5. Looking ahead, he may be a temporary solution to eat up playing minutes while youngsters develop in the AHL with the Rochester Americans. But this opportunity to play a regular role is his to make what he will of it.
Sabres Back End a Strength
While the departures of Ristolainen and Jake McCabe leave big holes on the back end, the defense of the Sabres for 2021-22 will be somewhat of a strength given all the uncertainty upfront. But, as the rebuild progresses, we can expect changes on this side of the bench. Youngsters like Oskari Laaksonen and Casey Fitzgerald could see some audition minutes or fill in for an injury now and then, but the three players mentioned here will play the bulk of the minutes on the right side.
Mike Carter is a freelance writer and contributor for the Buffalo Sabres with The Hockey Writers and NHLTradeRumors.Me He is @mikecarterlives on Twitter. Mike has been writing professionally since 2012, with stints as a reporter in northern British Columbia and Edmonton, Alberta. He now calls Salmon Arm, B.C. home.