For the first time in several seasons, the Sabres defense will not be the glaring weakness of the team. The lack of depth caused some major problems with the team over the past few seasons, forcing players on defense to play larger roles than necessary. In addition, there was a lack of organizational depth. There were questions that players in AHL-affiliate Rochester were developing and providing the necessary structure for the NHL team.
With recent signing of Nathan Beaulieu, the Sabres now have a complete compliment of defensemen. Buffalo and Beaulieu avoided salary arbitration by agreeing to a two-year, $4.8 million deal. The team, which struggled with defensive depth over the past few seasons, has now filled any space in the backend.
The Sabres currently have NHL veterans Rasmus Ristolainen, Zach Bogosian, Josh Gorges, Jake McCabe, Justin Falk, Marco Scandella and Beaulieu under contract. They also have Matt Tennyson and Viktor Antipin signed to two-way deals.
Gorges and Falk will be unrestricted free agents after this season, while Antipin will be a restricted free agent next summer.
The team has some factors in determining who will be the defensemen making the roster in October. Ristolainen will continue to be the team’s number one defensemen, even though can be overwhelming for him at times. Scandella was acquired with Jason Pominville last month from Minnesota. He figures to be a top-four, if not top-pair partner with Ristolainen. Jake McCabe, who played the most five-on-five minutes partnered with Ristolainen last year, will most likely hold a top-four blue line slot for the Sabres. McCabe has a familiarity with Phil Housley, as the defensemen played under the coach as part of the gold-medal winning U.S. World Junior team in 2013. McCabe was the captain of the squad.
Veteran Zach Bogosian, although lumbering, can still provide some physical play for the team. His contract is an anchor, making him unappealing for trades. However, he has flashed moments of skill. Gorges and Beaulieu will most likely make up the final starting spots for the defensemen. The Sabres liked Beaulieu enough to trade for his rights and signed him to a new deal. Gorges provides some veteran grit and leadership, although his time in the faster-paced NHL may be coming to a close.
The Final Spot(s)
Falk did an admirable job at filling in last season. He bring some size, but not a plethora of skill nor speed. Falk is able to jump in and play in a wide variety of roles and with a variety of different defensemen. He is valued as a depth defensemen, one who can adapt to a multitude of situations. Falk showed he can play a steady and somewhat reliable defensive game.
Tennyson is new to the roster. He played in 45 NHL games last season with Carolina, which was his career high. The defenseman has spent time in the AHL in each of the past six seasons. He also provides some experience. Tennyson fits in the same way that Falk does for the organization. They both provide some depth to start in short-term bursts.
X Factor: Viktor Antipin
The Sabres signed Viktor Antipin to a one-year contract. This is a low-risk, high-reward type of acquisition. If Antipin does not work out, it’s only for this season. However, many Buffalo fans hope that is not the case.
Antipin fits in with the “New NHL,” one that values puck possession and quick movement from the defense. Antipin has the ability to create chances, which is a positive development since the Sabres lumbered through a lack of offensive production from their blue line. Matt Bove of WKBW Buffalo highlights some information regarding what Sabres fans can expect from Antipin:
His main strengths are his ability to carry the puck up the ice, creating offensive zone chances, but at the same time playing a hustle back game making him a well-rounded two-way defenseman. I would compare him to Nikita Zaitsev in a way, but Antipin has a slightly better defensive and offensive game. Him being a smaller guy doesn’t make an impact on his physical play, he isn’t afraid to throw a hit. One of the rare players that can play in all situations. Lacks a bit of consistency from time to time. Sometimes he takes one too many penalties due to the fact that he gets carried away when it comes to forechecking.
Hopefully, Antipin is able to adapt to the NHL quickly. The Sabres could use someone of his skill set to produce immediately.
X-Factor: Brendan Guhle
The 2015 second-round selection has done well in his brief time at the professional level. Guhle has logged only 12 total AHL games over the past two seasons and three NHL over the past season, but he has been impressive during his time on the ice. He has continued his success from his time in the WHL. Guhle is a steady puck-moving defenseman, who plays a strong two-way game. He played well with and without the puck. He did not seem phased in his short time at the pro-level. Buffalo may start him in Rochester. However, if he lives up to his potential, he will be pushing for a full-time spot sooner than later.
The signings should also help the Sabres’ AHL-affiliate, Rochester Americans. The Americans have struggled over the past few seasons. One of the major causes of their struggles has been the lack of depth on the team. Buffalo pilfered some players who probably could use more time in the AHL. In addition, then-GM Tim Murray dealt several young players. This left a void for the Americans.
With greater depth, Rochester should see more talent in their lineup. In turn, the team will be able to put more players in stronger development roles. A veteran such as Tennyson may act as a mentor to younger players. Casey Nelson, who has seen some time with the Sabres, could benefit from such a veteran aide.
Still Uncertainty at Defense
All 11 of the aforementioned players are primed to see time on the Sabres’ defense corps this year.The Sabres have a good problem–they may have a strong challenge at who will be dressed for their defense on opening night. They have added depth at defense, and while this is a good thing for Buffalo’s fans, the team has also created some interesting questions that must be addressed:
How quickly will Antipin adjust to the North American game?
Will Guhle push a veteran for a roster spot?
Would Antipin settle for Rochester if he is not deemed to be ready yet?
Can the veterans take a step forward and be more consistent?
How will the new defensemen fit in with the club?
How can the secondary defensemen support Ristolainen?
Can Ristolainen be a true number one defensemen?
The answers to these questions will determine if the Sabres will be in the playoff hunt, or if they will be picking in the top-ten in the NHL draft once again.
Justin DiLoro is a Contributing Writer covering the Buffalo Sabres for The Hockey Writers. He also writes for The Bills Wire SMG covering the Buffalo Bills. He is a life-long sports enthusiast, and he looks forward to writing about the Sabres for their post-tank years. Follow him on Twitter: @jdiloro.