Sabres’ Defensive Depth Tested Early Due to Injury

The Buffalo Sabres are off to a hot start this season, through their first five games they’re 4-1 and have beaten some of the better teams in the NHL. While the results have been strong so far, there is still some concern revolving around how quickly their defense core has thinned out. Henri Jokiharju was injured versus the Calgary Flames, taking a puck to the face in the first period. Mattias Samuelsson was injured against the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday in what looked like a pretty brutal injury, but later was revealed to be better news than they initially anticipated. Having these two players out of the lineup will be a huge test to the overall depth of the Sabres’ blue line, and whether or not they will be able to continue on the hot start they’ve gotten off to.

Sabres’ Current Blueline

The defense still boasts Rasmus Dahlin who is playing at an elite level, along with Owen Power who has shown flashes of his ability after a slow start to the year. After that, Jacob Bryson, Ilya Lyubushkin, and Casey Fitzgerald round out the group of Sabres defensemen who started the season with the team.

Rasmus Dahlin Buffalo Sabres
Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It has been a mixed bag through the first five games of the season for the defense, which is to be expected. With the influx of new talent and new defense pairs, there was always going to be an adjustment period as they got settled in. Losing Samuelsson and Jokiharju for any period of time is going to hurt, but an extended absence could be a major hindrance. 

Samuelsson was very consistent to start the season, and his presence with Dahlin has led to the latter having an increased offensive impact. Samuelsson handles the defensive responsibilities for the pair and has made a seamless transition to playing on the right side. With him out of the lineup, the pairs will have to be shuffled around and there will be a search for Dahlin’s new defense partner. His absence also leaves a big hole on the penalty kill, an area the Sabres have been quite successful in this season so far.

Jokiharju has struggled to start the season, but he was starting to find stable footing on a pair with Power. The big loss with him is taking a right-handed defenseman out of the lineup. They were already playing Samuelsson on the right side, so with the loss of Jokiharju, they are essentially down two righties. This leaves Fitzgerald and Lyubushkin as the two right-handed shot defensemen that are capable of playing in the NHL. They have Oskari Laaksonen playing for the Rochester Americans right now, but he is certainly not ready for any extended NHL action. 

Sabres Recall Lawrence Pilut and Kale Clague 

With these injuries, the Sabres recalled Lawrence Pilut and Kale Clague from Rochester. Pilut is in his second stint with the Sabres after a failed relationship the first time around. He was a fan favorite for the abilities he displayed in limited action the first time around, but it just didn’t seem to work out under the previous administration. Now that he is back with the organization it is an opportunity for both the player and the team to get it right. He is an undersized defenseman who can move the puck and defend at an average level. He is very similar in ability to Jacob Bryson, who has seen a resurgence in his game to start this season. He will have an opportunity to step into the lineup to prove he belongs right away, and he has to be excited about that possibility.

Lawrence Pilut Buffalo Sabres
Lawrence Pilut, Buffalo Sabres (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

Clague comes to the Sabres after stints with the Montreal Canadiens and Los Angeles Kings. He will now step into a situation where he could play at the NHL level again and, similar to Pilut, has a chance to prove he belongs. He likely will not crack the lineup unless they have another injury on their defense, but they signed him to be a solid depth option if needed.

Related: Sabres Surprise Everyone With Samuelsson Extension

The most concerning thing surrounding the injuries they’ve seen so far is how quickly things have thinned out. They are now left with an American Hockey League (AHL) defense core that has played little to no NHL games, and the most likely candidates for their next call-up on defense are Laaksonen or Ethan Prow. Luckily there are some solid options in free agency, or they can target a depth defenseman via trade. Even if they don’t have any further injuries, they still may want to pursue bringing another defenseman to the organization. It would be a shock if they did not have another defensive injury at some point this season, so having more options to turn to would provide some peace of mind for the team.

The Sabres surely knew all seven of their regular defensemen would not be healthy all season, but there is a surprising lack of options within the organization that they can turn to. The defensemen on the roster will now be tasked with bigger roles to fill in for those who are out, something that the players lower in the lineup may not be suited for. This will be a tremendous challenge for them to navigate in the early part of the season. Should another injury occur they may have no choice but to pursue an external candidate to join their blue line for the rest of the season.

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