As the roster currently stands, the Buffalo Sabres have nine NHL defensemen under contract for the 2018-19 season. While this isn’t necessarily a “bad problem” to have, Jason Botterill could still be looking to add talent to a group that was one of the worst in the league last season.
He started the defensive revitalization process last weekend when he selected Rasmus Dahlin with the first overall pick in the NHL draft. On Wednesday, the second-year GM acquired defenseman Matt Hunwick in a deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins that also included left winger Conor Sheary.
It remains to be seen just how many of these blueliners are still Sabres property come October, but with so many bodies and only six starting spots, fans have begun to prognosticate what the opening night depth chart might look like.
The Starting Six
While the organization does have an excess of fringe-level depth defensemen, the starting six are pretty easy to sort out.
It goes without saying that Dahlin will likely start on the Sabres’ top pairing right out of the gate. As the top-rated defensive prospect to come out of the draft in the last decade, the Swedish phenom has single-handedly altered the complexion of the back-end in Buffalo. As a left-shot, he could very well end up paired with stalwart Rasmus Ristolainen when the Sabres open the 2018-19 campaign.
Speaking of Ristolainen, barring an unexpected trade (one that would need to favor the Sabres in a big way for them to even consider) he will be back, eating big minutes at the top of the lineup. Over the past three seasons, only Victor Hedman and Ryan Suter have logged more minutes than the 23-year-old. The hope among fans is that Dahlin’s arrival will help reduce Ristolainen’s playing time.
Though he is certainly a talented top-four defender, his workload is excessive and representative of an elite talent. In order to maximize his outstanding skill set, Phil Housley needs to find a way to take some of the responsibility off of his shoulders.
Moving down the depth chart, veteran Marco Scandella is another player who can be considered a near shoo-in as a top-four contributor. The defensively responsible veteran will serve as a crucial two-way presence on a roster that will include a legion of youngsters. After spending most of last season serving beside Ristolainen on the Sabres’ top-pairing (a role for which he was ill-suited), his performance should improve with reduced minutes.
Last year, Brendan Guhle’s late-season call-up resulted in a permanent role with the team where he appeared in the final 16 games for the blue-and-gold. As the undisputed top blueliner on the Rochester Amerks last season, the 20-year-old will likely start his NHL permanence on the third-pairing beside his defensive partner in the AHL (and at times, the NHL), Casey Nelson.
Toward the end of the 1015-16 season, former GM Tim Murray signed Nelson to an entry-level deal following the conclusion of his collegiate year. After spending the majority of the past two seasons in Rochester, the 25-year-old showed that he is ready for a full-time role in the NHL. In April, Botterill indicated that he would ideally like to see Nelson and Guhle stay together on the third pairing in 2018-19.
Here’s where things get a little less clear. With one slot in the starting six unaccounted for, there are several options to fill the role. Jake McCabe stands out at the moment as the odds-on favorite. While the 2017-18 campaign wasn’t exactly a banner year for the 24-year-old, he is still worthy of a starting gig at the NHL level. With a very manageable cap hit of $1.6 million next season, he is certainly an appealing trade candidate to help loosen the logjam.
On the Fringe
Three players with one-way deals who will also contend for playing time are Zach Bogosian, Nathan Beaulieu and the recently acquired Hunwick.
Bogosian stands out as the most prohibitive and concerning member of the Sabres’ blue line. It came as a surprise to some that Botterill didn’t elect to buy-out the 27-year-old earlier this month. With a cap hit of just over $5.1 million for two more years, his contract will be next to impossible to move, especially when you consider the fact that he’s missed 92 games due to injury over the past two seasons.
As one of the key components in a trade that brought Evander Kane to Buffalo in 2015, the organization has yet to see a return on its investment.
After being acquired last summer in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens, Beaulieu was one of the worst players on the backend in Buffalo last season. Lauded as a puck-moving offensive contributor, his nine points in 59 games paired with a plus/minus of minus-19 made for a disastrous campaign.
Fortunately, the Sabres are only stuck with his $2.4-million cap hit for one more season. As it stands, there is a very real chance the team will try to waive him in hope that another organization wants to take a chance on maximizing his first-round pedigree.
Rounding out the list is Hunwick, a player who fans in Pittsburgh were happy to be rid of this week. While the deal between the Sabres and Penguins centered around the acquisition of Sheary to help bolster the weakest group of left-wingers in the league, Hunwick’s inclusion as a cap dump is still somewhat intriguing.
In 42 games last season, the 33-year-old posted 10 points while serving as the Penguins’ seventh defenseman. As a team with $23 million in cap space leading up to the trade, the Sabres were happy to absorb his salary of $2.25 million if it meant getting Sheary.
A buyout is certainly still an option here as Buffalo has yet to initiate one this summer. If Botterill does manage to package someone else as part of a deal to relieve his over-capacity blue line, Hunwick could still remain with the club as a depth player for when the inevitable injury bug strikes in Western New York.
In the System
On top of a crowded group at the NHL level, the Sabres have turned an organizational weakness into a strength in just a few weeks time. At the NHL Draft last week, Buffalo spent five of their six selections on defensemen. On top of Dahlin, they also added Swedish blueliners Linus Lindstrand-Cornholm (117th overall), William Worge-Kreu (187th overall) and an American of Swedish descent in Mattias Samuelsson (32nd overall).
Prior to the draft, the only high-potential defensive prospects in the Sabres system were collegiate star and Olympian, Will Borgen and the newly-acquired Lawrence Pilut, a Swedish transfer from the SHL.
Pilut is an especially intriguing player who will likely start the season with the Amerks, but could see NHL action very early on. As the SHL’s Most Outstanding Defenseman award winner last season, the 22-year-old will get his first taste of North American hockey this year. In 52 games as a member of HV71, he posted 38 points, leading all defensemen in that category.
— Matthew Bové (@Matt_Bove) June 28, 2018
When asked why he chose Buffalo during an interview at the Sabres’ annual prospects camp this week, Pilut commented on the organization’s early effort to recruit him in 2017-18.
While winning the draft lottery and having the first overall pick played a monumental role in the turnaround, Botterill has done an excellent job of improving an area that was exceptionally weak from top to bottom throughout the organization. Whether or not he makes additional moves before the start of the season remains to be seen, but the Sabres’ blue line will be in excellent shape, if not right away, within the next two to three years.
Related: Buffalo Sabres 2018 Draft Review