With rookie camp opening on Monday it is the right time to take a look at the battles that will be taking place this September. Much of the roster is set and there will probably be few surprises. However there is a chance for upsets and underdogs.
There is a top-6 forward spot up for grabs. There are also 2 defensive spots and 2 bottom-6 forward roles open for competition. It will be an interesting camp for several players in the Sabres’ system.
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The Top-6 Forwards:
Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Tim Connolly and Jason Pominville will make this group without a doubt. Jochen Hecht is also likely to start in this group unless someone has a breakthrough camp. Here are the other players fighting for a spot at the top of the depth chart:
Tyler Ennis: As close to a lock as you can get without actually having one. Ennis was told “Not to get content” by Darcy Regier at last seasons end. But, he was their best player in the postseason last year and was productive late in the season. Ennis is a top-flight prospect and has the mentality and grit to be a fan favorite for years. The only thing holding him back is the depth at the left wing position. If he did grow complacent during the off-season he could fail to make the squad. With his size it really wouldn’t behoove the Sabres to keep him in Buffalo as anything but a top-6 forward. If he did he could be a sleeper for the Calder Trophy this season. Chance of making the team in the Top-6: 95%. Chance of making the team in the Bottom-6: 0%
Drew Stafford: Stafford’s career started strong. The last two years he has not been as advertised. He was supposed to be a big, strong addition to the Roy – Vanek dynamic. He hasn’t done it. Stafford hasn’t created space for them, hasn’t scored consistently and hasn’t defended them on the ice. Stafford has not been a very good player, which is disappointing considering his great potential. Can Stafford regain a spot on the team? Yes, Stafford is a very intelligent young man. He realized he wasn’t good enough last season. You could see him trying to make adjustments in his game, but it’s very hard to change your game mid-season. Look for Stafford to come back tougher, stronger and with a commitment to defensive play. With a good work ethic Stafford could become the player Sabres’ fans have always hoped he can be. If not, this will be his last season in Buffalo. Chance of making the team in the Top-6: 60%. Chance of making the team in the Bottom-6: 25%
Nathan Gerbe: Gerbe is small. He looks like an Ewok. He is also an outstanding hockey player. He has matured as a player since 2008-09 and he showed it by being an asset in the playoffs last year. Gerbe is a sniper and loves to shoot the puck. He is also very quick. The surprising thing about Gerbe is his feistiness. He caused new Sabre Tim Conboy to chase him around HSBC Arena and pummel him into the ice last year. Gerbe has the potential to break onto the team as a pest and work his way into a scoring role. A 4th line of Gerbe-McCormick-Kaleta would be great for energy and would pack some scoring punch. Chance of making the team in the Top-6: 50%. Chance of making the team in the Bottom-6: 60%
Luke Adam: Luke Adam is probably the Sabres’ top prospect that hasn’t suited up in blue & gold yet. Adam is a big player (6’2”) who has the ability to center or left wing. He is a pure goal scorer who can hit and go to the dirty areas. He played for Canada at the World Junior Championship and played a big defensive role. Barring a huge camp he will start in Portland, but could see time in Buffalo sooner rather than later. He is the big player up the middle that the Sabres desperately need. He will need to work on his ability at center this year in Portland to be that player for Buffalo. Chance of making the team in the Top-6: 20%. Chance of making the team in the Bottom-6: 5%
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The real competition for the forward group will come for the 11th-13th forward spots. There are many deserving grinders and a couple of gritty skill guys who could play with the team this season. Here is a summary of some of the players that have a good chance to make the team.
Cody McCormick: The grinder came on strong in the playoffs and earned himself a 1-way contract. But is 3 games an accurate sample size? He has to fight for his spot here with several hard charging veterans coming for it. He is a tough customer and I love the way he will fight for his team. He also won’t back down from anyone, which is huge for a team lacking a true heavyweight. McCormick only need continue his strong play from last year and he will be a starter for this club. Chance of making the team: 80%
Matt Ellis: Ellis surprisingly made the opening night roster last season and played well for Buffalo. Ellis plays every play hard and Lindy Ruff loves him. That is the reason Regier offered him a 2-way deal. My issues with him are his lack of checking (and I mean big hits) and fighting. He also is not a particularly swift on his skates which is an issue considering he has some very good skaters fighting him tooth and nail for a roster spot. As an incumbent he has an inside line to a spot but he could just as easily start they year with the Pirates. Chance of making the team: 50%
Colin Stuart: Stuart is pretty young (28) to be in the twilight of his career. He played a little in his career in Atlanta and was hit and miss. The intriguing part of Stuart is that he actually has a lot of offensive upside. He doesn’t really fight or hit too hard. He is an effective defensive forward. He plays hard and is a great skater; Stuart showed this with a coast-to-coaster against the Sabres a few years ago. I really like this guy and I think the Regier made a great signing to get him. Don’t be surprised to see him in blue & gold this year, even if he starts the year as the 13th forward. Chance of making the team: 40%
Felix Schütz: The German is a defensive specialist. This is a common trend from the very disciplined German hockey system. Like Jochen Hecht he has shown a penchant for scoring in the clutch as he showed at the World Championships this year. He scored against the US in overtime to win the opening goal for Germany. He hasn’t showed much offensive upside, but he could be a reliable 4th line center in the NHL. His non-stop motor will be on display at training camp this year. He has a very outside shot of beating out the other grinders competing for a roster spot, but it isn’t completely unbelievable. He has come on strong in the last few months of last season. Chance of making the team: 5%
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The Sabres have their biggest position battle taking place on the blue line. They have settled on their top-5 defensemen with Tyler Myers, Craig Rivet, Jordan Leopold, Shoane Morrisonn and Steve Montador. They will likely only carry 7 defensemen on their active roster, which leaves 2 spots up for grabs. There are 5 players that have the ability to win one of those spots before the season starts. Let’s take a look at those players:
Andrej Sekera: If you read my Sabres-In-Focus on Sekera you know my feelings on him. (if you didn’t: what’s wrong with you, that’s writing gold!) If Sekera can get it together and play consistently he is everything the Sabres need in a defenseman. Physical, a good skater, a good passer and a blistering shot from the point. If he isn’t on he’s a walking breakaway. If he has learned his lesson Sabres’ fans will be very happy. If he hasn’t he will spend some quality time sitting in the press box as the new Nathan Paetsch. Chance of making the team: 75%
Chris Butler: The second most experienced blue liner looking to keep his job is the third-year man Butler. Butler is a 2-way defender and was very strong in his rookie season. He slumped during his sophomore season as he may have had too many expectations heaped on him. Expected to play on the power-play and make up for Craig Rivet’s shortcomings he got big time minutes to start the season. Initially he was making a positive impact, but eventually inconsistent play got the better of him. Butler could potentially be a very good partner for Tyler Myers or Steve Montador, but if he can’t become more physical and really get his positioning down he will be demoted to Portland before the season begins. Chance of making the team: 65%
Mike Weber: Weber is another type of defenseman the Sabres lack. He is a big rough and tumble, shutdown type of guy. He hits hard and drops the gloves often. Take a look at his fight on youtube during a preseason game; he goes after Rick Nash for crashing into Miller. He was very effective playing with Sekera 3 years ago, but has lost a year due to injury. He is a great character guy and will work his tail off on every play. Coming off an All-Star year in the AHL he will give the other players on this list a run for their money. He is also on a 1-way deal so he would have to clear waivers to be sent down to the AHL. Chance of making the team: 60%
Marc-Andre Gragnani: The power-play quarterback the Sabres need is closer than they think. Gragnani has always been an offensive force, even playing as a winger with the Rochester Americans and getting a call up with the Sabres. Gragnani has also frequently struggled with the defensive aspects of his position. He made huge strides last season, post a plus season and playing top pairing minutes with Weber in Portland. He could make the team as an 8th defenseman/14th forward due to his versatility. The Sabres also have his ideal partner in Shaone Morrisonn. He’s the guy who made Mike Green’s defensive play look respectable. Chance of making the team: 30%
T.J. Brennan: He has all the raw potential to be an incredible defenseman for the Sabres in a few years. He put on a show during the Rookie Camp and had an effective year in Portland last year. He is a great skater, a physical defender, with a good shot and a mean streak. He will be an incredible top-4 defenseman in the near future. The question is: will he continue his outstanding play from rookie camp and make it the very near future? He has some stiff competition but we saw what Tyler Myers did last year so you never know. Chance of making the team: 5%
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While the preseason seems to drag on forever every September it is important to remember just what’s at stake. Many, if not all, of these players deserve a spot on an NHL team. Unfortunately most of them will not be playing on an NHL team come October 8th.
This will be one of the more exciting camps in awhile and the 1st 2 preseason games will be very interesting. Depth is always a really good thing to have. But can too much depth hurt you? The answer is a resounding yes. If you get too confident with certain players and can miss opportunities with others.
The most important part of the Sabres’ front office in the next month will be the talent analysis portion. Pro Scouts and the coaching staff will really need to evaluate and make the right decisions. Money can no longer be an issue, that part of the off-season is over.
It is now about choosing the players that give you the best chance to win. Chemistry will be important. Role players will win over pure skill, the pieces of the puzzle need to be assembled. Hockey season is almost here. I’m excited. But I’m also not overlooking the very important sequence that is about to happen in Upstate New York.