The play of the Buffalo Sabres’ defensive core left something to be desired last season. Outside of Rasmus Ristolainen, the Sabres’ defense struggled to produce offensively. Jake McCabe showed flashes as he continued to develop, however veterans like Cody Franson and Zach Bogosian struggled to contribute on a consistent basis. Ristolainen was also the only blueliner who could be counted on as a reliable power-play option.
Defensively speaking, the team was solid (allowing the third fewest goals in the division), but not spectacular. Nobody really stood out as particularly bad in their own end, but stay-at-home defenders like Josh Gorges and Mark Pysyk didn’t exactly intimidate opposing offenses.
While many of the same players will be back in blue and gold next season, the Sabres did trade for Dmitry Kulikov (of the Florida Panthers). Kulikov will contribute as a physical two-way player, replacing Mark Pysyk, a defensively-responsible defender with no discernable offensive ability.
With the addition of Kulikov and the emergence of young talents like Brendan Guhle and Casey Nelson, the defensive depth chart could look significantly different going into next season. Former rotational depth players like Mike Weber, Carlo Colaiacovo and Chad Ruhwedel are gone, which leaves room for players like Guhle and Nelson to play important minutes when injuries arise.
“Guhle’s an athletic, talented guy that can skate and has some skills. Expectations are high so, you know, it’s hard to say I saw a huge improvement, but he’s getting better in his game. I expect that he’s going to come in here and make a push like he did last year, for sure.” – Tim Murray
As the defensive roster stands right now, Ristolainen, McCabe, Bogosian, Gorges, Kulikov and Franson will all be regulars in the top six. If one of these players were to be traded, which is certainly possible, Casey Nelson would likely take a spot on the third pairing after his impressive debut during the final stretch last season. Brendan Guhle has shown flashes of greatness as well, both in juniors and at development camp, but he will need some time to adjust to the pro game in Rochester.
Tim Murray has not been shy about his desire to obtain another top-four, left side defenseman and the offseason is far from over. It seemed as though every pundit rumored Cam Fowler of the Anaheim Ducks to be a target of Murray’s via trade prior to the draft. The addition of a defenseman of Fowler’s caliber would go a long way in securing the top two thirds of the defense for years to come. Though a trade like this would probably cost either Tyler Ennis or Zemgus Girgensons, as well as a draft pick, it would reap immediate rewards both on the power-play and even strength.
Regardless of whether or not any more moves are made, from a depth standpoint, the Sabres have replaced aging, ineffective veterans with young, up-and-coming players who have shown promising potential. Justin Falk and Taylor Fedun were brought in on one-year, two-way deals to play top four minutes in Rochester and serve in emergency duty if needed with the Sabres. Falk is a mammoth at 6’5” and 215lbs. He plays a physical defensive game, though he is not the fastest skater. Fedun is a bit smaller at 6’0” and 200lbs and is more of a two-way style defenseman. Both can log big minutes and help the young guys develop in Rochester.
If the Sabres hope to push for a playoff spot for the first time since 2011, they will need to be able to rely on their defensive core to produce points and shut down the opposing team’s rush. Though the back end is far from elite, the potential is there for players like McCabe, Nelson and Guhle to contribute sooner rather than later.