Just three games into the preseason and the Buffalo Sabres appear thin on the blue line. Over the past two contests, the Sabres have lost two members of their top four defensive unit to injury.
Zach Bogosian has a strained groin which has been described as “minor,” but his status remains uncertain. Dmitry Kulikov, who was acquired in an offseason trade with Florida, took an awkward hit from Maple Leafs forward Colin Greening during Friday’s 8-1 loss. Kulikov’s injury is described as a lower back bruise and he appeared to be in a great deal of pain before leaving the ice.
Despite the scary collision, and Kulikov’s absence from practice Saturday morning, Head coach Dan Bylsma did not appear to be too concerned. “He’s got a bruise on his backside” Bylsma said. “At this point in time it’s not more than a bruise.”
Buffalo is also without franchise defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, who has yet to reach a contract agreement with the Sabres as a restricted free agent. Certain media outlets have reported that Ristolainen and the Sabres are “not close” to striking a deal despite the 21-year-old’s appearance at practice this past week.
Tim Murray indicated that Ristolainen’s presence was not an indication that the two sides have reached a deal. “No, unless you ask him that when he got here that he got all lovey-dovey and wants to play for what we want to pay him,” Murray stated.
So where does that leave the Sabres current defensive depth? Cody Franson, Josh Gorges and Jake McCabe all remain healthy, however none of the veteran defenders are best suited for top pairing minutes. Newcomer Taylor Fedun just recently began skating with the team for the first time since being signed as an unrestricted free agent this summer and will need time to acclimate to the Sabres’ system.
Depth defensemen Justin Falk and Erik Burgdoerfer have looked absolutely lost in preseason action, while rookie Brendan Guhle needs more time to develop his pro game before taking on big NHL minutes.
Depending on the severity of Bogosian and Kulikov’s injuries, this could be the ideal time for someone like Casey Nelson to prove he can be an NHL regular after an impressive audition with the big club after being signed late last season out of Minnesota State. Nelson registered four points in seven games to finish last season with the Sabres.
On offense, the team appears to have some depth in Rochester, but depth on the blue line is a different story. With arguably the top three defensemen on the team unavailable, things look bleak. Even if Bogosian and Kulikov are ready for opening night, the defense needs a boost.
Leading up to the preseason there was speculation that Sabres general manager Tim Murray could look to add a top four caliber player on defense. Depth has been a concern both organizationally and amongst fans. While the team did add a bevy of six or seven caliber defensemen in free agency, another reliable veteran player would be a prudent addition to eat up big minutes on the back end.
Hopefully all goes according to plan and Ristolainen, Bogosian and Kulikov all dress on October 13th when the Sabres take on the Montreal Canadiens at the newly-dubbed KeyBank Center, but as of right now the Sabres are in serious trouble on the back end.
After three straight seasons of poor finishes, the franchise needs to show fans that this team is ready to take the next step. Patience will begin to run thin if the Sabres can’t make the jump to postseason discussion. The key to this will be a fast start to build momentum for a playoff run. If the Sabres fail to remain in the playoff conversation by season’s end, pressure will mount on the Sabres front office.