We’re only 10 games into this young season and the cracks are beginning to show on the team’s blue line.
But first, let’s start off on a positive note: Rasmus Ristolainen.
The young Finnish defenseman has picked up right where he left off last season, after signing a 6 year $32.5M contract. Through the first eleven games this season, he’s registered eight points (all assists), six of those coming on the power play. His confidence appears to be at an all-time high, as on multiple occasions, he’s attempted coast-to-coast plays. He’s also shown he’s not afraid to go up against teams’ top players on both sides of the puck, often out-muscling players for the puck and laying thunderous hits.
Dmitry Kulikov seems to be gelling well with his new teammates. Despite being pointless through nine games, he’s shown glimpses of what he’s capable of. Outside of the huge hit against Jakub Voracek, which eventually culminated in a Flyers win, he’s done his job well.
Jake McCabe, however, has been a bright spot. The 23 year old continues to show he belongs in the NHL, making a plethora of heads up plays at both ends of the ice. Through the first 11 games, he’s registered three assists and a +2 rating. Since the Sabres 3-1 win over the Jets, his ice time has increased from around 15 minutes per game to 20.
Beyond Ristolainen, Kulikov and McCabe, things start to get shaky.
Zach Bogosian is expected to miss ‘weeks’, after suffering a sprained MCL during the Sabres 2-1 over the Minnesota Wild. As a result, the Sabres have slotted Casey Nelson into the lineup to replace him.
Nelson played in seven games with the Sabres last season, registering four assists. His ability to play both left and ride sides on the blue line allows the Sabres’ coaching staff to mix and match him when it comes to pairings.
Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said, “I think his best games were last year playing for us”. “We see a good skating, smooth guy, a heads-up, good first-pass guy who has a real good offensive hockey instinct and that’s what you saw from him in training camp as well.”
Cody Franson appears to have lost a step. Despite only being aged 29, he’s been beaten to loose pucks numerous times so far, been caught out of position and having a hard time keeping up with opposing wingers. Teammate Josh Gorges hasn’t faired much better either, often getting caught watching the puck as opposed to the play going on around him.
If the Sabres are going to continue to climb out of the early hole they’ve found themselves in, the defensive miscues must become a thing of the past. There are a number of ways the teams coaching staff could go about this.
Line Juggling: This is usually the first point of call. Through the last three games, the starting defensive pairings have remained identical, except for Nelson taking Bogosian’s spot. Throughout most games, coaches will tinker with lines, based on production or if they discover a more favorable matchup. One duo that continues to end up together is that of Cody Franson and Josh Gorges. As a result, oppoosing teams are feasting on their mistakes, which have lead to plenty of scoring oppourtunities. Most recently, Saturday night against Ottawa. This time however, Lehner came up with a huge pad save to bail out Franson.
Trade: General Manager Tim Murray has shown he’s not shy when it comes to moving players and with the rebuild all but over, he knows the expectations for the team are higher than ever. One player in particular who has been linked to the Sabres, is Ducks defenseman, Cam Folwer. His name cropped up time and time again all throughout the offseason and although Ducks GM Bob Murray has said he has no plans to move him, there are very few players in the league who don’t have ‘a price’. Same goes for Jacob Trouba in Winnipeg.
Call ups: This solution is more of a looking to the future idea. As we saw towards the end of last season, the coaches dipped into the pool of talent in Rochester, to see how the younger forwards would cope at the NHL level and whether any of them were ready to make the leap. Depending on how the remainder of this season goes could dictate whether we see any of the ‘future Sabres’ called up and given an audition.
While their job is to help keep the puck out of the net, oddly, the Sabres are the only team in the NHL to not have a goal from a defenseman. There have been many assists, but no one has lit the lamp. “We need to do a better job from our defense of becoming part of that five-man – low to high, getting shots through, finding pucks to the net-front area,” said Coach Dan Bylsma.