With the Prospects Challenge right around the corner, it’s time for Jason Botterill and company to start figuring out what their opening night line-up is going to look like.
The Sabres started the summer talking about the lack of a second-line center, but there have been significant changes to the forward and defensive cavalry. A lot of fans are wondering what the team is going to do with so many right-handed defensemen and may be getting antsy, but the Sabres do have a significant amount of NHL-ready talent.
Of course, they can’t start eight or more defensemen who have had experience in the league, but having too many guys fighting for a spot is a problem I love having heading into the preseason.
So what are the lines going to look like? It’s tough to tell at this point as it appears that a right-handed defenseman is still going to get traded, but let’s play around with the idea of no trades. What mix of names is going to optimize talent?
Here’s one idea:
BREAKING DOWN THE FORWARDS
The top-line center on this team is easy, but it’s who you surround him with that takes more effort to figure out. We will probably see Jeff Skinner on Jack Eichel’s wing often, but the Sabres have a couple of other options that could allow Buffalo to spread out the scoring.
Victor Olofsson played extremely well in his limited time with the Sabres and showed he can keep up with the captain. A 59.9% Corsi For statistic is phenomenal for your first games in the NHL, albeit only six games. Conor Sheary has shown he can play with the likes of Sidney Crosby, and I think a fresh start with these two linemates can allow his playstyle to flourish. Keep in mind, it’s a contract year for Sheary as well.
The second line is very up in the air at the moment. Marcus Johansson did play center in Washington, not on the top line, but has had success with his ability to possess the puck. Skinner cashed in big and will be expected to reflect this in his stats. His skating is incredible, allowing for space to be opened and scoring opportunities to arise. This is an incredibly important year for Sam Reinhart as he’s in the last year of his bridge deal and is set to become a restricted free agent next July 1st. I expect a lot of responsibility to be given to him in driving his own line away from Eichel. He’s had glimmers of brilliance in his career so far, and I think this year he brings a consistently high level of play.
Middling the third line, I predict Casey Mittelstadt to go up against the second or third defensive pairings and find his space in the NHL. Bumping him up to the second line at the beginning of the year may be a bit too much to ask of the 20-year-old, although by the end of the year we may be pushing for head coach Ralph Krueger to have this happen.
JimmyVesey has trended in the right direction every season in the pros in points and putting him with a center who has a lot of chance-creating potential, he may be able to find his game. Evan Rodrigues has continued to show that he belongs in the league, and with his versatility, should serve a good secondary role for this season.
The fourth line may not look anything like this by the end of the season. As the Amerks roster continues to develop, some of these players are at risk of being healthy scratches. Both Zemgus Girgensons and Johan Larsson signed short-term contracts this offseason and should remain on the fourth line. Kyle Okposo brings a veteran presence as well as a leadership role, but his lack of production could soon have him finding the press box.
As for the defense, I’d like to separate Rasmus Dahlin and Brandon Montour at the start of the season as I believe they both are able to impressively drive the play forward. Assuming he remains in Buffalo, Rasmus Ristolainen’s numbers will hopefully improve with less time in his own zone with an improved team on the ice.
I have Zach Bogosian as the 7th defenseman right now, but that could easily change with a trade. There are so many players ready for the NHL on the back end, it’s almost ridiculous to think a move would not happen, as Marco Scandella didn’t even make my cut here. Although Colin Miller is a right shot, it could be in Krueger’s best interest to put as much talent on the ice as possible, rather than restrict it based on handedness. Ideally, Miller moves over to the right which could happen following a trade.
Krueger appears to be able to mold a team into having characteristics he likes and ones the players respect, and with a more skilled presence, I’m expecting a big jump in the standings.