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A mid-July look at the Buffalo Sabres NHL depth-chart on defense

July 19, 2019, 11:35 AM ET [625 Comments]
Michael Pachla
Buffalo Sabres Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT

Please note the hyphenated word, "mid-July" as it's still early in the off-season and things could change with training camp still two months away. It also should be noted that the Buffalo Sabres traded for Jeff Skinner (CAR) on August 2 which goes to show that trades can happen at any time.

Buffalo's roster for 2019-20 will (must) change. As we saunter through the dog days of summer the Sabres have a full roster if you include the probable signings of three restricted free agents and two defensemen, Zach Bogosian and Lawrence Pilut, eventually coming back from off-season surgery. Bogosian is expected to be back for the start of the season while Pilut will take a little longer and will probably be spending time in Rochester before trekking into his sophomore campaign.

A crowded Sabres d-corps has eight NHL players already signed, another in Jake McCabe who's unsigned and filed for arbitration, and two more in Pilut and recently acquired Henri Jokiharju (CHI,) who played a significant time in the NHL last season. It's a good situation to be in as it's never a bad idea to have an overabundance of NHL-caliber defensemen but it will also force Buffalo to make some decisions.

For the sake of the following exercise we're going to move ahead under the premise that McCabe will re-sign with Buffalo.

Left-handed defensemen

Buffalo's defense begins with 2018 first-overall pick, Rasmus Dahlin. As rookie last season, Dahlin had his struggles in coverage, gauging the speed of the opposition and some general sloppiness but overall he was really impressive. Often times while watching his raw talent, exquisite skating ability and elite vision, we forgot that he was only 18 yrs. old and is only going to get better and better. The great part about having a true No. 2 defenseman is that the Sabres don't need a superstar-caliber player as his d-partner. A quality d-man who knows his role and can play off of Dahlin is all that's really necessary and with the number of right-handed defensemen on the roster right now, it's a matter of finding the right fit.

As we move down the left side there's a pretty significant drop off with two players that are better suited to a third-pairing role. Twenty-nine yr. old Marco Scandella is entering his 10th NHL season and third with the Buffalo Sabres. Things haven't gone as planned since Sabres general manger Jason Botterill made the trade with Minnesota to acquire him. It was one of Botterill's earliest moves as the new Buffalo GM set out to bolster a weak defense. Scandella has had his struggles, especially on the first pairing and the second-pairing could be a real challenge as well. However, scheme and chemistry will be the keys to him being the defensive-minded, mobile puck-mover he was traded for and he still has a lot of value on the penalty kill

Should he re-sign in Buffalo, Jake McCabe will be entering his fifth full NHL season but has had injury problems the last two playing in 112 out of a possible 164 games. It's not surprising as the 25 yr. old plays a rugged, old-school style where he unabashedly lays a body on the opposition. That said, McCabe is defensively sound, pretty good with the puck and can get it up ice and when he's in the offensive zone can find soft spots. McCabe has been used up and down the lineup, mostly in a bottom-four role with dedicated penalty kill responsibilities and is an excellent character guy.

Lawrence Pilut never saw a rush he didn't want to jump into and his first foray into the NHL went swell early on. However, as teams figure a player out it becomes harder for them to be successful and that's what seemed to happen to Pilut. The undrafted free agent from Sweden saw his ice-time cut as time went on and he struggled mightily which included his time in Rochester at seasons' end. Pilut has the skating, the skill and the hockey smarts but needs some time to develop. With the Sabres overstocked with veterans, it wouldn't be surprising to see him with the Amerks well into the season. Should room be made via the trade of a vet on his side of the ice, he'd get the call.

Matt Hunwick is a 34 yr. old veteran defenseman who's in a depth role at the later stages of his career. Where he ends up this season remains to be seen but the steady rear guard who was put into the lineup last season to try and stabilize the back-end could fluctuate between being a reserve in Buffalo and a veteran mentor in Rochester.

Right-handed defensemen

Brandon Montour, who came in a trade with Anaheim in February, only played a handful of games (20) for the Sabres last season but had a significant impact on the eyes of those watching in Sabreland. Montour was a breath of fresh air as his skating, his ability to move the puck and his offensive prowess gave us a reprieve from the drudgery we'd been subjected to. Although he got a lot of work on the top pairing with Dahlin, the duo had their defensive flaws and we're not sure if the overall structure of the team, the schemes they'll be employing and/or the effectiveness of the forwards to play a two-way, five-man-as-a-unit game will allow for that type of dynamic offensive pairing to be successful. That said, Montour is a top-four d-man and an RFA who we should be seeing a lot of in the future.

Rasmus Ristolainen is a 24 yr. old veteran of over 400 NHL games and has been getting hammered from all angles for his play. A lot of it is deserved however one cannot discount his rare combination of attributes (size, speed, skill, snarl,) the situations he's been placed in (top-pairing, big-minute defenseman on poor teams,) and/or the dysfunction of the organization right down to the five head coaches he's played under since hitting the league in 2013. Many in Sabreland wanted him moved for a bag of pucks this season and were willing to drive him to the airport but now they think he can fetch a top-six forward in a trade. Ristolianen's name has been getting a lot of attention in the rumor-mill and if Botterill can land a No. 2 center in a deal that includes Ristolainen, then most agree that it will be a good trade. If Ristolainen is still on the Sabres this fall, it will be interesting to see how fits into an improved defense and how new head coach Ralph Krueger, who's said to be able to tailor his coaching to a player's abilities, uses him in his schemes.

People might be going crazy at the sight of Colin Miller being listed third on the depth chart amongst right-handed defenseman on the Sabres, but it's not far-fetched at all. They'll point to all of his numbers and ride the "new-toy!" wave until they convince themselves he's a top-pairing defenseman. Miller did play in that role last season alongside former Sabres Brayden McNabb for the Vegas Golden Knights, but was moved down the lineup once d-anchor Nate Schmidt returned from his 20-game suspension. After playing reduced minutes Miller also found himself a healthy scratch for the first game of their playoff series against the San Jose Sharks. Miller has mostly been a third-paring d-man throughout his four-year NHL career and perhaps it should also be remembered that the former 5th-round pick (2012, LAK) was left unprotected by the Boston Bruins in the 2017 expansion draft in favor of 29 yr. old Kevan Miller, who was a third-pairing/reserve d-man for Boston. Having said that, he should get an opportunity to play alongside Dahlin on the top-pairing as some point between the start of training camp and opening night and his spot is secure on the right side barring anything weird happening.

Zach Bogosian had off-season surgery and should be back for opening night. Yup, Bogosian once again was sidelined by injury and played in only 65 games for the Sabres this past season which ties him for the most games played since 2010-11. There's a lot to be said for the rugged defenseman who can really skate and has a heckuva a shot. Of course none of that means much if he's not in the lineup. If Ristolainen is gone this off season, Bogo moves up the chart. For now as he's a pending unrestricted free agent at season's end and more than likely he and Buffalo will part ways.

At 21 yrs. old Henri Jokiharju is just getting his feet wet and he got some valuable learning experience playing alongside future Hall of Famer Duncan Keith with the Chicago Blackhawks last season. Lucky for the Sabres that despite him playing well, Chicago felt he was expendable and they traded him for forward Alexander Nylander in a deal that landed the Sabres a probable top-four defenseman for a prospect that more than likely would not have panned out in Buffalo. The cool part with the Sabres this year is that they don't need to rush Jokiharju into the top-six and the fact that he's waivers-exempt means there's a good possibility he'll at least start the season in Rochester. Should the Sabres move on from a pending UFA or two at some point during the season, Jokiharju (and Pilut, who's also waivers-exempt) should be able to move into a roster spot. But until then further development in the AHL might be a very sound route for the youngin.

Unfortunately for Casey Nelson he's remembered more for not doing anything after captain Jack Eichel was plastered to the boards in a questionable way by Colorado defenseman Nikita Zadorov then he is for his solid play as a reserve defenseman. Nelson plays a heady defensive game using positioning and stickwork but also has some nice traits offensively like being able to get his shot through from the point. That's not nearly enough to crack the top-six on defense but having a good reserve d-man at $812K means he has value, if not for Buffalo then for some other team who would probably snatch him up if exposed to waivers.

As mentioned, having Dahlin as the No. 1 means plenty of flexibility up and down the right side. Why do the Sabres have so many RHD at this time? Perhaps finding that d-partner for Dahlin is the reason. There are some variances between Montour, Ristolainen and Miller and as training camp unfolds we'll see what kind of chemistry they can individually drum up with Dahlin.

From there, the structure will eventually include two pending free agents--Scandella and Bogosian--who might be prime trade deadline candidates dependent upon the progress of the left-handed Pilut and the right-handed Jokiharju. And, should Ristolainen be traded, there will be even more movement and opportunity in the top-six.

Players like Pilut and Jokiharju have more skill and are more tailored to the way the NHL is played than players above them on this chart, but at 22 and 21 yrs. old, respectively, they've got a lot to learn and could use some seasoning while the Sabres get their wits about them as a team. They have a new head coach and new scheme so a slower road to the NHL this season isn't such a bad thing.




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