Buffalo - July 30, 2014 - Things look a lot different in Sabreland thanks to a few trades, a buyout here and there, and a few free agent signings. They shouldn’t be much better than last year’s historically awful unit, but they shouldn’t be historically bad once again.
The focus today, though, is the defense thanks to yet another free agent signing on the back end in Andre Benoit. The former Colorado Avalanche defenseman gives head coach Ted Nolan a few more options when trying to figure out who to place where in his top six.
Gone are three starters from last season: Christian Ehrhoff (compliance buyout), Henrik Tallinder (unrestricted free agent) and Jamie McBain (unrestricted free agent). In their stead comes Josh Gorges, Andrej Meszaros and now Benoit. On top of that, there are more than few young studs who could easily make the roster out of camp: Mark Pysyk, Rasmus Ristolainen, Chad Ruhwedel and Nikita Zadorov.
As it stands, there are probably four guarantees on the blue line in terms of starters thanks to either talent, experience, contract or some combination: Tyler Myers (talent/contract), Gorges (talent/experience), Meszaros (experience) and Mike Weber (contract/experience). I’m not math major, but that leaves just two spots on the roster for Benoit and the kids to fill.
Benoit is an interesting candidate. He’s small and not terribly good in his own end, but he has the ability to help a power play and chip in from the point. That could be useful for a team that was one of the worst offensive teams in league history. His defensive liabilities would offset his offensive contributions, so the tank wouldn’t be hurt, and he would provide additional veteran experience to help out all the youth that will be permeating the roster.
In a world where general manager Tim Murray is exclusively looking to make the team better now, he probably pairs up Pysyk and Ristolainen as his second pairing. Both have shown flashes of being difference-makers and some big minutes could help them take a leap forward, but will Murray risk hurting their confidence on a horrendous team? Not only that, but would he risk the tank? My guess is probably not, meaning he’ll likely stash Ristolainen in Rochester (he’s gone on the record stating that he thinks Risto could use another half-year in the AHL for seasoning) and let the big Finn earn huge minutes on the farm.
Zadorov, meanwhile, isn’t a threat to play significant minutes yet, so he’ll likely end up in Junior for another year where he can play big minutes in all situations. With only Pysyk and Ruhwedel threatening for starting spots, look for Pysyk to grab a role in the top four – he proved that he’s here to stay last season. He’ll improve the defense but shouldn’t hurt the tank.
The sixth spot on the defense will likely go to the veteran Benoit, at least to start the season. If (when) he struggles, look for Ruhwedel to slide into his spot from time to time. Ultimately, the Sabres will likely go with seven defensemen if they can and let Ristolainen/Zadorov continue to develop before bringing them in full time next year.
Here’s what your pairings will probably look like come opening night:
This is still going to be one of the worst teams in the league, but at least the defense should be a nice mix of youth, experience, physical play and finesse. Hopefully, they’ll figure out that leading the league in shots against isn’t the best way to play defense.
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