If there's one thing you can say about a team in “rebuilding” mode, it's that they offer up some interesting pre-season discussions.
On Thursday night, the Buffalo Sabres' group of future NHL'ers was on display at First Niagara Center for Buffalo's pre-season match-up with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Like most teams, the Sabres' top six is set, but the bottom six and final two defense pairings are still up for grabs, even after two pre-season games. Several of Buffalo's NHL-caliber players will end up on the ice in The Show on opening night, the remainder will land in Rochester.
With that, we look at some of the “bubble” players who could end up with the Amerks:
F Johan Larsson
The young Swedish center is likely headed for Rochester, but that didn't stop him from making a case for himself on Thursday night. Larsson netted a goal by getting down low and tipping in a quality shot from Brayden McNabb. That wasn't the extent of his quality play, though. He flashed some offensive aggressiveness that was lacking at times in the AHL and showed signs that his defensive game can translate against NHL players. Coach Ron Rolston called him the team's best forward. The Sabres have been in need of a two-way player who can take faceoffs and improve possession – if they keep Larsson, he'll do all those things for the bottom six.
"He's strong over the puck, he's got quick hands and on one penalty kill he got down ice and disrupted things...he was on tonight, he was good in the circle - and those are things we're looking for," said coach Ron Rolston.
Where he lands: Rochester – Larsson's offensive skills need work still in order for him to be an all-around, two-way NHL player. His attitude and effort are top notch, so don't expect him to be in the minors for too long.
F Zemgus Girgensons
While he was drafted as a center, Girgensons has been one of the Sabres' best wingers in training camp and in the pre-season. The 19-year-old carried over a tremendous AHL playoff series against Toronto last season into camp, giving fans the idea that his oft-noted work ethic in the off-season was no joke. Girgensons brings intensity and defensive instincts and effort that the Sabres need and he's put a few goals on the board in the pre-season – scoring two against Montreal – hinting that his offensive skills may be better than they were originally billed. The Sabres have a tough decision here because “Z” has forced their hand.
Where he lands: Rochester – The Sabres brought Girgensons along slowly in Rochester last year, starting him off on the fourth line and slowly giving him more responsibility. They could decide to do the same in Buffalo, but it may be for the wiser to let him play a similar role in Rochester to where he projects in the NHL next season or later this year.
F Corey Tropp
Two years ago, the Michigan State product made a strong impression with Sabres fans, bringing energy and toughness to a team that has lacked it over the past few years. He would have been in the NHL last year if not for a knee injury and now the bottom six competition is a little tougher than in 2013. Still, Tropp's tools are fit for the current roster, including an underrated ability to put the puck in the net. His camp and pre-season performances have suggested that he's fully back from his injury.
Where he lands: Buffalo – The Sabres have talked about being tougher to play against and put an emphasis on their future, with Tropp in the lineup, you get the best of both worlds.
F Kevin Porter
Last season, Porter was an AHL All-Star, then played a sound game when he was moved up from the Amerks to the Sabres. He's a defensively skilled bottom six'er who can add a fair amount of 5-on-5 scoring. The Sabres' shortcomings on defense, penalty killing, puck possession and physical/mental toughness gives Porter a niche to fill. The former Hobey Baker winner was Ron Rolston's captain in Rochester and can provide leadership to the younger players in Buffalo like he did with the Amerks.
Where he lands: Buffalo – Porter is a smart player and a bulldog. His presence makes the Sabres better to start the year than having some of the younger guys on the bottom six.
F Brian Flynn
Like Porter, Flynn got a chance to see NHL ice in 2013 and performed well. He's an exceptionally smart player with great footspeed and his puck possession statistics were oustanding in limited time on the bottom six last year. There's enough scoring ability there for him to flex up to a top six fill-in role occasionally and provide PK and defensive ability at even strength.
Where he lands: Rochester – The Sabres seem committed to the idea of having a tougher team than in the past, which probably leaves him in the first-call role.
D Rasmus Ristolainen
The Sabres' first-round draft pick has flashed all the assets that got him taken in the top 10. For a 6-foot-4, 18-year-old, he's exceptionally well coordinated, makes quick decisions, is a plus skater and doesn't panic when pressure is on in his own zone. Against Carolina, he played his worst pre-season game so far, maybe in part because of a strong forecheck by the Hurricanes. But his worst game was still NHL-level overall.
Where he lands: Buffalo - It isn't just Buffalo's focus on the future that puts him in position to stay in The Show, they are a better team with him learning the ropes than they would be with mediocre veterans.
F Joel Armia
Maybe the biggest mystery to Sabres fans, Armia has been playing in a very talented league in Finland over the past two years, which should make his transition easier to the North American pro game. But early on, he hasn't shown the ability to battle with the strong, tough NHL'ers. Armia scored a goal on Thursday on a nifty offensive play, but didn't dominate the puck by any means. On Thursday night, Armia played with Thomas Vanek and Cody Hodgson.
"He played more confidently as the game when on...he was more engaged tonight as opposed to the Columbus game."
Where he lands: Rochester – It's not a knock by any means to say he belongs in Rochester, but he belongs in Rochester. The former first-rounder needs at least half of an AHL season to learn to battle along the walls and work in smaller spaces.
D Brayden McNabb
A three-point night worked to remind Sabres fans that McNabb is still a promising young defenseman. The 6-foot-5 D-man fired two bombs into the net, showing off his shot that was one of the hardest in the AHL last year. There are still questions about his consistency in the defensive zone and physical play on a night-to-night basis.
"There were other times where I thought he could have shot earlier in the game where he passed off. When he shoots the puck, he's got really good accuracy and he's able to get him through. That's a skill because some guys get them blocked a lot and others find a way to get them through," Rolston said.
Where he lands: Rochester – His strong showing on Thursday night didn't hurt his chances at being one of the first defenseman called up when there are injuries, but it's a crowded defense corps. McNabb will have to perform exceptionally in AHL games to get back into First Niagara Center on a nightly basis.
F Luke Adam
It doesn't seem that long ago, but it was all the way back in October of 2011-12 that Adam was last in the good graces of Sabres management. There were flashes during his AHL time that he might be on a redemption tour, but it never materialized. On Thursday night, he didn't do much to change minds, as he struggled early and saw limited ice time.
Where he'll land: Rochester – Basically, he'll have to light the AHL on fire to see significant NHL time this season
D Chad Ruhwedel
After signing with the Sabres late in the season, the undersized D-man provided quality depth down the stretch. He's got quick feet and is very bright.
Where he'll land: Rochester – As an NCAA player, he doesn't have much more room to grow before reaching his ceiling. What you see is what you get, and what you've got is a sound seventh D-man or AHL/NHL flex player. And every team needs reliable players like that.
- Mikhail Grigorenko made little-to-no impact on the game. If there were ever a player who needed AHL time, it's him. Unfortunately, the rules don't allow it.
- Nikita Zadorov looked better than expected in terms of his puck-moving and skating skills. He's destined for juniors this year, but there was a lot to like Thursday while he was paired with Tyler Myers.
- Colton Gillies saw very little ice time, only 7:32.
- Mark Pysyk was +4. His position isn't in question. He's a Sabre