Nine thousand fans for a July scrimmage? And is that even surprising?
I've been saying lately that my enthusiasm for the youngest, newest Sabres is stronger than usual, even perhaps stronger than ever, and last night's crowd shows I am not alone in that. What a joy it must have been for those young guys to skate out to that turnout and play in front of it.
As I get older my interest in how teams are built grows, and my interest in watching games wanes. Games are a little bit of "I've seen it all before." Roster construction is never the same thing twice. I'd much rather play fantasy sports, where this is all you do, than play sports.
Forecasting a Sabres roster for the end of the tunnel in a year or two provides two interesting challenges: the team's length in talent should cause a higher standard than in other years for making the team, and that hockey teams don't tend to be built by a mere ranking of the organization's most talented people.
Let's jump ahead two years. Who should be on the team?
Looking at the forwards: Sam Reinhart for sure. 2015's #1 pick also for sure. Four players are already signed (Moulson, Hodgson, Gionta, McCormick), and that's with Tyler Ennis yet to make a deal. Zemgus Girgensons is a sure thing. After that, I have prospects (Grigorenko, Armia, Larsson, Lemieux, Carrier), I have "holdovers" (Foligno, Flynn), I have free-agents who can be almost anybody ... and I have for all of this 12 uniforms to give out.
On defense roster room may be even tighter: Ristolainen, Zadorov, Myers, Gorges and Pysyk are all either signed players or high-ranking prospects. I have Jake McCabe, Chad Ruhwedel and perhaps even Mike Weber to consider, plus any veteran-types that I go grab because I'm about to be good (e.g., Teppo Numminen a decade ago). There are six uniforms to go around.
I don't ever remember the Sabres resembling this. In most years the preseason roster is fairly firm, with there being the possibility of one or two spots open. I know I'm looking two years ahead so it's not a perfect comparison. It's just ... well ... look at all the possibilties.
The second challenge is team-building in hockey's traditional sense. The Sabres won't be looking for the 12 most-talented forwards. They'll be looking for a balance of skill and size, offense and defense, star power and role-players. As this is my column, allow me to say that this doesn't concern or impress me much; my team would almost always dress its top 12 talents. But most NHL teams don't do it that way.
(It's interesting to me how the 2007 team's ability to put four highly skilled lines on the ice has come to be perceived as a flaw, how it would have been better off with, bluntly, less talent. Maybe it's just me but first in the league and a semifinal playoff run seems more deserving of a style being copied than avoided. If Ottawa had dressed a "grinder" instead of a hockey player, maybe the '07 Sabres go further.)
Perhaps the most interesting figure in this dilemma will be Mikhail Grigorenko. If Grigorenko improves enough to make the NHL, great, that would be salvaging what sometimes has looked like a wasted pick. But if Reinhart and, dare I say it, Connor McDavid are on the team, does a worthy Grigorenko play the wing? If he doesn't he's out because that player I'm envisioning isn't centering any checking or "energy" lines.
I don't know that the odds favor that scenario, one where an excellent Grigorenko gets squeezed out. Fans know that expecting all or even most of your prospects to pan out isn't the smartest bet. Some will get hurt, others will just fade away.
But my lists of young players up above aren't even complete, and there are always unexpected acquisitions from other teams to consider. (Andrei Meszaros is a Sabre? Really?)
The Sabres are considered to have one of the richest prospect crops in the league, if not the richest. (Bleacher Report's Jonathan Willis ranked them first.) And they have maximum room at the NHL level. It all makes for a perfect recipe to amateur hockey mixologists.