The Buffalo Sabres have basically the same defense core returning from last year, with a switch from Mark Pysyk to Dmitry Kulikov. In a perfect world, these will be the defense pairings when the Sabres open up their season against Montreal next Thursday.
Dmitry Kulikov- Rasmus Ristolainen
Jake McCabe- Zach Bogosian
Josh Gorges- Cody Franson
Past their top six, there isn’t much depth. Last year’s college free agent signing Casey Nelson has looked good at times, but has had some miscues this preseason. Nelson is probably the favorite to be the seventh defenseman right now. Past Nelson is Justin Falk and Tyler Fedun, who are fringe NHL defensemen.
Brendan Guhle is also still with the team, and he’s a wild card. Guhle showed up to camp with eight pounds of muscle he didn’t have last year. However, he’s took a monster hit from Toronto’s Richard Clune, which may indicate he’s still not physically mature enough to make the team. At this point I wouldn’t count on him making an impact this year.
So, let’s recap where we’re at. The Sabres have a decent looking top six, followed by an inconsistent college free agent, two wannabee NHL regulars, and a 2nd round 19-year-old that has nearly been decapitated in back to back preseasons. If the season started tomorrow this could be our pairings:
Jake McCabe- Cody Franson
Josh Gorges- Casey Nelson
Tyler Fedun- Justin Falk
Now it’s unlikely that Bogosian or Kulikov miss the opener, but if Ristolainen remains unsigned, that’s what two injured defensemen does to your lineup.That depth should be improved if possible, and there are a few options out there.
This is the most expensive route. Fowler would need to be traded for, and Buffalo would have to take his contract that carries a $4 million cap hit for the next two years. The term isn’t bad, but if you have to give up a forward and a prospect/pick, is it worth it? Tim Murray would have to than decide if he’s worth keeping long-term.
The good news with this option is Fowler would jump right onto the first or second pairing, likely pushing Jake McCabe down to the third pairing. The Sabres defense would likely go from average, to top 10 in the NHL. Fowler might not be as good as his reputation makes him out to be, but he is quality offensive defenseman, the type of defenseman Tim Murray expressed interest in acquiring before the off-season.
I wouldn’t do this trade if I were Tim Murray, but it does eliminate any doubts about your back-end, and it’s depth.
This is the worst option for the Sabres. Russell is a bottom pair defenseman that wants the money of a second, or maybe even first pair defenseman. The situation is similar to last year with Cody Franson, but Franson looked more like a second pair guy. There’s a reason no one has given Russell a contract to this point, no one wants to pay him the money he wants. He’s just flat-out not that good.
If there were a scenario where Russell would come to the Sabres on a 1 year deal at $2 million or less, than I could see it happening. However, he’s not worth a penny more.
The last reports on Russell were that he was still in contact with 8 teams, and he was expected to sign somewhere at the start of training camps. That didn’t happen. Now we have to wonder if he’ll even sign before the season starts.
This is my favorite option. Wisniewski missed basically all of last season with a torn ACL. The 32-year-old veteran was on a PTO with the Tampa Bay Lightning before being cut after his 3rd preseason game.
Wisniewski and the Lightning both acknowledged the main factor was he couldn’t get the system down quickly. With Tampa Bay’s deep d-core, and salary cap issues with an impending Nikita Kucherov contract, his play would have had to have been perfect to make the team.
What his stint in Tampa does show is that he shouldn’t be limited by his injury. He appeared to be skating well, and he was moving the puck well like he has throughout his career.
When healthy Wisniewski provides a solid powerplay point man. He has a rocket of a shot, is a very swift passer, and is known to dish out some big hits. So what’s the issue with him?
Wisniewski had a great 51 point year in 2014, and followed that up with a decent 34 point year. He was a cap casualty with his contract being bought out last year. He’s also coming off a torn ACL. Standing at 5’11 and not being the most consistent force in his own end, he carries definite risk.
At first thought you might be thinking “how unappealing of you”. However, if you look at how Colaiacovo played in limited action last season, there’s reason to think he should, and could be back in a Sabre uniform this season.
Rumors were out there last month that Colaiacovo could be headed to the KHL after receiving offers from two teams. With the rumors out there, Colaiacovo was skating in Buffalo, with his former Sabre teammates just before training camp. To this point there has been no official word about where he will be playing this year, leaving him available to be signed.
The Sabres players know Colaiacovo, the coaches know him, and Tim Murray knows what he’s getting out of him. Last year in 36 games, he had a measly 1 goal and 5 assists, but was very good defensively and by advanced stat measures.
Just look at how he stacked up against his partner Mark Pysyk, who many fans were furious about being traded away. Now he’s clearly not as good as this chart says, but it does signify that he can play well in limited time.
Whether Ristolainen gets signed or not, the Sabres lack depth on defense. If they suffer 2 or 3 injuries, they’ll be a train-wreck. We’ll see if Tim Murray does anything over the coming weeks.