Buffalo Sabres Defense: What The Future Holds


To many Sabres fans, the names like Sam Reinhart, Mikhail Grigorenko, Zemgus Girgensons, Evander Kane, and potentially Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel are seen as the future scoring force of the Buffalo Sabres and the basis of the rebuild. What fans should not forget is the established defensive prospects that have been developing.

Back a couple of years when Darcy Regier made the decision to start a rebuild here in Buffalo, he started it by drafting two cornerstone defensemen in Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov. He already had in place two prospects drafted in the years previous; Mark Pysyk and Jake McCabe.

It was on these four players that it was assumed the brunt of the defensive minutes would be shared in the years to come.

Now General Manager Tim Murray has made another stride in that direction by trading away Tyler Myers this season and adding Zach Bogosian. His place has been solidified as one of the top defensive players currently on the Sabres roster. He possesses everything that Murray likes and will be an additional cornerstone for this rebuild.

The Buffalo Sabres organization has a plethora of defensive prospects waiting in the wings for a chance at full time NHL employment, added onto the already existing young core of defensemen that currently occupy the blue line. Let’s have a look at all of them to see who has a place in this organization, and those that might find their way out of Buffalo soon, or who may not make the cut.

Buffalo Sabres – Current NHL Roster Players

The current Sabres defensive players at the NHL level include the likes of Andre Benoit, Mike Weber, Nikita Zadorov, Rasmus Ristolainen, Andrej Meszaros, Zach Bogosian, Tyson Strachen, and Josh Gorges. Out of all of these players, the youngest are Zadorov, Ristolainen, and Bogosian. They are the assured future of this Sabres defense, but how do the others measure up as far as their place in this organization.

Andrej Meszaros and Andre Benoit find themselves at the ends of their contracts after this season. Regardless of how they perform in the last few games of this season, I don’t think it will matter much. Both of them were players that got signed to get the Sabres to the cap floor.

If one or both of them had stellar seasons this year, then they might have earned an argument for staying in the blue and gold.

As the season progressed, both of them (especially Meszaros) found themselves scratched and in the press box due to poor play. They both are thirty years old and are not a direct fit into Tim Murray’s plan. They do not have a place here and most likely will not be here next season. The only older players that he will want to keep around are steady and skilled veterans.

More from Sabres News

This brings me to Josh Gorges. Gorges had to function on the Sabres blue line as the top defenseman. He has a great amount of skill, but that is not his role. He was in over his head for the entire season, and his numbers defensively suffered for it.

That was the issue that Buffalo had with Tyler Myers. He was put in a situation he wasn’t fully prepared for, and his play has suffered since. Now that Myers plays a reduced role with the Winnipeg Jets, he has been playing much better.

The same effect will come to Josh Gorges when has his role reduced from top defenseman to top four defenseman. He is a steady, stay-at-home player that will compliment a younger aggressive defender with a cannon for a shot.

This player that would benefit from Gorges’ play is none other than Rasmus Ristolainen. Ristolainen is the Sabres former first round pick at number 8 in 2013, and he has steadily improved his play over the course of this atrocity of a season. He plays a solid two-way defenseman style of game and has the size to back up his physical play.

Now, most people are expecting Ristolainen to be the #1 defenseman in the future, and he most likely will be, but he and his future defensive partner need some developing with veteran counterparts. If Ristolainen plays a full season by playing primarily with Josh Gorges, his defensive game will be rounded out, and then he can use his natural offensive skill to fill in the blanks.

The future defensive partner I alluded to before is Nikita Zadorov. Standing at a towering 6’5 and 220lbs, Zadorov has the physical build and ability to become a Russian Chris Pronger. Back when I used to watch his play in Juniors, Zadorov never missed a key opportunity to step up and make crushing hits and then chip in a few goals with his bomb of a slap shot.

He has brought that skill to the NHL level this year, and (despite some learning curve issues with his attendance and suspensions by the team) he has not hesitated to do any of that while here.

He is only 20 years old and still has some time to develop, but he is proving this year that he can handle the NHL. If he plays alongside a defenseman that plays a similar style of bruise and shoot defense, he will grow and ultimately benefit from that.

The defenseman that I have in mind for him to play with is Zach Bogosian. Let that idea sink in for a moment. Zach Bogosian, the large imposing defenseman that Sabres fans have fell in love with since they traded away Tyler Myers. Bogosian brings an aggression that has not been seen on the Sabres Blue line since the days of Jay McKee.

Imagine the amount of aggression that Bogosian can teach Zadorov. It would be a match made in (hockey) Heaven for all Buffalo Sabres fans, and players. Bogosian has a powerful presence on the ice and will hit anything that gets in his way, and he will teach Zadorov the same methods. By being a mentor to the eventual potential top level defenseman, Bogosian will solidify his place as being an overqualified top four defenseman.

That would mean eventually having a top pairing of Ristolainen with Zadorov, and then Bogosian with Gorges.

As much as it may seem sad to say, I don’t see Tyson Strachen or Mike Weber being a part of this team in the long run. They both serve their purposes on this team and solid players that can play their positions well enough to tick around.

That level of play won’t be good enough for Tim Murray in the next couple of seasons. It’s the young men in the AHL that are better players already and are prepared to take on the NHL challenge.

Buffalo Sabres AHL Defensemen

There are three Defensemen in the AHL for the Buffalo Sabres right now that have the ability to challenge for a roster spot next season. Mark Pysyk, Jake McCabe, and Chad Ruhwedel all have had stints in the NHL this season and have all shown promise with their skills, but who has the edge amongst the three?

Chad Ruhwedel has made his value in his speed, which makes up for his lack of size (5’11). He has shown that he functions very well as a puck moving offensive defenseman, but can he translate that AHL success to the NHL level consistantly?

Jake McCabe is the definition of two-way defenseman. He has a perfect combination of defensive skill and offensive ability. He does play more of a defensive game while he is in the NHL thus far, but how would he fare of he stepped up a little bit more?

Mark Pysyk is the defensive stay-at-home d-man that every team needs to bolster their blue line. He plays his position so well that he is able to shut down top level offense in the AHL and has proven that he can shut down NHL players as well. How would he fare if he was given a full season in Buffalo?

Amongst these three players, McCabe and Pysyk are the best choices to pick for the 5th and 6th defenseman spots on the roster. The style of game that they play works well with the other.

With McCabe having the defensive stability to stand strong next to Pysyk on most plays, they will prove to be a more than capable pairing. With Pysyk holding the blue line strongly, McCabe will have the opportunity to step up and be the offensive threat he can be. He won’t have to worry about his partner getting caught out of position very much and he’ll have the freedom to step up and make a play.

Pysyk will be the best shut down top-six defenseman that has played for the Sabres in recent years. He is a perfect specimen to have, and he possesses the ability to play in a top four role soon, but having him one line down will only bolster the Sabres Defensive prowess.

Final Thoughts

With the top four defenseman already playing on the current NHL roster, the Sabres are in a premier position to have one of the best blue lines in the entire league in a few years. They will have speed, size, skill, youth, and pure overall power coming from the back end of the ice.

That’s the kind of support that most teams can only dream about, and Buffalo will have a defensive core that will have everything. They are the perfect complement to the eventual offensive onslaught that the Sabres will have up with the forwards of their future.

To finalize and clarify who will be here and who will not be, here are my choices for what the Sabres should try for their blue line next season (barring any trades and free agent signings):

Bogosian – Zadorov

Ristolainen – Gorges

Pysyk – McCabe

These pairings line up an even number of right and left handed shots, which will give the coach a great number of options as far as other pairings go and special teams pairings.

The defensive future is the brightest spot for the Buffalo Sabres right now, and will prove to be a dominant force to be recognized in years to come.

Next: Tanking is More Risk Than Reward

More from Sabre Noise