Line ’em up: Eichel and Kane start out together
Combinations consistent in early going of camp
Lindy Ruff probably would have split up the French Connection after a few bad periods. Dan Bylsma might never have even put Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin and Rene Robert together.
It remains to be seen how Phil Housley juggles and assembles his forward lines, but the Sabres’ new coach is off to an intriguing start.
“We’re trying to get our guys used to some sort of lines, but I’m sure there’s going to be changes,” Housley said in HarborCenter. “Hopefully, we can find a combination or two that works and give them the best opportunity to succeed.”
During the opening two days of training camp, Buffalo essentially stuck with the same forward units. Here’s a line-by-line look at what Housley has put together so far.
Evander Kane-Jack Eichel-Jason Pominville: Eichel and Kane are the Sabres’ most prolific scorers. Their speed and size can make defenders quake.
Bylsma hesitated to put them together because both like to carry the puck. Housley hopes to spend more time in the offensive zone, so fewer breakouts would mean less jockeying for the puck at center ice. Eichel should do the majority of the lugging anyhow. He’s one of the most effective in the NHL at carrying the puck across the blue line. Kane has a tendency to loft a shot at the goaltender as soon as he crosses the line, stopping play. When the puck keeps moving, he’s the Sabres’ top sniper.
Pominville is clearly the responsible player on the unit. When Eichel and Kane freewheel, they’ll be confident Pominville is in the right spot for one-timers. He also brings a defensive presence.
Zemgus Girgensons-Ryan O’Reilly-Kyle Okposo: Girgensons couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity to show what he can do. He seems to realize it. He’s been driving the net hard, including a big-time hit Saturday on defenseman Taylor Fedun.
Girgensons has a been an offensive disappointment the last two seasons (14 goals and 20 assists in 146 games), but the 23-year-old is getting an early chance to shine.
O’Reilly and Okposo were linemates last year and work well together.
Benoit Pouliot-Sam Reinhart-Stevie Moses: One of the big questions in training camp is whether Reinhart will remain in the middle. He has
the smarts to contribute at both ends.
Pouliot is a bonafide finisher with a career shooting percentage of 13.2 percent. Reinhart might be the Sabres’ best passer, so the combo makes sense.
The placement of Moses is a surprise because he’s on an American Hockey League contract with Rochester. He was a scorer in the Kontinental Hockey League during the last three seasons. If it translates to the preseason, he could earn an NHL deal.
• Matt Moulson-Johan Larsson-Hudson Fasching: Three of the Sabres’ top prospects play right wing – Fasching, Justin Bailey and Nick Baptiste – so it bodes well for Fasching that he’s the one skating with established NHLers. Fasching made the Sabres’ opening-night roster last season before a groin injury derailed his rookie year.
Larsson’s season ended Dec. 31 after he dislocated his elbow and wrist. He was making strides as a two-way center, and this is a solid spot to show the new regime he can defend.
Moulson was used almost exclusively on the power play last year, and he responded by scoring 11 of his 14 goals with the man-advantage. It’ll be interesting to see how much five-on-five time he gets under Housley.
Seth Griffith-Jacob JosefsonNick Baptiste: All three have hopes of making the Sabres. If not, this could be the Amerks’ top line.
Baptiste had his moments during the Sabres’ Prospects Challenge, but he didn’t dominate. He has speed and a knack for scoring, but he’ll have to show it.
Josefson has been a fourth-line regular for New Jersey during the last seven years, putting up 18 goals and 60 points in 276 games. He hasn’t played in the AHL since 2012-13, but he recorded 10 goals and 25 points in 38 games with Albany.
The 24-year-old Griffith flipflopped between Toronto and Florida last season. He had no goals and five assists in 24 NHL games, but he was a minor-league star with 10 goals and 44 points in 38 games for the Toronto Marlies.
Nicolas Deslauriers-Kevin Porter-Justin Bailey: Bailey was the best forward during the Prospects Challenge. There’s room in Buffalo for two right wingers if Reinhart stays at center, and Bailey will challenge for a spot.
Although fighting is heading toward extinction, there are times it’s a necessity. The Sabres don’t have many guys who can drop the gloves. Deslauriers’ pugilistic prowess gives him a shot at being the 13th forward who dresses against tough teams.
Porter is back for his second goround with the Sabres’ organization. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he was the Amerks’ captain again.
• C.J. Smith-Evan RodriguesCliff Pu: Rodrigues played 30 games with the Sabres after Larsson went down. His contract is a two-way deal, allowing the team to pay him less in Rochester, so the 24-year-old could go to the Amerks for more seasoning as a go-to guy.
Smith joined the Sabres out of college at the end of last season and played twice. He’s expected to get needed time in the minors.
Pu was another standout during the Prospects Challenge. As a 19-year-old, his only options are Buffalo or London of the Ontario Hockey League. He’ll start his pro career in 2018-19.
• Vaclav Karabacek-Kyle Criscuolo-Eric Cornel: Criscuolo signed a two-year, two-way deal after an impressive start to his pro career. The Harvard product had 17 goals and 41 points in 76 games for Detroit’s minorleague team, then added five goals and nine points in 19 playoff games.
Cornel, a second-round pick in 2014, had five goals and 14 points in 67 games for the Amerks as a rookie. Karabacek is also a second-year pro. He had three goals and eight points in 23 games with Rochester.
The forwards will certainly move around throughout camp and the regular season, but Housley likes how they’ve started.
“They’ve been really bringing a lot of energy and enthusiasm,” the coach said Saturday. “That’s what we asked of them as an expectation heading into camp. I think they’re having fun out there. It’s a new style of game that I think they’re going to enjoy.”