Of all the issues that plagued the Buffalo Sabres last year, the biggest issue of all was unquestionably the squad’s defensive woes. Any team that considers Josh Gorges its top defender probably isn’t going to be very good, and that was Buffalo last season. But things are looking up for the team in this regard.
In his first offseason with Buffalo, new GM Jason Botterill was handed the difficult task of rebuilding a defensive unit that finished at the bottom of the NHL last year. But helping his cause was the new bench boss the Pegulas hired alongside him.
Phil Housley, one of the greatest defensemen of all-time, worked wonders as an assistant with the Nashville Predators and helped turn that team’s blue line into one of the best in the NHL. A defense-oriented coach, Housley’s presence should help Buffalo turn a new leaf.
The Dan Bylsma experiment failed largely because he forced players out of their element. It was very evident that many players, including but limited to Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Ryan O’Reilly were being held back. Housley appears to understand that players must be allowed to stick to the style that works for them, and that should make a big impact at KeyBank Center. Housley has a hefty to-do list in his first season; get the Sabres back to respectability and improve the team’s defense.
However, not helping Botterill or Housley was the departure of Dmitry Kulikov. Just one of the many bad moves made by Tim Murray, Kulikov was thought to be an upgrade over Mark Pysyk, but did not turn out that way at all. WGR’s Paul Hamilton reported that the Russian was immensely unhappy in Buffalo and did not gel in the locker room at all. He opted to walk away to Winnipeg as a free agent. Cody Franson is also currently a UFA, but the Sabres bringing him back is not likely. Though neither loss is huge for Buffalo, it meant additions needed to be made.
To fill the two voids, Botterill acquired Nathan Beaulieu from the Montreal Canadiens and then Marco Scandella from the Minnesota Wild as part of a four-player deal. Though unheralded players, the two acquisitions are good signings for Buffalo.
Beaulieu, drafted 17th overall by the Habs in 2011, is a talented two-way defenseman who should fit well with Buffalo’s other young D-men. The 24-year-old can be undisciplined with the puck at times, but skates very well and possesses a strong shot from the point that will fit nicely on the power play. He’s also not afraid to be physical, another thing Buffalo needs to improve upon. The Sabres gave Montreal a 2017 third-rounder for the Ontario native and then immediately protected him in the Expansion Draft, demonstrating that the team is serious about him.
Scandella, 27, could have been a top-two pairing for the Wild, but was never able to crack the ceiling due to the presence of Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon. He takes an aggressive approach to defending but is not reckless. His lack of speed is potentially problematic, as is the case with Zach Bogosian. But like Bogosian, his positioning is very good and he is rarely in the wrong spot. Housley’s tutelage could help both players overcome that issue.
That was not all though. Botterill also signed Viktor Antipin from the KHL’s Metallurg Magnitogorsk. His odds of winding up with the team this year are tough to say at the present time, but the 24-year-old Kazakh has the tools to play well in North America. Defying the “soft European” hockey stereotype, Antipin is only 5’11, 179, but he’s willing to throw all of it at you and sacrifice his body to block a shot. The Sabres will love that toughness and heart.
The Sabres’ defensive unit right now is led by Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe, both of whom are developing into stars despite an egregious lack of veteran leadership in the past. Scandella, Beaulieu, Antipin, Gorges, and Bogosian round it out. Justin Falk was a pleasant surprise this past season and will hopefully factor in somewhere as well.
Beaulieu and Scandella are significant upgrades over Kulikov and Franson. They aren’t NHL superstars by any means, but the two are young still and have the potential to give the Sabres a much needed boost. Antipin could end up not translating to North America’s style of the game, but it is evident that he has the tools to. Housley has the pieces in place for a much better blue line. The puck is on his stick.