Youngins, Bubble Players Impress in PS Game 1; Game 2 Tomorrow
The Sabres' preseason-opening game against the Washington Capitals went about as well as it could have for key, young roster hopefuls like Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka, and roster bubble players like Lawrence Pilut and Vinnie Hinostroza likewise shined in a 4-3 victory.
Quinn had the game tying goal in the third period, and Peterka contributed an assist along the way. Head coach Don Granato raved about Quinn’s attitude in his post-game press conference.
"As pressure mounts, you see body language from player to player," Granato said. "Some are hoping deep down maybe not to be in the situation that might cost the game. Others look at it and say, 'I want to be the guy to win the game.' Quinner has a lot of that in him."
Insert the “he’s got that dog in him” Twitter meme here.
Both Quinn and Peterka are on the inside track to make the team which is to be expected considering how lightly the Sabres filled out the free agent additions to the roster. That duo looks penned in for spots on the roster come October.
Meanwhile, it was #20 Cody Eakin who orchestrated a brilliant possession during the three-on-three overtime portion of the game as he danced around Capitals defenders and found Vinnie Hinostroza in front for the redirection. Wait a second… I’m being told that #20 is in fact Lawrence Pilut and not noted faceoff man Cody Eakin. Apologies for the mix up; Pilut and Eakin just play such a similar free-wheeling offensive style.
Jokes aside, Pilut is making a case that he belongs on the 23-man roster. The complicating factor in his quest to make the big squad is the waivers-exempt nature of his current contract, as opposed to Casey Fitzgerald who would have to pass through waivers if he doesn’t make the team. The Sabres could send Pilut down to the minors without another team poaching him, while Fitzgerald could be claimed by another team if he were to be sent to Rochester.
Fitzgerald or Pilut would be the 8th defenseman on the team, so it’s not as though either one would see loads of playing time regardless of who claims that last spot. Some would argue that performance, rather than contract status should dictate who makes the team, and there is certainly an argument to be made for that philosophy.
Conversely, it may be wise to send Pilut down to the minors and simply wait for the inevitable injuries to hit the roster before returning him to the roster. This is hilariously a very similar situation to the one the Sabres found themselves in three years ago when general manager Jason Botterill couldn’t make room for Pilut on his roster due to the presence of roughly 12 other defensemen whom Botterill had acquired.
Time is a flat circle.
Speaking of circles, let’s circle back to Hinostroza who cashed in on Pilut’s pass to win the game. Any thought among the fanbase that Matt Savoie or Jiri Kulich could potentially take Hinostroza’s spot on the roster was firmly extinguished Sunday as Hinostroza donned an “A” for the blue and gold. Don Granato is a big fan of the way Hinostroza plays the game with tenacity on the forecheck and it’s a foregone conclusion that the diminutive winger will be on the 23-man roster, if not the opening-night lineup. Granato is a team USA guy, Hinostroza is a USA development prospect, and both are Illinois natives. The Sabres’ coach trusts Hinostroza to be a role-playing bottom-six forward on this team.
One last note on the game from yesterday: Dylan Cozens scored an absolute beauty from the slot. That type of finishing is exactly what the Sabres need from the young Yukoner if the team is to make a real push for a playoff spot this season.
Tomorrow’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers will be broadcast on Sabres.com at 7 PM, and that game time will not coincide with an AFC East divisional matchup involving another Western New York Sports team. So that’s nice.
Here’s a look at a likely roster for the game based on today’s practice lines courtesy of Sabres.com:
53 Jeff Skinner - 72 Tage Thompson - 65 Linus Weissbach
71 Victor Olofsson - 37 Casey Mittelstadt - 21 Kyle Okposo
49 Filip Cederqvist - 17 Brandon Biro - 89 Alex Tuch
96 Anders Bjork - 28 Zemgus Girgensons - 63 Isak Rosen
23 Mattias Samuelsson - 26 Rasmus Dahlin
25 Owen Power - 10 Henri Jokiharju
78 Jacob Bryson - 46 Ilya Lyubushkin
Don Granato said at practice today that he likes the combination of Skinner and Thompson, but the team could alternate Tuch or Victor Olofsson as the other winger. One would think that the idea of playing Olofsson in Tuch’s spot could change quickly in the early going if recently paid tall guy Tage Thompson has a slow start.
Former head coach Phil Housley and Former Corporate Buzzword Czar Ralph Krueger both tried – at various times – to split apart the meager talent on their teams to get multiple lines scoring rather than centralize the talent, and that philosophy tended to spectacularly backfire as their teams ended up getting nothing going offensively on any line. Time will tell if the pair of Thompson and Skinner can manage solid first-line performance without the truculent forechecking ability of Tuch.
Elsewhere, Casey Mittelstadt has been given some solid talent to work with on the wings as he tries to stake a claim to a top-six center role. His current winger Kyle Okposo raived about him to Jourdon LaBarber of Sabres.com.
"It's hard to play in this league when you miss half a season, especially with injury and to try and come back," Okposo said in May. "If you really iso-cammed him over the last 20 games you found that he was one of the best players on the ice every night. So, looking forward to big season from him next year."
Mittelstadt’s lack of offensive production is a noted fact.
It’s also still worth entertaining the possibility that Mittelstadt has untapped offensive potential that hasn’t been unlocked since the end of the 2020-21 campaign after Granato took over and Mittelstadt scored 17 points in 22 games from March onward to close the season.
It appears that the Sabres under Granato are going to give that another real shot here in the preseason, as well they should. Someone needs to seize that second-line center role, and Mittelstadt is being afforded the opportunity to show he’s the one to take it.
Final thought on tomorrow’s game: Veteran Craig Anderson is expected to play at least part of the game and one has to wonder: why?
He’s 41 years old and has played 683 games in the NHL. He knows how to play hockey. Why put any more wear on his tires and expose him to injury at this point? It feels like an unnecessary risk for an extremely old (by NHL standards) player who really doesn’t need the reps.