As written on many occasions last season, the Sabres fourth line did their job and more than once were the best line out of the forward group. Sure, they didn't do a lot of scoring but Phil Housley didn't seem to want that from them. What he wanted from the likes of Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson and whomever was on the other wing was to forecheck their asses off and flip the ice, which they did quite often. Although it didn't result in too much offense outside the top line of Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart, it wasn't their fault that the middle six was as inept as anything we've seen dating back to the 2014-15 tank season.
Both Girgensons and Larsson are young vets who were restricted free agents with arbitration rights. Buffalo general manager Jason Botterill qualified both of them (along with five others) in late June and Girgensons signed a one-year deal on July 5 for $1.6 million, which was the same average annual value he signed for on his previous two-year deal. Larsson, who did not file for arbitration, and the Sabres agreed to a one-year deal today for $1.55 million which was slightly above the $1.475 million AAV he signed on his previous two-year deal.
And with those two signings, two-thirds of the fourth-line gang are under contract and will be fighting for those minutes.
As mentioned, Buffalo's biggest problem last year stemmed from an inept middle-six. They gave very little goal-support to the top-line as only four forwards in that group--Jason Pominville (who spent plenty of time on the top line,) Conor Sheary, Kyle Okposo (who spent much of the year bouncing between the third and fourth line,) and rookie Casey Mittelstadt hit double digits in goals with the 36 yr. old Pominville leading the way with 16 goals. What that group lacked in offense was not made up for on defense either as a couple of them were in the negative with still another group--Tage Thompson, Vladimir Sobotka, Sheary and Mittelstadt--combining for a minus-79 rating.
Botterill has had a rather busy off season thus far as he tries to bolster the top-nine. He began with an eight-year contract extension for No. 1 left wing Skinner, but was out of the running for any of the bona fide, top-six unrestricted free agent forwards who hit the market on July 1 so he turned his attention to middle-six and depth forwards (as well as right-handed defensemen.) The third year GM began with a trade for top-nine winger Jimmy Vesey and followed that up with the signing of Marcus Johansson, a versatile top-nine forward who will more than likely begin the season in the top-six on the wing. Buffalo's big hole, No. 2 center has yet to be filled but a worse case scenario has Mittelstadt in that role flanked by at least one veteran winger who can score.
As players drop, hopefully secondary scoring will increase. Or at least that's the idea.
The Sabres needed more scoring from the second line down and that includes the fourth line. For as well as Girgensons and Larsson played in a defensive role, 18 and 14 points, respectively, won't get the job done if they hope to be a playoff contender. Buffalo will need more from the fourth line no matter who's on it and one would think that new head coach Ralph Krueger has something in mind for those role players including Girgensons and Larsson.
Botterill must still consider those two players assets otherwise he wouldn't have qualified and signed them. Having Girgensons and Larsson in the fold mean they can be a part of the team in a checking line/depth role or if another team feels they could use players like that, one or both can be involved in a trade of some fashion.
However, as of now we're looking at them as the front-runners for the fourth line in a field that's already crowded. Scott Wilson, whom Botterill traded a fifth round pick for, is slated to battle for one of those spots as will Sobotka. Forward C.J. Smith, who recently re-upped on a two-year deal, Okposo (should he not produce more than last season) and Thompson (whom they hope will be top-nine) should all be battling for bottom-six spots while some youngins like Rasmus Asplund and possibly Andre Oglivie could add some intrigue if they have an eye-opening training camp.
However, by the looks of it, we could be seeing a fourth line anchored by Girgensons and Larsson again. Which isn't such a bad thing as we've seen worse.