BUFFALO – One training camp earlier in his career, Sabres defenseman Matt Tennyson said he knew he was locked into the sixth spot on the San Jose Sharks’ blue line.
“Other than that, I’ve just been grinding away, just trying to make it,” Tennyson said Thursday inside KeyBank Center after the Sabres prepared for tonight’s preseason finale.
Tennyson, 28, is the typical journeymen defensemen. He usually ranks anywhere from sixth to 10th on the depth chart. Having played 120 NHL games, he consistently earns recalls from the AHL.
A year ago, injuries helped Tennyson secure a spot out of camp. After more defenders went down, Sabres coach Phil Housley started leaning on the Western Michigan University product about 20 minute a night.
But once some defensemen healed by early November, the Sabres sent Tennyson to the Rochester Americans, where he played 50 games.
Entering Friday’s preseason finale against the New York Islanders in Oshawa, Ontario, Tennyson is one of 12 defensemen left on the Sabres’ camp roster. Nathan Beaulieu, Zach Bogosian, Rasmus Dahlin, Jake McCabe, Casey Nelson, Rasmus Ristolainen and Marco Scandella all have spots locked up.
Tennyson, Brendan Guhle, Brandon Hickey and Lawrence Pilut could all be assigned to the AHL in the coming days. Another defenseman, Matt Hunwick, is sidelined with a neck injury.
But Housley insisted the roster isn’t set yet. An impressive outing against the Islanders could help someone stick around for next Thursday’s season opener.
“There’s a reason why guys are playing tomorrow,” Housley said. “The veterans continue to get caught up to speed and (we will) give them that one extra game. But there are some evaluations going on.”
Assuming Bogosian, who’s nursing a lower-body injury, is healthy, the Sabres’ blue line could already be set. If Bogosian can’t go next week or they decide to keep eight defensemen, Tennyson could have shot.
Guhle, 21, hasn’t enjoyed a notable camp and might benefit from more seasoning in Rochester. Hickey, 22, hasn’t played a pro game yet.
The final spot could come down to Tennyson or Pilut, 22, a rookie the Sabres signed following a terrific season in Sweden.
“Of course, there’s a little nervousness there, but I’m just trying to live in the moment,” Pilut said.
Right now, Tennyson, who played his first NHL game in 2013, probably feels more comfortable than Pilut.
“Every year you go into camp expecting to be here,” Tennyson said. “I’m going into my seventh year pro now. I’ve been around long enough, been up and down long enough that for the most part I know what I need to do stay consistent and stay relevant in the lineup.”
Still, Tennyson said battling for a spot is “always hard.”
“Every year there’s new guys coming in trying to take jobs, you know?” he said. “It’s all about what you do in the summer to prepare and come into camp in the best shape, (being) the best mentally prepared you can be. You can’t really worry about anybody else but yourself.”
Pilut possesses more skill than Tennyson, who had zero points in 15 NHL games last season. While Pilut’s aggressiveness sometimes gets him into trouble, it’s part of his repertoire.
Housley said Pilut’s “calmness and poise” with the puck has impressed him.
“He attacks the game the right way, he gets into the play, he’ll make those moves on the blue line,” Housley said. “(It) shows the confidence he has in his ability. …
“Up to this point, he’s made a good impression on us as a coaching staff. He’s developed really well.”
Pilut, of course, is playing on the smaller North American ice for the first time.
“You kind of get used to it and now it’s a little more fun,” said Pilut, who scored eight goals and 38 points in 52 games in the Swedish Hockey League last season. “It’s a little quicker game, but I like it.”
But given Pilut’s rawness, the Sabres might want him to acclimate a bit in the AHL. If that’s the case, Tennyson, whose 200-foot game impressed Housley last season, could have an edge.
“He’s a guy you can rely on defensively,” Housley said of Tennyson. “He jumps in the play, he can skate well, he passes well. All those things to be a complete player. … He provided some really solid games for us.”