Following two productive seasons in the Buffalo Sabres organization, it seemed like a formality defenseman Lawrence Pilut would re-sign this offseason as a restricted free agent.
Pilut, 24, quickly acclimated to a new brand of hockey following his arrival from Sweden in 2018, developing into one of the AHL’s most dynamic defensemen as a rookie with the Rochester Americans. Less than two months into his North American career, he earned his first recall to the Sabres.
Next season, Pilut figured to have the inside track for a regular spot in Buffalo. Then on Tuesday, Traktor Chelyabins, a Russian team in the Kontinental Hockey League, officially announced Pilut had signed a two-year contract.
What the heck happened?
As a pending RFA, Pilut possessed limited options, at least if he wanted to continue playing in North America.
It’s common for agents to threaten teams by saying their client could bolt to Russia or another European locale. It’s just a part of the negotiations.
Usually they’re bluffing. Most players grow up dreaming of skating in the NHL, not the KHL.
Patrik Aronsson, the European agent who represents Pilut, informed the Sabres his client could sign a deal overseas, a source told the Times Herald.
The Sabres did not think Pilut, who has played 46 NHL games, would leave. Meanwhile, the sides kept negotiating.
Then Pilut’s camp went silent for a couple of days, an ominous sign. When the agent was finally tracked down, he said Pilut had inked a contract in the KHL.
The Sabres were stunned, according to the source.
“He had put in so much work here and he was so close,” said Sabres assistant general manager Randy Sexton, who’s also the Amerks’ GM. “He had played games both seasons, he understood our philosophy, he understood our approach and he was right there. He’s going in a different direction. That’s obviously his prerogative. I wish him well.”
Sexton said he doesn’t believe Pilut, who scored 10 goals and 49 points in 67 AHL appearances, was frustrated.
“I suspect the financial piece of that may have had something to do with it,” he said. “I don’t know.”
Terms of Pilut’s KHL deal haven’t been revealed. He received a prorated base salary of $832,500 in the NHL, according to capfriendly.com, and $70,000 in the AHL.
The Sabres have been told Chelyabins included an NHL out clause for Pilut, but Sexton said they haven’t seen the KHL contract. Sexton said the Sabres plan to retain Pilut’s rights by giving him a qualifying offer.
While Pilut, a two-time AHL All-Star, was perhaps the Sabres’ most talked about defense prospect, they have other youngsters in the pipeline.
“I would expect that Jacob and Will Borgen will be knocking on the door for a spot in Buffalo in training camp,” he said.
The former fourth-round picks spent all of the 2019-20 campaign in Rochester, turning heads for different reasons.
Sexton said the 6-foot-3, 198-pound Borgen has embraced his role as a defensive defenseman.
“We believe that Will’s identity was as a physically hard to play against, miserable guy that other teams really didn’t want to see on the ice, good penalty killing, good defensive play,” Sexton said.
By the end of the season, Sexton said Borgen, 23, “was skating the best that I had ever seen him.”
“His puck skills have improved, his puck movement has improved, his confidence has gone up, his shot has improved,” he said. “So all the skill categories that you need from a player. But most importantly, I think, his embracing of that identity is going to give him a great opportunity to make our team, because we want a little more smack, we want some grit, we want some physicality in our lineup.”
Borgen, the 92nd overall pick out of St. Cloud State in 2015, played four NHL games as a rookie in 2018-19. He compiled one goal and 11 points in 61 contests in his second season with the Amerks.
If the COVID-19 pandemic hadn’t forced the NHL to cancel the Sabres’ final 13 games, the 5-foot-9, 179-pound Bryson might’ve earned his first recall late in the season.
Bryson, 22, rapidly morphed into perhaps the Sabres’ top defense prospect as a rookie with the Amerks.
“When I saw him play in college, he was kind of a mobile, get-the-puck-moving, defense-first kind of guy,” Sexton said. “But what we’re really pleased about is … the offense that we’ve seen from him.”
Bryson, the 99th overall selection out of Providence in 2017, scored four goals and 27 points in 61 outings with the Amerks.
“To be candid, he’s shown more offense at an early stage of his career that he thought he might,” Sexton said. “We’re very pleased about that. So by the second half of the year, he was a real power-play option for us.”