TORONTO – Shortly after Christmas, following perhaps the best outing of his 86-game NHL career, the Buffalo Sabres waived defenseman Lawrence Pilut.
Having received two blueliners back from injury, Pilut, who had been passed on the depth chart by Kale Clague, lost his roster spot. He cleared and was assigned to the Rochester Americans, beginning another stint in the minors.
Today, Pilut, 27, ranks among the AHL’s elite defensemen. A strong argument can be made he’s the Amerks’ most valuable player. Without him, they almost certainly wouldn’t be playing hockey in mid-May.
He scored twice, including the series-clinching goal, in last Saturday’s dramatic overtime win against the Syracuse Crunch, one of the most memorable performances by an Amerks player in recent memory.
Throughout the regular season and Calder Cup Playoffs, coach Seth Appert has utilized the Swede in every situation, awarding him big minutes on the top pairing. He has three goals and six points in six postseason contests entering Game 2 of the North Division final this afternoon against the Marlies, a series the Amerks lead 1-0.
The 5-foot-11, 194-pound Pilut returned to Buffalo’s organization this season a more mature and responsible player. During a two-year stint in the Kontinental Hockey League, he developed into more than just an offensive threat.
As this season has progressed, he believes he has added to his repertoire, becoming an even better defender through his stick details.
But something else has helped Pilut morph into the Amerks’ workhorse No. 1 defenseman. When the Sabres demoted him in late December following a 17-game stint, he embraced returning to Rochester.
“It’s hard to describe how much admiration I have for Lawrence Pilut, how much respect I have for him as a human and as a player,” Appert said on a Zoom call Tuesday. “He came back here to play in the National Hockey League and he did for a bit, but for whatever reason, he navigated his way back to Rochester.
“And for a lot of players at his age, their level of commitment, engagement, all-in mentality might just be a little under what you need because of the situation. And his is the exact opposite.”
Appert said Pilut “is as all in as anybody on our team.”
“Then watching the passion and competitiveness within him in the last couple months of (our) playoff push and this series, it’s just really impressive,” he said. “It’s really impressive for anybody, but it’s really more impressive considering the circumstances. That just speaks so highly of what that young man’s made of.”
Pilut said he possesses the same mindset wherever he plays. His time in Rochester this season – he began the season there before getting summoned to Buffalo in October – has been a special experience. The Amerks, like the parent Sabres, have grown into a tight-knit group.
“I’ve been enjoying every second, like trying to stop up at times and just be like, ‘This is such a great group of guys,’” Pilut told the Times Herald after recording an assist in Thursday’s 4-3 win in Coca-Cola Coliseum. “Just how much fun we have is amazing. Just going to the rink with a smile and you’re leaving, you don’t want to leave because it’s so much fun, you know?
“It’s just one of those things they built so well here, I mean, from the veterans on the team for the young guys just coming in, everybody’s felt welcome from the first second, I feel like. That’s something that is very rare sometimes. But I think that’s been something that’s made us had success because it’s bonded us well.”
Appert’s trust and the ice time Pilut has received beside Ethan Prow have buoyed his personal success.
“I play my best hockey when I play a lot of minutes and I play those big minutes,” said Pilut, who compiled three goals and 28 points in 47 regular-season games with Rochester. “I feel Seth has really given me the opportunity to do that and really believes a lot in me. And I feel that’s a very good thing. I mean, so far, I hope I’ve done a good job, you know? But with the big minutes, I mean, stuff that comes with a lot of responsibility out there, and I’m taking pride in both the defensive and offensive side of it.”
Pilut’s recent play could earn him another opportunity in the NHL. In his three seasons in North America, the Sabres have given him regular opportunities. For the first time, he can become an unrestricted free agent this summer.
He hasn’t played for the Sabres since registering a goal and two points Dec. 19. They did, however, recall him in March.
Pilut has slid down the depth chart a bit since he was the first defenseman the Sabres recalled this season. Clague stayed up. The Sabres traded for Riley Stillman. They also lost Casey Fitzgerald on waivers.
Seven of the eight defensemen who finished the season on Buffalo’s roster are under contract next year. Only Clague, a restricted free agent, needs a new deal. The Sabres could also try to add a veteran defender to their young corps this offseason.
Still, the grass might not be greener for Pilut somewhere else. The Sabres know him well. If he does re-sign and returns to Rochester, he would likely have top billing again.
Absolute chills for this Game 5️⃣ overtime game-winner from Lawrence Pilut 🔥 pic.twitter.com/J7E4Rokd4d
— x-Rochester Americans (@AmerksHockey) May 7, 2023