Riley Stillman (left) and Nikita Novikov skated together Friday. ©2023, Micheline Veluvolu

Riley Stillman embracing demotion to Amerks; Sabres prospect Nikita Novikov impressive in debut

ROCHESTER – Instead of pouting over a surprising demotion, Americans defenseman Riley Stillman has chosen to embrace his first stint in the minors in three seasons.

Stillman, 25, believes the AHL offers an opportunity to evolve and play extra minutes he wouldn’t have received as the Buffalo Sabres’ sixth or seventh defenseman.

“For sure, it was a little shocking to me,” he told the Times Herald of getting waived, following Friday’s 4-3 season-opening overtime loss in Blue Cross Arena. “I didn’t think that this was something that was going to happen this year. But again, circumstances change and different things happen. I thought I had a good training camp.

“But you know what? I’m just going to take as it comes, day by day.”

Stillman figured he would be staying in Buffalo. He earned regular duty as the Sabres battled for a playoff spot last season, playing 18 games following his arrival in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

Even after the Sabres beefed up their defense corps by signing Connor Clifton and Erik Johnson, he ranked seventh or eighth on the depth chart.

However, Jacob Bryson, who often sat out as healthy scratch down the stretch last year, earned the seventh defense spot. The Sabres kept three goalies, so carrying an eighth defenseman on the 23-man roster wasn’t an option.

Last Saturday, the Sabres waived the 6-foot-2, 203-pound Stillman and his $1.35 million salary. On Friday, he skated beside Russian rookie Nikita Novikov in his first AHL game since Feb. 20, 2021.

“He’s been great,” Amerks coach Seth Appert said of Stillman. “He’s been great in practice, his attitude. … When you’re in the NHL and you’re (the) 11 through 13 forward or a six through eight D, sometimes it’s less about getting better and more about surviving and just trying to in the league or stay in the lineup, not make mistakes, not screw up.

“And then when you come to the American League, you can play hockey. You get more ice time, you get more practice time, you get more puck touches, and it gives you an opportunity to become a better hockey player.”

Stillman said he’s in Rochester “to learn and grow my game and continue to get better.”

“I have an opportunity here to play some bigger minutes and stuff like that, so I’m trying to take it in stride and be the best teammate I can be, be the best version of myself,” he said.

But the Amerks have eight defensemen, meaning Appert must make difficult decisions. He scratched Stillman for Saturday’s road game against the Toronto Marlies and inserted Youngstown native Joseph Cecconi, who sat out Friday’s contest.

When Stillman returns, he could resume his partnership alongside the 6-foot-4, 209-pound Novikov, one of the Sabres’ top defense prospects. Appert wanted to pair the youngster with a veteran player.

Novikov, 20, looked comfortable throughout his North American pro debut, building on momentum he generated during the preseason. His five points led the Sabres during the Prospects Challenge rookie tournament and he registered three assists in Rochester’s final exhibition game.

On Friday, he played aggressively, joining the rush and recording the primary assist on winger Isak Rosen’s goal.

“He was excellent,” Appert said. “I think if we go back and grade our defensemen for positive plays versus negative plays, Nikita very likely could grade out as top. And certainly if it’s not, it’s close to it, which is very impressive for his first real game in North America on a small ice sheet.”

Stillman said he and Novikov “did a lot of good things.”

“We kind of played off each other as well,” said Stillman, who has played 158 NHL games. “There’s a bit of a language barrier there that we’re kind of working on and understanding. The more time we spend together and spend playing together it will be better.”

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