BUFFALO – Right now, just one day before the Sabres open training camp, veterans and established youngsters seemingly take up every roster spot for the upcoming season.
Counting returning regulars and offseason additions, the Sabres have 13 forwards and seven defensemen, more than a full lineup.
So what about the prospects? Could some force themselves onto the roster?
“There’s always influx,” Sabres general manager Jason Botterill said Monday inside HarborCenter. “If young players perform well, you find opportunities for them.”
He added: “(Coach Phil Housley is) very open to giving young players an opportunity right out of training camp and see how they mix in with some of the veteran players.”
The Sabres have a slew of young skaters with NHL experience gunning to become regulars this year.
The team expects wingers Justin Bailey, Nick Baptiste and Hudson Fasching to make strong cases to stick around Oct. 5, opening night. Ditto for defenseman Brendan Guhle, who has nearly made the Sabres the last two seasons. All four looked impressive during the Prospects Challenge rookie camp tournament the Sabres just hosted.
“We want our young players pushing,” Botterill said. “Whether they make it out of training camp, outstanding, that’s great, or whether they’re battling for who’s going to be the first call-up, or even young players such as (the Pittsburgh Penguins’) Jake Guentzel (who) are going to make a contribution the second half of the season.
“We just want to make sure they’re making a good impression on our coaching staff, getting a feel for how we want to play.”
Botterill, who was hired from Pittsburgh on May 11, often mentions Guentzel, a rookie who helped buoy the Penguins to their second straight Stanley Cup in June.
After some AHL development, Guentzel, 22, earned a spot beside superstar Sidney Crosby during the season. The winger seized his chance, scoring 16 goals in his first 40 NHL games and another 13 goals in 25 playoff outings.
“No one ever thought going into the season there’s a spot for Sidney Crosby,” Botterill said. “Jake Guentzel plays so well, he earns a spot there. (Penguins goalie) Matt Murray, a couple years ago, you’re not thinking Matt Murray’s going to be playing in the National Hockey League.”
Murray, 23, backstopped the Penguins to the Cups, making veteran Marc-Andre Fleury expendable.
To Botterill, the Sabres’ older prospects not only performed well during rookie camp, they acted as leaders.
“This is sometimes a difficult tournament for players who have been through pro and played NHL games,” Botterill said. “Expectations are high, sometimes they almost try to do too much with the puck. But I feel like some of the guys like Bailey, Baptiste, Fasching played hard throughout the entire time, really tried to implement what we were trying to do from a systems standpoint and competed hard in a lot of the battles. …
“They did a great job behind the scenes getting the practices going, keeping the pace of play, keeping the group together.”
With Brian Gionta, Buffalo’s captain the last three seasons, unlikely to be re-signed, the Sabres’ new regime will have to pick someone new to wear the ‘C.’
Botterill said he has already discussed the captaincy with Housley.
“We’re getting to know the players, sort of the dynamics,” Botterill said. “We’ve talked to them, but we haven’t seen how that has all sort of meshed together here, and it’s a scenario where we’ll continue to watch them throughout the preseason, but there’s no time frame on when we’ll name a captain. We’ll see how things progress.”
Who gets final the say?
“It’ll be a situation where I’ll work very closely with Phil,” Botterill said.
Gionta, 38, has been skating in full Sabres gear with other players at HarborCenter.
Botterill said he’s “very optimistic” winger Alexander Nylander will be ready when the Sabres hold their first on-ice sessions of camp Friday. The eighth overall pick in 2016 missed the final two games of the Prospects Challenge as a precaution after suffering a lower-body injury.
“There’s no need to push anything here in a prospects camp,” Botterill said. “You can tell that he’s worked very hard in the offseason back in Sweden. We saw it in development camp, we saw it in his testing scores when he first got here.”
The Rochester American have signed signed former Sabres defenseman Nathan Paetsch to a one-year AHL contract, the affiliate announced Tuesday.
Paetsch, 34, spent parts of five seasons with the Sabres. He hasn’t played in the NHL since late 2009-10, after the Sabres traded him to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The 2003 seventh-round pick spent the last five seasons with the Grand Rapids Griffins, the Detroit Red Wings’ affiliate, winning two Calder Cups. He played with the Amerks his first three pro seasons and was Botterill’s teammate.
All six participated in Buffalo’s rookie camp.