BUFFALO – After playing four preseason games, Jacob Bryson sat out Friday’s finale. The Sabres used it as a dress rehearsal, and the six defensemen they likely plan to utilize opening night faced the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Bryson, 25, has enjoyed a strong training camp, showcasing more assertiveness than last season and earning coach Don Granato’s praise.
Still, his future here is unclear. The Sabres have their deepest blue line since the post-lockout days of the mid-2000s. Right now, he ranks seventh or eighth on the depth chart.
The Sabres almost certainly want to keep him. Given the rugged nature of the position, defensemen are always at a premium.
But do they have room for Bryson? Keeping eight defensemen would be a luxury. The Sabres must finalize their 23-man regular-season roster by 5 p.m. Monday.
If they want to keep three goalies or an extra forward, that wouldn’t leave space for two spare defenders.
Not long ago, Bryson had regular duty, skating about 18 or 19 minutes each game. Then an infusion of more talent and his own struggles pushed him out of the lineup.
“Jacob Bryson had a tough season last year,” Granato said.
The 5-foot-9, 176-pound Bryson compiled a team-worst minus-24 rating in 2022-23. His ice time dropped below 10 minutes some games as he struggled to stay in the lineup.
As the Sabres fought for a playoff spot and played their most meaningful games in more than a decade, he sat out 11 of the final 22 games as a healthy scratch.
“That’s probably the first time in my career that it’s happened, so it was definitely new for me,” Bryson said of sitting out. “I feel like everyone goes through those phases in their career and lifetime. But I feel like I handled it well. It’s tough to play a game, not playing four games, going back in. It’s tough mentally and even physically just to get back in that mindset.”
At his best, Bryson can be an aggressive, puck-moving defenseman. That style, of course, meshes well with the Sabres.
“Just being assertive and just making plays – not thinking the game too much and making the play that’s available,” Bryson said. “Just play simple and use my feet to my advantage. I feel like I play really well and fit our systems. I can be a really good defenseman.”
The offseason offered Bryson an opportunity to examine his game. He has grasped he must play more tenaciously and display an edge.
“One of the things I was trying to focus on in the summer and through exit interviews last year is being assertive when I’m in the lineup and even in practice,” he said. “Not being as nice to my teammates and kind of just being more competitive on the ice in a nice way. I think that’s a big thing for me, just competing more.”
Granato often talks about how in the thick of a long season, players don’t have time to catch their breath and reflect on their problems.
“When you’re in it, you don’t have any time to fix it, really,” he said. “Your body’s completely worn out, obviously, your psyche’s a little messed with, and you’re practicing full tilt, which means you got to just gear up to survive a practice even in the NHL, and then you play a game the next day. You don’t get the time.”
He added: “Brys, he’s a very intelligent guy and he works hard, but he never had the hindsight he had he has now.”