BUFFALO – In Thursday’s game against the Vegas Golden Knights, five of the six defensemen the Sabres utilized were 25 or younger.
The graybeard of the group, Robert Hagg, 27, has played all of 282 NHL games.
The rest of the blue line consisted of neophytes. Only one other defenseman, Rasmus Dahlin, 21, has played more than 200 big league contests.
The Sabres dressed two rookies – Casey Fitzgerald, 25, and Mattias Samuelsson, who turns 22 on Monday – against Vegas. Jacob Bryson, 24, and Henri Jokiharju, 22, also played.
When the Sabres had a surfeit of defensemen last month, they began rotating one in and out each game. Bryson and Samuelsson both sat out.
But Granato wants to toss the keys to the team’s young defenders.
Jokiharju’s return from a lower-body Thursday pushed veteran Mark Pysyk, 30, out of the lineup.
The only other time the Sabres scratched Pysyk on Feb. 13, they started their brief rotation.
Now, an experienced defenseman could be forced out every game if the Sabres have too many.
“The young guys are playing great,” Granato said prior to Thursday’s 3-1 win over the Golden Knights at KeyBank Center. “I mean … those are the guys you would want in the lineup, but those are the guys that are like really effective. They’re in the lineup, maybe they’d be in the lineup just because they’re young and the situation we’re in. But we don’t even have to get into it that, they’re actually playing well enough to stay in the lineup, and every game they’re getting better and better.”
The 5-foot-11, 188-pound Fitzgerald has emerged as perhaps the Sabres’ biggest surprise this season. Thursday was his 17th straight appearance and 21st overall.
After Fitzgerald enjoyed a strong training camp, it appeared he would earn his first recall this season.
Granato, who coached Fitzgerald in junior hockey, said he felt the youngster kept “better and better” with the Rochester Americans.
“He kept playing with more confidence, playing more to his identity and impacting more,” Granato said.
Through his first weeks in the NHL, Fitzgerald’s competitiveness and grit have helped him secure a regular spot. While he’s undersized for a defenseman, he keeps illustrating he’ll take on anyone. He has already fought four times, including Thursday against 6-foot-2, 221-pound Vegas winger Keegan Kolesar in the second period.
Fitzgerald left the game with an upper-body injury shortly after the fight and did not return.
“Fitzgerald is a good kid, and he’s a team guy,” Granato said. “You see it, he fights for his teammates, he looks out for his teammates. He’s surveying the ice, and if somebody’s bumping into somebody else on the team, he’s got it on his radar. He’s going to get in there and get involved immediately.
“So he really has a lot of pride in being a competitive guy and doing it for the right reasons for his team and winning.”
Granato said winger Zemgus Girgensons (lower body) and defensemen Will Butcher (lower body) and Colin Miller (upper body) will likely accompany the Sabres on their road trip to western Canada next week.
“Before that is a question mark,” Granato said.
The Sabres, of course, play the Heritage Classic outdoor game Sunday afternoon at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, Ont., against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I’m not so certain on throwing guys back in on different ice conditions in an outdoor game,” Granato said. “But they’re still not there anyway.”
Notes: Amerks winger Jack Quinn missed Wednesday’s 7-2 loss to the Laval Rocket because he suffered a minor setback following his return from a lower-body injury, coach Seth Appert told reporters in Rochester. The Sabres prospect returned to practice Thursday. He played two games last week, his first outings since getting injured Jan. 20 with the Sabres. … Amerks center Sean Malone played Wednesday after COVID-19 and a lower-body injury sidelined him 20 games. The West Seneca native scored his 10th goal in his return. … The Sabres also scratched winger Anders Bjork and center Mark Jankowski (both healthy).