|(Photo Credit: Bill Wippert)
From beginning to end, the 2015-16 season was a transitional one for the Buffalo Sabres. The players came into it with high expectations, of course, but reaching their goals meant enduring the process of developing chemistry in a dressing room with nearly as many new faces as old.
Nine players made their debuts with the team when the Sabres hosted the Ottawa Senators for opening night on Oct. 8. That number grew to 18 over the course of the season: A combination of talented rookies, seasoned veterans and acquisitions meant to usher in a new era of hockey in Buffalo.
We broke down those 18 debuts by taking a look at the impressions they made on their first season in Buffalo and the lasting impressions that will be felt moving forward.
On Thursday, we began by looking at the nine new players who opened on the season on the Sabres roster. We continue by looking at the recalls and rookies who joined the team as the season progressed.
Click Here For More Features in Sabres.com's Season In Review Series10. Linus Ullmark (Debut: 10/24/16)
First Impression: Ullmark's debut on Oct. 24 came quicker than anyone – even him – expected. It was a surprise in itself that he was even able to recover from double hip surgery in time to hit the ice toward the end of Training Camp.
Having never played a game in North America, few expected to see the 22-year-old netminder at the NHL level in the first month of the season. But Sabres coach Dan Bylsma and his staff were so impressed by Ullmark's practices and three games in Rochester that they went with him to split the net with Chad Johnson while Robin Lehner recovered from his high-ankle sprain.
Ullmark allowed four goals on 28 shots in his debut, a 4-3 loss to New Jersey, but played well overall. He allowed only one goal in his next two games and allowed two goals or less in 12 of his 20 NHL starts this season.
Lasting Impression: During a two-game stretch with the Amerks in February, Ullmark made 94 saves on 97 shots and was named CCM/AHL Player of the Week. However, his performance was very up-and-down for Rochester once he was returned to the AHL after Lehner's return, but the goaltender said the experience of growing accustomed to the North American game at both the NHL and AHL levels this season was invaluable.
After returning to start Buffalo's final game of the season, a 4-3 win over the New York Islanders on April 9, Ullmark admitted there are still several aspects of his game that he needs to work on. At age 22, he still has plenty of time.11. Cal O'Reilly (Debut: 12/15/16)
First Impression: When the Sabres signed Ryan's older brother Cal to a two-year contract over the summer, he hadn’t played an NHL game since the 2011-12 season when he was a member of the Bylsma-coached Pittsburgh Penguins.
He began the season as captain in Rochester and, even after his recall on Dec. 5, had to wait for an afternoon game against New Jersey on Dec. 15 to finally make his return to NHL ice. He played 6:46 on the fourth line in his season debut and, one game later, scored his first NHL point in nearly four years with an assist in a home win over Anaheim.
Lasting Impression: Cal went on to score seven points (3+4) in 20 games with the Sabres, including a two-goal performance against Toronto on March 31. Bylsma was confident enough in his abilities to plug him right into the power play at various points of the season, and it's fair to assume he'll compete for a chance to make the team out of Training Camp next season.12. Daniel Catenacci (Debut: 2/6/16)
First Impression: Catenacci, a third-round pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, improved throughout the season in Rochester and was riding a five-game point streak in the AHL upon his recall on Feb. 5. He played three games prior to sustaining a concussion in Philadelphia and then returned for an eight-game stint in March.
Lasting Impression: Catenacci never tallied a point in his 11 games this season, but he impressed with his relentlessness on the forecheck. Take this shift at home against the New York Rangers, for example, when he touched the puck three times in three different areas of the ice in an 18-second span:
13. Justin Bailey (Debut: 2/11/16)
He begins by playing the puck along the left-wing wall.
He wins a battle along the right-wing wall 10 seconds later.
Finally, he plays the puck behind the net before eventually passing it out to the point.
Catenacci is one of a handful of hard-working prospects the Sabres have stocked in Rochester, including this next player who made his debut five days later.
First Impression: Bailey couldn’t have hoped for much higher praise from his coach than what he got following his NHL debut in Philadelphia, when Sabres coach Dan Bylsma called Bailey the team's "best forward on the ice." He didn’t score in spite of some generous opportunities, but he put seven shots on net (becoming the first Buffalo Sabre to do so in his first game since Alexander Mogilny in 1989) and generated eight individual scoring chances according to waronice.com. The team as a whole had 19 scoring chances when he was on the ice.
Lasting Impression: Bailey was held scoreless in his eight NHL games, but the way he used his combination of size and speed showed promise for the first-year pro. He scored 20 goals in 67 games as a rookie for Rochester in the American Hockey League and became the Amerks' first rookie to tally over 40 points since Johan Larsson in 2012-13.
With one year of pro hockey under his belt, it won't be out of the question for the Williamsville, N.Y. native to compete for a more regular role with the NHL club in 2016-17.14. Hudson Fasching (Debut: 3/26/16)
First Impression: Considering the success he had this season as a junior for the University of Minnesota, where he scored 26 points (12+14) in 38 games, Fasching's debut generated a good bit of excitement after signing an entry-level contract with Buffalo on March 21.
A fourth-round pick by the Los Angeles Kings in 2011 and acquired by Buffalo in a trade in March 2014, the 20-year-old Fasching was billed as a power forward with the size and skill to make an impact in front of the net. He delivered on that billing in just his first NHL game on March 26, beating Winnipeg Jets defenseman Jacob Trouba to drive to the net and score his first career goal.
Lasting Impression: Fasching played in seven games total, tallying two points (1+1). Whether he begins next season in Rochester or in Buffalo depends his Training Camp and how he improves between now and then, but the future certainly looks bright.15. Casey Nelson (Debut: 3/26/16)
First Impression: Nelson made his debut in the same game as Fasching, but less was known about what to expect from the undrafted defenseman signed as a free agent out of Minnesota State University, Mankato. A self-described "late bloomer," Nelson, 23, played three years in the North American Hockey League before walking on at Minnesota State. He ended up sitting out during the middle of his freshman season after struggling early on.
He improved drastically in college, however, winning Western College Hockey Association Defensive Player of the Year honors this season with 22 points (6+16) in 40 games. Unlike in college, he wasted no time in making an impact at the NHL level. Nelson tallied assists in each of his first three games, including a two-assist outing in a shootout loss in Pittsburgh on March 29. He finished the season with four assists in seven games.
Lasting Impression: Bylsma admitted that Nelson began to "fight the puck" a bit over the course of his seven games, but also stated his belief that there is an NHL role in the defenseman's future. Nelson's strength is his skating, and his ability to move the puck up the ice earned him 13:05 of power-play ice time. Like Fasching, where he begins next season depends on how much improvement the coaches see in Training Camp.
16. Cole Schneider (Debut: 4/8/16)
|(Photo Credit: Bill Wippert) |
First Impression: Schneider joined Bailey as the second Western New York native to make his NHL debut for the Sabres this season after being recalled on April 7. Unlike Bailey, however, Schneider had to wait until his fifth professional season to finally get his chance.
After being acquired in a trade with the Ottawa Senators organization that involved seven minor league players on Feb. 27, Schneider accrued 12 points (3+9) in 15 games with Rochester to finally earn his shot in the NHL. His coaches came away impressed, complementing the way he immediately adjusted to the pace of the NHL.
Lasting Impression: We already know Schneider can play at the AHL level; his 50-plus points in each of the last three seasons are evidence of that. A full season with the Sabres organization will give him the opportunity to earn more chances to prove those skills can translate to the NHL, but we'll have to wait and see how everything shakes out during Training Camp.17. Evan Rodrigues (Debut: 4/8/16)
First Impression: When he began the season in Rochester, Rodrigues admitted he had to learn to bring the same relentlessness that made him stand out at Training Camp on a consistent basis as a first-year pro. He eventually did that, and it earned him the chance to make his NHL debut along with Schneider.
Rodrigues played the final two games of the season for Buffalo, recording his first career goal and assist in the Sabres' season-ending win against the New York Islanders on April 9. His possession numbers in those two games were even better, boasting a 72.1 Corsi for percentage – meaning 72.1 percent of the shot attempts taken while Rodrigues was on the ice came from the Sabres.
Bylsma called Rodrigues one of the best forwards on the ice in each of the two games he played.
Lasting Impression: As an undrafted free agent out of Boston University, Rodrigues came into camp this season with a clear chip on his shoulder and looking to prove he was more than Jack Eichel's linemate in college. Next season, he said, he'll be coming into camp with the sole focus of earning a spot on the NHL roster.
He certainly earned the confidence not only of his coach, but of Sabres General Manager Tim Murray.
"I thought he was outstanding," Murray said at his season-ending press conference. "I mean … Wow. Ahead of what I expected, watching him in Rochester."18. Jason Kasdorf (Debut: 4/8/16)
First Impression: Kasdorf actually signed his entry-level deal one week prior to Fasching and Nelson, but he had to wait to practice due to a nagging groin injury he sustained at the end of his season with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The 23-year-old goaltender finally joined the team at practice in the second-to-last week of the season and made his debut in net in Buffalo's penultimate game.
Kasdorf allowed four goals on 30 shots in the loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Lasting Impression: It's hard to judge a goalie based on his first NHL game, especially when it's also his first professional game and he's coming off an injury. But Kasdorf said the weeks he spent working out and practicing in Buffalo were important steps in his progression, an early chance to become accustomed to NHL shots.
Murray said it's a safe bet we'll see Kasdorf begin his first full professional season in Rochester, where he'll have the chance to continue honing his skills and to climb up the organizational depth chart.