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Camp Preview: Competition on defense

Dahlin joins a group of at least 10 players competing for spots

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

Following his final transaction of a busy offseason, when the Sabres snagged Jeff Skinner from the Carolina Hurricanes on Aug. 2, general manager Jason Botterill was asked about the potential for Skinner to play alongside top center Jack Eichel. He answered earnestly. 

"I think it's certainly a possibility," Botterill said. "… We'll leave it up to [head coach] Phil [Housley] to see where that sort of all falls out come the start of the season. But what gets me excited as a general manager is we're at least giving our coach options."

Botterill and Housley have both cited internal competition as a central ingredient in the recipe for a winning culture. With an influx of veteran players and a core of prospects looking to establish themselves as such, it's fair to expect competition for roster spots at every position in the weeks ahead.

So far, we've examined the candidates at center and on the wings. Here's a look at the defense, where at least 10 candidates will compete for eight spots.

 

 

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Rasmus Dahlin joins a crowded group that also includes holdover veterans Marco Scandella, Jake McCabe and Nathan Beaulieu in addition to newcomer Matt Hunwick and another promising prospect in Brendan Guhle. Brandon Hickey and Lawrence Pilut will look to join the conversation as first-year pros. 

Dahlin, the first-overall pick in this year's draft, figures to contribute from the get-go as an 18-year-old rookie. While he is a left-handed shot, his ability to play on his off side could offer the Sabres flexibility given the number of left shots on the roster. 

Brian Duff wrote about the expectations surrounding Dahlin's rookie season, which you can read here.

Video: Rasmus Dahlin takes the No. 1 spot on the list

Scandella generally played on the top pair alongside Rasmus Ristolainen last season, averaging a career-high 23:19 of ice time as a first-year Sabre. His 22 points (5+17) ranked second among the team's defensemen, behind Ristolainen. 

McCabe, like Dahlin, offers the Sabres flexibility with his ability to play on his off side. The 24-year-old will look to rebound after playing just 53 games last season before undergoing shoulder surgery in late February. Botterill has cited McCabe's puck-moving ability as an asset to the Sabres moving forward.

Beaulieu experienced several road bumps during his first season in Buffalo, missing a total of 18 games over multiple stretches due to illness and injury, and admitted the frequent interruptions made it difficult to truly get comfortable with his new team. Training camp presents an opportunity for a fresh start for the 25-year-old, who scored a career-high 28 points for Montreal in 2016-17. 

Hunwick was acquired from Pittsburgh along with Conor Sheary in June. He scored a career-best 19 points (1+18) for Toronto in 2016-17, his 10th NHL season, and averaged a career-high 22:34 the year prior. At age 33, he could provide a veteran presence on the ice and in the dressing room. 

The veterans will be pushed by Guhle, who appeared in 18 games for Buffalo as a rookie last season and possesses the type of skating that could allow him to excel in Housley's system. Guhle can be sent to Rochester without passing through waivers, so he may need to forces his coach's hand to earn a spot.

Video: Americans Made: Brendan Guhle

Hickey and Pilut figure to begin the season in Rochester, but either player could play challenge for an NHL spot by season's end. Hickey played four years and served as captain at Boston University; Pilut was the Swedish Hockey League's Defenseman of the Year last season.

Pilut will need to adjust to the smaller North American ice, but assistant manager Randy Sexton has suggested that his high hockey IQ could ease that transition. 

"Lawrence Pilut fits the mold that we have," Sexton said in June. "He's a mobile, puck-moving defenseman. He's not necessarily the biggest guy, but you don't need to be big to play anymore, particularly on the backend. You need to be smart, you need to have vision and read the play well and you need to be able to identify your options quickly and execute with precision. And that's what he does."
 

 

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After ranking fourth in the NHL with an average ice time of 26:04 over the past three seasons, Ristolainen is one player who could particularly benefit from the addition of Dahlin. He's likely to remain the team's top defenseman on the right side.

Beyond Ristolainen, Zach Bogosian and Casey Nelson are Buffalo's primary options on the right. Bogosian was a standout at camp last fall but ended up playing just 18 games due to an injury. He underwent surgery in late January and says he's back to 100 percent.

"I think it's huge," Bogosian said following a skate at Harborcenter last week. "I haven't been 100 percent for quite some time. It feels nice to be able to go out there and not be thinking about an injury, just go out there and play your game. I know when I'm at the top of my game, I can be effective out there."

Nelson became a fixture in the Buffalo lineup during the second half of last season and displayed an ability to contribute offensively in Housley's system, with the coach often citing his "uncanny" ability to get shots through to the net. Nelson's three goals tied for third amongst Sabres defensemen despite only playing 37 games. 

The Sabres also have depth options on the right side in Taylor Fedun and Matt Tennyson, both of whom spent the majority of last season with Rochester.
 

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