Jason Botterill admitted while speaking to the media on Thursday that the Buffalo Sabres defense corps, from a personnel standpoint, is just now beginning to appear the way he envisioned it while constructing the team in the offseason.
A slew of injuries has tested Buffalo's depth on the back end, having had 10 defensemen enter the lineup already this season. With Rasmus Ristolainen's upper-body injury behind him, the impending return of Zach Bogosian will have the group of six finally looking how many chalked it up in the preseason.
Bogosian participated in a full practice for the third time this week on Thursday and, if he responds well, could make his season debut when the Sabres host the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday.
"I've had a couple good days of practice," Bogosian said. "I feel ready. We'll see what tomorrow brings but I'm sure I'll have a conversation with coach sometime either today or tomorrow morning and go from there."
"He really has [had a good week]," Sabres coach Phil Housley added. "Monday his practice was really good, yesterday and today were really good practices for him. There's a lot of battles involved in our practices so we'll reevaluate that tomorrow and see how he gets through today."
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Bogosian practiced on a pair with Nathan Beaulieu throughout the week. Marco Scandella and Rasmus Ristolainen remained together as did Jake McCabe and Victor Antipin, presumably rounding out the top six. The Sabres still have eight defensemen on their roster after placing Matt Tennyson on waivers Thursday, with Josh Gorges and Justin Falk skating as an extra pair at practice.
What those defensemen have in common is their skating ability, and Bogosian in particular displayed a comfort level with the offensive responsibilities placed upon defensemen in Housley's system prior to sustaining his injury in the preseason.
"I think you look at the guys that will be playing, [there are] a lot of good skaters," Bogosian said. "I think our depth from the first pair all the way down to the third will be good. All six that are playing, I think, can play an offensive game and get up in the rush, try to be that second layer of offense.
"Once you're up there, hopefully it drags a guy to you where maybe the forwards can do something or get a different look."
Tennyson, too, had been practicing with the Sabres throughout the week after dealing with a foot injury. He was placed on waivers after practice on Thursday with the hopes that he'd be able to contribute in Rochester.
"Hopefully he does clear because I thought Matt brought a lot to the table,' Housley said. "He had a really good, solid camp, really consistent with his play when he was in the lineup and then he got hurt and fortunately we've got numbers coming back at us. On a personal note, I'd like to see him get through and get back to his timing and get some games in."
Tennyson has averaged 18:16 and recorded 24 shots in 14 games with the Sabres.
Ullmark joins practice
With Robin Lehner sitting out for a maintenance day, the Sabres recalled Linus Ullmark from Rochester to fill the void at practice on Thursday. Housley said the team expects Lehner to be back on the ice on Friday.
Ullmark already enjoyed success at the AHL level last season, when he was selected to represent Rochester at the AHL All-Star Classic and tied for seventh in the league with 26 wins. The difference this season is that the Amerks are now finding success as a team, too. Rochester sits in second place in the North Division at 11-5-3-1 this season, and Ullmark has posted a .919 save percentage.
Ullmark praised the leadership of coach Chris Taylor, captain Kevin Porter and alternate captain Nathan Paetsch as driving forces behind the team's turnaround, along with added organizational depth.
"It's a big change," Ullmark said. "This is my third year, and coming in this year it feels like we have a lot more confidence, we have a lot more depth. So if we have guys who earn their spot up here in Buffalo, it's not the whole world for us as a team because we've got players in the [ECHL] and we've got more players as a team who can back it up."
In typical fashion for a man who wears a minion mask, Ullmark was also sure to give an entertaining answer when asked about his personal growth from last season to now.
"It's a personal level," he said. "It's about growing as a person, you grow as an athlete. You can't take any days off. You can't really take any days off as a person. You can't go out there and be a moron or just being a complete numbnuts to people, it doesn't work like that. Be yourself.
"I'm happy guy, I like being a happy guy, so why shouldn't I be a happy guy at all times? And it's the same thing being on the ice. I'm a happy guy, so why not be happy on the ice?"
Ristolainen and Gorges returned to practice after having maintenance days on Wednesday, while Housley changed his forward lines for the second day in a row. Changes included a move for Sam Reinhart to the top line alongside Jack Eichel, with Kyle Criscuolo centering Benoit Pouliot and Jason Pominville.
"We're working on our game offensively, definitely, and just trying to find chemistry," Housley said. "Like I said yesterday, we're going to continue to change our lines - we changed them again today - until we feel comfortable with where we're at."
Here's how the full lineup appeared at practice:
9 Evander Kane - 15 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
17 Jordan Nolan - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 21 Kyle Okposo
67 Benoit Pouliot - 51 Kyle Criscuolo - 29 Jason Pominville
28 Zemgus Girgensons - 22 Johan Larsson - 26 Matt Moulson
6 Marco Scandella - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
19 Jake McCabe - 93 Victor Antipin
82 Nathan Beaulieu - 47 Zach Bogosian
4 Josh Gorges - 5 Matt Tennyson/41 Justin Falk
31 Chad Johnson
35 Linus Ullmark