With the preseason winding down and the regular season mere days away, Lindy Ruff has some decisions to make. In the overall scheme of things, there are three major decisions to be made by Ruff and Co. that will affect the team for the rest of the season.
1. Who Takes the Sixth Defensive Spot?
The top four defensemen have been set since Christian Ehrhoff inked his name on his 10-year deal July 1, with Tyler Myers, Ehrhoff, Robyn Regehr and Jordan Leopold making up what, on paper, is one of the best top fours in the NHL.
The question then becomes, who will make up the third pairing?
There's been a lot of chatter about Mike Weber and him being on the bubble to make the team. Any notion of that is completely ridiculous. Weber was the team's steadiest defenseman from the moment he was called up from the AHL last year. He also has impressed in the preseason, especially in the home-and-home with the Maple Leafs last weekend, showing his ability to take away ice from anyone, whether they have the puck or not.
Lindy Ruff's system craves a space-eating defenseman like Weber and he will only be better this year. Look for a marked improvement in his point totals and possibly his impressive plus-13 rating from a season ago.
The fight then comes down to two: Marc-Andre Gragnani and Andrej Sekera.
This is a tough one to call. Gragnani, solely on the basis of his 16 games with the big club at the end of last year, playoffs included, likely had the edge coming into training camp. Yet shaky play in five-on-five situations may have evened the playing field between him and Sekera.
Sekera has been given chance after chance by Ruff simply because he's had to over the years due to the lack of defensive depth that has plagued the Sabres. Now, with two veteran acquisitions, the Sabres D is deeper than ever and Ruff does not have to continue to give Sekera chances he does not deserve.
The way it looks right now, it seems there is no clear sixth defenseman, with Sekera and Gragnani getting the ice time when they deserve it (or the other no longer does). However, if I had to pick one, I'd say Gragnani will be in the starting lineup October 7 in Germany. His play on the power play has been extremely solid and could give him the leg up on Sekera despite the five-on-five failings to this point.
Either way, two young and talented defensemen will be vying for that sixth spot which can only help the Sabres.
2. Will Luke Adam Make the Team?
Coming into training camp fresh off the impressive victory in the Traverse City prospects tournament, Luke Adam, Zack Kassian and Marcus Foligno looked like they could make a push to make the Sabres outright. However, after a few solid but blase games, Kassian and Foligno were told they'd be starting their seasons in Rochester.
Adam is another story. After playing 19 games with the Sabres last season and winning the AHL's Rookie of the Year Award, Adam came in hungry for a spot on the big club. Picking up where he left off in Traverse City, Adam used his body to his advantage along the wall and in front of the net. His fast hands have made him an instant power play weapon and his accurate shot makes him a threat to score from anywhere.
With his solid training camp, Adam has forced Lindy Ruff to truly consider keeping a spot open for him on the big club. The only question is if there is room.
Jochen Hecht has yet to play a preseason game and could likely still be feeling effects from the concussion that kept him out of over 15 games last season. Any questions about the health of Hecht will surely aid in Adam's cause.
Matt Ellis and Cody McCormick are excellent motor players who give 110 percent every time they are on the ice, but they simply do not have the talent that Adam possesses. Neither Ellis nr McCormick will ever threaten to be a 20-goal scorer this year, but Adam has that potential.
Assuming that Hecht is in fact injured and not being held out for precautionary reasons, and that the current third line is not what Ruff plans on moving forward with (more on that below), I believe it shakes out like this: Adam makes the team and will play on the third line with Nathan Gerbe and Brad Boyes.
Bear with me.
Paul Gaustad has looked decent this preseason, yes, but giving Gerbe and Boyes someone who can not only score, but get them the puck as well will make for a scary combination. Gerbe is a playmaker who stretches the ice for his linemates. Boyes, while no longer the 40-goal scorer, has scoring potential and plays extremely well in the corners and on the wall. Adam has the front-of-the-net presence and playmaking ability to get the two wings the puck.
If you told me all three players on that line would score 20 goals, I would not be surprised in the least.
From your third line? I'll take that.
3. The Fourth-Line Dilemma
The first three lines (in my eyes) are pretty well set. The fourth line will likely be the same rotating entity it has been for years under Ruff.
Gaustad will likely be the only stable presence on the line with his wings rotating on a game to game basis.
Pat Kaleta has looked great this preseason, but not third-line great. He has a role on the team, and it's not third-liner. It's biting at people's ankles and drawing penalties and just causing a ruckus in general. That's the call of a fourth-liner. Provided he stays healthy this year, he will play in 65-plus games and will be a steady presence on the fourth line.
This is where it gets complicated.
If healthy, Jochen Hecht will see time here. He may also find his way onto the third line at times, but I think he will spend most of his time here. Throw away the "he's too expensive to play on the third line" argument. That does not mean anything anymore in Pegulaville. Having Hecht as a fourth-liner instantly shores up the line from a one-dimensional line to one that has the potential to put a few pucks in the back of the net. He's not in the middle of a long-term contract, this is likely his last year as a Sabre.
If Hecht is not healthy, McCormick and Ellis will split time at the other wing. And the same argument goes for them here as it did above—they have great motors, but they're not production players. If they aren't getting it done on the other wing, look for Kassian and Foligno to get looks there. Not right away, but come December or January, I would not be surprised to see them in the lineup a few games at a time.
Overall, the possible fourth line will be Jochen Hecht, Paul Gaustad and Pat Kaleta.
And all this didn't even talk about the Drew Stafford - Ville Leino - Tyler Ennis line. I'll describe it in one word: scary.