BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — The Sabres closed out the preseason with a 7-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday night at KeyBank Center. They went 3-4-0 in the exhibitions, scoring 22 goals, while giving up 27, the most of any Eastern Conference team.
Here are four takeaways looking at the roster decisions before Thursday night’s home opener, and after the Sabres made moves on Saturday to get closer to the 23-player limit by Monday.
Zach Benson, Buffalo’s first-round draft choice in June, furthered his case for making the opening night roster, a rare feat for any teenage rookie, especially one selected No. 13 overall.
At 18 years, five months, Benson could become the youngest Sabres skater since Pierre Turgeon in 1987. He is a month younger than April baby Rasmus Dahlin was on opening night in 2018. Jack Eichel turned 19 a few weeks after the start of his rookie season in 2015. Sam Reinhart was about that age the season before, same with Rasmus Ristolainen in 2013. Four of those players were drafted in the top two, and Ristolainen went eighth.
Benson was Buffalo’s best player in the preseason, with four goals and three assists in six games. His seven points rank among the NHL leaders, ahead of No. 1 pick Connor Bedard, and exceed Eichel’s four-game tally (six points) as a rookie.
“It’s been awesome,” Benson said after he added a power-play goal and an assist to his tally on Friday night. “Since day one, I felt welcome. It’s been a blast, obviously, learning from so many talented players that have been in this league for a while now and obviously the coaching staff who has super knowledge of this game and kind of just soaking it all up.”
On top of posting the most productive preseason by any Sabres player of recent vintage, Benson impressed the Sabres with his competitiveness, consistency, and ability to absorb information. He was a standout from the start of development camp, into the prospects challenge, and up through the end of preseason training.
“He’s done it with different personnel in different situations in game after game,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “So he’s done very well for himself through camp. Not many things you could nitpick with. He’s done a lot of detail to his game and he’s been ready to play each and every shift, any situation, read situations well, has helped guys around him on whatever line play better.”
Benson continued to flourish skating on the second line with Casey MIttelstadt and Jordan Greenway, after melding well with top-line center Tage Thompson and Jeff Skinner in previous games.
“I loved playing with him,” said Mittelstadt, who led the Sabres with three points, scoring a goal set up by Benson. “He’s a hound on the puck. He’s so good at getting it back and for a little guy, he can protect the thing pretty well. So, extremely impressive.”
Odd men out
In many ways, Benson seized the opportunity from his junior hockey linemate Matt Savoie, the Sabres’ first-round pick the summer before. Savoie skated with the Sabres on Friday morning for the first time since injuring his shoulder in the final game of the prospects challenge.
Buffalo can play Benson and Savoie in nine games before burning a year of their entry-level contracts. Benson has earned an opportunity to show what he can do when the games count. Savoie could get a chance when healthy, depending on the timing with Benson.
Benson and Savoie are not permitted to play in the AHL as teenagers, but could be sent to Rochester on conditioning assignments after a certain number of healthy scratches with Buffalo. After teaming together for Canada in the World Junior Championships, Benson and Savoie could then return to their junior club in Wenatachee. That is, unless Benson plays his way into being a fixture in the Sabres lineup at 18.
Lukas Rousek, sent down to the minors on Saturday, is on call to fill a spot if there is an injury, or Benson’s time is up. Rousek, 24, is waiver exempt on a two-way clause this season, but will be on the NHL roster next year. Juri Kulich, 19, and Isak Rosen, 20, were both assigned to Rochester earlier this week, but would be next in line for recall. Brandon Biro, 25, was waived Saturday. If he clears, Biro fortifies Buffalo’s forward depth, as well as the Amerks’ lineup.
The back end
In order to keep Benson, the Sabres needed to waive a player on an NHL contract. Riley Stillman, 25, the physical D-man acquired at last season’s trade deadline, hit the wire on Saturday. That leaves Jacob Bryson, 25, who has played 170 games for the Sabres over the past three seasons, as the seventh defenseman for opening night. If Stillman is claimed on waivers, veteran Kale Clague, 25, and rookie Ryan Johnson, 22, are the top D-men in the pipeline.
Buffalo is comfortable keeping three goaltenders to start the season. Despite a rough outing against the Penguins, rookie sensation Devon Levi should be in the crease on opening night after he started each of the Sabres’ home exhibitions. Eric Comrie had a better preseason than Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, but both can be useful for the Sabres until a trade materializes, or an injury arises.
Victor Olofsson had a goal and assist Friday, giving him four points in the preseason. The 28-year-old winger is coming off a career-best 28 goals, but he was scratched five games in a row late last season and is in the expiring year of his contract. If not part of the Sabres’ future, however, Olofsson has a place in the present lineup. At least until Jack Quinn returns from his Achilles injury in the second half of the season.
Projected opening night lineup
Jeff Skinner — Tage Thompson — Alex Tuch
Jordan Greenway — Casey Mittelstadt — Zach Benson
JJ Peterka — Dylan Cozens — Victor Olofsson
Zemgus Girgensons — Peyton Krebs — Kyle Okposo
Scratch: Tyson Jost
Injured reserve: Jack Quinn, Matt Savoie
Rasmus Dahlin — Connor Clifton
Owen Power — Henri Jokiharju
Mattias Samuelsson — Erik Johnson
Scratch: Jacob Bryson
Devon Levi — Eric Comrie
Scratched: Ukko-Pekka Luukkonnen