Addressing the left wing

July 10, 2018
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The Buffalo Sabres are in the thick of the offseason with the NHL Draft come and gone, and the free agency period now open league-wide.

Now, as the activity around the league starts to slow down, the focus shifts towards addressing the lineup and where certain guys will slot in for the upcoming 2018-19 season.

One position for the Sabres that needed some attention this offseason was at the left wing.

Last season, the Sabres started the year with players like Evander Kane and Matt Moulson on the left wing, but both were not on the roster by March. Others like Benoit Pouliot, Jordan Nolan, Johan Larsson, Zemgus Girgensons, Scott Wilson and Sam Reinhart filled in on the left wing throughout the year, but no one was much of a factor to help the Sabres from finishing in last place in the NHL standings.

Sabres general manager Jason Botterill has made some moves this offseason to change the roster up front, acquiring Conor Sheary from the Pittsburgh Penguins, as well Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka, and Tage Thompson from the St. Louis Blues. In addition, Botterill brought back Wilson after signing him to a two-year contract.

In the system, the Sabres have a few option that are on the fringe of making the NHL, and could fight to earn a spot in the lineup next season.

So what could the Sabres' lineup look like on the left wing this upcoming season?

Starting at the top, it appears that Sheary is going to get every opportunity to play alongside Jack Eichel on his left side.

The 26-year-old has spent a majority of the past three seasons playing with the Penguins alongside Sidney Crosby on the team's top line, scoring 48 goals and 93 points in 148 games. Sheary also played a lot of time with Crosby in the last three postseasons, scoring six goals and 19 points in 57 games.

While Sheary may only stand at 5' 8" tall, the 175-pound winger certainly brings the speed and skill required to keep up with Eichel on his wing. Sheary also has the playmaking ability to not only finish plays, but also set them up for his linemates.

If Sheary can have the same amount of success playing with Eichel that he had playing with Crosby in Pittsburgh, we could see a lot more pucks going into the net for the Sabres.

After Sheary, things start to get interesting at who will slot in on the left wing.

One potential option for the Sabres on the left side is the newly acquired Thompson from the Blues.

The 20-year-old made his NHL debut last season, playing 41 games in St. Louis and scoring three goals and nine points. The 6' 5", 205-pound forward was the Blues' first round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, and has the versatility to play center and on both wings.

Perhaps Thompson's biggest attribute to his game is his shot and his ability to get shots on towards the goal. With him being a right-handed shot, maybe setting him up on the left wing will allow him to shoot the puck more from his off-wing and create more scoring chances. As long as Thompson is comfortable playing on the left side of the ice, perhaps head coach Phil Housley will look to get him some quality time as the team's second left wing option.

Outside of the Sabres' newest acquisitions, the team will have plenty of options in house to fill out the rest of the left wing.

Scott Wilson was a nice addition to the Sabres' left wing during the 2017-18 season, filling in mostly as a depth option. Buffalo acquired the 26-year old from the Detroit Red Wings back in December, and he managed to dress in 49 games for the Sabres. In those games, Wilson scored six goals and added eight assists as mainly a third or fourth line left winger.

Outside of being a depth option, Wilson can bring some good speed on the wing and be relied upon to play some key shutdown minutes throughout the game. In addition, he is a player who can fill in with the top-two lines when needed and be able to contribute at a decent rate.

Since coming into the NHL, Evan Rodrigues has been a decent surprise for the Sabres. Although he has never been the biggest of players at just 5' 11" and 182-pounds, Rodrigues has fought his way to the top and has shown to be a versatile NHL forward.

Rodrigues plays with enough speed and skill to be a stable option in the top-six forward group, and can play on either wing and down the middle. The 24-year-old is also a guy who can plug in to any situation on the ice, and has the potential to continue his growth with the Sabres overall.

On this team, Rodrigues may be a perfect second or third line fit on the left side, and provide some much-needed depth scoring and playmaking.

Zemgus Girgensons could provide a similar role for the Sabres this year as he can be a versatile option up front. The 24-year-old has been longing for a chance to breakout over the past few years, and this could be his chance to step up to the plate.

If not, there could be the chance that Girgensons' future with the organization becomes a question. However, if he can find some comfort and consistency on one line, it may benefit him down the road.

Another player who needs to step up his play is Johan Larsson, and his spot in the NHL with the Sabres could be in jeopardy this preseason. The 25-year-old Swede had a very down year last season with just four goals and 17 points, and could find himself in the AHL if his play does not improve.

Larsson has been at center for the past few seasons, but if he is shoved out of that position, maybe a revival of his career may come as a fourth-line left winger. If not, could mean lights out for him.

The Sabres also have plenty of potential prospects down in Rochester who may be ready to fight for a spot in the NHL on the left side.

One of the biggest questions heading into the offseason is where is Alex Nylander in his develop? Is he ready to make the next big jump and finally becoming a NHLer?

We saw a bit of Nylander last season at the end of the year, where he ended up scoring his first NHL goal. However, injuries, struggles and inconsistencies in Rochester have left many concerned about his future in Buffalo.

If he can stay healthy in the offseason and throughout training camp and the preseason, it is key for the 20-year-old to show some sort of progression with his game. Nylander has the skill to certainly be a gifted playmaker in this league, but the other aspects of his game has to be present as well. If he shows off some strength, some speed and consistency on and off the ice in camp, Nylander could have the chance to crack the Sabres lineup and play some quality time as a top-forward on this team.

One player who could be a dark horse candidate to crack the NHL lineup in his first season in North America is Victor Olofsson.

The 22-year-old just completed his fourth season in the Swedish Hockey League with Rasmus Dahlin and the Frölunda Indians. The former seventh round pick in 2014 ended up leading the league with 27 goals last season in 50 games, and showcased his incredible shot and offensive skillset.

The biggest question with Olofsson is how well can he transition from the European style of hockey in Sweden to the North American style? If he can make a seamless transition and continue to put the puck in the net, maybe he gets a shot in the NHL right away for a team that struggled to score, let alone shoot the puck last season.

We saw Nick Baptiste finally carve out a role for himself at the NHL level last season on the right wing, but what about Justin Bailey? Can he finally figure out a role for himself on the left side in Buffalo?

The 23-year-old has battled his own inconsistencies in Buffalo, and last season dealt with lingering injuries throughout the year. If Bailey can stay healthy and figure out his role, maybe he finally gets the shot he's been looking for over the past few years.

And don't forget about C.J. Smith, who was likely to be in Buffalo last season if he had not dealt with a couple of late-season injuries.

Last season, Smith got off to a red-hot start in his first full professional season in Rochester. The 23-year-old scored 17 goals and 44 points in 57 games played last season, and earned the honors as the AHL All-Star Game MVP. Smith showed last season he can be a decent playmaker and finisher with the puck, and improved his foot speed as the season went on.

Can Smith come to Buffalo this offseason and prove himself worthy of cracking the Sabres lineup? Has he taken the necessary steps to earn himself a spot in the NHL? If he has, look for him to be just another option on the left side for the Sabres.

Here's a look at the depth at the left wing position for the Sabres:

  • Conor Sheary
  • Evan Rodrigues
  • Zemgus Girgensons
  • Alexander Nylander
  • Scott Wilson
  • C.J. Smith
  • Victor Olofsson
  • Linus Weissbach*
  • Brett Murray*
  • Max Willman*
  • Matt Moulson

Keep it locked to WGR and WGR550.com all offseason for the latest on the Sabres.