A common exercise among fans and sports writers alike in the month leading up to NHL training camps is to put together a projected lineup for their respective teams. While I too enjoy pretending to be the head coach in his office imagining different line combinations, ultimately it's a futile exercise given that actual NHL coaches frequently mix up their lines not long into and throughout the season.
In lieu of submitting my projected line up, I've decided to group the players into 5 categories based on how likely I think they are to make the opening night roster.
It should go without saying that these percentages aren't in any way scientific, but rather a simple way to signify my confidence in the likelihood of them making the team.
Lock - 100% chance they'll be on the opening night roster
Eichel / Reinhart / Okposo / Skinner / Sheary / Ristolainen / Scandella / Dahlin / Hutton
Barring injury or trade, these players are sure to be on the opening night roster and playing a significant role all season. This group contains 5 of their top 6 forwards, their top defenseman, and the presumed starting goaltender. It would be huge news if any of these players ended up not making the team.
All But Guaranteed - 90% chance they'll be on the opening night roster
Pominville / Berglund / Sobotka / Bogosian / Ullmark / Mittelstadt
It's extremely unlikely that any of these players won't be on the opening night roster, however it's not impossible to imagine a player like Pominville getting crushed by the age curve. I think he's still good for 15ish goals but it's not unheard of for a player his age to suddenly lose a significant step and if it turns out he can't hang during training camp he could get the Moulson treatment and get buried in the AHL. Ullmark and Mittelstadt are on this list because it is possible they could have an atrocious training camp and have management decide that they need additional seasoning in Rochester. I think these scenarios are extremely unlikely but not impossible. I'd bank on each of these players being on the opening night roster.
Likely - 70% chance they'll be on the opening night roster
Girgensons / Wilson / Rodrigues / McCabe / Hunwick / Nelson
This is where things start to get interesting. While I think it's more likely than not that each of these players will be on the opening night roster, there is a good chance that 1 forward and/or 1 defenseman in this group could lose their spot to a player in the next group below. Girgensons should get one more shot to prove he belongs in the league but I expect him to have a pretty short leash if he stumbles. Buffalo re-signed Wilson this offseason to a 2 year contract, signaling that they were impressed with his play. However, his salary is low enough that they could send him down to Rochester if needed and be able to bury almost his entire cap hit if he's playing poorly.
Last season I wrote that Rodrigues and Nelson showed signs that they could be excellent depth players that can be counted on when star players aren't on the ice. They haven't jumped into the all but guaranteed group just yet, but they're pretty close and I'd expect them to be solid role players this season.
Maybe - 40% chance they'll make the opening night roster
Thompson / Larsson / Smith / Bailey / Baptiste / Guhle / Beaulieu / Pilut
If all of the forwards mentioned in the 3 groups above do in fact make the opening night roster, then 1 of the 5 forwards listed in this group will make the team, but honing in on which of these 5 forwards will actually make it is a bit more difficult to project. There's also a decent chance a second forward could emerge and steal a spot from a forward in the "Likely" group.
I'd prefer it if they didn't keep Larsson in Buffalo. I think he's warn out his welcome and proven he doesn't belong in the league at this point. However, it wouldn't shock me if they decided to keep the 4 young forwards, Thompson, Smith, Bailey, and Baptiste in Rochester in order to have them play top 6 minutes in the AHL instead of 3rd or 4th line minutes in the NHL. They would be better off if they kept one of the young forwards up instead of Larsson but Jason Botterill seems like a huge proponent of letting guys marinate in the AHL.
Brendan Guhle will be a fascinating case. I think he's easily one of the 6 best defenseman in the organization right now, but he's the only player eligible to go down to Rochester without passing through waivers, so in order for him to make Buffalo, he not only has to be good, but he has to be great during training camp and force the team to send another defenseman down. Lawrence Pilut was excellent during Sabres development camp where he showed off his ability to handle the puck and make smart passes. I expect him to start in Rochester but if he turns out to be even better than expected, he has a reasonable shot at stealing a spot.
Unlikely - 10 % chance they'll make the opening night roster
Nylander / Olofsson / O'Reagan / Asplund / Ogelvie
I imagine each player in this group will start in Rochester but it would be foolish to suggest they have a 0% chance at making the Sabres roster. The Sabres have better depth now, but it's not impossible for a young forward to work their way into a job. Despite the disappointing start to his career, Nylander clearly has the skill to be a top 6 forward in the NHL, he just needs to find that next gear to actually play in the league. If he finally does then he has a legitimate shot at the team.
Indications are that Olofsson may have the best shot on the team as he demonstrated during development camp this summer (GIFs below). If he shows he can hang with the speed of the NHL, he could be an option to play on Eichel or Mittelstadt's wing.
There should be some interesting position battles in training camp to keep an eye on next month. Despite the teams improved forward depth, the opportunity is there for young players to show up and steal a job in the bottom 6. I'm excited to see players like Thompson, Smith, Guhle, Olofsson, and Pilut attempt to prove that they belong on the opening night roster in Buffalo. I'm also curious to see if guys like Girgensons, Wilson, and McCabe can hang on to their assumed spots in the lineup.
If nothing else, it's a positive sign that there should be legitimate competition in training camp compared to the previous few season. Forcing players to earn their spot on the team can only be a good thing not only during training camp, but throughout the entire season. Having a stable of players that pose a threat to steal a job in Buffalo should provide additional motivation for Sabres players to be their best and potentially make Rochester one of the better teams in the AHL with some of the top talent in the league.