It’s hard to say the Sabres are in good shape at any position, but it’s clear their rebuild is moving forward on the back end. Buffalo has five defense prospects who have already gotten a look at the NHL.
Their development should take another jump this spring with postseason hockey and international competition.
Mark Pysyk, Rasmus Ristolainen and Chad Ruhwedel will start their playoffs tonight when the Rochester Americans host the Chicago Wolves. Jake McCabe will represent the United States at the world championships next month, which is also when Nikita Zadorov and the London Knights host the Memorial Cup.
The added games will help give them a chance at opening next season in Buffalo.
“We have a lot of good young D’s, and we just have to step up,” Ristolainen said. “That’s how we’ll get better with the team. Hopefully, it’s happening next year.”
Ristolainen made the biggest impression this season. Drafted eighth overall last June, he played on the blue line in 15 of the Sabres’ final 16 games to finish with 34 NHL appearances. He totaled two goals and four points, and he added another six goals and 20 points in 34 games with the Amerks.
“I’m going to be a way better player next year,” said the 19-year-old, who will first focus on the American Hockey League playoffs. “Hopefully, it’s going to be a long playoff run with Rochester.”
Ristolainen likely will be paired with Pysyk, who has increased his NHL game total to 63. Pysyk had one goal and seven points in 44 games with the Sabres and totaled one goal and 12 points in 31 games in Rochester.
The 22-year-old, selected in the first round in 2010, opened the season in Buffalo and stuck around until mid-January. He missed half of March with a concussion, which gave him a chance to look around at the Sabres’ defensive depth.
“Looking forward, hopefully that will translate into a pretty bright future here, and hopefully I can be a part of that,” Pysyk said. “You want to play in the NHL. That’s not up to me to decide, but with Buffalo not playing now, everyone will be watching down in Rochester and hopefully I can make a good impression.”
Ruhwedel is back after suffering a concussion April 6. He played 21 games for the Sabres, picking up one assist, and excelled in Rochester with four goals and 28 points in 47 games. He has three assists in two games since returning from the injury.
The 23-year-old, signed as a college free agent last spring, has also served as a mentor to McCabe, who joined the Sabres when his junior season ended at the University of Wisconsin. The second-round pick from 2012 suited up in seven games.
“I played with a lot of guys that really helped me, Rudy especially,” McCabe said. “He was in my situation last year, so he was constantly in my ear, ‘Keep doing this, keep doing that, work on this, work on that.’ All the guys have been great. Hopefully, we can play together for a long time.”
McCabe has been part of USA Hockey since 2009, but to compete for the world championship team at age 20 is a major accomplishment. He hopes he’s ready after feeling comfortable in the NHL.
“I learned that I can play at this level,” McCabe said. “To get those seven games in and get my feet wet in the NHL, it’s so nice for me because I can see what it takes to be at this level, to see the competition and understand the pace. I can be that much more ahead of the curve come training camp.”
Zadorov, who opened the season with the Sabres and played seven games before being sent back to London, has dominated at times in juniors. He has four goals and nine points in nine playoff games after putting up 11 goals and 30 points in 36 regular-season games.
The 16th overall pick last June turned 19 this month, so he has one year of junior eligibility left. He can play in Buffalo, but he’ll have to compete for a spot against his fellow prospects and contracted veterans Tyler Myers, Christian Ehrhoff and Mike Weber.
“We’re setting up a culture here where people are going to have to start earning jobs,” coach Ted Nolan said. “We’ve got to make it competitive.”