Joel Armia had a shot to make the Sabres’ opening-night roster. He possesses a skill that’s lacking in Buffalo – scoring touch – and it would have been interesting to see if he’d survive the final cuts.
Alas, he didn’t make it intact through the exhibitions. Armia, one of several No. 1 picks competing for a job, is out indefinitely after breaking his hand on a slash Wednesday during the Sabres’ penultimate preseason game.
“He was doing a good job,” coach Ron Rolston said Thursday. “I think each game we saw improvement in how he was performing.”
Armia, selected 16th overall in the 2011 NHL draft, totaled one goal and three points in four exhibitions. The Finnish right winger was getting a long look to start his first North American season in Buffalo.
While his door is closed, the window remains open for the Sabres’ other roster hopefuls. The team’s final preseason game is tonight in Carolina, and the bubble players have one more shot at impressing the decision makers.
“Evaluation is still going on with some spots,” Rolston said in First Niagara Center. “From where we’re at, there will be some tough choices we have to make. I think that’s what we want. We want guys to compete for those spots.”
After long-term injuries this week to Armia and forward Corey Tropp (broken jaw), the Sabres are down to 27 players: 16 forwards, nine defensemen and two goaltenders. They must be at the league maximum of 23 on Monday.
“Everyone knows you’re fighting for jobs, and that’s just part of the business,” center Kevin Porter said. “Guys are still friends, and we’re still a team here. You go out and you play your best, and the coaches make the final decision.”
It’s reasonable to assume there are 17 players with jobs locked up. Forwards Thomas Vanek, Steve Ott, Cody Hodgson, Tyler Ennis, Ville Leino, Drew Stafford, Patrick Kaleta, Marcus Foligno, Mikhail Grigorenko and John Scott, defensemen Christian Ehrhoff, Tyler Myers, Mike Weber, Henrik Tallinder and Mark Pysyk, and goalies Ryan Miller and Jhonas Enroth figure to be on the roster Wednesday when the Sabres open the season in Detroit.
The Sabres would need to keep three more to fill out a lineup and six to reach the roster limit. At least four players will be ticketed to Rochester this weekend.
“Every day you come in and you hope your name tag’s up and you have a jersey in your stall,” center Cody McCormick said.
McCormick is one of six forwards in the mix for two to four openings. He’s joined by Porter and fellow center Johan Larsson, and wingers Zemgus Girgensons, Brian Flynn and Luke Adam.
Where the Sabres decide to use Ennis – he’s played center and left wing during preseason – impacts what positions are open. If he’s in the middle, that essentially leaves room for one center and two wingers. If he goes to the wing, two centers and one winger may make the squad.
Two rookies, Girgensons (three goals, four points) and Larsson (two goals), have had the most productive preseason among the bubble players. Flynn and Porter have the benefit of earning Rolston’s admiration last year. McCormick adds punch. Adam is a long shot.
“The competitive level is up,” McCormick said. “We’re seeing some really good things from a lot of the players here.”
There appears to be one starting job and up to three roster spots available on the blue line. Veterans Alexander Sulzer and Jamie McBain are competing with rookie Rasmus Ristolainen for the starting role. Fellow first-round pick Nikita Zadorov is expected to return to his junior team.
Ristolainen, 18, has impressed throughout camp. The Sabres practiced the power play Thursday for the first time this preseason, and Ristolainen was on one of the units. That would seem to give him an inside track to be on the ice in Detroit.
“I think I have played pretty good,” Ristolainen said. “Let’s see what the coaches think about that when they cut the players.”
Sulzer and McBain could be kept around to provide depth or simply to avoid being lost through waivers. Sulzer is hoping to make a successful return from knee surgery, while McBain wants to make the club after arriving in an offseason trade.
“I’ve been in this situation so many times, it’s more like Groundhog Day for me,” said Sulzer, who’s struggled to cement a role in Nashville, Florida, Vancouver and Buffalo. “I’ve learned over the years there’s a few things I can control, and that’s the way I play. Everything else is out of my control. I just want to do my best to play up to my skill set. The coaches and the GM make the rest of the decisions.”
Rolston said the final moves will balance immediate success with the long-term betterment of the rebuilding club. Even for players sent to Rochester, the competition isn’t over.
“If they’re not here,” Rolston said. “their job is to get here.”