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January 29, 2009 - Matt Spielman
A great time was had by all in Edmonton on Tuesday night as the Sabres trounced the Oilers, 10-2.
But reality slapped Buffalo and its fans in the face Wednesday night in Calgary.
What was that reality you ask? The fact that the Sabres are down three regular defensemen and two relatively raw blue-liners are playing meaningful minutes for a team currently in the playoff race.
Chris Butler has been one of many bright spots on the Sabres this season so much so that many fans and people involved with the organization may have forgotten how young and inexperienced he is. The 22-year-old Denver University product was called up earlier this campaign and hadn't yet given coach Lindy Ruff any reason to even bench him, let alone send him back to Portland, until Wednesday night.
Butler made three blatant giveaways, leading to two Calgary goals, a number that also would have been three if not for an outstanding save by Ryan Miller. Credit goes to Ruff for continuing to play him, even in shorthanded situations, following the giveaways, but the coach really had no choice. Playing the second game in back-to-backs was hard enough, but Buffalo was seemingly on the power play or shorthanded for the final 40 minutes of the game. With Jaroslav Spacek, Craig Rivet and Toni Lydman hoarding the special-teams minutes, Ruff had to go with Nathan Paetsch, Butler and/or Marc-Andre Gragnani -- playing just his second NHL game on defense -- for the remainder of the even-strength minutes.
Even though the Sabres don't have the option at this point, I still think Butler on the NHL team makes sense. The 96th pick of the 2005 entry draft is a plus-3 on the season and needs to learn the position at this level quickly because the Sabres have to make decisions on Spacek and the aging Teppo Numminen after this season.
Gragnani is another story. The 87th pick in the same draft as Butler only picked up 11 minutes and 26 minutes of ice time, little of which came in the third period when Buffalo fell apart. Gragnani does add a little bit of offense to the Sabres blue line, but if he is playing valuable minutes, the team is in trouble.
What is more troubling than Gragnani's little ice time is the comparable playing time for Nathan Paetsch. Buffalo's seventh defenseman for the entire season, Paetsch was supposed to be cracking the top-6 at this point in his career. A season or two ago, Paetsch seemed like the only defenseman other than Brian Campbell able to play positive minutes on the power play. Now the 2001 second-round pick is likely on his way out with Mike Weber ready to play for the big-league club and the time also approaching for Mike Card and Mike Funk to make their way west from Portland into HSBC Arena.
Get upset with the Sabres all you want for not spending money on big-name free agents. But this team knows what it's doing when it is developing players, and a relative lack of depth defensively in the system for years is looking like it's becoming a strength for Buffalo.
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Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller, left, gets pressured by Calgary Flames' David Moss during the first period in Calgary, Alberta on Wednesday. AP photo