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Cupboard Stocked in Portland

Farmhands offer relief and excitement after Buffalo's dismal start

With the Buffalo Sabres enjoying an unusual one-week respite in their game schedule, perhaps this is a good time not only to heal bumps and bruises but also for the front office and coaching staff to provide some reflection on the status and future of their “core players.” Who does and who doesn’t deserve to play here anymore? And what prospects does the organization have to help bring this team out of the doldrums?

Three players have already made the shuttle ride from Portland, Maine, to Buffalo, and all three have made an impact. Jhonas Enroth has spelled the injured Ryan Miller in goal, and has met every expectation heaped upon him. He won two games in shootouts, and was the hard-luck loser in a 1-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins last week, performing brilliantly but receiving no offensive support.

Mike Weber has shored up the defensive corps after the injury to Craig Rivet, and has brought much-needed grit to the blue line. Big Luke Adam is showing flashes of brilliance as he makes his NHL debut, and collected his first NHL point, an assist, against Toronto this past Friday. Cody McCormick arrived during last year’s playoff series against Boston and added his own mark of toughness to the team while showing he can also score goals.

Weber and Adam are just two players who reflect Portland coach Kevin Dineen’s style, exemplifying the kind of player Dineen was back in the day: tough, mean, and scrappy— just the on-ice persona that folks who follow our team embrace.

Portland has held the top of the American Hockey League standings for much of this season, until they fell back a bit thanks to a three-game losing streak last week. Like any other minor league team, the callups have hurt, and until they brought in reinforcements via try-out contracts, they were actually playing with as few as nine healthy regulars, due not only to the loss of Adam and Colin Stuart called to the Sabres, but to injuries to two other key players.

This past weekend, the Pirates got back into the win column, thanks to an awesome effort by Mark Mancari, who scored his third career hat trick and added an assist in a 5-1 win in Providence. A big and bruising 6’4”, 215-pound right winger, Mancari has been a part of the Sabres organization for six seasons, and has been called up numerous times to Buffalo throughout his career, but has failed to land a permanent roster spot.

Besides Mancari, here are some other names to watch as the Sabres season continues to play out, players who we might be seeing in a Buffalo uniform sooner rather than later:

Paul Byron: In just his second year with Portland, Byron is on pace for a 20-goal season, and already has two two-goal performances to his credit. Byron was a playoff goal-scoring machine in the juniors and helped lead his QMJHL Gatineau Olympiques team to their league championship.

David Leggio: We probably don’t ever want to see Leggio in a Buffalo uniform, for that would mean that disaster will have struck our goaltending tandem. Listed as fourth on the depth chart, the Williamsville native was signed to a two-way NHL contract by the Sabres in early November. In just his third years in the minor leagues, he is having a career season in Portland, posting an 8-2 record and a .913 save percentage. With Enroth playing well in his Buffalo stints and speculation that Patrick Lalime’s days in Buffalo are numbered, Leggio is slated to become the Pirates’ starting goalie, and could see time in Buffalo, even if only on the bench, should injuries befall Miller and Enroth.

Nick Crawford: Crawford is only 20, and at 188 pounds could still add some bulk to his frame. During his playing days in the juniors, with the Saginaw Spirit and Barrie Colts, Crawford consistently received OHL first-team All Star honors and was in the running for the league’s Defenseman of the Year honors. What Crawford brings to the table is the ability to score goals as a defenseman, something that coach Lindy Ruff has been looking for more of from his blueliners this season.

Not on this list? Zack Kassian, Buffalo’s first-round draft pick from 2009. Kassian was signed to an entry level contract by the Sabres this season, then assigned to his junior team in Windsor. Through 21 games, he has collected 39 points (12 G - 27 A) and is on the league’s top 10 scoring list. Kassian is a tough power forward, but needs to work on his temper. He collected 13 fighting majors in one season, once delivering an injury lick to star John Tavares in an exhibition game, and also earned a 20-game suspension back in January for delivering a devastating hit to the head on an opposing player. Perfect.

Taro Sez...

• Taro is looking for Tim Connolly to talk to the media. His absence following all sorts of speculation on dustups with a fellow teammate on social media sites, and now that mysterious “groin injury,” has everyone wondering just what is really going on. A distraction that the team does not need.

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