The road to the National Hockey League for Buffalo Sabres defenseman Lawrence Pilut this season has been a long one.
It started when he was forced to miss training camp and the preseason following offseason shoulder surgery from an injury suffered in the final game of the 2019 Calder Cup Playoffs for the Rochester Americans.
Once he was healthy enough, he made his season debut with the Amerks on Oct. 18 but got off to a slower start than compared to last year when he stormed the American Hockey League with his offensive capabilities from the blue line.
The 24-year-old was called up for the Sabres' trip to Sweden as part of the NHL Global Series in Stockholm, but he did not dress for either of the two games with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
After being sent back down to Rochester, Pilut picked up his game again and found his offensive touch with four goals and 11 assists for 15 points in 21 games. That, on top of his five points (1+4) in eight games prior, earned him his second All-Star appearance of his short career in the AHL.
His next call up came back on Jan. 7, where he made his season debut with the Sabres on Jan. 9 against the St. Louis Blues. From there, he appeared in six games before the NHL All-Star break, and then was re-assigned to the Amerks to play in one game before being recalled again to Buffalo. After three more games in Buffalo, Pilut was sent back to the AHL for one game before, once again, getting called back up to the Sabres on Feb. 9.
Overall this season, Pilut has played in 11 games for the Sabres, but has been held pointless with five shots on goal, a penalty taken and a minus-4 rating.
However, a problem the Sabres have run into quite a bit this season is the number of NHL caliber defensemen on the roster versus the number of defensemen that can play in a game. Buffalo has played with 11 forwards and seven defensemen on numerous occasions this season, but as of late the team has found itself playing the usual 12 forwards and just six defensemen.
Pilut currently finds himself as one of two defensemen on the outside of the top-six defensemen on the roster looking in. He was a healthy scratch for the Sabres on Tuesday night in a 3-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings, and is likely to be a healthy scratch again on Thursday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Even though Pilut finds himself in a tough spot on the roster, the young blue liner is staying patient and waiting for his chance.
"I’m just staying ready. I’m staying ready mentally and keeping my body in shape," Pilut said following practice on Wednesday. "Working on the small details such as handling guys and [defensive] zone work. I think if I just keep working on that every day, keep working hard and just waiting for the chance to come, I’ll be ready for it.”“I’m just staying ready. I’m staying ready mentally and keeping my body in shape. Working on the small details such as handling guys and [defensive] zone work. I think if I just keep working on that every day, keep working hard and just waiting for the chance to come, I’ll be ready for it."
Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger has had the tough task of trying to deviate which defensemen he will dress for each game because each defensemen in Buffalo has their own skill set that they can bring to the table.
Pilut is certainly more of an offensive and instinctual defender with good ability to move the puck. However, there is more to his game that Krueger has liked for his defensive group.
"His smarts, his ability to read the game, and his compete. His compete is very high when he goes in for any challenges 1-on-1. The way he can escape under pressure and solve that pressure. Those are assets for sure, and his offense will grow eventually," Krueger said on Wednesday following practice. "It’s his defensive game we’re quite impressed with at the moment."
With the Amerks, Pilut has seen plenty of ice time as a top defenseman at even strength, is a quarterback on the power play, and has been relied upon to play key minutes on the penalty kill and in last-game situations. In Buffalo, his ice-time is more limited and his power play time is occupied by other defensemen, but he has been given some quality time on the penalty kill.
The young Swedish defenseman feels like his defensive game has grown even more at the NHL level since he came to North America last season.
"I think more and more my [defensive] zone work has been good," Pilut said. "It feels like I’m on the right side of guys, angling off guys real well, and obviously with the breakouts and everything. I think I have a little more to give out of the offensive game up here. I think I’ve created a couple of chances. The points haven’t really come my way, but I just try to focus on playing good and it’s been solid up here for me so far. I just keep developing that game all the time and I’ve been feeling more and more comfortable all the time."
While Pilut has played well and has not been much of a liability on the ice, getting the young blue liner ice-time is difficult, especially with how Krueger utilizes the defensemen he already has playing every night. However, the head coach is working with Buffalo's management team of general manager Jason Botterill and assistant general manager Randy Sexton to make sure that he is not sitting too long while he's waiting for his next opportunity to play.
"Lawrence has just been fantastic with us. He’s got a really professional attitude, he works hard on and off the ice, he brings a good spirit. He’s just adding to our depth on defense."
As for the message for Pilut from management and the coaching staff, he's been told to just be ready to jump into the lineup at any time.
"It’s just keep working hard and be ready for it," Pilut said. "Just keep being fresh, keep working on all the small details, and I take pride in that. I do a lot of work on and off the ice and try to just stay fresh all the time."
Last season, Pilut got his first crack at the NHL with Phil Housley as the head coach in Buffalo. In 33 games with the Sabres last year, he managed to score a goal and also register five assists for six points.
So far under Krueger's leadership in Buffalo, he has some positive reviews with the first-year head coach.
"He’s a great coach so far," Pilut said. "Great guidelines, and I think it’s a good game we’re playing out there. It’s been good so far."
Pilut was skating on the fourth defensive unit at Wednesday's practice with Zach Bogosian.
Both Kyle Okposo and Victor Olofsson were on the ice for their first full practice on Wednesday. It was their first full skate with their teammates since their return to the ice from their injuries. Krueger said following Wednesday's skate that both players appear to be options to play in Thursday night's matchup with the Blue Jackets at KeyBank Center. He also said that both would be evaluated after Wednesday's session, and that a decision about their game status would be determined at some point before puck drop.
As for Marcus Johansson, he did not practice with what the team called a maintenance day. However, Krueger said after practice that Johansson is very much day-to-day with an upper-body injury.
Here's a look at Wednesday's lines at practice:
Olofsson - Eichel - Reinhart
Vesey - Lazar - Sheary
Skinner - Rodrigues - Frolik (Wilson)
Girgensons - Larson - Okposo
Montour - Ristolainen
Dahlin - Miller
McCabe - Jokiharju
Pilut - Bogosian
Eichel - Reinhart - Olofsson
Montour - Okposo - Sheary