For the first time in over five months, the Buffalo Sabres will be back on the ice, shortly, at the First Niagara Center.
While some things changed, a lot of what we knew has remained the same.
This training camp marks the first full season for Ted Nolan as Buffalo Sabres head coach since the 1996-97 season, and the first full season for Tim Murray as Buffalo Sabres General Manager.
While Buffalo remained busy throughout the offseason, it remains to be seen how these moves will impact the future of the franchise.
Many fans are overjoyed with the return of the Buffalo Sabres, but hindsight is always 20/20.
Big questions remain, and need to be addressed before the start of the season.
Will Ennis and Hodgson continue to grow?
Last season, both Tyler Ennis and Cody Hodgson set a career-high in goals scored. Ennis and Hodgson combined for 41 goals, 21 and 20 respectively, which accounted for more than a quarter of the Sabres’ total goals in the 2013-14 season. While the 20-goal threshold is a very impressive feat, clearly the Sabres could benefit if Ennis and Hodgson were to continue their upward growth offensively. While expecting these two young players to score at least, if not more than, 25 goals apiece next season may be outrageous, the Sabres should expect to see more offense from these two. Certainly, more opportunities should present themselves this year, with the returning presence of forward Drew Stafford, coupled with the addition of forward Brian Gionta.
Battle of the Goaltenders
General Manager Tim Murray knew what he was doing at the past trade deadline when he acquired goaltender Michal Neuvirth from the Washington Capitals. A clearly talented, but injury prone, netminder who was headed to a contract year. Pair that with another goaltender in the system, Jhonas Enroth, who is also as talented and heading to a contract year. While Enroth is undersized, he certainly does not play like that.
Last season, Enroth amassed a 4-17-5 record, 2.82 GAA, and a .911 save percentage in 28 games played. The win/loss record is not indicative of how Enroth played, but clearly paints a
negative picture for him. For Enroth, he will be coming off a season-ending knee injury, but does not appear to be suffering any ill effects from that.
Following his trade to Buffalo, Michal Neuvirth appeared in two games, amassing a 0-2-0 record, with a 2.56 GAA, and a .949 save percentage. An apparent hip injury put an early end to his season.
Both these goaltenders will be fighting for their lives to win this starting job, but will it be enough?
Enroth has often shown he is streaky and unable to break out of slumps. Oh, and confidence might just be an issue too. Remember last year, he memorably snapped in a postgame press conference, saying “it is hard to win with this team.”
As mentioned above, and reinforced by, missing the last few weeks of the season with a hip injury, Neuvirth has struggled to stay healthy. In 2011-12, Neuvirth was set to take the reins for the Capitals in goal, but ultimately was sidelined by a balky hip flexor. In 2013, Neuvirth stepped on a puck, injuring his right leg. Some of the injuries may be bad luck, but it is never lucky to be a goaltender who has consistent issues with one or both of his hips.
Clearly, Tim Murray has the best hand at the table with the goaltenders. If Enroth doesn’t work out, Murray has Neuvirth and vice versa. If both Enroth and Neuvirth don’t work out, there are a few goaltenders in the system who have shown they’re hungry enough to prove themselves a worthwhile NHL starting goaltender.
Are The Kids Alright?
In the offseason, the Buffalo Sabres signed a handful of veteran players: Andre Benoit, Brian Gionta, Cody McCormick, Matt Moulson, and Andrej Meszaros . The Sabres also acquired veteran defenseman Josh Gorges from the Montreal Canadiens.
Those acquisitions certainly do gum up the Sabres roster, but is it for the better?
As you may know, the Buffalo Sabres drafted forward Samson Reinhart with the 2nd overall pick in the most recent NHL Entry Level Draft. Reinhart’s future in Buffalo certainly looks white hot, but does it begin this season?
Many analysts believe that Reinhart will get his 9-game tryout when the 2014-15 season begins, but it is also believed that Reinhart will have to absolutely play above expectation to remain in Buffalo this season.
Wonder why? Let’s take a look at the current roster.
The Sabres have a glut of forwards on their current roster, including Samson Reinhart. There are only two players who can be sent to Rochester (AHL) without clearing waivers. Those two players are Zemgus Girgensons and Samson Reinhart.
Reinhart certainly seems like the victim of a numbers crunch right now. With a franchise that wants to ensure complete development, sending Reinhart back for another year might not hurt.
When it comes to Zemgus Girgensons, everything he did last season was absolutely loved by the Sabres’ front office. Girgensons is what we call a prototypical “Ted Nolan Guy”. Girgensons plays every shift with a pedal to the metal, and he certainly leaves it all out on the ice. Coming off a rookie season where Girgensons tallied 22 points (8 goals, 14 assists) in 70 games, you can certainly assume that expectations will be higher and fans should certainly see a better player on the ice.
Another name lost in the shuffle is Mikhail Grigorenko, who has been to hell and back with this franchise in his short professional career. Grigorenko, self-admittedly, needed to do some growing up and needed to work on his game. From all accounts, that appears to have happened. While Grigorenko could certainly crack the Sabres starting line-up, many in the hockey world believe his next step will be a season in the American Hockey League to completely re-fabricate his confidence before he re-enters the National Hockey League, on what would appear to be his second chance. Hard to believe we mention a 20-year old hockey player in the same breath as second chance, but we all know how bad the previous regime fumbled Grigorenko’s development.
Last but certainly not least is the defense. Boy, do the Buffalo Sabres ever have a wealth of riches when it comes to young, talented defensemen. There is only one developing issue with that. Each night, the Sabres will play 6 defensemen, and it appears that at least 4 of those slots are filled. You’ll have two defensive spots open for names like Andre Benoit, Jake McCabe, Mark Pysyk, Rasmus Ristolainen, Chad Ruhwedel, and Nikita Zadorov.
Looking at those names, it would appear that Andre Benoit and Mark Pysyk are the two likely recipients of the 5th and 6th defenseman spots.
Benoit, signed in the offseason, brings 120 games of National Hockey League experience to the table. It appears that Benoit was brought to Buffalo to bridge the gap, while the other aforementioned defensemen play in Juniors or with Rochester, until they are NHL ready.
Pysyk appears to be leading for a spot as well because of his fast development and improved maturation. At only 22 years of age, Pysyk has impressed the right people in the Sabres organization. “Pysyk is one of those guys we feel can be a leader on this team,” head coach Ted Nolan said last December. Pysyk’s play was impressive with Rochester throughout the final few months of the season, and really appeared to leave a lasting impression. As mentioned above, it appears he has a step ahead of the competition going into training camp.
These three aforementioned points are a few of the many we will see throughout training camp. Within the next few weeks, the 2014-15 Buffalo Sabres will be built before our eyes. Roles will be defined, and jobs will be won or lost as the season begins to take off. One thing is for sure, we are in for an interesting season with the rebuilding Buffalo Sabres.