NHL.com continues its preview of the 2013-14 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
The rebuild officially is underway in Buffalo.
Over the past eight or so months, the Sabres fired coach Lindy Ruff and hired Ron Rolston; traded captain Jason Pominville and veteran defensemen Robyn Regehr, Jordan Leopold and Andrej Sekera; and recommitted to a youth movement that has seen the organization select 20 players during the past two NHL drafts.
That youth will define the Sabres for the foreseeable future. With the departures last season, Buffalo's roster became the League's youngest, with an average age of 26.41 years. In all, 37 of the 60 players invited to training camp were born in 1990 or later, making the bulk of Buffalo's potential roster a mix of explosive talent and massive inexperience.
The still-maturing roster is matched only by 46-year-old Rolston, who will start his first full season as an NHL coach in any capacity. Promoted from the team's American Hockey League affiliate, the Rochester Americans, when Ruff was dismissed, Rolston made his NHL debut Feb. 20. Hired on an interim basis, the Sabres went 15-11-5 with Rolston in charge, good enough for general manager Darcy Regier to remove the interim tag May 7.
Rolston's new staff includes former Avalanche coach Joe Sacco. Rolston and Sacco are well-known developers of talent, which is a priority for an organization brimming with some of the League's brightest youngsters.
Even with a laundry list of top prospects and the coaches to develop them, little will come easy in Buffalo this season. The Sabres finished in the League's bottom-third in nearly every major statistical category, offensively and defensively, last season, with those departed veterans taking their consistent productivity with them.
Rolston said he sees the overhaul as an opportunity, one that starts in training camp. He said he will use the two weeks of camp as a gantlet for players to prove themselves, and he assured NHL.com that battles would be raging all over the ice.
"We've got a lot of young guys that are pushing to get in there," Rolston said on the eve of camp. "You look at our defense corps, there's 10 defensemen that can be in our lineup opening night.
"Offensively, we've got a lot of good young players that are pushing, that have put the work in and they want a spot. You've got guys like [Zemgus] Girgensons, [Johan] Larsson, [Mikhail] Grigorenko, all those guys who are pushing to be in our opening lineup, along with a lot of our defensive corps, so in terms of competition at camp, it's going to be open and we intend to do a lot of scrimmaging off the bat."
Buffalo will be looking for a crop of NHL-ready prospects to bolster an offense that struggled in 2012-13.
The Sabres were 22nd in the NHL in goals scored (118) and 22nd in goals per game (2.46) last season, and converted power plays 14.1 percent of the time, 29th in the League. The lone bright spot was the top-line duo of Thomas Vanek and Cody Hodgson, who combined for 35 goals and 40 assists. Those two likely will be paired again, perhaps alongside late-season line addition Tyler Ennis, who had 10 goals and 21 assists in 2012-13.
Things grow murky from there. Ennis' move to the top line opens the second-line center spot, into which the Sabres likely will slot Grigorenko. In 25 games last season, the 12th pick of the 2012 NHL Draft had one goal and four assists playing 10:14 per game. Despite his meager first season, expectations remain lofty for the 19-year-old Russian.
"I know first-hand that he spent a lot of time with his skating coach, improved his skating, improved his strength on the ice, and adding that with his age, he's only going to get better," teammate Steve Ott told NHL.com. "He's grabbing confidence. He's just a kid, that's the thing, and he's going to be a good player. He's going to be a top player in the League one day, but it takes time and you've got to earn it and put the work in."
Larsson is another prospect likely to break into the Buffalo top nine. A highly rated left wing, Larsson came over in the trade that sent Pominville to the Minnesota Wild, and at 21 may be primed for a breakout season after totaling 16 goals and 25 assists between the Wild's and Sabres' AHL affiliates in 2012-13.
A potential X-factor is Ville Leino, who is healthy after playing eight games last season. Leino represents an annual salary-cap charge of $4.5 million through 2016-17, and thus far has scored 10 goals in 79 games with the Sabres. He represents a dynamic scoring threat on a team in desperate need of one not named Thomas Vanek, and reports of rising confidence and work ethic under Rolston are an encouraging sign.
Remaining is a collection of younger forwards who underachieved last season. With another season of NHL experience, Drew Stafford, Brian Flynn, Patrick Kaleta and Marcus Foligno will aim to produce at a higher clip this season.
Girgensons, taken two picks after Grigorenko in the 2012 draft, is another hard-working forward who could see significant ice time this season. Girgensons scored twice, one an unassisted shorthanded goal, in Buffalo’s first preseason game, Sept. 15 against the Montreal Canadiens.
If offense is a source of concern for Buffalo, then defense may be cause for panic. The Sabres allowed 33.5 shots per game last season, most in the League, and ranked in the bottom third of the League in goals-against per game (2.90), goals-against (139) and penalty kill (79.2 percent).
What's more, those numbers largely came with veterans Regehr, Leopold and Sekera all on the roster. All three have moved on, and the Sabres are tasked with patching those holes with some veteran additions and a host of raw talent.
Jamie McBain, who at 25 is a veteran in this group, came from the Carolina Hurricanes in a draft-day trade. Despite one goal and seven assists last season, Rolston hopes McBain can aid the Sabres' power play.
One youngster Rolston likes is 21-year-old Mark Pysyk, who has been paired with Tallinder in training camp. Pysyk was the best of the defensive prospects called up late in 2012-13 with a goal, four assists and a minus-7 rating in 19 games.
Brayden McNabb and Chad Ruhwedel are two other prospects primed to make an impact, though it will be difficult to break into Buffalo's top six, especially with the additions of 2013 first-round draft picks Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov.
By all accounts Ristolainen has had a great summer, and despite being 18 years old, scouts say he has the confidence to start the season in Buffalo.
Among the holdovers from last season, Tyler Myers has the most to prove. The 2010 Calder Trophy winner has yet to rediscover his rookie-season form, when he had 11 goals and 37 assists. In 39 games last season Myers had three goals, five assists and a minus-8 rating.
With battles raging all over the ice, the Sabres' crease remains relatively quiet. Rolston made it clear Ryan Miller is the unquestioned starter; how much longer that will be is anyone's guess. With Miller’s contract expiring after the 2013-14 season and the Olympics beckoning in February, the goalie intends to be at his best for a Sabres team full of youth and inexperience. Miller posted the poorest stat line of his career behind a revolving door of a blue line last season, but said he is excited to start the season on a more stable note this time around.
"The one thing I will say is that I do like the energy," Miller told the team's website during training camp. "I do like the attention to detail so far and I feel like this is an opportunity to get a group of players to really feel for each other and play for each other. If we do it the right way, it can definitely be a good situation."
Miller will be the No. 1, but expect backup Jhonas Enroth to get more looks than seasons past. Enroth finished last season going 4-1-1 with a .956 save percentage in his final six starts. For an encore, he backstopped Sweden to the gold medal at the 2013 IIHF World Championship, where he was named the tournament's top goaltender.
"Jhonas had a great second half to the season, and I think he's going to be in the same situation where he's going to push, he's going to see more action and more playing time for us this year and continue to build and develop," Rolston told NHL.com prior to training camp. "We think Jhonas is a great goalie and a future No. 1 goalie in the League, but at this point Ryan Miller is obviously someone who's going to be our starter."
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