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30 in 30: Rolston, Leino among Sabres' questions

by Davis Harper

The Buffalo Sabres are rebuilding. That much is known. Everything else is uncertain.

The Sabres are the youngest team in the NHL. As of early August, the average age of the roster is 26.17. Tyler Myers and Cody Hodgson, each 23 years old, rank among the veterans.

Ron Rolston, who stood behind an NHL bench for the first time when he was promoted to interim coach last season, is being asked to lead Buffalo back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in his first full season in charge.

Buffalo's on-ice leader for the better part of four seasons, captain Jason Pominville, was traded in April, and rumors of a similar outcome for goaltender Ryan Miller and right wing Thomas Vanek have swirled since the end of last season.

Here are six questions facing the Sabres entering 2013-14:

1. How will coach Ron Rolston fare in his first full season? -- Rolston's first game as interim coach of the Sabres, a 3-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, was his first game behind an NHL bench. A former assistant around the NCAA, Rolston spent seven seasons coaching the USA Hockey National Team Development Program before taking over as coach of Buffalo's American Hockey League affiliate, the Rochester Americans, in 2011.

Promoted at midseason to replace Lindy Ruff, Rolston performed well enough over the final 31 games of the season (the Sabres went 15-11-5) for the organization to remove the interim tag on May 7.

Now Rolston faces a simple challenge: Lead the rebuilding Sabres back from the brink in his first full season as an NHL coach. Despite lofty expectations, Rolston assured he was up to the challenge.

"Being able to come in during the season and coach 31 games, I think it gave me a good opportunity to get acclimated to the organization here, the players here and also the League," Rolston said. "Now in the offseason, because of that experience it gives me an opportunity to hit the ground running and get a head start on what to expect and exactly what kind of team we'll have."

2. Who will provide offense? -- Offensive impotency made it a very long 48-game schedule for the Sabres last season. They suffered in all situations, most glaringly on a power play that ranked 29th out of 30 NHL teams. The Sabres managed 118 goals overall, one of many offensive statistics that found them in the bottom-third of the League. Vanek scored 20 goals, and Hodgson broke out for 15, but no one else on the team scored more than 10.

Rather than adding any free-agent forwards in the offseason, the Sabres are hopeful scorers on the roster and in the system can step up. Drew Stafford and Ville Leino have proven scoring records, and second-year forwards Brian Flynn and Marcus Foligno will be expected to produce at a higher rate. There are forward prospects on the NHL cusp -- Mikhail Grigorenko, Joel Armia and Johan Larsson -- who could boost the attack should it struggle like it did last season.

Expect those same players and prospects to be rotated in on the power play, where Buffalo's 14-percent conversion rate looks even more one-dimensional when you consider Vanek scored nine of the team's 23 goals with the man-advantage.

3. Will veteran acquisitions or NHL-ready prospects anchor the blue line? -- For all of Buffalo's offensive struggles in 2012-13, the defense might have been worse. The Sabres gave up more shots per game than any team (33.8) and killed penalties 79.2 percent of the time. The Sabres often seemed to capitulate well before the final whistle, witnessed by their 1-10-1 record when trailing after the first period. At one point early in the season, Buffalo allowed four or more goals for six consecutive games.

This season, in addition to familiar faces Myers, Mike Weber and Christian Ehrhoff, a couple of veteran acquisitions will be battling for top-six spots against a slew of eager prospects. Buffalo acquired Henrik Tallinder, who paired with Myers in his Calder-winning season, and Jamie McBain, who had a goal and seven assists in 40 games for the Carolina Hurricanes last season. Those two will be competing with prospects Chad Ruhwedel, Mark Pysyk and Brayden McNabb, all of whom have spent stints with the senior Sabres.

Don't be surprised when Rolston tries a few different pairings in October, looking for the effective combinations that eluded Buffalo last season.

4. Will Jhonas Enroth have an increased role in goal? -- Miller, for seven straight seasons the undisputed starting goalie in Buffalo, saw his grip on the position slip slightly last season. Miller started 40 of the 48 games but posted the worst stat line of his career: 17-17-5 with a .915 save percentage and 2.81 goals-against average.

The best evidence of his struggles, whether due to age, lack of motivation or unhappiness, was when he allowed four goals on 14 shots against the New York Rangers on April 19, a loss that officially eliminated Buffalo from the postseason. It was the 14th start of the season in which Miller allowed four or more goals.

But the No. 1 job is still Miller's to lose. Should those poor performances seep into this season, 25-year-old backup Enroth may be asked to assume a larger role, and the Swede appears primed for a chance to show his skills on a nightly basis. Enroth took advantage of limited minutes last season to post career-best numbers and earn a two-year contract extension this summer. After the season, Enroth earned best goaltender honors at the World Championship, where he posted a .956 save percentage and 1.15 GAA and helped Sweden win the gold medal.

"He had a real positive second half in terms of the way he played, just in his preparation not only in game situations, but in practice to put himself in those situations in games where he could play well," Rolston said. "He was able to build up confidence in himself, and the organization knew what he had."

5. Will Ville Leino become the player the Sabres were hoping for? -- Leino signed a six-year, $27 million contract with Buffalo in the summer of 2011, months after helping the Philadelphia Flyers eliminate the Sabres from the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Thus far with the Sabres, the forward has shown none of the killer instinct that earned him that lucrative deal.

After scoring eight goals in 71 games in 2011-12, Leino was slowed by injuries last season and played in eight games. When general manager Darcy Regier chose to not buy him out this summer, questions turned to whether Leino can finally earn his salary-cap charge of $4.5 million in 2013-14.

Barring another injury, things are shaping up for the Finn's return to form. Before he went down with a collapsed lung that ended his season, Leino had two goals and four assists in those eight games. More than the points, Leino gave fans a glimpse of the talent and fire he can bring to the Sabres. This year's projected lineup also suits him; Leino had played his entire NHL career on the wing before arriving in Buffalo, where he was slotted at center to fill a need. With the emergence of Hodgson and the rise of prospects Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons, Leino should again be given the freedom to create offense as a top-line wing.

6. Which Drew Stafford will show up? -- There were individual disappointments up and down the Buffalo roster last season, but Stafford might have been the most troubling. Formerly part of the core group along with Pominville, Vanek and Miller, the forward has one 30-goal and two 20-goal seasons to his name. However, last season (the second of a four-year, $16 million contract), Stafford managed six goals, none of which came on the man-advantage. He had a team-worst minus-16 rating, the first time he's finished with a minus rating in his seven-year career.

Even when one considers the decline of the Sabres as a team, Stafford's lack of production is a concern. He obviously has the talent to be a dynamic second- or third-line wing, and just a couple of seasons ago scored 31 goals, 11 on the power play. As an alternate captain on the League's youngest team, Stafford will need to set an example.

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