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Offense, battle in goal highlight Sabres' five questions

by Jon Lane

The Buffalo Sabres weren't going to sit back and wait for their young talent to fully mature over time. General manager Tim Murray revamped the roster with the intention of escaping the Eastern Conference basement and perhaps making a little noise in the race to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The road to contention may be long and winding, but days appear brighter in Buffalo if the Sabres can answer five questions heading into the 2014-15 season:

1. How much will the offense improve? -- Leadership and grit are great, but the Sabres are in dire need of people to put the puck in the net. Last season Buffalo was 30th in goals (157) and 29th in power-play percentage (14.1 percent).

A big part of boosting those numbers will be the success of an offseason that focused on conditioning and preparation.

"If we're going to compete with some of the best teams in the League, we have to be much stronger," coach Ted Nolan said. "We have to be much more committed and we have to play with a lot more energy than with what we have been playing. We implemented that this summer and we'll see what happens come the start of the season, but we have to prepare much better than we did in the past."

2. Which Tyler Myers will show up? -- Myers won the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL's top rookie in 2009-10 with 11 goals, 37 assists and a plus-13 rating. His game has since gone backward and bottomed out at 22 points with a minus-26 rating in 62 games last season.

Not exactly what the Sabres envisioned when Myers signed a seven-year, $38.5 million contract in 2011. Following a private end-of-season talk with Nolan, all eyes will be on Myers to see if he can duplicate or exceed his rookie numbers.

"He's a special player," Nolan said. "How you demonstrate that specialness is the work you do in the offseason, the mental approach and the belief factor. If the coaching staff believes how good he can be and the players believe the same thing, you're going to have a dynamite combination."

3. Will the veteran additions prop up the blue line? -- Competition on defense will be fierce, with young players Mark Pysyk, Rasmus Ristolainen, Nikita Zadorov and Jake McCabe all in the mix. But it will be up to veteran additions Josh Gorges, Andrej Meszaros and Andre Benoit to stabilize a team that was 25th in goals against (243), 28th in shots against per game (34.3 percent) and 20th in penalty killing (81.4 percent).

4. Who emerges as the No. 1 goalie? -- Jhonas Enroth's run as the Sabres' top goaltender in the post-Ryan Miller era ended after seven games with a sprained MCL. By the end of last season, the Sabres played six goaltenders and dressed an NHL-record nine, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Enroth was 4-17-5 with a 2.82 goals-against average and .911 save percentage in 28 games (26 starts) and will have to fend off Michal Neuvirth, who was acquired from the Washington Capitals at the NHL Trade Deadline. Each enters the final season of his contract with a golden opportunity to earn the No. 1 job.

"The best thing I think we have in sports is the ability to earn a position and battle for a position," Nolan said. "You have that internal competition of who wants to be No. 1 and who's going to earn it. It's going to be a great training camp to watch who emerges. And they're both young, which is great. One can grab it for a month, month and a half and the other one can take over. Who knows?"

5. Will Sam Reinhart be ready? -- The No. 2 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft has a good chance of making the team out of training camp. But how quickly the Sabres' highest selection since Pierre Turgeon went first overall in 1987 can show he's equipped for the rigors of the NHL will determine how much they improve over time.

Considering what Calder Trophy winner Nathan MacKinnon did last season (24 goals, 63 points, plus-20) for the Colorado Avalanche at age 18, the Sabres are hoping Reinhart can become the franchise's cornerstone player.

"It all depends on factors on the team and the position, and the player's development," Nolan said. "To say right now [he's ready], I think we'd put too much pressure on the young kid. We just want him to be the best player he could be and if he's ready for September, great. If not we'll deal with that."


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