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Rebound by Miller among Sabres' six questions

by John Kreiser

In back-to-back seasons, the Buffalo Sabres have gotten off to a bad start. They were able to overcome it in 2010-11 and make the playoffs but came up three points short last season.

Buffalo has made the playoffs twice in the past five seasons and hasn't gotten past the first round since 2007, when the Sabres lost in the Eastern Conference Finals for the second year in a row.

Here are six questions the Sabres face entering the 2012-13 season:

Ryan Miller
Ryan Miller
Goalie - BUF
RECORD: 31-21-7
GAA: 2.55 | SVP: 0.916
1. Can Ryan Miller return to the form he showed in 2009-10, when he was the best goaltender in the world?

Miller was the MVP at the 2010 Winter Olympics and won the Vezina Trophy four months later. But he hasn't been nearly as good in the past two seasons, though his play improved down the stretch last season after he recovered from an injury, and he nearly carried the Sabres into the playoffs.

The Sabres need Miller to play at an elite level for a full season (as he did in 2009-10) to return to the postseason. A good season from their most important player isn't good enough.

2. Will either (or both) of this year's first-round picks make the team?

The Sabres are desperate for a big center and likely would love for either Mikhail Grigorenko or Zemgus Girgensons to make the roster and fill that hole.

Both players looked good at development camp, and both have enough size to cope with the increased physicality they'll face in the NHL. Grigorenko is a little bigger and has played at a higher level, so he figures to have a better shot than Girgensons, who is eligible to play in the American Hockey League because he hasn't played in the Canadian Hockey League. Center is the weak link on the roster, so both players figure to get a chance to show they belong.

Bounceback seasons from Hodgson and Leino could help the Sabres return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2012-13. (Photos: Getty Images)

3. Can Cody Hodgson be the No. 1 center?

Hodgson was buried behind Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler with the Vancouver Canucks before coming to the Sabres at the trade deadline in exchange for Zack Kassian. Hodgson got off to a slow start with Buffalo -- no points in nine games -- then had six points in his next four, enough to demonstrate his skills.

The trade that sent Derek Roy to the Dallas Stars leaves the Sabres without a top-line center, and Hodgson, chosen No. 10 in the 2008 NHL Draft, figures to get first crack at the job. If he isn’t up to the task, the Sabres will have a big hole in their offense.

4. Which Ville Leino will the Sabres see this season -- the 2010 playoff star who earned a six-year, big-money deal from the Sabres, or the one who never got it going in his first season in Buffalo?

Leino had 21 points helping the Philadelphia Flyers get within two wins of the 2010 Stanley Cup and had the winning goal in Game 7 of their opening-round win against the Sabres in 2011, inspiring Buffalo to sign him to a six-year contract last summer. They tried him at center, an experiment that didn't work. His 25 points were less than half of what he produced in his final season with the Flyers.

The Sabres need Leino to rebound to his 2010-11 form and provide the offense they'll miss after trading Roy for forward Steve Ott and defenseman Adam Pardy. But assuming Leino is moved back to wing, it may be hard for him to get top-six ice time on a team that's top-heavy there.

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5. Who will be the odd man/men out on defense?

The roster lists nine players capable of being competent (or better) NHL defensemen. Five were regulars in Buffalo last season, and minor-leaguers Brayden McNabb and TJ Brennan showed promise when they were called up during the spate of injuries that decimated the blue line.

The depth on defense opens up trade possibilities for general manager Darcy Regier if he wants to bring in a big-time forward. He could make a deal to change some of the cast on the blue line because Myers is the lone right-hand shot.

6. Will the Sabres' makeover into a "tough" team work?

The addition of Ott and enforcer John Scott bring the kind of physicality that hasn't been seen in Western New York for years. Regier wants a change in philosophy, but will that turn the Sabres into a playoff team?

Scott will have to work hard for fourth-line time – he barely played for the Rangers after being acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks at the deadline. But Ott is a legit top-nine forward and the type of superpest the Sabres haven't had in years.

"We want to be a harder team to play against," coach Lindy Ruff said. "(Steve) brings a great work ethic to the game, plays with a certain amount of intensity. He walks the line every night. He's an agitating guy, and irritating guy to play against."

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