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Sabres aim to bounce back after last-place finish

by Joe Yerdon / NHL.com

NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.

BUFFALO -- The Buffalo Sabres had the worst season in franchise history in 2013-14, but there's hope that things will improve sooner rather than later.

The Sabres head into the 2014-15 season ready to grow for the future after a summer filled with changes. Numerous veteran additions give the Sabres a vaguely familiar look heading into a season that will provide a new set of challenges.

"Last year was a mess," forward Drew Stafford said. "With guys getting moved, getting out of the lineup, signing new guys, there were a lot of tryouts for spots it seemed even later on in the year or mix and matching the lineup quite a bit. … It's still going to be a challenge, it's still going to be a struggle at times, but definitely I expect it to be better than last year."

The Sabres' offseason saw numerous players depart, led by defenseman Christian Ehrhoff and forward Ville Leino, who were bought out by the team. The players brought in to replace them have a familiar look and bring experience.

The top acquisition of the summer was former Montreal Canadiens captain, and 2003 Stanley Cup Champion with the New Jersey Devils, right wing Brian Gionta. The situation and challenge in Buffalo is a bit different than he had in Montreal and New Jersey, but his hopes are high for a team that finished at the bottom of the League last season.

"The expectation is to make the playoffs," Gionta said. "I think that's where you need to start. And from there you continue to grow and build, but by no means do you come to a team and just say 'hey, we're not going to make the playoffs' or 'we're not there.' The expectation is to make the playoffs."

Making the playoffs may be a lofty goal for a team that did as poorly as the Sabres did last season, but they're set up to be deeper this time around.

Here's a breakdown of the Sabres roster:

Forwards

Joining Gionta are two familiar faces in Matt Moulson and Cody McCormick. Their return to Buffalo after a brief stop with the Minnesota Wild not only helps the Sabres depth-wise, but Moulson's ability to score goals will help return some of the offense they lost late last season.

SABRES AMONG FANTASY TOP 275

The 2014-15 season is drawing closer by the day, so NHL.com has you covered with all the fantasy hockey advice you'll need on draft day.

Below are Buffalo Sabres players who qualified for NHL.com's top 275 fantasy list. Each player's aggregate spot was determined by averaging the individual rankings of Matt Cubeta, Pete Jensen and Matt Sitkoff. Also listed are each player's Yahoo position eligibility and any offseason NHL.com fantasy content that breaks down projected value for 2014-15.

137. Matt Moulson, LW (Overvalued)

154. Cody Hodgson, C/RW (Jensen's sleeper)

215. Chris Stewart, RW (Cubeta's sleeper)

224. Jhonas Enroth, G

242. Sam Reinhart, C (Impact of draftees)

251. Tyler Ennis, LW/C (Teammate effect)

252. Tyler Myers, D

256. Michal Neuvirth, G

"Selfishly I wanted them back, not only for what they do on the ice but off the ice," Stafford said. "They're great guys and great teammates. At this point we were desperate to get some veteran help and for them to not only sign back here but want to come back, it was awesome to have them come back."

Expect to see Stafford and Moulson rejoin Tyler Ennis on the top line. That trio spent the better part of last season together before Moulson was traded on March 5.

The other big pickup of the summer was Sam Reinhart, the second pick at the 2014 NHL Draft. While the 18-year-old center could make a case to stay all season, the Sabres have the depth to back him up should he return to the junior level.

"He looks really good. You can tell he makes those little plays where he has that puck poise. He seems like he's ahead of the curve on that aspect," Stafford said. "We'll see how he does, we'll see how his body holds up because you can only expect so much out of an 18-year-old. As far as his puck skills, he's definitely ahead of the curve."

If Reinhart does stay, he could wind up centering the second or third line with Marcus Foligno and Gionta on his wings. How the second and third lines are made up could depend on the chemistry found late last season. Cody Hodgson's move from center to left wing saw him open up his offensive game a bit and he found some space on a line with gritty players such as Zemgus Girgensons and Chris Stewart.

"I could've had five or six goals in the two games I played with those guys so we did get our chances," Stewart said. "I think the chemistry is there, especially with [Hodgson]. He has a really good nose for the net and he's really gifted offensively and that's something we can feed off each other with."

Stewart is still a bit of an unknown after being acquired in the blockbuster trade that sent Ryan Miller and Steve Ott to the St. Louis Blues. He played in five games after the trade and sustained injuries in two of them.

Figuring out who gets the fourth-line jobs is where the stiffest competition in camp will happen.

McCormick's return, along with his new three-year contract, indicates he'll likely have a spot locked down, but the remaining two could be a free-for-all amongst other forwards. Veterans Torrey Mitchell, Brian Flynn, Matt Ellis and Patrick Kaleta will see stiff competition from younger players Nicolas Deslauriers and Jordan Samuels-Thomas.

Some of the Sabres' plans could be altered by two younger players proving they belong in the NHL. Forwards Mikhail Grigorenko and Johan Larsson are better suited for offensive roles and not grinding opposing forwards. Should the Sabres send Reinhart back to juniors, they could be options to stay in Buffalo, along with free-agent signing Zac Dalpe.

Defensemen

There's not much argument that defense was a problem for Buffalo last season and the Sabres tried to address those issues, acquiring Josh Gorges in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens and signing Andrej Meszaros and Andre Benoit in free agency.

SUMMER MOVES

ADDITIONS: RW Brian Gionta (free agent, Canadiens), D Andrej Meszaros (free agent, Bruins), LW Matt Moulson (free agent, Wild), C Cody McCormick (free agent, Wild), C Zac Dalpe (free agent, Canucks), D Andre Benoit (free agent, Avalanche), D Tyson Strachan (free agent, Capitals), D Josh Gorges (trade, Canadiens)

SUBTRACTIONS: LW John Scott (free agent, Sharks), C Kevin Porter (free agent, Red Wings), D Christian Ehrhoff (compliance buyout, Penguins), LW Ville Leino (compliance buyout, Bruins), C Cory Conacher (free agent, Islanders), D Jamie McBain (free agent), RW Matt D’Agostini (free agent, Switzerland), D Henrik Tallinder (free agent, Maple Leafs), D Alexander Sulzer (free agent, Germany), C Zenon Konopka (free agent)

PROMOTION CANDIDATES: C Mikhail Grigorenko, D Jake McCabe, D Rasmus Ristolainen, LW Matt Ellis, LW Johan Larsson, C Zac Dalpe, G Matt Hackett

Gorges could be set up on the top pairing with Tyler Myers, which would allow him more freedom to roam. Gorges' reputation as a stay-at-home defenseman should serve him well on a team that could use greater defensive accountability.

"We both have the Kelowna roots from juniors," Myers said. "I've known him over the years and know what type of guy he is. I think everyone has seen the way he competes and the way he battles out there."

Meszaros figures to be on the second pairing after finishing last season with the Boston Bruins. But who he's paired with, as well as who goes on the third pairing, will be settled in camp.

Benoit could slide in on the second pairing, as could fellow veteran Mike Weber. Younger players like Mark Pysyk and Chad Ruhwedel will vie for the third pairing, along with prospects Rasmus Ristolainen, Jake McCabe and Nikita Zadorov. With all the new and young faces, the Sabres' blue line will certainly have a different look.

"I think it's good … we needed a change, I think," Weber said. "Just from getting to know the guys a little bit here the past couple of weeks, we've brought in character guys and quality guys, so that's good to see."

Goalies

For the first time in almost a decade, the Sabres enter camp without Miller as their No. 1 goalie. Instead of a coronation in net, there will be competition between two younger players in Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth.

Enroth is the incumbent after spending the past four seasons as Miller's backup. He put up decent numbers last season on a bad team with a .911 save percentage and 2.82 goals-against average, but struggled with consistency throughout the year.

"The last couple years it's been Ryan's team, obviously, so this year it's a pretty even battle here and I feel like I have a very good chance to play a lot of games here, so I'm very excited for that," Enroth said. "I feel like I've been here for a little bit and I would really enjoy being the starter here. I like playing for Buffalo so I feel like this can be my team. That's what I'm shooting for."

Neuvirth battled injury problems before and after being acquired from the Washington Capitals at the NHL Trade Deadline. He played in two games with Buffalo and, like Enroth, he battled to earn the top spot. With an open competition for starts, the chance is there for either of them to seize the No. 1 job.

"You've always got something to prove," Neuvirth said. "I've been working really hard in the offseason. I was focusing on my core. So my groins and my hips are feeling like never before and my goal is to stay healthy and play as many games as I can."

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