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Sabres' Murray keeping close watch on team's future

by Mike G. Morreale / NHL.com

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- It's easy to find Buffalo Sabres general manager Tim Murray among the few hundred spectators in the bleachers at Centre Ice Arena during the Traverse City Prospect Tournament.

Murray is the one standing on his bench in the last row, scribbling notes on a clipboard and every so often shaking his head and yelling to his players with the hope of gaining their attention.

Murray is a hands-on executive and he's determined to field a winner.

"They are being evaluated every shift, so I've got certain expectations for certain players; sometimes when they don't meet those you get a little perturbed at things and get excited when good things happen," Murray said. "We're trying to assert expectation and to play a certain way. When we don't play a certain way it bothers me."

He couldn't care less if pundits believe his team has a better shot at winning the NHL Draft Lottery than winning 30 games this season. He's adamant about having players that compete and are dedicated to turning the franchise around after failing to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs three straight seasons.

"Internally we know where we're at," Murray said. "Other people's expectations or lack thereof is not of any concern of ours."

Sabres director of player personnel Kevin Devine believes the team is better equipped entering 2014-15.

"I think we have a better team than we did last year, but a lot will depend on our goaltender [Jhonas Enroth]," Devine said. "Obviously Ryan Miller is gone, but I think we'll have to see how it plays out. Anybody who's been following us knows we've improved our team."

Murray had a busy offseason, acquiring forwards Brian Gionta and Matt Moulson and defenseman Andrej Meszaros in free agency. He also traded for defenseman Josh Gorges. And four years of building one of the deepest prospect pools in the League is close to paying off. Heading that list are forwards Sam Reinhart, the second pick of the 2014 NHL Draft, and Mikhail Grigorenko (2012, No. 12), and defensemen Rasmus Ristolainen (2013, No. 8), Nikita Zadorov (2013, No. 16), Jake McCabe (2012, No. 44) and Mark Pysyk (2010, No. 23).

Reinhart, Ristolainen, Zadorov and McCabe, who are a few of the top prospects representing the team in Traverse City, are under the watchful eye of Murray this week.

"To be a young guy and see what [the organization] did in the offseason only excites a guy like me and motivates me to get that much better and make the team," Reinhart said. "I'm excited to be skating with the guys I'm with [in Traverse City] and feel comfortable. Any time you get the chance to play with better players, I raise to their level and that helps me."

You also get the feeling Ristolainen, who played 34 games with the Sabres last season, is determined to stick with the big club all season in 2014-15. He lost 15 pounds since last season and looks leaner, faster and stronger at the point.

"I thought that I would be able to handle [playing in the NHL] right away but it wasn't like that," Ristolainen said. "I learned a lot last year and coaches helped me a lot and it was a good time in Rochester [in the American Hockey League]. I worked well with the coaches, gained a lot of ice time.

"But I never want to see the AHL anymore this year."

Devine said that defense is where the Sabres are the strongest in prospect depth. He felt Ristolainen was the best player at the team's development camp in July.

Murray said he wouldn't be surprised if Ristolainen plays himself onto the roster for good.

"I think you look at three prospects on the back end [Ristolainen, Zadorov, McCabe] and there's a great competition," Murray said. "Sam [Reinhart] thinks that if he has a good camp he can play on our team and he should think that way. It'll be up to us to make those decisions and make the right decisions for everybody involved. But we certainly don't want to draft players that think they can't make our team."

Zadorov is No. 11 on NHL.com's ranking of the Top 60 prospects in the League. The hope is to one day have Zadorov, a left shot, and Ristolainen, a right shot, to work as a top defense pair in Buffalo.

Despite the need for a top center, Devine said no player will remain on the roster if the organization feels he isn't 100-percent ready to withstand the rigors of an 82-game regular season.

"Sam is a talented player, but we're in a position now that we're not going to rush anybody," Devine said. "Our team has improved, but as far as us being Stanley Cup contenders, it might take a little while. Sam has all the tools, but the question will be is he physically strong enough to play against NHL players. That's the question mark for me, and I hope he makes it easy for us and plays so well that he leaves no doubt."

Reinhart is No. 4 on NHL.com's ranking of the Top 60 prospects in the League.

"A lot will have to do with his training camp when he's playing with and against NHL players in the [preseason] games," Devine said. "We'd love for him to step in and be a real force, but we're not going to rush him."

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