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Previewing the East: Buffalo

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings

DETROIT – The Red Wings are moving to the Eastern Conference next season where they will be reunited with a trio of Original Six rivals (Boston, Montreal and Toronto) in a division that also includes Buffalo, Florida, Ottawa and Tampa Bay.

Throughout the summer,'s Bill Roose will take an analytical look at a different Eastern Conference team. This week it's the Buffalo Sabres:


2013 Record: 21-21-6
Head Coach: Ron Rolston (first season)
Home Rink: First Niagara Center
Red Wings All-Time Record vs. BUF: 50-52-13-1
2013-14 Games: Oct. 2 @ DET; Nov. 24 @ BUF; Apr. 4 @ DET; Apr. 8 @ BUF

Pending Unrestricted Free Agents: None.
Pending Restricted Free Agents: Center Cody Hodgson.
Free Agents Lost: Right wing Mark Mancari, center Nick Tarnasky, goalie David Leggio, and defensemen Adam Pardy and Alex Biega.
Free Agents Gained: Defenseman Drew Bagnall.

Since he was traded away from Detroit, Ville Leino has produced 31 goals in 3-plus seasons, including two scores last season. (Photo by Dave Reginek)

What’s in the water in Michigan that has recently produced a handful of NHL head coaches?

“That’s a good question,” said Ron Rolston, a 1984 graduate of Flint Powers High School, who was named head coach of the Buffalo Sabres in May.

Rolston is among three Michigan natives currently coaching NHL clubs. The others are Pittsburgh’s Dan Bylsma, of Grand Haven, Mich., and Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper, who coached Lansing Catholic Central while earning a law degree in the capital city in the late 1990s.

“Obviously, it’s a great hockey state with the level of hockey there with both college and major junior hockey, and then you have great minor league programs across the state and in the Upper Peninsula,” Rolston said. “I think that and the fact that you’re close to Canada so as we grew up playing we were immersed in hockey, and if you have a passion for it I think that helps drive some of these guys.”

Rolston, 46, will need to be driven if he hopes to return the Sabres to the Stanley Cup playoffs. Buffalo has missed the playoffs in each of the past two seasons – four of the past six – and not won a playoff series since 2007.

As the interim coach last season, Rolston went 15-11-5 and had the Sabres in playoff contention entering the final week even though the team dealt three key players – captain Jason Pominville, Jordan Leopold and Robyn Regehr – in separate moves leading up to the trade deadline.

Rolston doesn’t have a lot of veteran pieces to work with other than goalie Ryan Miller and forward Thomas Vanek. However, the futures of the veteran pair are uncertain with both entering the final season of their contracts, and general manager Darcy Regier has made it known that both are expendable if the right offer comes along.

Cody Hodgson was effective in his first full season as the Sabres’ No. 1 centerman, notching 15 goals and 19 assists. The former first-round draft pick of the Vancouver Canucks, Hodgson was one of two Sabres (Steve Ott was the other) to appear in every game last season.

Besides feisty Tyler Ennis and versatile Kevin Porter the Sabres are thin up the middle, which is why they hope youngster Mikhail Grigorenko can quickly blossom into a dominant contributor. The 19-year-old Russian had an up-and-down rookie season, producing just five points in 25 games. Though the 2012 first-round draft pick (No. 12 overall) is still eligible to play at the Canadian junior level, the Sabres intend to have Grigorenko develop with the big club this season.

The experience gained as interim coach should help Rolston, but coaching against the Red Wings, a team he used to watch at Olympia with his season-ticket holding parents, will be someone overwhelming … at first.

“It’s really exiting,” Rolston said. “Last year we didn’t play the West because of the schedule, but this will obviously be a challenge. They’re a great organization with where they’re at, and their coaching staff is exceptional. It’ll be a challenge.

“When you look at all of the divisions and the conferences they are all challenging with the parity in hockey now. But it’s real exciting in our conference with all of the teams in terms of tradition and the level of competition.”

– The Sabres led the NHL in total blocked shots in 24 road games last season, though only one player (defenseman Mike Weber) finished in the top 25 among NHL defensemen with 92. Weber’s 2.19 blocked shots per game is the team’s highest since Toni Lydman blocked 2.49 shots during the 2006-07 season.

– The number of shots that goalie Ryan Miller faced to lead all NHL goalies in a lockout-shortened season. It was a tough season for the East Lansing, Mich., native who posted a 17-17-5 record. It certainly didn’t help that the Sabres’ defense allowed 33.5 shots per game, which was a four-year high among NHL clubs.

Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose

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