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Five storylines to follow at Sabres camp

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber /

Jason Botterill may have said it best when he was asked about the excitement surrounding his first training camp as general manager on Monday night. The time for what ifs and theorizing has come to an end. Hockey is back.

"You finally have players here. Instead of talking about hypotheticals, you see things on the ice," he said. "You're finally talking hockey again."

Indeed, over the next month we'll see a fresh style of hockey under a new coach in Phil Housley, with a roster that's been overhauled by a new general manager in Botterill. 

But with change, of course, comes questions, so let's take a look at a few of the storylines we'll be following once camp opens on Thursday.


Looking on the left

With Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno and William Carrier all having departed during the offseason, the left side of the Sabres offense could look vastly different than it did last season. Evander Kane figures to play on one of the top two lines, but the other top-six spot appears to be up for grabs. 

Benoit Pouliot is a candidate to claim that spot after signing a one-year deal with the Sabres on July 1; he'll be looking to rebound after an admittedly down year in which he scored just 14 points in 67 games. Matt Moulson and Zemgus Girgensons, should Housley decide to play him at wing rather than center, are holdover candidates from last season.

The third option is for a young player to impress enough in the preseason to claim the spot right out of camp. Evan Rodrigues enjoyed most of his NHL success at center last season, but before that he played on the left wing. Justin Bailey spent the offseason preparing to play on the left, while Alexander Nylander is another left-shot candidate to make the jump. 


How will the defense shake out?

Like at forward, the Sabres have a crowded group to sort out on the left side of their defense. They brought in three left-shot defensemen in Marco Scandella, Nathan Beaulieu and Victor Antipin, adding to a left side that already included Jake McCabe, Josh Gorges and Justin Falk (although Falk spent plenty of time playing the right side last season). 

Then there's Brendan Guhle, who just scored six points in three games at the Prospects Challenge and played like he belonged during a three-game stint with the Sabres on emergency recall last season.

Scandella figures to play on the top pair alongside Rasmus Ristolainen, but beyond that it'll be interesting to see how the pairs shake out. We'll likely see one of those left shots (possibly Antipin) take the final spot on the right, behind Ristolainen and Zach Bogosian. 


Where will Sam Reinhart play?

At the end of the 2015-16 season, it appeared as though Reinhart had made a home for himself on Jack Eichel's right wing. Then, with Eichel and Ryan O'Reilly both dealing with injuries early last season, Reinhart found himself playing a good dose of center and turned in the most productive stretch of his young career. By mid-January, he'd already matched his assist total from the season before.

So, the question remains: Where will Reinhart play going forward? Will he continue to be used on the wing to bolster the top six, or does he provide more depth as a third-line center? Reinhart has said that he's willing to play either position, but the question will get raised again with a new coach writing the lineup. 


The Housley effect

 Here's what Housley had to say about his system in an interview with The Instigators on Tuesday:

"Our system is going to be that we're going to play fast, we're going to play with speed. I know those are old clichés, but we really need to have a five-man attack because in today's game, your D have to be mobile. We're going to try and implement that in training camp and I think guys are going to really like when they grasp it."

On a team level, the six preseason games will serve as an opportunity to watch how the Sabres adapt to the new system and the responsibilities that come with it - defensemen will be joining the rush and playing behind the goal line, while forwards will need to pick up more defensive responsibility.  

On an individual level, it will be interesting to see which players benefit from the change, especially on defense. Will the offensive contributions of gifted skaters like Rasmus Ristolainen and Zach Bogosian increase as Housley implores his defensemen to join the attack?


Depth in Rochester

Just because a player doesn't make the team out of training camp doesn't mean we won't see them in Buffalo at some point this season. Last October, we saw Nicholas Baptiste recalled for the Sabres' first road trip after a strong showing in the preseason.

The lost list of candidates who may contribute in both Buffalo and Rochester this season includes both young players (Bailey, Baptiste, Hudson Fasching, Guhle, Casey Nelson, Nylander, Rodrigues and C.J. Smith, among others) and veterans (Kyle Criscuolo, Taylor Fedun, Seth Griffith and Kevin Porter). 

For those who don't make the roster out of camp, strong showings in the preseason will bode well when the need for a recall arises.

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