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FIVE TRAINING CAMP STORYLINES TO WATCH

by Jourdon LaBarber / Buffalo Sabres

If the 2015-16 season is the next chapter for the Buffalo Sabres, then Training Camp should serve as a gripping prelude. Expectation will become execution over the next three weeks as the new (and old) faces billed to usher the franchise into a new era finally take the ice together at First Niagara Center, with practices open to the public set to begin on Friday at 9 a.m.

We’ll see Jack Eichel, the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft, alongside his NHL teammates for the first time and we’ll get a better look at the maturation of 2014 first-rounder Sam Reinhart.

Buffalo’s three major acquisitions, forwards Evander Kane and Ryan O’Reilly and goaltender Robin Lehner, all will make their Buffalo debuts under a new coaching staff led by Stanley Cup-winner Dan Bylsma. And of course, we’ll see familiar faces like Tyler Ennis, Matt Moulson, Brian Gionta, Zach Bogosian, Rasmus Ristolainen and Zemgus Girgensons begin to blend in with their new teammates on the ice.

But the preseason is also a time to answer questions in advance of the NHL season, and the Sabres have several of them surrounding their new and exciting roster. Here are five storylines to pay attention to over the next three weeks:


WHERE WILL REINHART AND EICHEL FIT?

While there’s no guarantee that either player will make the final NHL roster out of camp, the skill level exhibited by Buffalo’s No. 2 overall picks during the summer suggests that they might be prepared to take the next step.

We already knew what kind of skill set Eichel brought to the table: he’s fast, strong with the puck and incredibly gifted offensively; his performance in the Prospects Challenge only confirmed that. The next test for the 18-year-old is to see how those skills hold up alongside seasoned NHL players.

Eichel fared well at the IIHF World Championship in June, where he was pitted against topflight talent such as Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Vladimir Tarasenko. He came out of that tournament with two goals and five assists in 10 games played, including an overtime-winning goal against Slovakia.

Reinhart, meanwhile, got his first taste of NHL action last season when he spent nine games with the Sabres prior to being sent back to junior for development. He was an integral part of Team Canada’s gold medal-winning team at the IIHF World Junior Championship and then got some extra seasoning at the end of the season with a few games in the American Hockey League with Rochester.

He’s added some bulk and has impressed coaches with his decision making both in a stellar Development Camp and in the Prospects Challenge. At July’s Development Camp, he won the Craig Ramsay Award as the camp’s hardest working player.

Should both of these player make the NHL roster out camp, the Sabres will have one more question to answer: Where do they fit?

Buffalo already has a crop of talented veteran forwards, especially with the off-season additions of Kane and O’Reilly. If it’s deemed best for the team, a position switch for one of the two young prospects from center to wing is not out of the realm of possibility.


SPEAKING OF O'REILLY AND KANE, HOW WILL THEY MESH WITH THE ALREADY ESTABLISHED SABRES?

Despite the struggles of last year’s team, there’s no doubting the talent of several of the Sabres’ returning players. Players like Tyler Ennis, Zemgus Girgensons and alternate captain Matt Moulson, among others, will have key roles on the Buffalo offense this year and for years to come.

Now, the fun part: the Sabres get to take that group and add Kane, a 30-goal scorer from Winnipeg and O’Reilly, who tallied 55 points last season for Colorado. Both players are only 24 and are expected to continue to blossom in Buffalo.

Finding out who they’ll be sharing lines with will be an interesting to watch as camp develops. It’s certainly possible that O’Reilly centers the Sabres’ top line with Kane as the left wing and Ennis (Buffalo’s leading scorer last season) on the right. But what becomes of a player like Girgensons?

At 21, the Latvian fan favorite scored 15 goals in 61 games last season before sustaining a season-ending injury in February. Particularly if Eichel and Reinhart both make the roster – and if they both play center – moving Girgensons to the wing to utilize his talent on one of the top two lines is a move with potential.


WHO WILL FILL OUT THE FINAL FORWARD SPOTS?

The addition of new top-line forwards also means increased competition for players trying to fill out the bottom half of the depth chart. Buffalo added veterans David Legwand (also acquired in the Ottawa trade with Lehner), Jamie McGinn (traded from Colorado with O’Reilly) and Jason Akeson to a mix of players that already included captain Brian Gionta, Marcus Foligno, Nicolas Deslauriers, Johan Larsson, Jerry D’Amigo, Tim Schaller and Philip Varone.

Cody McCormick is also returning from a season-ending injury and Patrick Kaleta will aim to find a role on the NHL team after signing an AHL contract with Rochester on Saturday.

Once again, where these players fit into Buffalo’s offense also depends heavily on the readiness of Eichel and Reinhart, but expect the competition to be high as players look to earn spots not only on the team’s third and fourth lines, but on the NHL roster in general.


HOW WILL THE DEFENSE SHAKE OUT?

Not only do we not know who will be paired together on the Sabres defensive unit, we don’t even entirely know who will make the roster out of camp. Ristolainen, Bogosian and alternate captain Josh Gorges (who feels he’s ready to go after recovering from knee surgery in February) will each return and have a spot on one of the Sabres’ three defensive pairings.

You can expect the same for Cody Franson, a right-handed defenseman signed by the Sabres last week. Franson scored a career-high 36 points for Toronto and Nashville last season.

It remains to be seen how the rest of the defensive unit shakes out. This could be the year that 23-year-old defenseman Mark Pysyk earns a full-time spot on the NHL roster; he played 44 games for Buffalo in 2013-14 and continued his development last season in Rochester.

Meanwhile, Mike Weber returns to the team after playing 64 games last season and winning the Unsung Hero Award (as voted on by his teammates), but he’ll face competition in left-handed acquisitions Matt Donovan and Carlo Colaiacovo as well as talented prospect Jake McCabe, who had a great summer in Development Camp and at the Prospects Challenge. Chad Ruhwedel, who tallied 36 points for Rochester last season, will also be in the defensive mix.


WHAT CAN WE EXPECT FROM BUFFALO'S TOP 3 GOALTENDERS?

There’s no question that the Sabres have high expectations for goaltender Robin Lehner, whom they acquired from the Senators on Draft Day in exchange for the No. 21 overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft. What remains to be seen is how the 24-year-old rebounds from the season-ending concussion he sustained last February.

The Sabres front office certainly believes in Lehner’s talent. General manager Tim Murray was in the Ottawa front office when the Senators drafted him in 2009. Lehner boasts a demanding frame in net at 6-foot-5 and has the mobility to complement his size.

Whether he can maximize that skill set in his first year with the Sabres is a question that he will begin to answer with his play in Training Camp and in the team’s preseason contests.

Behind Lehner on the depth chart is 29-year-old Chad Johnson, who did not play for Buffalo last season after being acquired from the Islanders due to a lower-body injury, and 22-year-old Andrey Makarov, who impressed coaches with his play in the Prospects Challenge. Makarov stopped all 14 of the shots he faced against New Jersey in his only game action of the round-robin tournament.

Stay tuned to Sabres.com throughout the preseason to see how these storylines may unfold.

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