Sam Reinhart- This is the obvious one; expectations are sky high for the Sabres’ highest draft pick since Pierre Turgeon in 1987. By all accounts Reinhart played well in Traverse City despite not finding the back of the net. Reinhart will obviously face a step up in competition as he heads into his first NHL camp. The rookie will most certainly get his shot at the beginning of the year with his nine game pseudo tryout before a decision must be made on his future. All eyes will be on him as he attempts to force his way into the Sabres’ top six forwards, but looking at the Sabres’ roster make up, don’t be shocked to see Reinhart headed back to Kootenay for another year.
The Defense- Only seven, maybe eight blue liners will be on the roster when the puck drops against Columbus on October 7. The team currently has ten candidates for those spots, with the rest shipped down the thruway to Rochester or sent back to juniors for the beginning of the new campaign. Looking at the roster, four spots are locked up in Tyler Myers, Mike Weber, Andrej Meszaros, and Josh Gorges, plus the signing of Andre Benoit to a one way deal likely wraps up the fifth spot on the back end. That leaves Jake McCabe, Mark Pysyk, Rasmus Ristolainen, Chad Ruhwedel, and Nikita Zadorov to battle it out in camp for the two or three remaining spots. Zadorov took a seat for a period or two in Traverse City due to a perceived lack of effort and looks set to be on the way back to the OHL for another year of seasoning barring an exceptional camp. While play on the ice will obviously be the major factor in deciding who sticks with the big club, contract flexibility may also pay a factor; a player like Rasmus Ristolainen is still able to be shuttled between Buffalo and Rochester without going through waivers, which makes him a more likely candidate to start in the AHL.
Top Six Forwards- Tim Murray was able to add much more depth to the NHL ranks on July 1, and the majority of that depth comes in the form of top six forwards such as Brian Gionta and the returning Matt Moulson. Those additions, along with the likes of Tyler Ennis, Cody Hodgson, Drew Stafford, and Chris Stewart would lead folks to believe the Sabres’ top two forward lines are fairly set. There are still some questions positionally, mainly who will man the middle. Cody Hodgson’s defensive deficiencies have led some to believe he could end up on the wing, while Tyler Ennis saw time at both center and wing last season. With these players seemingly locked into scoring roles barring a trade or injury, it looks like a tough task for anyone, including Sam Reinhart, to break into the group on a permanent basis. Another name who gets lost in the shuffle is Mikhail Grigorenko. The odds are certainly not in his favor for an opening night spot, but he has added 15-20 pounds of muscle and heads into this season in what looks to be a much better frame of mind when compared to last year; I’m pulling for him to put forth a good showing in camp.
Bottom Six Forwards- The Sabres have a ton of bodies looking to fill the final eight roster spots (including healthy scratches). While Zemgus Girgensons is basically a lock to man the middle for the 3rd line and likes of Marcus Foligno, Brian Flynn, and the repatriated Cody McCormick also look to have spots, there are still plenty of questions. Torrey Mitchell barely got on the ice for the team last year before getting hurt, and is thus a bit of an unknown. Nic Deslauriers acquitted himself well in limited duty last year, and Matt Ellis is back in the fold for another year. Add in the now healthy (and sometimes forgotten) Pat Kaleta, new signing Zac Dalpe, Johan Larsson, and new addition Jordan Samuels-Thomas (who played very well in Traverse City) and the competition for the last few spots will be fierce.
Goaltending- For the first time since the early 90’s the Sabres go into the season without a definitive answer in the crease. Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth head into camp as the goaltending tandem for the Blue and Gold, and all indications point toward a scenario where the two are viewed as option 1a and 1b by Ted Nolan. While it is unknown how Nolan will split time in net during the preseason, the two 26 year old netminders will be looking to show that they deserve the nod on opening night. The year may start with the time split relatively even, Nolan will likely not hesitate to go with the hot hand. While the opening night starter is by no means a guarantee to play 55 or 60 games, whoever gets the start will have the first chance to prove himself to the coaches. New goaltending coach Arturs Irbe may also play a role in determining who eventually wins the job. Irbe was considered an undersized goaltender throughout his career and he is now tasked with mentoring the 5’ 10” Enroth and Neuvirth, who is listed at 6’ 1”. Whichever goaltender is able to take to Irbe’s methods quickest may benefit in the form of more playing time.