COMMENTARY | A little over a week into training camp the Buffalo Sabres have set the blender to liquefy in an effort to meld the few 'old core' veterans they have left with the next wave of maturing young organizational talent.
The toughest part of this rebuilding transition has to be finding which players fit the roles head coach Ron Rolston expects his players to fill in his system while maintaining a high level of competitiveness with rival organizations.
The Sabres had a relatively quiet offseason with the only two roster additions coming in the form of defensemen Henrik Tallinder from New Jersey and Jamie McBain, in a deal with the Carolina Hurricanes. Most importantly perhaps was the re-signing of restricted free agent center Cody Hodgson to a 6-year $4.25 million (capgeek.com) deal just before the opening of training camp.
In terms of departures, the Sabres lost their most significant piece when they traded Jason Pominville at last year's trade deadline. However they also bought out Nathan Gerbe, traded Andrej Sekera to Carolina and let Adam Pardy walk in free agency this summer.
What does it all mean? The competition level at training camp will be filled with energy, excitement and undoubtedly mistakes. That can be said for most teams training camps, but what separates the Sabres from the rest of the league is one of the strongest contingents of top draft picks with a chance to immediately contribute.
As the pre-season winds down and the Sabres ramp up to October 2, when they will open the season in Detroit against the revamped Red Wings, Rolston and general manager Darcy Regier will need to keep a keen eye on these aspects of their rebuilding foundation:
1. Who will play the right wing with Hodgson and Thomas Vanek? Vanek (20 goals, 21 assists per hockeydb.com) and Hodgson (15 goals, 19 assists per hockeydb.com) were one and two in scoring for the Sabres last season. After the Sabres traded Pominville, a bevy of players vied to secure the top wing spot, but none produced at a high level. So far in training camp the duo has paired with Marcus Foligno and will skate with highly touted prospect Joel Armia against Carolina.
The favorites to win the battle for the top line are Foligno and consummate grinder Steve Ott. The Sabres are looking to match the talented pair of forwards with a player who can get down low in the offensive zone and play physically in order to create space and retrieve pucks for the top scorers to generate scoring chances around the net. Foligno and Ott are able to do just that. While Armia has the youth and talent to be a top line player, he will likely begin the season acclimating to the North American style of hockey in Rochester.
2. Can Tyler Myers return to his Calder trophy form or better? Last season was a forgettable one for Tyler Myers. At a point in his career where he is expected to consistently compete for Norris trophies, Myers took a few steps in the wrong direction. Playing lackadaisically in the defensive end, hesitating on his break out passes and lacking the confidence with the puck to generate sufficient offense, Myers' game struggled up until his lockout shortened campaign was cut even shorter by a broken leg.
Myers spent more time in the gym this offseason, working smarter and harder than ever. The Sabres will be relying heavily on the 23-year old to play top defenseman minutes and to protect Ryan Miller all season long. If he can return to his 48 point form a la 2009-2010 rookie season, the hulking defender can begin a resurgence that will see him start living up to the hype, the $5.5 million (capgeek.com) contract and maybe even receive some attention for the Canadian Olympic roster in February.
3. Which of the young forwards will make the 23 man roster? The youth contingency at the forward position is filled with promising first round talent. Starting with Mikhail Grigorenko who will be counted on as a top two center this season. Grigorenko will skate between Steve Ott and Ville Leino to begin the season and if the Sabres are to have an offensive rejuvenation, it will most likely revolve around the 2012 first round pick.
Johan Larsson came to the Sabres in the deadline deal from the Wild in exchange for Pominville last season. Larsson is currently manning the center position on the third line between Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford. The 21-year old Swede looks to have the all around game to carry the load of an NHL center, but keep an eye out for first round pick Zemgus Girgensons, who has been labeled as one of the hardest workers in the organization to gun for a spot in the bottom six forwards as well.
4. Which of the young defensemen will make the 23 man roster? The Sabres' blue line might be the most intriguing positional battle throughout camp. They have a logjam on the backend with an interesting mix of veterans and youngsters. Starting with 2013 first round picks Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov, who both have the size and skill to step in immediately. Will one of these two be allowed cut their teeth at the NHL level or will undrafted signee Chad Ruhwedel and 2010 first round pick Mark Pysyk figure into the equation?
The youngsters will be looking to unseat one of the veteran defenders like; Mike Weber, Alexander Sulzer, Tallinder and McBain. Also, Brayden McNabb could be an under the radar prospect to compete for a spot with a solid training camp. He posted 8 points in 25 games (hockeydb.com) in 2009-2010 and if he can prove his game on and off the ice has matured his hard-hitting style could be a welcomed presence to the defensive unit.
5. Will there be a shift in attitude? There have been some negative rumblings from recently departed Sabres in recent years. Whispers of a locker room that doesn't bring the positive approach necessary to be successful have swirled from the disgruntled and satisfied defectors alike. Whether it's bitterness from those who felt slighted or a real problem the Sabres need to deal with internally, anyone who has been on a successful athletic team understands that team chemistry is exponentially essential.
Chemistry cannot be talked about, imitated or reproduced, it is a rapport built through the peaks and valleys of a journey. Each guy has to push the next to be at his best at all times and in all phases. Hopefully with this shift towards youth and some weeding out of some of the negative influences in the Sabres locker room, there is a shift in attitude that is one of hard work, dedication and a pure unadulterated excitement for winning hockey games.
Gunner Taylor is a Buffalo, N.Y. native who is a fan of the Bills and Sabres. He has contributed to sabrespace.com, buffalorising.com and wnyhockeyreport.com.
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