5 Biggest Questions for the Buffalo Sabres' 2014-15 Season
With less than a week remaining until the Buffalo Sabres begin their highly anticipated 2014-15 season, a lot of questions remain.
It's a bit odd saying that a team expected to be among the worst in the league, if not the worst, can have anything anticipated, but the drama surrounding the 2015 NHL draft (and Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel) is the catalyst for the Sabres.
As the numerous catchphrases to encapsulate the season, i.e., Mission for McDavid, start swirling, what are the biggest questions of the Sabres' season?
1. Who Will Play Center and Who Will Play Wing?
While this may seem like a very easy question to answer simply by checking a player's page on NHL.com, Sabres fans know it is anything but.
For example, Cody Hodgson, who signed a six-year, $25.5 million deal before last season as a center, has played wing since the end of last season. He most recently played with Mikhail Grigorenko at center against the Washington Capitals in the Sabres' 6-1 victory last Wednesday, picking up an assist.
Also shifting last season was rookie Zemgus Girgensons, who played most of the season at the wing and, after a discussion between then new general manager Tim Murray and Ted Nolan, was moved to center.
This season, with a nice mix of veterans and prospects expected on the opening-night roster, it could be interesting to see who ends up playing center and wing along the way. Tyler Ennis, playing center now, also has history as a wing, so his move to the boards could be relatively easy as well.
When all is said and done, it can be assumed that more than a few Sabres will try their hand at new positions this year.
2. How Much Playing Time Will the Kids Get?
It's no secret that the Sabres are loaded in the prospect department.
The state-guarded secret seems to be when those guys will be able to play.
According to The Associated Press via ESPN.com, Mikhail Grigorenko was sent down to Rochester on Monday, joining last week's I-90 travelers Joel Armia, William Carrier, Tim Schaller and Daniel Catenacci.
His demotion is a minor surprise, and Grigorenko will likely see top-line minutes in Rochester while the Sabres decide what to do with Sam Reinhart. Schaller could see time in the event of an injury. Johan Larsson, likely suffering a concussion against the Toronto Maple Leafs last week, will at least start the season in the press box, if not on injured reserve.
Defensively, Rasmus Ristolainen should get to spend the entire season with the Sabres, as will Mark Pysyk, but Jake McCabe has impressed in camp and will likely get an extended stint at some point. Nikita Zadorov will likely be sent down to the OHL at some point, but it seems like he will get the chance to show he belongs first. Chad Ruhwedel will likely get a lot of time to start in Rochester but has shown he has the ability to play at the NHL level.
With the rash of veteran signings general manager Tim Murray swung this offseason, the likelihood of a kid-centric roster has lessened significantly. Barring any injuries, Ristolainen, Reinhart and Grigorenko seem to be the best candidates for any significant playing time, but Armia and McCabe will likely be waiting in the wings.
Regardless, Reinhart and Ristolainen will be on the opening-day roster, and Pysyk likely would have been had he not gotten injured early in the preseason. Until then, the others will be waiting for their opportunity.
3. How Long Will Sam Reinhart Stay?
This news is not surprising. The second overall pick in this year's draft getting a shot is neither a bad idea nor the least bit uncommon. However, how long he stays could be another thing altogether.
Reinhart finally got on the scoreboard in the Sabres' 6-1 victory against the Washington Capitals last week and played more than 15 minutes per game in each of the last two preseason games, but he looked to be quarter-step behind.
That's to be expected from an 18-year-old rookie, but can he gain that step in nine games? A betting man would tell you to put your money on the Kootenay Ice getting their stud back, but an impressive opening salvo for Reinhart could convince the team to keep him for the season.
Either way, the Reinhart watch starts in earnest Thursday night.
4. How Will the Goaltending Hold Up?
In what may be the biggest reversal from last season, the Sabres open the season with a huge question mark between the pipes.
After the departure of Ryan Miller, the Sabres had a lot of trouble with the goalie position—not necessarily in their performances, but in keeping the same guy in net for any period of time.
The Sabres played six different starting goaltenders, with three others suiting up but not making it into the game. Jhonas Enroth, Michal Neuvirth, Nathan Lieuwen, Connor Knapp, Matt Hackett and Miller played for the Sabres last season, with Jaroslav Halak, Andrey Makarov and Sabres employee Ryan Vinz dressing but never getting into the game.
This year the Sabres enter the season with a likely timeshare between Enroth and Neuvirth. Enroth had a respectable season but was sidelined by a knee injury late in the campaign. The then newly acquired Neuvirth was then in the position to be the workhorse, but a hip injury suffered before Enroth's never let him return either.
Both Enroth and Neuvirth are set to be unrestricted free agents at the end of the year, so an injury-riddled or inconsistent season could be the end of one or both of their Buffalo careers with a few younger guys waiting in the wings.
5. Just How Bad Will They Be?
Isn't that the question on everyone's mind?
The team should be better on the ice, make no mistake about it. The issue is the Sabres had a long way to go to even reach the 29th team last year.
So what can you expect on the ice?
The Sabres averaged 1.83 goals per game and 2.96 goals allowed per game, an average goal differential of minus-1.13, by far the worst in the league. The only other team with an average differential more than one was the Boston Bruins, except theirs was positive.
The re-addition of Matt Moulson was a great move, and Brian Gionta will obviously add veteran leadership; however, Moulson's presence is essentially just keeping things at the status quo, and Gionta is not going to score 40 goals anymore.
The additions to the defense should tighten that goal differential, as Josh Gorges, Andrej Meszaros and Andre Benoit should add a measure of stability to the defense, but that position will go as Tyler Myers, Rasmus Ristolainen and Mark Pysyk do.
All in all, expect the Sabres to be better this season but only marginally. The games may be closer and more competitive, but they're still going to lose a lot of them. The Sabres will very much be one of the favorites in the McDavid/Eichel derby, and greener pastures will be found somewhere in the future.
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