Ron Rolston took over as coach on Feb. 20. ©2013, Dan Hickling, Olean Times Herald

Sabres facing plenty of questions as first training camp under Ron Rolston begins

BUFFALO – The Sabres convene for training camp physicals today inside the First Niagara Center, for better or worse, almost the same team that ended a disappointing, 11th-place season 137 days ago.

Other than a busy draft day and reacquiring 34-year-old defenseman Henrik Tallinder, the rebuilding club remained quiet throughout the summer.

Starting goalie Ryan Miller and leading scorer Thomas Vanek, two veteran stars rumored to be on the trading block, are back. Still, with expiring contracts, their days could be numbered.

Nonetheless, the franchise cornerstones make the upcoming season, one devoid of any expectations, intriguing.

Teams often quickly rebuild on the fly in today’s NHL. New coach Ron Rolston, whose fresh approach won over players last winter, is a noted talent-developer, and the Sabres possess plenty of slick youngsters.

So what if Miller and Vanek have two All-Star type seasons again? What if some of the team’s top prospects – think winger Joel Armia, center Mikhail Grigorenko or defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen – contribute and display flashes of future stardom?

And what if struggling defenseman Tyler Myers recaptures his elite rookie form back beside Tallinder? What if enigmatic winger Drew Stafford simply becomes a consistent 25-goal scorer?

Might the Sabres, who closed last season 7-4 after jettisoning three talented veterans, including former captain Jason Pominville, grab one of the new Atlantic Division’s playoff spots? Maybe Sabres fans won’t endure the “suffering” general manager Darcy Regier has spoken about.

This camp, the first without former coach Lindy Ruff since 1996, has no shortage of interesting storylines. Here are some to follow over the next few weeks:

What happens to Grigorenko and some of the other youngsters?

Even with junior eligibility left, Grigorenko will stick with the Sabres this season, Regier has said.

Remember, Grigorenko endured a whirlwind 2012-13 rookie campaign, playing about 90 games in three leagues over nine months. The Sabres even sent him back to the QMJHL in March.

He handled everything well, but the stability of following one program and hearing the same voices in the NHL should help the Russian.

But how will the Sabres utilize him? Can they really skate him on the fourth line again or scratch him regularly like last season?

The Sabres are woefully thin down the middle. Perhaps Rolston should consider playing Grigorenko 15 minutes a night in a variety of situations. Of course, Grigorenko has to earn that ice time.

Last season, Grigorenko became the Sabres’ first 18-year-old to play regularly since Pierre Turgeon in 1987-88. Now, they might have another one this season in Ristolainen, the No. 8 pick in June.

Ristolainen, a two-year veteran of SM-liiga, a Finnish men’s league, will likely be given every chance to make the big club. Ditto for the 20-year-old Armia, the No. 16 pick in 2011.

The talented Armia, who averaged 18 goals during three SM-liiga seasons, could become the talk of camp. Regier said last year he could crack the NHL immediately.

Other prospects – center Johan Larsson and defenseman Chad Ruhwedel, for example – might be able to earn spots.

The youngsters should receive plenty of action during the Sabres’ seven exhibition contests.

When will Cody Hodgson sign?

The restricted free agent, the team’s No. 1 center on paper, has 18 goals and 42 points in 68 career games since arriving from Vancouver in February 2012. Based on his erratic play around his own net, the 23-year-old’s arguably one of the league’s worst defensive forwards.

Hodgson doesn’t have a ton of leverage.

A year ago, winger Tyler Ennis (months after moving to center) signed a two-year, $5.625 million deal as a restricted free agent. At that point, Ennis’ resume included: leading the Sabres in playoff scoring shortly after his recall in 2010; a 20-goal, 49-point rookie season in 2010-11; eight goals and 19 points during a 12-game stretch late in 2011-12.

New Jersey center Adam Henrique, also 23 and entering his third season, recently inked a six-year, $24 million deal. While Henrique has slightly lower offensive numbers than Hodgson, he’s regarded as a better all-around player and played 24 games during the Devils’ 2011 run to the Stanley Cup final.

Toronto center Nazem Kadri, who’s about to turn 23 and outperformed Hodgson last season, signed a two-year, $5.8 million contract late Tuesday.

Who’s the captain?

Instead of naming a permanent or temporary one after Pominville left, Rolston awarded winger Steve Ott an assistant captaincy. Based on his gung-ho, team-first style, Ott’s a strong candidate to wear the “C” this season. So is Vanek, another accountable, selfless player.

But both are free agents following after 2013-14, so neither is a slam dunk.

Rolston could rotate the captaincy, something Ruff tried years ago. He could also keep three assistants like last season.

How will Miller and Vanek handle constant questions about their future?

Trade rumors will dog the two all season. Little bothers Vanek, at least publicly. He’s already been dealing with questions about his status for months. Each time, he brushes them off.

But Miller often lets his emotions get the best of him. He’d be wise to talk about his uncertain status early in camp and say he won’t address it again until something develops.

Which veterans can force their way on the roster?

Since the Sabres added no experience up front, Matt Ellis and Cody McCormick, two popular forwards sent to Rochester last season, could return. Vanek, a talent the Sabres need to appease if they want him to stay, recently said he’d like both players back.

The Sabres will also have 24-year-old forward Colton Gillies, a veteran of 154 NHL contests with Minnesota and Columbus, in camp on a tryout. The Wild originally selected Gillies 16th overall in 2007.

Here’s the early camp schedule at the FNC:


Session One: 8:45-9:45

Session Two: 10-10:45

Scrimmage: 11:15-12:00

Session Three: 12:15-1:00


Session One: 7:45-8:45

Scrimmage: 9:15-10:30


Session One: 8:45-9:45

Session Two: 10-10:45

Scrimmage: 11:15-12:00

Session Three: 12:15-1:00

Pre-game skate: 10:30 a.m. (FNC)
Game at Montreal: 7 p.m.

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