Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Buffalo Sabres 2013-14 Preview, Part 3--first round talent and a new core rising up-front

In looking at the Sabres defense in the last blog, the preview had an opening day group that will feature two rookies in the top-six defenders and a total of three players 23 or younger on the back-end.

That movement towards youth continues up-front featuring two teenagers and a total of six players 23 or younger.

In looking at the forwards, it all begins with recently named co-captain Thomas Vanek, the team's best player.

Vanek is coming off of another solid year that featured a typical ebb and flow to his season. He's in the last year of his contract and the specter of a possible trade will be hovering over him until the deadline.

He has said time and again that he will wait and see how the things unfold with the Sabres rebuild before he makes any decision about re-signing. The Sabres clearly want him back, but will probably move him before he has the opportunity to walk at the end of the season.

His partner on the top line will be center Cody Hodgson. He recently inked a six-year extension.

Hodgson is second only to Vanek in terms of talent right now. And his off-season work-ethic is second to none. Will that work-ethic and talent equal a true #1 center?

From the Sabres standpoint, he'll have six years to work on that. Even so, Hodgson is a bonafide top-six center who should be good for at least 50 points a season.

After those two, question marks abound in the top-nine with youth and inconsistency being their defining traits.

At 27 yrs. old and entering his prime, RW Drew Stafford should be a lock for the top-line. Unfortunately the former 30-goal scorer is the poster-child for inconsistency. He had a poor season last year and it comes down to effort. He has the size, skill and talent to be a top-line player, but it seems as if he floats way too often.

Maybe that's why he had the "A" taken from him.

The antithesis of Stafford is Marcus Foligno.

The 4th-round pick is a bit bigger than Stafford, has less pure talent but plays hard. Foligno is only 22 and just finding out what style of game suits him. Hubris hit him last season as he thought he was a scorer. Towards the end of the season he found out a formula that works for him and it earned him the opportunity to play with Vanek and Hodgson in the preseason. That trio looked real strong.

He will start the year on the injured list, but upon his return, should Stafford stumble, Foligno could find himself on the top-line.

The fate of the top-six, and the alignment of the centers rested with Tyler Ennis and where the coaching staff wanted to place him.

The smallish Ennis is a water bug and is much better when he has more ice to work with, which the center position offers him, and that's where he'll start the season.

For some reason, Ennis' production has gone unheralded. In 187 games he had 48 goals and 75 assists which averages out to 20 goals and 32 assists over a 82 game season. And he's only 23.

Ennis got the #2 center spot because 2012 first-round pick Mikhail Grigorenko failed to grab hold of the spot.

Grigorenko is only 19 and had a 25 game introduction to the NHL last season. It didn't go as well as everyone hoped, but GM Darcy Regier said that he will remain with the big club this season.

That approach provided a "foot-in-mouth" moment as Grigorenko progressed slowly this summer. It's been said that the Sabres asked for an exemption to send him to Rochester and Regier mentioned that there's a possibility that he could be sent to the AHL on a 14-day "conditioning" stint.

Grigorenko had his best success having veterans Steve Ott and Ville Leino on the wings. Those two will start the season with Ennis between them.

Yesterday, Ott was named co-captain of the Sabres. He will wear the "C" on the road.

Everyone knows what Ott brings to the table:  grit, leadership, bloody knuckles and around 30-35 points per season.

As the antithesis of Regier's "core," he immediately became a fan favorite an hearkened in the transition of the Sabres from "soft-but-skilled" to (hopefully) "tougher to play against."

The fate of the Sabres could rest partly in the hands of Leino.

His well documented $27m signing two years ago is a running joke around the NHL and he gets the opportunity to start the year in the top-six.

He understands where he is and has said that everything is in place for him to have a strong season. No excuses.

The Sabres probably feel the same way and should he falter, a buyout next off season is in the offing.

Two rookies with top-six potential will be looking to stick with the big club this season.

19-yr old Zemgus Girgensons was picked two slots behind Grigorenko in the 2012 draft after the Sabres traded up for him and will get the first crack.

Girgensons went directly from the draft to the AHL last season and grew steadily throughout the year. He's a gritty, two-way forward in constant motion. He has size, skill and grit and can play any forward position.

Known as the "Latvian Locomotive," Girgensons had three goals in three playoff games for the Amerks last year. That pretty much punched his ticket to the NHL.

His partner down in Rochester last season was gritty, two-way center Johan Larsson. He assisted on all three of Girgensons goals in the playoffs.

Larsson is ready for the NHL. Sabres coach Ron Rolston had said that he may have been the best player throughout camp and the preseason. Yet Larsson will take a back seat to Grigorenko and Girgensons when the Sabres hit the ice in Detroit tonight.

Regardless of whether or not it's justified, one would think that when Larsson hits the ice with the team, he'll be there to stay.

Right now, rookie Brian Flynn is slated for third-line RW duties on a line with Girgensons and Grigorenko.

Rolston liked Flynn in Rochester and when he was named interim coach, he brought Flynn with him.

Flynn isn't big, but he's a heady, two-way player with skill who's a hard worker. Those traits lead to six goals and five assists in 26 games with the Sabres last season. He was also tied for the team plus-minus lead with a plus-six.

Another player Rolston brought with him from Rochester was Kevin Porter.

Porter's slated for fourth-line duties with veterans Cody McCormick and Patrick Kaleta to start the season and will probably be swapping spots with enforcer John Scott.

Corey Tropp is injured and will be out 5-6 weeks, when he returns, he'll have an inside track for inclusion on the fourth line. He has size, grit and attitude. All traits that the Sabres want in their players moving forward.

The Outlook

WGR's Paul Hamilton is right when he wrote that this team could be real bad or make a run to the playoffs.

This is one of the youngest teams in the league with a coach who's entering his second NHL season with a mere 31 NHL games under his belt.

Rolston is known as "the professor," and this is a good match for him. He's had a full training camp to work with a roster that features three teenagers, six rookies and nine players 23 or younger.

If the Sabres were to start out the year slow as this young group tries to catch up to the speed of the NHL game, no one would be surprised.

Nor would it be surprising if this group of players, one that features nine first-round picks, found their legs and began to play better as the season wore on.

An overall philosophical transition from the "soft-but-skilled" old core to a "tougher to play against," two-way oriented "new core" is in full transition with the addition of the rookies on the roster.

There are still flaws on the back-end, mainly a lack of grit and toughness, and they're still lacking bonafide top-line talent outside of Vanek, but they're solid in net.

As long as Miller and Vanek are in the lineup, they will have an outside chance to make the playoffs in the East.

Without them, a top-five pick is a strong possibility.

It should be a rough start followed by a steady climb up until the trade deadline. At the deadline, if neither is signed, one should expect both Miller and Vanek to be moved leading to a precipitous drop down the standings.

That drop should see them finish in the bottom quarter of the league.

Which isn't a bad thing.

Sabreland is prepared for a drop like that and the focus will be on the charge of the youngins.

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