By Kevin Oklobzija - Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
Since Wednesday is Day 1 for NHL training camps, that means one thing for sure: The suffering officially begins for the Buffalo Sabres.
With the Sabres admittedly in rebuilding mode, general manager Darcy Regier warned fans in April that there may very well be "suffering" as talented youngsters adjust to the NHL game, either on the fly in Buffalo or during an apprenticeship with the Rochester Americans.
The team fired the longest-tenured coach in the NHL in February, traded its captain in early April and missed the Stanley Cup playoff party for the second consecutive season.
So as camp begins with player medicals on Wednesday, there are a multitude of questions that must be answered in the coming weeks and months.
1. Will Ryan Miller be the goalie on opening night as well as in March?
At the moment, opening night seems to be a sure thing. But unless the Sabres are somehow firmly entrenched in a playoff position as the March 4 trade deadline nears, the chances are very good that Miller will be moved.
He's 33; not old, but also not a guy upon which to build the future either. He will become an unrestricted free agent in July, so Regier will need to get something for him before he skates away. Come March, there will be a contender that believes they are one really good goalie away from making a deep run in the playoffs.
2. How much longer will Thomas Vanek wear the Sabres uniform?
Vanek has played eight seasons with the Sabres and he's their one legitimate scoring threat, a go-to guy every opponent must worry about. He does things with the puck in the tightest of spaces in a game that no one else on the Sabres can do in practice.
But he, too, will be an unrestricted free agent in July, and it's pretty clear he'd like to win now. He has value because there just aren't that many available players who can do what he does.
3. When will Cody Hodgson finally show up?
As of Tuesday, Hodgson still was not signed. He's a restricted free agent, having just completed his entry-level contract, so he has little leverage, if any.
And the Sabres surely don't feel any urgency to have owner Terry Pegula drill another natural gas well and give the deed to Hodgson. They aren't going to contend for the Stanley Cup with or without him, so you can bet Regier will be beyond patient when it comes to signing a guy who is a solid player but hardly a star.
That said, the Sabres have so little depth at center that they do need Hodgson's play-making.
4. Can Mikhail Grigorenko be an impact player?
He wasn't quite ready for the NHL last season but was too good for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. So in essence, he wasted a whole lot of the second half once the NHL lockout ended. He played in 25 games with Buffalo but scored just 1 goal and 4 assists.
A summer of working out, coupled with a better understanding of the league and his teammates, should give him much more confidence this season.
5. Is Zemgus Girgensons ready for the big time?
The Latvian Locomotive was the youngest player (18) in the American Hockey League last season as an Amerk and the organization weened him into the pro game. They had him play left wing instead of his preferred position of center and didn't give him power-play time early in in the season.
But come Calder Cup playoff time, he was the Amerks' best forward, asserting himself physically in puck battles while also showing a great deal of confidence with the puck.
He may not start in Buffalo, but he'll surely make his NHL debut sometime this season.
6. Is Ron Rolston an NHL coach?
He was able to coax from a medicore-at-best lineup some decent play down the stretch last spring. Promoted from Rochester on Feb. 20, he guided the Sabres to a 15-11-5 record. There were nights the team was horrible, but on most occasions his players competed.
His challenges this season are to get players to believe the team is good enough, to make sure Miller and Vanek will be cornerstones and not distractions, and to get the most out of Grigorenko, defenseman Tyler Myers and forwards Ville Leino.
7. Which 18-year-old, first-round draft pick from June, Rasmus Ristolainen or Nikita Zadorov, is ready to pitch in on defense?
Probably neither, at least not in October. But Ristolainen isn't that far away. He has size, can skate and played against men in the Finnish Elite League last season. He'll quite likely become accustomed to the North American game with the Amerks, then be given a look with the Sabres.
Zadorov will get another year of development in the Ontario Hockey League but the Sabres know his punishing 6-foot-5, 221-pound frame will be part of their future.
8. Can Marcus Foligno rebound from a not-so-great 2013 NHL season?
As a rookie in 2011-12, Foligno joined the Sabres late in the season and unexpectedly became a major contributor. He scored 6 goals, 7 assists and 13 points in the final 13 games. He even earned NHL rookie-of-the-month honors.
But when expected to produce last season, too often he didn't. He scored just 5-13-18 in 45 games. The Sabres need him to be a raging bull in the corners but also to barge to the net and create offense in and around the paint.
9. Will the real Tyler Myers please stand up? Or was he standing last season?
As a rookie in 2009-10, and again the following season, Myers was dynamite. Now, if someone could just figure out where he went.
Last season he scored only 3-5-8 and often seemed confused with defensive-zone coverage. Too often he hesitated before reacting, or inexplicably took the wrong man. It's hard to imagine a 6-foot-8, 227-pound player with four years of NHL experience being timid, but he was.
Perhaps a summer of reflection (and working out), plus guidance from veteran Henrik Tallinder, will enable Myers to once again be a impact player.
10. Any chance Ville Leino can be the guy the Sabres thought they signed as a free agent in the summer of 2011?
Injuries limited Leino to just eight games last season (2-4-6), hardly the rebound from his underwhelming season of 2011-12 when he produced just 8-17-25 in the first year of a six-year, $27-million contract.
Perhaps the first step in Leino become an impact player will be defining his role.
11. Can Steve Ott's style of play become contagious?
No one plays with more grit, guts and gumption than Ott. He is always on the go, always working and always finding a way to anger opponents. His value go so far beyond what any stat sheet says.
And there it is, 11 questions that must be answered at some point. What the Sabres really could use, however, is their original No. 11 - Gilbert Perreault - in his prime.