With just over a week to go before the season opener against the Islanders and three preseason games in the books, the questions surrounding Sabres training camp are slowly becoming answered.
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Just before camp, I penned a blog discussing the four biggest questions facing the team coming into camp. At this point, it is probably a good time to see if they have been answered.
1. Who takes the lead?
With leadership a huge concern this offseason, Lindy Ruff has shown a willingness to run with different players. Friday night against Columbus, Jochen Hecht wore the C while Brian Campbell and Toni Lydman served as the alternates. Sunday, with Hecht out of the lineup, it was Campbell who donned the C. Tonight in Minnesota, Campbell again donned the C.
It looks as tho Lindy may have found the core group of his leadership in Campbell and Hecht. Both are well respected leaders who were solid voices even in a locker room that had the co-captains. Adam Mair and Lydman have both also shown strong leadership abilities in both preseason games and practices.
While both Hecht and Campbell's contract situations may make the decision difficult (both are UFAs after this season), it looks likely that one of them will be the permanent or first captain, depending on if Ruff decides to rotate. The C looks to be either of theirs for the taking.
2. Is Ryan Miller a shutdown goaltender?
With only one preseason game under his belt, this is the one question that cannot be answered fully, if at all. Miller did have a solid outing against the Blue Jckets on Sunday, but also did allow his obligatory "bad goal" on the Jackets first goal. Check back on this one later in the season.
3. Who's #1?
With Tim Connolly nursing a groin injury, Derek Roy has become the number 1 center by default of sorts. While both have been very solid in training camp scrimmages, Connolly has yet to see game action while Roy was relatively quiet in his only preseason action Friday night.
But with the Roy-Afinogenov-Vanek line tearing up the practice ice during this camp, it looks as tho that line, with Roy at center, will start off as the number 1 line, with Connolly centering Al Kotalik and Jason Pominville on the second line.
4. Blue line woes
The defensive pairings took a big hit before camp even started when Teppo Numminen was forced to undergo heart surgery just after camp opened. The Sabres then decided to split up their top defensive pairing of Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman in order to spread the wealth out among their top 2 pairings.
The new pairings have seemed to work well over the past 3 games. Tallinder and new partner Brian Campbell were steady when together, even Campbell and Lydman showed to be a very solid pairing Friday night. Lydman is also finding success playing with Jaroslav Spacek, who seems to have found a bit of his old self by the looks of his willingness to shoot the puck again.
With Dmitri Kalinin still sidelined after offseason hernia surgery, youngsters such as Mike Funk and Andrej Sekera have gotten the chance to get some much needed minutes and exposure to show the coaches what they have to offer. With Kalinin and Paetsch likely locked in as the 5th and 6th defenseman until Numminen's return, Funk and Sekera have been left to battle for the 7th D spot, a battle that Sekera looks to have a slight edge in. Sekera is a solid all around defenseman with a good sense for the offensive game, while Funk looks to be a solid, rangy, stay at home defenseman with a good shot. Both would be adequate fill ins for the Sabres at this point.
But even with 3 questions potentially answered, new ones always emerge...
The Battle for the 13th forward
With Dan Paille and Adam Mair locked in as the fourth line winger and center respectively, a battle for the last 2 forwards spots has been waging on. Andrew Peters likely has a roster spot sewn up due to his fighting prowess, and with teams around the league bulking up this past offseason, the Sabres may need Peters in the lineup more often then not, even if his offensive skill leaves a lot to be desired. But Peters, who was often criticized for his fighting skills last season, seems to have gotten back to working on that aspect of his game, especially after watching his fights with the Blue Jackets this past weekend.
With those spots locked up, it leaves the battle for the last forward spot to be settled among a group of players that includes highly rated prospect Clarke MacArthur, AHL veteran Mike Ryan, big hitting forward Mark Mancari, pesty forward Patrick Kaleta and young German import Phillipe Gogulla.
MacArthur showed his skill during brief stints with the Sabres last season, scoring 4 goals. MacArthur has great offensive skills and many see him as a player who could see significant time in the show this season. But with only an extra spot open, Mac may benefit more from playing in Rochester on a top line then spot duty on the 4th line.
Ryan has been nothing short of an underachiever. A former 2nd round pick of the Stars, Ryan is a 27 year old vet who has just 19 NHL games under his belt. A speedy skater who is sold in his own end, Ryan was given a 1 year, one way contract by the Sabres in the offseason. But an inconsistent training camp has made his free pass to the big squad a bit less likely.
Mancari has a been a pleasant surprise to the Sabres in camp. At 6'3, 225 lbs, the 22 year old is a big hitter with underrated hockey skills who can also play both forward and defense. he could prove to be a huge asset to the Sabres, especially filling a need for more size and strength up front.
Kaleta is to this Sabres team as Matthew Barnaby was to past teams, a pest who loves nothing more then to throw his body like a missle. Kaleta has proved the pest part right as he noticable got under the skin of many Blue Jacket players Friday night, especially after his crushing hit to Nikolai Zherdev. Kaleta has raw skills, but must learn to control his emotions and hitting sense and not to get out of position just to make a hit. He definitely would benefit from another season in the AHL.
Gogulla came to the United States this season looking for a chance to make an impact in camp, and has made the best of his opportunity. A star on Germany's WJC team the past couple years, Gogulla has shown good speed and quick hands and a willingness to use the body. Hes also proven his effectiveness on the power play, scoring the Sabres lone goal in a 2-1 loss to Minnesota Monday night. Gogulla can return to Germany if he does not make the Sabres roster instead of reporting to Rochester, so staying with the Sabres is likely the only way we will see him in North America this season.
Edge: the battle will likely go down to the final days of camp, but there are a lot of factors to look into on this decision. While Mancari brings size and Gogulla and MacArthur bring a solid scoring presence, all 3 of these players can be sent down to Rochester (or Germany) without having to clear waivers. Ryan, however, would have to clear waivers and there is no guarantee we would keep him, although some may say losing him would be a good thing.
The smart money says Mancari and MacArthur will get strong looks, especially Mancari. But with the Sabres likely only keeping 13 forwards instead of 14, the best bet is they keep Ryan instead of taking their chances with waivers. Look for MacArthur to be the first call up in case of injury or slump, followed by Mancari and Kaleta. it is also possible we could see Gogulla at some point as well.
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