Training camp is underway for the Buffalo Sabres and the first preseason game is on tap for September 26 against the Minnesota Wild. A few story lines will be important to follow throughout the next few weeks as the Sabres prepare for the regular season — a few roster spots will be up for grabs and an important piece to the roster still isn’t under contract.
Rasmus Ristolainen Hold Out
The World Cup of Hockey ended for Team Finland yesterday, thus making Ristolainen officially a holdout. The restricted free agent spoke prior to the World Cup indicating he hasn’t heard from the Sabres in a while but wasn’t worried, believing a deal would eventually get done.
Rasmus Ristolainen doesn't expect to re-sign with the Sabres before World Cup: "Haven't heard anything in a while."
— Sami Hoffrén (@shoffren) August 30, 2016
The question now is how long with the holdout last? Ideally, the Sabres would like to have the 21-year old in camp as soon as possible. He’ll likely begin the season playing with new defensive partner Dmitry Kulikov who could be back in Buffalo next week if Team Russia loses to Team Canada on Saturday. It’s expected that Ristolainen will eventually sign a long-term deal with the Sabres, but for now, it’s a wait-and-see situation. Sabres fans shouldn’t worry too much at this point — if this stretches into October than perhaps you should start to get a little nervous.
Matt Moulson Rebound
Coming off an extremely disappointing season Matt Moulson will look to show last season was a fluke. A roster spot is by no means guaranteed to the 32-year old winger. He’ll need to come into camp and earn one of the final spots on the roster.
Sabres General Manager questioned Moulson’s work out habits last season, so at the very least he’ll need to show he can keep up with the pace the Sabres want to play with. Far too often Moulson was behind the play and slow to react last season. Under contract for the next three years at a $5 million dollar cap hit, the Sabres are hoping for a bounce-back season.
Robin Lehner’s Health
Last season was a lost year for newly acquired goaltender Robin Lehner due to his ankle injury that caused him to miss all, but 21 games. Lehner spent the summer in Buffalo rehabbing from ankle surgery in April. The big Swede has been cleared for full participation in training camp and appears to be in good shape.
It’s no mystery that if the Sabres hope to be a playoff team this season, that Lehner will play a huge role in that. It’s important for him to get off to a good start and stay healthy throughout the season. There’s not much in the system behind Lehner that can sustain the team in the case of a long-term absence.
Evander Kane was a story after the first day of training camp with some of his comments about his off- ice issues. However, the focus here will be how Kane performs on the ice. He had a decent first season in Buffalo on the ice, but the Sabres will look for more from the 25-year old winger.
The organization is hoping that Kane can keep a low profile and keep his focus on the ice. He’ll play important top six minutes for the club likely with either Ryan O’Reilly or Jack Eichel. If Kane can avoid being a distraction he may be in line for a big season.
Final Roster Spots
Head Coach Dan Bylsma discussed today how the final spots on the roster will certainly be up for competition. In particular, he mentioned the 13th forward and seventh defenseman positions. Beyond that, the Sabres could have openings in their bottom six and sixth defenseman roles.
Players like Justin Bailey, Hudson Fasching, William Carrier, Alex Nylander, and Cal O’Reilly will be in competition for one of the final forward roster spots. The hope is that Bailey is able to earn one of the spots after a good end to last season with the Sabres and AHL affiliate Rochester Americans. His speed and size would be a great addition to the bottom six of the roster.
On the blue line Casey Nelson, Cody Franson, Justin Falk and Brendan Guhle will be in the conversation for the sixth and seventh defenseman roles. Right now Franson is pencilled into that sixth spot on the roster, but young players like Nelson and Guhle can push him out with a good camp. Guhle was close to making the team last year in his rookie season, while Nelson showed well in his brief appearance last year with the Sabres.
It’ll certainly be an eventful training camp for the Sabres as they look to finalize the roster with a big season ahead of them. The competition on the roster should result in a good atmosphere in practices in games over the next few weeks.