Saturday, August 24, 2013

Storylines abound when Sabres hit Traverse City

Centre Ice Arena, Traverse City, Michigan
The Buffalo Sabres are locked and loaded to defend their title when play begins September 5 at the 2013 NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, Michigan. Sabres Prospects will be on site from start to finish, with updates and analysis appearing at and via Twitter.

To prime the engine, here is a six-pack of questions we'll be looking to have answered as the four-game roadie kicks off the 2013-14 season.

Can Andrey Makarov position himself for the backup gig in Rochester? 

The Sabres have an idea of what Nathan Lieuwen and Connor Knapp are capable of. Both saw time in Rochester last season behind two-time MVP David Leggio, but with Matt Hackett set to fill Leggio’s role as undisputed number one, the talented (and rested) Makarov has the athleticism and big-game ability to post a head-turning performance in Traverse City. Keep in mind that Lieuwen, who finished 2012-13 as the Amerks backup, was the starting netminder when the Sabres captured the 2011 tourney title.

A two-time MVP with the WHL's Saskatoon Blades, Makarov stamped his junior resume by being named the top goaltender at the 2013 Memorial Cup. The fact that only one Russian goaltender has backstopped his team to a Stanley Cup (Nikolai Khabibulin, 2004) should provide all the motivation he needs moving forward. Early September would be a great time to prove his readiness for the next level and start his bid to become the second.

Can bubble players earn an early contract from the Sabres? 

Eric Locke, 19, shredded the OHL last season with 44 goals and 97 points in Saginaw, but really stood out with a strong work ethic at both ends of the ice to earn a draft nod. More than just a deadly junior shooter, Locke will aim to play bigger than his 5-foot-9 frame suggests to earn a continued look when the Amerks break for camp. The pro opportunity will need to be well-earned, as the 2013 pick could safely return to the Spirit for another year of junior before determining next steps.

Victoria Royals forward Logan Nelson, 20, was one of the best offensive players on the ice when Team Blue downed Team Gold at July's Development Camp. His open-ice speed and knack for going hard to the net would make for a dominant WHL overager, but a few successful backhands around the goal mouth could see him stick around in a bid to earn a deal. If not, the Sabres would still maintain his signing rights until June.

The Sabres already have 14 contracted defenders to sort through for the upcoming season, but Belleville stalwart Brady Austin has the size and mobility to keep close tabs on when the puck drops. The 20-year old left-hander plays a responsible, disciplined game with the puck while knowing how to use his reach and physicality to shut down his half of the ice. The Sabres can defer until June before making a decision, but if the coaching staff likes what they see....hey, you never know.

Can Mikhail Grigorenko assert his dominance? 

Sabres fans everywhere are hoping that the young centerman’s vision and skill will provide a major spark as the Sabres embark on their title defense, but there is more to evaluate than just goals and assists. You want to see him win one-on-one battles, skate with a purpose in all three zones, and generally act more assertive with each passing shift. Grigorenko has been working in Buffalo all summer, and has even made a few trips back to Quebec to go through “boot camp” style sessions with fellow young professionals. No better place than Traverse City to prove that he’s ready to earn regular NHL minutes when the Sabres land back in Buffalo.

Will the Sabres pack team toughness?

With Zack Kassian, Matt MacKenzie, Shawn Szydlowski, and Corey Tropp all dropping the mitts, the Sabres got nasty when necessary with four fighting majors en route to winning the 2011 title. A scan of the 2013 roster has you wondering who will set the edgy, physical tempo this go-round.

The Traverse City tourney is a time for young players to gain notice league-wide, and if old time hockey is needed, expect players like Justin Kea (five total fights in 2012-13), Colin Jacobs (five), and Alex Lepkowski (four) to show some teeth. It's easy to forecast Nikita Zadorov (four) and his hitting ability causing some attention. Even Locke (four) has proved to be a willing dance partner when called upon. The best bet to get engaged in a scrap, though? Try 5-foot-10 forward Frederick Roy, whose six fighting majors last season sparked his team and entertained those in the seats.

Are sophomores ready for the next step?

Fans have already had a taste of Mark Pysyk's NHL talent, but two other names from the class of 2010 will be looking to elevate their play heading into the middle year (i.e. "moving day") of their entry-level deals.

The defenseman with the most to prove may very well be Jerome Gauthier-Leduc. A 28-goal man in his final year of junior, the talented righty has the offensive sense to fill the power play void left by T.J. Brennan's departure, but needs to show that his strength and conditioning is up for the grinding own-zone battles. Mixing and matching him into key minutes could get his year off on the right foot following a seven-point rookie season on the farm.

Last season, AHL rookie Kevin Sundher had gradually worked his way into the Amerks' top-six forward grouping before suffering an upper-body injury in February. Sundher's strength, passing skills, and ability to make plays at speed add versatility up-front, so a clean bill of health could see the six-footer counted on for consistent production entering an important stage of his professional development.

How could the lines shake out?

With a solid blend of size, speed, and two-way skills, the permutations seem endless when building balanced offensive units. Shuffling should be expected, but there are some compelling situations in play that are worth exploring. Consider the following:
  • Matching Grigorenko's vision and Joel Armia's right wing shooting could set the stage for years of potent offense as the Sabres build out a new core.
  • Leveraging the chemistry between Zemgus Girgensons and Johan Larsson could very well carry the team to a tourney repeat and pay off massively in the long run.
  • Dan Catenacci's speed, offensive polish, and competitive work ethic could land him the role of top-six glue guy. 
  • Getting Justin Bailey back to his natural right wing spot after playing on the left at USA's National Junior Evaluation Camp could provide a boost on his way back to Kitchener. 
  • Pairing worker bee skills of Kea and Nick Baptiste could get the puck deep, establish an aggressive forecheck, and lead to plenty of action around the crease.
We can go on all day.

Catenacci - Grigorenko - Armia
Larsson - Girgensons - Bailey
Jacobs - Sundher - Nelson
Locke/Roy - Kea - Baptiste

The top two lines seem simple enough. Bailey played well with Grigorenko as his centerman in the Blue-Gold scrimmage and would certainly fit in opposite Armia, but Catenacci is poised to be a factor when the Amerks begin their schedule, making him worthy of the top-line opportunity. His explosive acceleration saw him score a goal at the 2011 tournament, and you have to think that rolling with supremely talented linemates would see him add to the stack and generate momentum entering his first full season as a pro.

Rounding things out with an OHL line and a WHL line could make sense from a skill perspective. The X factor is a guy like Frederick Roy. He was used in a checking-line capacity last year in Rochester, but you have to wonder if he sees a shift or two with Grigorenko to rekindle the fun from their days together with the Quebec Remparts. 

Austin - Pysyk
Zadorov - Ristolainen
Lepkowski/Boland - Ruhwedel
Boland/Lepkowski - Gauthier-Leduc

The defense is a little more difficult to project, but with equal amounts of right and left-handed sticks it's sensible to let that guide the pairings. Putting the 2013 twin towers of Ristolainen and Zadorov together isn't a guarantee, as the Russian may be better suited to ride along with a more experienced partner, but the hulking duo would certainly present a difficult pair to play against. Putting Austin to the test in big minutes with Pysyk would no doubt tell a more compelling developmental story for the former seventh-rounder.

Let the games begin.