A Dozen Questions Entering 2014-15

It's that time again.

Before we know it, the 2014-15 schedule will be in full gear. The buzz surrounding the future Sabres has hit its peak, and with that comes many compelling questions on the eve of what should be an exciting season of sticks and pucks. Here are 12 of them:

Will Sam Reinhart stay in the NHL all year?

Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images
From the moment he was selected with the second overall pick in June, Reinhart has been rightfully targeted for immediate NHL duty.

After all, the last eight drafts have seen Aleksander Barkov (2013), Gabriel Landeskog (2011), Tyler Seguin (2010), Viktor Hedman (2009), Drew Doughty (2008) and Jordan Staal (2006) make the jump from the No. 2 spot. As far as those who stayed back, Ryan Murray (2012) remained in the WHL due to the lockout while James Van Riemsdyk (2007) went off to college.

Answer: Tough one here. Reinhart is mentally mature, but he could obviously afford to get physically stronger. Little is gained by rushing "kids" into the league, but his skills and two-way smarts as a 19-year old (November birth date) are good enough to stick in the NHL. The added vet presence could only help the transition for a kid with future captain material. We need to see how camp and preseason go, but the nine-game NHL tryout is a foregone conclusion, and something tells me he'll be around longer.

Can Linus Ullmark repeat as the Honken Trophy winner?

Ullmark was one of European hockey's greatest revelations last season as a 20-year old, posting a 2.08 GAA and league-best .931 save% to earn the award as the SHL's top netminder. The performance helped get Ullmark an entry-level deal, but he'll remain with MODO for the final year of his European contract before coming to North America for 2015-16.

Answer: If his development camp performance was any indication, all signs point to Ullmark again being at the top of the class among SHL netminders. His numbers will be challenged by vets like Bernard Starkbaum (BIF), David Rautio (LHF), Oscar Alsenfelt (LIF), Fredrik Petterson-Wentzel (FBK) and former Sabre Mikael Tellqvist (DIF), but there is no reason why Ullmark can't maintain a 2.00 GAA and a .925 save% to defend his title as Sweden's top dog.

Will a Sabres prospect score 50 goals?

It has been 14 seasons since Jason Pominville snatched 57 goals in his final year of juniors with Shawinigan. Luke Adam came close with 49 for Cape Breton in 2009-10, but other than that no other Sabres prospect has seriously approached the milestone.

Answer: Even if Reinhart returns to Kootenay, it's hard to see him connecting for 50 given how he'd miss nearly a month at the World Juniors. The same holds true for Nick Baptiste, who hit the 45-goal mark in 2013-14 in 66 games (.682 goals/game). In realty, the number 50 is less important than it is seeing one of these players get to .75 goals/game like Nathan Gerbe did in 2007-08 (.814).

Will Gustav Possler return to form? 

A season ago, Possler stormed out of the gates for MODO with eight goals in his first 11 games, including a run of seven straight outings with a marker. Scoring line duty was cemented as MODO's co-leading scorer, but then a November knee injury lingered into December, ultimately resulting in surgery and effectively ending an impressive rookie campaign.

Answer: The rehabilitation process extended into summer, but all signs point to a complete recovery. Possler has skated with no issues thus far in preseason action on MODO's top line. He hasn't scored in the exhibition schedule, but it's expected that he'll restore his game to a high level by December. Netting 20 goals is possible (he'd be MODO's first since 2011-12) pending a clean run through the 55-game schedule, but coming up just shy (say 17) seems a little more reasonable.

Who will be the starting goalie in Rochester?

Last season was a wild ride in the Amerks crease. Matt Hackett was penciled in for the lion's share of starts, only to surrender the top gig to Nathan Lieuwen in January. When both shuttled up to Buffalo in the dizzying post-Miller frenzy, Andrey Makarov rose from the ECHL to guide the Amerks into the playoffs with seven-straight wins.

Answer: What a great situation for Amerks fans. With Hackett out until mid-year, Makarov could get an early competitive edge with a solid Traverse City showing, but let's be clear - this is Lieuwen's job to lose. Chadd Cassidy will need both goalies to be sharp to be successful, and it's possible that both will get their fair share of starts with Lieuwen, at the very least, garnering the better end of a 60/40 split.

Who will score more goals - Hudson Fasching or JT Compher?

The B1G counterparts are coming off impressive freshman seasons. Compher scored 11 times in 35 games (.31 goals per game) for Michigan to help earn the honor of Big Ten Freshman of the Year. A few states to the west, Fasching piled up 14 goals in 40 tilts (.35) to capture Minnesota's Freshman of the Year award.

Answer: This will be a fun little competition to monitor this season. Compher is a little more creative and will generally possess the puck more. Fasching works equally hard for his chances with a propensity to hit the net front for tips and second chance put-backs. We're taking Compher in this race, thinking that both that will reach the 18-goal barrier while hoping that one or both can cash 20.

Can Joel Armia pick up where he left off?

After an up-and-down regular season, Armia caught fire in his first North American playoff series. The light seemingly went on with the games having more meaning, as Armia played big en route to more than doubling his per-game output with six points (3+3) in the Amerks' five-game loss to Chicago. At one point, he even dropped the gloves. The performance gave Sabres management confidence moving forward, so expectations will be high in 2014-15 as Armia looks to prove that he's an NHL level player.

Answer: Thinking that Armia can produce a point per game could be a stretch, but upping his shots on goal should lead to more lamps being lit. He scored just seven times in 54 regular season games a year ago, but I'm setting a benchmark of 10 goals at the 20-game mark to really judge his progress. A hot start could have him well-positioned for a late fall recall.

Will Justin Bailey earn an entry-level contract?

News flash: the Sabres currently enjoy a luxurious prospect stable jammed with quality forward talent. Bailey is right in the middle of it all with his combination of size and scoring skill, but it's clear that the WNY native will need to stand out from the competition with a big year in Kitchener to maintain his position in the pipeline.

Answer: You always want to impress your new bosses. Bailey put in the summer work, and it's easy to think that a bigger, stronger forward should be able to reach new heights, especially coming off a 2013-14 season that saw him capture Kitchener's MVP award. The USA camp snub is behind him. This year is all about scoring 35 goals and targeting AHL duty a year from now. He can do it.

Will Nikita Zadorov be a full-time NHLer?

We all know the drill by now. In order for a player to be AHL eligible, he must turn 20 years old on or before Dec. 31 of the season being played. Zadorov doesn't turn 20 until next April, so he either needs to make the Sabres NHL roster or be dispatched back to London of the OHL. Playing in Rochester is not an option until the completion of his junior season. So...

Answer: If you ask London coach Dale Hunter, he'll tell you that the Sabres have Zadorov pegged for an NHL roster spot.

Not so fast!

If he earns it, great. The additions of Josh Gorges, Andrej Meszaros and Andre Benoit, though, suggest that Tim Murray is leery of having too much youth on the back end, especially if Rasmus Ristolainen stays in the NHL (as I believe he should/will). Jake McCabe, Mark Pysyk and Chad Ruhwedel (20, 22 and 24 respectively) are also knocking at the door. Slow cooking a defensive prospect is never a bad thing, so it's fair to think Zadorov waits his turn for one more year regardless of his projected dominance at the junior level.

What do you want to see from Mikhail Grigorenko this year?

It's time to get the Sabres and the talented Russian on the same page. He was in the NHL at 18, then sent back to junior. He was again in the NHL at 19, but again was sent back to junior. He didn't want to play in the QMJHL, tried to get a deal to play in Finland, and eventually took his medicine and reported to his junior club before finishing his year with Rochester. So now what?

Answer: Right or wrong, both sides have been understandably frustrated with the other. The slate is now clean, though, and it's time to rightfully earn big league time. If Grigorenko can pay his AHL dues by carrying his bags, producing points and being an all-around good solider like he hinted at in his summer interviews, well, everything should take care of itself. His season-ending stint in Rochester showed a committed defensive player who couldn't quite capitalize on his chances. This year, a hungry playmaker with his head screwed on straight should come out and own it every shift. Mathematically, how about 60 points with ~70 percent of his take coming at even strength?

How many Sabres prospects will play in the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship?

An NHL club having a few of its draft picks playing in the annual U20 tournament is usually par for the course. The Sabres have been no different in recent years, sending three (2014), four (2013), two (2012), two (2011) and one (2010) to the last five events.

"The Sabres could have NINE guys at the WJC"

If the stars align, the 2015 WJC could resemble Sabres Development Camp 2.0 with as many as NINE future Sabres battling for medals. At the very least, expect a minimum of six.

Compher, Fasching, Baptiste, Jonas Johansson, Vaclav Karabacek and Victor Olofsson are essentially locks to represent their countries. Aforementioned NHL bubble players Reinhart and Zadorov are mild possibilities to get the best of both pro and World Junior worlds, while Anthony Florentino should get off to a good start in Providence and crack the USA roster as the seventh defender (even if USA decides to bring in 2015 draft stud Noah Hanifin, who was not on the NJEC roster).

Is there a "surprise" breakout player on the way that we're not thinking of?

Every year, there is a player that exceeds expectations and shoots up the prospect rankings. Baptiste, Fasching, Possler and Ullmark come to mind as recent examples of spiked trajectories. With a loaded stable on tap, some new candidates are set to emerge.

Answer: While I expect 2014 classmates Karabacek and Eric Cornel to elevate their play as "standouts", the dark horse in the bunch is Max Willman. We rarely talk about perennial underdog Brown University, an Ivy League school that hasn't had a winning record in ECAC play since 2003-04. Willman will be one of two NHL draft picks on the Bears roster, and like Harvard's Sean Malone a season ago, has the offensive goods to approach the 20-point line to get his name on the All-Ivy awards list at the close of his freshman season.
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