And now it’s regular season mode for the Buffalo Sabres. They return to the ice today after taking the last two days off, starting practice for Thursday night’s season opener against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
While the players have had a quiet weekend, the coaches and front office have undoubtedly had some heavy discussions about their final roster in the wake of preseason.
The Sabres’ return to practice will mark the start of what figures to be a wild week in Buffalo sports.
Owner Terry Pegula will join his wife, Kim, in likely being rubber-stamped as the next Bills owners on Wednesday at NFL meetings in New York. The next night, the Sabres open their season at home. The Sabres then travel to Chicago for the Blackhawks’ home opener on Saturday night, and Pegula gets charge of a Bills game for the first time Sunday when New England comes to Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Pegula’s hockey team, directed by General Manager Tim Murray and coach Ted Nolan, still has some decisions to make to get down to its final 23-man roster by Tuesday’s 5 p.m. deadline. Players on injured reserve do not count toward that total, with Patrick Kaleta and Johan Larsson likely starting on IR.
The Sabres went 2-3-1 in their six preseason games, scoring 15 goals and giving up 16. Tyler Ennis and Chris Stewart led the club in scoring with five points apiece, both collecting two goals. No Buffalo player had more than two goals in the six games.
A quick look at some key points for the next couple of days:
The Reinhart dilemma: No. 2 overall pick Sam Reinhart had one goal while playing five of the six games and now the team has to decide if the 18-year-old will break camp in the NHL or return to junior hockey. The Sabres could delay the decision some, as Reinhart could play in the first nine games without kicking in the start of his entry-level contract.
The Grigorenko dilemma: The improvement has been clear with 20-year-old Mikhail Grigorenko, who was one of the team’s top forwards in camp but now can be sent to the AHL. Grigorenko had a goal and a YouTube-classic shootout goal last Sunday in Toronto, then added a head-on-a-swivel assist on Jake McCabe’s goal Friday in Carolina.
Maybe the Sabres simply send Reinhart to junior and keep Grigorenko. Perhaps a more likely scenario is they keep Reinhart for at least a few games and have Grigorenko stashed in Rochester, ready to replace their No. 1 pick when that time comes.
[ *** UPDATE: Grigorenko’s agent, Jay Grossman (@Jay_Grossman) tweeted Monday morning that Grigorenko had been sent to Rochester. *** ]
Goaltending: The biggest expected competition heading into camp turned out not to be one at all. Among NHL regulars, Jhonas Enroth tied for the league lead in goals-against average (0.50) and save percentage (.983). He stopped 57 of 58 shots and put together a shutout streak that spanned more than 102 minutes over his two starts.
Michal Neuvirth, meanwhile, allowed 10 goals on 58 shots, posting a sickly 5.04 GAA and .828 save percentage. Both Nathan Lieuwen and Andrey Makarov had more success in goal than Neuvirth did, so it will be interesting to see how long of a leash the Sabres have with the ex-Washington netminder.
Zadorov makes decision easy: Defenseman Nikita Zadorov did not impress much in the preseason and was minus-3 in Friday’s finale at Carolina. And don’t forget that he suffered a benching during the Traverse City rookie tournament. He seems certain to return to the London Knights for another year of junior.
More on defense: It would appear Rasmus Ristolainen will make the team and Mark Pysyk’s injury could initially open a spot for veteran Tyson Strachan or McCabe, who had two goals in preseason and looked good. McCabe, of course, has yet to play in Rochester and certainly could use some AHL experience.
The McEichel watch: The New York Islanders seemingly ruined the Sabres’ hopes of getting another chance at the high end of the lottery with Saturday’s acquisitions of defensemen Johnny Boychuk of Boston and Nick Leddy of Chicago. The Sabres, of course, own the Islanders’ top pick but New York seems bent on having a playoff team in its final season before its move to Brooklyn.
On the ice, presumed No. 1 pick Connor McDavid had two goals and two assists for the second straight game Saturday as Erie won its home opener over Sarnia, 7-3. McDavid already has 12 points in four games (five goals, seven assists).
Meanwhile, top American Jack Eichel had five assists in his first appearance for Boston University in a 12-1 exhibition win over St. Thomas.