Within 24 hours of watching the Buffalo Sabres end the regular season April 6, General Manager Jason Botterill announced the firing of Phil Housley and spoke of his plan to add more skilled forwards and defensemen over the summer.
Botterill's vision became a reality when the Sabres acquired forwards Jimmy Vesey and Marcus Johansson, and defensemen Colin Miller and Henri Jokiharju. Buffalo also signed four players to one-way contracts on the first day of free agency: goalie Andrew Hammond, defenseman John Gilmour and forwards Jean-Sebastien Dea and Curtis Lazar.
Only two prominent players have left the organization: Jason Pominville and Alexander Nylander. As a result, the Sabres' first training camp under new coach Ralph Krueger, which begins Thursday in KeyBank Center, will be ripe with competition.
“Competition is what you want," Krueger said Monday in LECOM Harborcenter. "You want players to come in a little uncomfortable about where the ice time is going to be and how they’re going to get there. The process will be laid out clearly. It will be a very open communication on what it’s going to take, and it’s up to the players to answer those questions. I am convinced that the players will decide that on the ice and it will be easy for us at the end.”
With that in mind, here is a breakdown, by position, of the Sabres entering training camp:
Centers (10): Jack Eichel, Casey Mittelstadt, Evan Rodrigues, Johan Larsson, Vladimir Sobotka, Dylan Cozens, Rasmus Asplund, Jean-Sebastien Dea, Matej Pekar, Arttu Ruotsalainen.
Eichel appears to be primed for a breakout season after he posted career highs in goals (28), assists (54) and points (82) last season. The 22-year-old is entering his second year as the team's captain and could benefit from playing most of the schedule with Jeff Skinner on his line.
If the Sabres are to be a playoff contender, they will likely need Eichel to have a 100-point season, which is not an unreasonable expectation since he was a Hart Trophy candidate through the first three months of last season.
However, the team's depth down the middle will depend on the development of Mittelstadt, who turns 21 years old in November and scored 12 goals among 25 points in 77 games during his first full season in the NHL. Mittelstadt appears to have gained strength this offseason and should be considered the early favorite to center the second line, potentially playing alongside Sam Reinhart and Marcus Johansson.
Cozens, drafted seventh overall in June, is a long shot to make the NHL roster after he was limited the past two months while recovering from thumb surgery. The 18-year-old was impressive during his two games in the Prospects Challenge and will likely spend one more season with Lethbridge of the Western Hockey League.
Evan Rodrigues could play either center or wing, though he took significant steps in the former last season. Vladimir Sobotka, Johan Larsson, Arttu Ruotsalainen and Jean-Sebastien Dea will compete for roster spots.
Although Rasmus Asplund was outstanding during the Prospects Challenge, the 21-year-old will likely start the season in Rochester. He could be among the first players recalled in the event of an injury.
Wingers (14): Jeff Skinner, Sam Reinhart, Marcus Johansson, Conor Sheary, Jimmy Vesey, Kyle Okposo, Victor Olofsson, Tage Thompson, C.J. Smith, Zemgus Girgensons, Scott Wilson, Curtis Lazar, Remi Elie, Andrew Oglevie.
Left wing is another position in which Botterill has added an influx of talent over the past two years. Skinner will likely play on the first line after scoring a career-high 40 goals during his first year with the team, while the second and third lines should benefit from two important offseason additions: Johansson and Vesey.
Johansson was outstanding during the Stanley Cup playoffs for Boston and signed a two-year, $9 million contract this offseason. He will play either left or right wing, though the latter would allow him to potentially be paired with Reinhart on the second line.
Vesey, meanwhile, is the type of net-front presence the Sabres have lacked in recent years. He has scored 16 even-strength goals in each of the past two seasons and should bring much-needed secondary scoring.
It might be safe to pencil in Girgensons as the fourth-line left wing, so where does everyone else fit? Sheary will play either left or right wing, while Olofsson, Smith and Elie are among the other left wings who will compete for roster spots in camp.
The forward group will be a fluid situation throughout camp and preseason games. Expect lines to be juggled and players to try out new roles. For example, don't be shocked if Rodrigues plays on the wing one day and is back at center the next.
Right wing might be the Sabres' weakness entering camp.
Of course, Reinhart will likely anchor the second line on opening night, but if that's the case, who plays with Eichel and Skinner? Sheary, Olofsson and Thompson could be among the first players to receive an audition. Also, Johansson can play right wing and would bring a net-front presence if called upon on the top line.
Okposo is back for his fourth season with the team and started to play well after adjusting to a fourth-line role late last season. Curtis Lazar and Andrew Oglevie are among other wings who will be with the team in camp.
Defensemen (16): Rasmus Dahlin, Jake McCabe, Marco Scandella, John Gilmour, Lawrence Pilut, Brandon Hickey, Jacob Bryson, Devante Stephens, Colin Miller, Brandon Montour, Rasmus Ristolainen, Henri Jokiharju, Zach Bogosian, Casey Nelson, Will Borgen, Casey Fitzgerald.
This could be the most intriguing position group in camp. The Sabres are more talented on the back end after adding Miller and Jokiharju, however, Krueger must sort out his surplus of right-shot defensemen.
Miller, Jokiharju, Ristolainen, Montour and Nelson will compete for the top-three spots. If Jokiharju is the odd man out, he will likely head to Rochester and Nelson will serve as the team's No. 7 defenseman. There is also the possibility that Ristolainen could be traded before the season opens in Pittsburgh on Oct. 3. Additionally, Bogosian is expected to miss the start of the season after undergoing hip surgery in the offseason.
Dahlin, McCabe and Scandella will likely break camp as the three left-shot defensemen, though free-agent signing Gilmour also will compete for a roster spot. The Sabres announced Matt Hunwick is not expected to play this season because of a neck condition. Lawrence Pilut, who underwent offseason shoulder surgery, will not be ready in time to participate during on-ice workouts in training camp but is expected to be ready to play in games sometime in October, most likely in Rochester.
Bryson, Fitzgerald, Hickey and Borgen should return to Rochester, where they will be part of one of the American Hockey League's best blue lines.
Goalies (5): Carter Hutton, Linus Ullmark, Andrew Hammond, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Jonas Johansson.
Though Hutton and Ullmark will again serve as the goaltending tandem, the team did make a significant addition to address their inconsistent play in net: assistant coach Mike Bales.
Bales, who won two Stanley Cups as goalie coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, will attempt to coax more out of Hutton and Ullmark after the two finished 25th in 5-on-5 save percentage. Comparatively, they had the NHL's fifth-best 5-on-5 save percentage during the team's first 25 games.
Additionally, the Sabres signed Hammond, 31, to serve as the organization's No. 3 goalie, and he will likely begin the season in Rochester. Luukkonen will eventually take over the starting job with the Amerks once he is fully recovered from hip surgery, but he won't be able to participate in on-ice workouts during training camp. Luukkonen isn't expected to be ready to play in games until early November.
Johansson, 23, underwent season-ending surgery on an undisclosed lower-body injury in February and was outstanding for the Sabres during the Prospects Challenge. It's unclear whether he will start the season with the Amerks or Cincinnati in the ECHL.
Story topics: Buffalo Sabres