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Mike Harrington

Questions for Sabres camp: Struggling teams more interesting this time of year

Mike Harrington

Training camps with a set roster are boring. Of course, those are usually the ones for good teams.

Training camps such as the one the Buffalo Sabres are about to embark upon are wildly interesting. A team that hasn't made the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons needs to have open competition for jobs and bringing in a new coach will add to that process.

Ralph Krueger will have few preconceived notions about any of the players who will hit the ice Friday in KeyBank Center. You and I can pinpoint around 15 players right now who will 100% be on the roster for opening night Oct. 3 in Pittsburgh, just like Krueger and General Manager Jason Botterill can.

But major questions have to be answered in the next three weeks as the Sabres head into their 50th anniversary season. The first weekend of camp will be a busy one, with 7 1/2 hours of on-ice work scheduled from Friday through Sunday before the first exhibition game Monday at Penn State against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

This corner always has questions and it's up to others to provide the answers. Here are six inquiries foremost in my mind at the start of camp:

What kind of system will Krueger play?

This is a core piece for camp. Nobody knows the answer. Anybody who says they do is just guessing. You can't glean much from watching tapes of Team Europe in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. Those were all-stars. Nor should any conclusions be drawn from Krueger's 2013 Edmonton Oilers. That's 6½ years, a lifetime in the hockey world.

Krueger has a fresh sheet of ice, as the hockey cliche goes. He's 60 years old and running an NHL camp as a head coach for the first time. If there's something he's always wanted to try in Switzerland or Edmonton, this would be the time to do it. Virtually no one in the hockey world is picking the Sabres as a playoff team, or even close to one.

Breaking down new Sabres coach Ralph Krueger's roster for training camp

From this view, Krueger needs to shelter his defense and especially his goalies. Phil Housley wanted his defense to leak into the play too much and didn't have the horses he did in Nashville. Sure, Rasmus Dahlin should look to go as often as possible. Brandon Montour can, too. Krueger should tell the rest of his guys to stay home.

This team still isn't going to score much outside of its top six. Its only chance is to cut down the goals against, which was 23rd in the league last season but became a huge issue in February and March.

"It’s quite clear that competition is what you want," Krueger said Monday after the Prospects Challenge concluded. "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. I think that the processes will be laid out clearly. It will be a very open communication of what it’s going to take, and then it’s up to the players to answer those questions."

How much of a distraction might Rasmus Ristolainen become?

A disgruntled player is never a good thing. One who has spent the last few seasons playing 23-25 minutes a night is a recipe for trouble. If you believe the reports out of Finland, Rasmus Ristolainen doesn't want to be here anymore. If you believe the behind-the-scenes chatter around the NHL, Botterill has been trying to deal him all summer but it's a hard deal to make.

Ristolainen has three years left on a reasonable contract ($5.4 million). Especially in light of what happened with Ryan O'Reilly, the Sabres can't dump him for spare parts and prospects. But which team can take on Ristolainen's salary and at the same time give Buffalo a good return?

If the Sabres deal Ristolainen, they risk getting fleeced. If they keep him, it could be a big negative in the locker room if there's a perception about a key player having one foot out the door. You wonder if they're going to try to see if the fresh voice of Krueger can reinvigorate Ristolainen's game. Taking Ristolainen's temperature is probably going to be a daily part of camp and the season as long as he's here.

Krueger's prep for first camp as Sabres coach includes working with Ristolainen

Does Dylan Cozens have a chance to make the team?

When the No. 7 overall pick mangled his left thumb in the last development camp game in June, it looked as if any hope he would be in the NHL was gone. But Cozens was determined to be in the Prospects Challenge and accelerated his timeline to make it.

He looked the part of a first-rounder ,too. He's big, he can skate and his shot showed no ill effects of the injury. Someday soon, he might be the No. 2 center on the roster behind Jack Eichel. While that's a stretch this season, it stands to reason a big camp would tempt the Sabres to keep Cozens around – or at least give him the nine-game look they can have before sending him back to junior hockey.

Botterill has repeatedly said how difficult he feels it is for an 18-year-old, non-Dahlin-level, to make the NHL. He reiterated that about Cozens on Monday, but the Sabres were impressed that Cozens stayed in Buffalo most of the summer rehabbing. They should get him in a couple of exhibition games against NHL players to see what they have.

How do you balance the imbalance?

The Sabres have too many right defensemen and too many left wingers. On paper, this roster is a mess. And while there has to be some trades and/or waiver moves coming at some point in camp, one thing Krueger will have to experiment with is putting players on their off wings or their off sides on defense.

Which wing will Victor Olofsson and Marcus Johansson land on? Might Conor Sheary head to the right side? Does Evan Rodrigues end up at wing or center?

On defense, the right side has Ristolainen, Montour, Colin Miller, Casey Nelson and Henri Jokiharju. You would imagine Miller and Montour might get some looks on the left side. That could also be the case for Zach Bogosian, when he's ready to play after hip surgery.

Can Mike Bales have immediate impact?

Krueger called his new goalie coach a "major acquisition" last month and with good reason. Bales won two Stanley Cups working with Matt Murray in Pittsburgh and turned the journeyman tandem of Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney into big winners last season in Carolina.

Krueger has also said Bales is going to be more than a goalie coach, working with the team on its defensive structure so it can cut down on the flurry of high-danger chances that Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark saw last season. At their basic core, Hutton and Ullmark simply didn't stop the puck nearly enough in the second half as the team sank. Bales will need to tighten up the technical aspects of their games.

Who breaks through?

This team needs goals and the full expectation is that Olofsson will make the club and perhaps take a top-six role on the wing. Cozens will get a chance to show if he's ready, maybe even a little on the wing to start. It's a crowded roster with plenty of veterans, so others will need to show a lot in camp and preseason games if they want to displace somebody who has been around.

Three to watch are winger C.J. Smith, center Arttu Ruotsalainen and Jokiharju, who was a favorite of Joel Quenneville before the longtime Chicago coach was fired last November. Jokiharju showed a strong shot from the point during the Prospects Challenge but still has to learn what he can get away with defensively at the NHL level.

Said Botterill on Monday in a clear message to everyone: "If players knock out veteran players, they're going to have the opportunity to be here. And that's what we're looking for."

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