The first five days of training camp are over. Buffalo Sabres coach Ralph Krueger and his coaching staff planned to spend Wednesday analyzing their first two preseason games.
The film session provided them with a better idea of how they can better prepare the players to properly execute in all three zones. As important, the preseason games were Krueger's first opportunity to evaluate players during a training camp filled with competition. Individual and team lessons will be delivered before both practice sessions Thursday, and the Sabres will play the Maple Leafs in Toronto on Friday night.
We're starting to see which players are taking advantage of their opportunity early in camp, but the roster likely won't be trimmed significantly until the Sabres play their back-to-back against Toronto on Friday and Saturday. With that in mind, let's start the latest mailbag with at least one player whom I believe will make this team:
Tim: Which player on the bubble has the best chance of making the roster out of training camp?
Lance Lysowski: Picking Victor Olofsson would be a cop-out because there's no question the 24-year-old winger is ready to make the team. Fans might groan at my answer to the question, though: Tage Thompson. The 21-year-old gained 13 pounds, and the improved lower-body strength should help him become a more well-rounded player.
Thompson needs to show he can battle for a loose puck or out-muscle a defender in front of the opposing goalie. He was arguably the Sabres' best player Monday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and it's clear Krueger wants to give Thompson a significant opportunity. Thompson played on the top power play and took advantage by scoring on a rebound in front of the net. He has the potential to be a top-six forward, so why not try him on the top line with Jack Eichel?
Forwards Curtis Lazar and C.J. Smith, and defenseman John Gilmour are bubble players I'll be monitoring over the next week. Lazar and Smith could bring some much-needed skill to the bottom six, while Gilmour has the chance to be a dynamic player on the left side.
Kevin: Who is under more pressure in their contract year: Sam Reinhart, Casey Mittelstadt or Brandon Montour?
Lysowski: For those unaware, all three players are set to be restricted free agents next summer. Montour is under the least amount of pressure, in my opinion. He should receive significant minutes and will contribute on the power play. The points will come since he's going to be grouped with talented players, and teams are handing out significant term and average annual value to offensively gifted defensemen. I will be surprised if the Sabres are able to keep Montour.
Mittelstadt is under some pressure. The 20-year-old needs to show the Sabres he can play center at this level, particularly in the top-six. The added size and strength should help, and a 20-goal season could earn Mittelstadt a raise in the form of a bridge contract. A strong season would also help Mittelstadt for next season, when Dylan Cozens is expected to be ready for the National Hockey League.
Reinhart is under the most pressure. The 23-year-old needs to show he can drive his own line and contribute more defensively. He has made significant strides on and off the ice the past two years. Let's not forget Reinhart had a career-high 65 points last season. He doesn't deserve some of the criticism directed toward him by fans. But there's no question the Sabres need Reinhart to take another step this season. Doing so could earn him a lucrative long-term contract.
Mikey: Does General Manager Jason Botterill lose his job if the Sabres have another horrendous season?
Lysowski: No. Botterill shouldn't lose his job if the season goes terribly wrong. He inherited a dire situation in Buffalo. There were a number of bad contracts for players with deteriorating skills; the organization had few prospects on the verge of contributing in the NHL; and the entire culture of the organization needed to be changed. There is hope for this franchise. That has been illustrated several times since Botterill's arrival, most recently the talent on display during the Prospects Challenge.
This management group has made serious progress and was finally able to address the lack of depth on the roster. Botterill and his assistant general managers, Randy Sexton and Steve Greeley, constructed a clear and thoughtful plan to build the organization. The Sabres are doing an outstanding job at drafting and developing young players. Sure, there is parity in the league, but the salary cap makes it difficult to clean up a mess overnight. It's fair to criticize Botterill for the Ryan O'Reilly trade. It's important to remember, though, there have also been some extenuating circumstances that have hurt the Sabres' chances of succeeding, including Patrik Berglund's departure and Robin Lehner enduring a personal struggle.
Give Botterill a few years. I could hear audible groans as I type that sentence, but this is a young team that needs time to develop. Rasmus Dahlin is only 19 years old. Thompson and Mittelstadt are still developing.
Lou: Why did Rasmus Ristolainen sit out the first two preseason games?
Lysowski: Nothing sinister is going on here. Krueger told reporters neither Ristolainen nor Marcus Johansson would play Monday or Tuesday. Perhaps Ristolainen is dealing with a minor injury or the Sabres don't see a need to play him in these first few games. The guy has played a ton of hockey since he entered the league, and he could log up to 24 minutes a game if he remains in Buffalo. There's also the chance the Sabres aren't going to risk a possible injury in case a trade materializes in the coming days.
The odds of a trade have slightly increased over the past week. Restricted free agents are finally signing with their respective teams, and Sabres fans will want to monitor the situation in Winnipeg. The Jets will be in the market for a right-shot defenseman if Dustin Byfuglien chooses to retire, and they could have the salary cap space to get a deal done.
The Sabres want to give significant power-play and penalty-kill opportunities to younger players who are vying for a spot on the roster, particularly Henri Jokiharju, early in camp. They know what they have in Ristolainen. Perhaps a long look at Jokiharju, who was impressive against the Penguins, will make Botterill more comfortable parting with Ristolainen.
Svotkish: Did Jack Eichel look up to speed in the preseason opener, even against the Penguins' AHL players?
Lysowski: Don't worry about Eichel. Sure, he showed some rust at times against Pittsburgh, particularly without the puck, but he showed poise on the power play and we were able to see the skills that helped him become a Hart Trophy candidate during the first half of last season.
Early preseason games can be difficult for established players, especially when they're forced to face inferior competition. Teams travel the same day and there's no question the first few days of camp are a grind.
Eichel wasn't the only one who appeared to be out of sorts. Jimmy Vesey didn't register a shot on goal Monday. Neither Reinhart nor Mittelstadt looked particularly sharp against Columbus. Remember, the Sabres were inundated with information during their practices to prepare for these games and did not have a 5-on-5 scrimmage.
I was more interested in the fringe roster players such as Thompson, Gilmour and Lazar. The former two were outstanding, while Lazar showed some promise, particularly on the forecheck. There weren't any standout performances against the Blue Jackets, aside from Linus Ullmark.
Mike: Am I the only one immensely worried about the goaltending?
Lysowski: Your concerns are merited, Mike. Last season, neither Carter Hutton nor Ullmark showed the consistency necessary to lead a team to the playoffs. The Sabres are going to allow more high-danger chances than fans would like, regardless of Krueger's defensive structure.
The Sabres have defensemen who love to join the rush and their top forwards aren't always strong defensively, both of which can result in odd-man rushes. I do believe they will be better in that respect under Krueger, however, they will need either Hutton or Ullmark to make at least a few big saves every game.
There is reason for hope, though. Both were good at times last season and Krueger hired one of the top goalie coaches in the NHL, Mike Bales. I don't blame Botterill for gambling on Hutton and Ullmark this season. After all, it's difficult to acquire a goalie via free agency or trade. Drafting and developing is critical at the position, which is why you've seen the Sabres draft two goalies in the past three years: Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and Erik Portillo.
It's clear the Sabres are hoping either Ullmark or Luukkonen establish themselves as a franchise goalie within the next two years. Bales should increase the chance of that happening.
Tom: Does assistant coach Steve Smith, who works with the team's defensemen, get a free pass for the team's play in the defensive zone Tuesday in Columbus?
Lysowski: Absolutely. Again, the Sabres did not hold a 5-on-5 scrimmage before either preseason game, and the defensive structure installed by Krueger is different than the one used by former coach Phil Housley. It's important to note there weren't many egregious breakdowns. Perhaps the worst mistake was Jake McCabe failing to break up a backdoor pass to Sonny Milano on the Blue Jackets' third goal Tuesday night.
I'm more concerned with the shoddy puck management by Dahlin on Monday, but hey, it's the preseason. As Krueger noted Tuesday night, most of the Sabres have not been pressured on the breakout since the end of last season. Let's withhold judgment for a while. Smith worked wonders for Dahlin last season, and I suspect that relationship will help Dahlin's development this season.