BUFFALO, N.Y. – Sabres coach Ron Rolston is reminded of the changes taking place in downtown Buffalo every day he heads into work.
There’s a construction site across the street from the team’s arena, where Sabres owner Terry Pegula’s HarborCenter hotel and entertainment complex is being erected. Then there’s the major overhaul the Sabres themselves have been undergoing over the past eight months.
They’re both works in progress, and also reflect the potential of a brighter future in Buffalo.
“I would say it’s a good correlation and analogy,” Rolston said. “It’s both out front and in the arena.”
Rolston is part of the Sabres’ transformation in replacing longtime coach Lindy Ruff, who was fired in February.
The changes didn’t end there during what became a tumultuous, lockout-shortened season that ended with Buffalo missing the playoffs for the fourth time in six years.
Before the season was over, the Sabres purged much of their old guard—including captain Jason Pominville—as part of a youth movement to shake up what had been an aging, high-priced and under-achieving core.
And more changes could still be store, with goalie Ryan Miller and forward Thomas Vanek’s futures uncertain beyond this season. Both are entering the final years of their contracts, and the Sabres haven’t ruled out trading one or both.
That’s left Rolston tempering his early expectations of an opening-day roster that could feature as many as seven rookies, including 18-year-old defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen.
“You’re probably not going to see the potential of our team unfold for a couple of months,” Rolston said. “But everyone is excited about it. And everyone has expectations that we’ve got what we need here now.”
Here’s five things to watch out for as the Sabres prepare to open the season at Detroit on Oct. 2:
MILLER’S TIME UP? Uncertain about his future after 10 seasons in Buffalo, Miller is renting after selling his home this past summer.
Miller called it a pre-emptive business decision, figuring he could attract better offers while he’s still in Buffalo rather than try to sell the home if he’s traded.
Miller hasn’t closed the door on re-signing with Buffalo, where he holds franchise records for wins (269) and games played by a goalie (500).
“I have to be professional enough just to do the job. I’m able to do a job in a city I’m familiar with, a city I’m very much at home. I like to be in Buffalo. I like the people,” Miller said. “So this isn’t a bad situation.”
VANEK’S VALUE: The Sabres’ top scoring threat has made it clear he’d prefer to be traded rather than endure a lengthy overhaul in Buffalo. Vanek’s gone as far as to say it makes more sense for the Sabres to make a trade and get some value in return.
The Sabres’ 2003 first-round draft pick has the potential to be a valuable commodity once the NHL trading deadline approaches.
Vanek is a four-time 30-goal-scorer, and has managed 20 goals in each of his eight seasons in Buffalo, including last year, when he had 20 goals in 38 games.
In the meantime, the left wing will have to adjust to a new role on the Sabres’ top line. Rolston has had Vanek playing on the right wing alongside centre Cody Hodgson and left wing Marcus Foligno.
YOUTH IS SERVED: The Sabres’ opening-day lineup could feature four of five first-round picks the team has drafted over the past three years.
There’s Ristolainen (No. 8 pick in June), as well as forwards Mikhail Grigorenko (No. 12, 2012), Zemgus Girgensons (No. 14, 2012), and Joel Armia (No. 16, 2011), who are being given an opportunity to make the roster.
Another rookie who has shined is forward Johan Larsson, who was acquired in the trade that sent Pominville to Minnesota.
MOTIVATED MIKHAIL: Grigorenko already has NHL experience, after he had a goal and four assists in 25 games with the Sabres last season.
He spent the entire summer working out in Buffalo, and is motivated to improve on last year, which included a lengthy stint with his Canadian junior team in Quebec.
“It’s going to be motivating,” Grigorenko said. “I’ve played in this league. And I know I can produce points and help my team.”
NEW LEADER: Rolston intends to select a captain before the start of the season, and is confident he has many capable candidates to choose from.
Hodgson, who re-signed to a six-year contract this month, and defenceman Tyler Myers are considered candidates for the ‘C.’