Preseason Observations From Leafs vs. Sabres, 9/21

Yes, this picture was not from last night's game. Apparently, no photos were taken last night... - Jen Fuller

The Sabres and Leafs faced off for each team's third preseason game on Saturday night, and we can tell our grand kids, "we were there." Here are some of our observations from the press box.

Ristolainen, Pysyk are the real deal

I was a bit worried about the Sabres young defense over the summer, figuring that if Christian Ehrhoff went down, the team would have to rely on either a heavily inexperienced core of Rasmus Ristolainen and Mark Pysyk, or a not-all-that-talented core of Alex Sulzer and an aging Henrik Tallinder.

However, after watching last night's game, I can't wait to watch the young men who wear #55 and #3 play a full season in Buffalo. Both players played on both special teams units, and performed well. Ristolainen excelled on the power play, with head coach Ron Rolston (in his post game presser) praising Rusty's ability to get shots through from the point, something which has plagued Sabres point men for the past few seasons.

Pysyk scored a very pretty goal that took him coast to coast and saw him roof a beautiful wrister over the glove of James Reimer. More importantly, however, was his calm, effective play in his own zone. This kid never gets ruffled on the ice, and so rarely makes a bad play or errant pass that I could see him being one of the most reliable guys on the team by the end of the season. When you throw in the much-improved Tyler Myers this preseason, the Sabres defensive group is suddenly looking very promising indeed.

Grigorenko still needs more time to grow

Oh, Mikhail. As much as I want you to succeed in the NHL - and I do still think the future is bright - it's looking like this season will be an exercise in patience. Grigorenko's skating ability, while improved from last season, will continue to improve - but the young Russian needs to learn to move his feet more quickly and effectively if he wants to be an effective, or even average, defender.

It also looks like Grigorenko is still reluctant to battle along the boards, and there's too much reaching and leaning in his game along the boards. Both of these skills can be improved, and if you're ready to bury him for lack of heart or some other vaguely anti-European bias, remember - he's only 19 years old. He won't even turn 20 until next May. There's still plenty of time for him to learn to play a more effective NHL game, and despite the improvements that still need to come, Grigorenko still flashed the offensive skills last night that made him a high draft pick. I'm still bullish on him long-term, but there will be some growing pains this season.

Foligno-Ennis-Stafford rekindle the old magic

The line that rocked the NHL in the second half of the 2012 season was at it again last night, and they were Buffalo's best line throughout the night. All three players were effective, but it's clear that Tyler Ennis will play his best hockey at the pivot rather than on the wing. Enzo was everywhere last night, making plays and causing turnovers with his quick stick, and his 2-on-1 rush that Foligno finished brought back some good memories. The one big question that this line asks, though, is who will play wing along with Cody Hodgson and Thomas Vanek? Ville Leino and Steve Ott are the two most likely candidates, but if 82-63-21 can be this effective all season, it will take much of the pressure off the top line.

Despite losing, the Sabres played with great energy all night

The Ron Rolston Effect was in full...effect...last night, as the Sabres played 60 minutes of hard-nosed, hustle based hockey. There were four fights, numerous big hits (and big whiffs) and most importantly, the team never came out of the locker room flat, as we saw so often last season. Of course, they couldn't hold on to a 2-0 lead late, as the Sabres basically turtled in the final eight minutes, but despite the loss this was one of the most entertaining home games I've seen in the past two years, preseason or not. If Rolston can get the Sabres to play with that kind of passion every night, the fans will quickly fall in love with this team again, even if their record isn't great.

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