1. What will happen to Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek?
Yes, it’s a conversation that’s been ongoing since the beginning of the 2013 season, but when your franchise’s two highest profile players are both entering contract seasons, and your GM has said that the team is committing to a full rebuild, the amount of speculation over the fates of Miller and Vanek will reach an all-time high in Buffalo and in the national conversation as we move closer to the 2014 trade deadline. The players and front office have already begun playing cat-and-mouse with contract extension talk (Miller sold his Buffalo condo! But he said it was just to get the best market value so nobody could lowball him in a contract year? That strangely makes sense, in a very Ryan Miller way) but at this point it’s unlikely that either player re-signs unless the young players and prospects playing big roles this season show they can compete for the postseason immediately rather than in 2016.
As far as trades are concerned, the team should have no problem unloading their 30-goal winger Vanek for a boatload of picks and prospects, espcially as they’ve already announced they would be willing to withhold half of his salary, and he’ll be one of the hottest names on the trade market should it come to that. But after watching the saga of Roberto Luongo in Vancouver and the trouble that other teams have had trading over-30, high-priced goaltenders, it wouldn’t be surprising to find a very limited trade market for Miller, barring injury. With the Olympic break coming right before the trade deadline (pushed back to March 5 this year) it will be interesting to see if The Games will sway Miller’s trade value one way or the other.
2. Can the Sabres play with more consistency than in previous years?
One of the biggest problems in Buffalo over the past two seasons was not lack of talent, it was lack of consistent effort. In almost every single game, the team would come out flat for the first 20, or even 40 minutes, or would alternate good and bad periods as if they were flipping a coin in the locker room. Every team has its ups and downs, but when you can count on one hand the number of games per season for which your team puts out a full 60 minute effort, it’s a sign that something needs to change.
Luckily for the Sabres, a few things have changed in that regard since last season. Gone is controversial captain Jason Pominville, who many felt wasn't a strong enough personality to be an effective captain. He's been replaced not by a single man, but by a collective calling in the locker room for more accountability. Led by Steve Ott, Mike Weber, Tyler Myers, and Thomas Vanek among others, the Sabres have pledged to be more vocal in the room and hold each other to higher standards.
Along with the new locker room attitude, the M.O. of new head coach Ron Rolston is one of consistent, 200-foot effort. He’s willing to play younger or less talented players over the more established stars if those stars don’t give everything they’ve got, and while it remains to be seen whether that will sit well for an entire season, Sabres fans will love their team a whole lot more if the effort is there.
3. How will the Sabres younger starters and rookies progress as the season goes on?
The Sabres will enter the 2013-14 season with one of the youngest starting rosters in the league, and could start as many as four or five rookies depending on how the rest of the preseason shakes out. In the midst of a full rebuild, they’re relying primarily on young talents like Cody Hodgson, Mikhail Grigorenko, Mark Pysyk, and Rasmus Ristolainen to evolve not only into serviceable NHL players, but future stars.
Ron Rolston is known as a teacher of young men, and how quickly he can turn these youngsters into quality NHLers will be directly related to how long the organization employs both himself, and maybe GM Darcy Regier (though he seems to have an iron-clad contract.)
The Sabres showed great restraint in free agency this year, bringing back defenseman Henrik Tallinder as their only "major" move, and while their freewheeling days of spending Pegulabucks seem to be over, a bigger emphasis has been placed on re-signing their own players, such as Tylers Ennis and Myers, Jhonas Enroth, and Cody Hodgson. Whether those players will earn the money they get, however, will be the key to the franchise's rebuild.
Preseason reports on Hodgson, Myers, Pysyk, Marcus Foligno ,and Ristolainen are all very promising, while Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons have also shown flashes of their future potential. Preseason and an 82-game regular season are far different, however, so Sabres fans should keep their expectations tempered for a while as most of the players adjust to life in the NHL. Still, the youth and potential present on the Buffalo roster hasn't been seen in such quantities since the 2005-06 season, and that will make this season, win or lose, a fun one to watch.