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Clearing Up A Muddled Left Wing

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at San Jose Sharks Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Training camp opened last Friday, which means hockey is truly right around the corner. Before you know it, we will be ankle deep in another NHL season.

The moment camp opened up, many fans clamored for their first look at what Phil Housley was going to do with his forward lines.

While the first day of camp is often a bad judge of what opening night lines will look like, it gives us a chance to see where the thought process begins.

With that being said, the Buffalo Sabres have a growing problem.

Remember the seemingly never-ending center problem that dogged the Sabres? Years later, that problem has appeared to somewhat resolve itself. An O’Reilly, Eichel (and what looks to be a Reinhart) will do that for you.

That brings us to the latest problem plaguing Buffalo - who will play left wing and where?

While there are a more than a handful of left wingers in camp, the drop-off in talent is quick.

We start at the top with Evander Kane. You know what you’ll get with Kane – he’ll miss some games because his style of play is not conducive to a full 82-game season and he’ll likely score 20-30 goals with ease. Perfect, we’ll slide him in to the spot left of Jack Eichel, where he ended last season.

Not to sound too dramatic but that is where the indecision begins.

Buffalo has left wingers Nicolas Deslauriers, Zemgus Girgensons, Vasily Glotov, Seth Griffith, Brandon Hagel, Matt Moulson, Alexander Nylander, Benoit Pouliot and C.J. Smith currently in camp.

Starting from the top down, we have to cross off a few names.

We’ll see players like Glotov and Hagel be re-assigned to their respective teams at some point, they’re currently just getting a solid taste of a NHL training camp.

For Seth Griffith and C.J. Smith, this time in Sabres camp is about earning a potential bottom-six role, despite the elephant in the room that barring injury, they’re likely headed for Rochester to start off with. Setting those preconceived notions aside, there is little doubt that at some point this season Griffith and Smith will play some sort of role for Buffalo.

Now, we move onto the remaining left wingers - we start off with Nicolas Deslauriers. To be frank, at this point of the Sabres continued rebuild towards being a consistent playoff contender, Deslauriers is a warm body that can play in a pinch but he more likely than not belongs in the AHL.

Matt Moulson is like a bad dream that just won’t go away. Yeah, Moulson scored 14 goals last season but when you take off those rose colored glasses, you remind yourself that 11 of those came on the power play. To further the point, he scored four goals in the final 33 games of the season.

Couple that with a $5 million dollar cap hit for this season and next, but try not to dry heave. Something has to give with Moulson, especially with contracts coming up for Eichel, Reinhart and others.

There is a slight possibility that Buffalo could stash Moulson down in Rochester for a slight cap relief - roughly 1.025 million - but that remains to be seen.

Alex Nylander is the biggest disappointment heading into camp and it is nothing that he could have controlled. An undisclosed injury at the Prospects Camp robbed many of a long, solid look at a new-and-improved Nylander.

We heard before development camp that he had added some muscle to his wiry frame, which comes as a positive development (no pun intended).

Last season in Rochester, Nylander showed off his offensive playmaking talent despite only tallying 28 points in 65. The one major knock on his game was the lack of ability to adjust to physical play. Then again, Nylander was 18 going on 19 and playing against grown men. This season will be very important for his development, especially with a potential path to the NHL roster wide open despite his early injury.

Especially with the injury hanging over his head, do not be surprised if Nylander starts with Rochester. With that being said, do not be surprised if he turns things around and makes his way up to Buffalo sooner than later.

Benoit Pouliot is somewhat of a reclamation project for this Sabres team. Coming into camp with a one-year “prove it” deal that only counts as 1.15 million against the cap, this signing has the potential to go in the books as one of the smartest of the offseason, if all works out.

Pouliot has averaged 16 goals per season over the last four seasons but fell on hard times, only tallying 14 points in 67 games with the Edmonton Oilers last season. He is expected to fill one of the top three left wing slots. Despite it being very early in camp (note: read very lightly into line combinations), Pouliot finds himself paired with Sam Reinhart on what appears to be a third line.

Head coach Phil Housley spoke very highly of Pouliot’s potential to, “Ben's got terrific speed. He can be first on the forecheck for sure. He's trying to understand the way we're trying to play in the offensive zone and off the rush. That's going to take a little time, but definitely he has the speed to do that."

Zemgus Girgensons is the final left winger to discuss and he could actually find himself to be somewhat of an X-factor for the Sabres this season. Coming off another disappointing season, you may wonder where the X-factor talk comes from. Despite being able to play whatever style he decided he wanted to back in 2014-15 when he scored 15 goals, Girgensons does actually have offensive ability.

For the development of the Sabres as a whole though, they need to figure out what Girgensons is for them. This early in camp (again, read lightly), Girgensons is skating with Ryan O’Reilly and Kyle Okposo - a safe bet for two-thirds of the Sabres’ top line.

Is Girgensons a 10-15 goal scorer who can elevate his game with two top talents or is he a bottom-six forward who will get you roughly 20 points, as he has the last two seasons?

This season will be a career-changing year for Girgensons. Either he will find a role in Housley’s new, up-tempo system or he’ll find himself shipped out for a player that can fill the role properly.

We are only a few weeks away from the start of the regular season, which means the muddled left wing situation does not have much time to clear up. How do you think the Sabres’ left wing depth chart will shake out?