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Sabres Youth Movement

Suffering? These players want to win now

Despite all the hand-wringing, despair, and consternation that has hung over Sabres Country and the First Niagara Center throughout the offseason, there is hope in the air as the Buffalo Sabres begin the 2013-14 season of NHL hockey.

The 23-man Sabres roster was set this past Monday, and to the surprise of hardly anyone, newcomers Johan Larsson, Zemgus Girgensons, and this year’s top draft choice, Rasmus Ristolainen, will all be on the roster. A lot of new faces will be waiting in the wings, sidelined because of injuries, such as Joel Armia, newly signed Sabre Nikita Zadorov, and even “veteran” Corey Tropp, who missed most of last season due to injury, and is sitting out once again.

Most prognosticators pick Buffalo to miss the Stanley Cup playoffs for the third straight season, especially under the new four-division configuration that the NHL rolls out this season, where the Sabres will compete amongst eight teams, including the Detroit Red Wings.

No matter. “We had a good preseason,” said goaltender Jhonas Enroth following a 3-0 shutout last weekend against the Columbus Blue Jackets. “All the guys in this room feel we have something to prove, and I can tell you that the guys here are coming together nicely. We might just surprise a few people this year.”

The rebuild season will eventually determine the fate of the Sabres’ two prized assets, goaltender Ryan Miller and forward Thomas Vanek. Together the pair represent a quarter of the team’s payroll, and both become free agents at the end of this season. Should the Sabres overachieve and become a legitimate threat for a playoff berth, look for the front office to sign one, or both, to contract extensions.

If the team falters, both become top candidates to be traded come the trade deadline, as general manager Darcy Regier puts together pieces of the franchise for the future.

One thing fans will be seeing this year is the testing of different line combinations and defensive pairings, as coach Ron Rolston will be given ample opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t and help cement and bond good working players. Young players will be given a great chance to win long term spots on the roster by taking a leadership role and showing what they accomplish on a squad that will be looking for someone who will stand up and take that lead.

With the Sabres’ season ticket base upped to 16,000, look for big crowds and the same kind of fan energy in the building once again this season. Here are the must see games to circle on the calendar:

October 14/Minnesota and October 28/Dallas: First it will be former Sabres captain Jason Pominville returning to Buffalo, this time in a Wild uniform. But what will emotions be like seeing Lindy Ruff behind the visitors bench, especially with the Dallas Stars?

November 15 and November 29/Toronto: After that epic brawl up at the Air Canada Centre, which resulted in suspensions galore and had the entire national hockey media abuzz, energy will be running higher than ever when these two heated rivals return on the ice to face each other. Buffalo/Toronto games are already heralded events when Leafs fans come to First Niagara Center in droves to catch the games here. These two games should be off the charts both on the ice and in the stands.

October 23 and December 19/Boston: The Bruins’ first visit to Buffalo will reignite thoughts of Milan Lucic laying out goaltender Ryan Miller, a seminal moment in the downward fortune of the Sabres these past two years. Can Buffalo match up with the tough Bruins and make a statement that they can hang in the new Atlantic Division?

February 5/Pittsburgh: The Penguins make but one appearance this season in Buffalo, and being a mid week game Pens fans’ presence might be a little less robust than in the past. But there is one constant—Sidney Crosby pretty much owns Buffalo, and Ryan Miller has been his whipping boy, a history that spans the last Winter Olympic Games and the 2008 Winter Classic in Buffalo, and many other times in between. Miller finally will get the best of Crosby. Or maybe not.

March 9/Chicago: When hometown hero Patrick Kane brought the Stanley Cup to South Buffalo this past summer, Abbott Road was virtually shut down due to the throngs of people who turned out. Buffalo has one golden chance to upend the 2013 champs here on home ice, and there should be plenty of electricity in the building on that Sunday night.

Taro Sez…

• Delaware North, the concessionaire at First Niagara Center, has made a number of food changes to the menu at the arena, both in the general seating concourses and the Lexus Club. Worth checking out.

• Fans who haven’t been downtown since the season ended in April will be shocked at all the changes in front of the arena. HarborCenter is quickly rising on the former Webster Block, with cranes in the air, and streets and sidewalks walled off.

• “Hybrid Icing”? The players approved this preseason experiment just this week. Taro approves.

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