There are plenty of factors that jump out when you want to consider how the Sabres can repeat their 100-point, division-winning season. A big one is that the offense, especially the power play, has plenty of room for improvement.
Shaone Morrisonn and Jordan Leopold have to ably replace Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman. Drew Stafford needs to bounce back and Tyler Ennis needs to emerge over 82 games. But if you want a real X factor that will affect the Sabres' chances at defending their Northeast Division title, look at the schedule. It's a doozy.
There are two killer road trips during the World Junior Championships' run in Buffalo. There's a seven-game grind of a roadie in March. And there's a stunning collection of games on consecutive nights.
The Sabres have an NHL-high 22 sets of back-to-backs, a 44-game total that soaks up more than half their schedule. No other team in the Northeast Division has more than 16 sets and only three others in the league (Carolina, the New York Islanders and New Jersey) even have 20.
The Sabres have gotten accustomed to the back-to-backs. They request a heavy slate of Friday night home games, which leads to an equally heavy slate of Saturday contests on the road. This season, however, they at least have four back-to-backs entirely at home.
Coach Lindy Ruff insists the back-to-backs aren't all that arduous from a travel standpoint. From a hockey standpoint? Another story. The Sabres are just 11-18-6 the last two years on the back half.
"It's a lot easier than a lot of teams," Ruff said. "Ours is an hour flight or less a lot of times. We can be back in our homes by midnight or 12:30.
"Some teams that play fewer back to backs are going three hours and 3 in the morning type of deals. We've become accustomed to it and some of those are quick turnovers for us."
The back-to-backs are a major issue because of the way Ruff likes to utilize his goaltending. It stands to reason that Ryan Miller may need more nights off than normal because of the run of consecutive games. The Sabres, in fact, start the season with six games in nine nights, including two back-to-backs.
On an overall view, Ruff doesn't think this year's schedule is as difficult as last year's, when things were compacted even more due to the Olympics. But Ruff acknowledged the beginning is tough and backup Patrick Lalime will have a key role.
"Starting right off the bat with six games in nine nights means Patty is going to see some time," Ruff said. "It's important he steps in and plays well for us."
Miller's ability to handle the load will be a key. He certainly managed to do that last year as there wasn't one shred of question about any fatigue for the goaltender through the playoffs, even though he had endured the grind of playing for Team USA in the Olympics.
Miller persevered by dramatically cutting back his practice load and his work during day-of-game skates. Sometimes, he stayed off the ice entirely.
"It's just learning from the years past how to handle that load and how to be prepared every day and where to put my energy," Miller said. "If I need to get a good practice in, I need to practice and do maintenance on my body and get away from the rink. It's not about being here three hours to get the time in to feel right.
"It's just about getting efficient practice time in and getting out and resting and managing. It's something that last year can definitely help because there was a lot of management when it came to my energy level, my rest and even my brain."
Some other things to watch on the Sabres' schedule:
Another fast start?: The Sabres are second in the NHL to Detroit in October points percentage since the lockout, posting a 36-13-4 record. They've lived off some big starts, the 10-0-1 in 2006, a 6-2-2 in 2008 and last year's 8-2-1.
The early cushions help when the schedule gets road-heavy in March but it might be tough to build one this year. The October opponents include the Blackhawks (twice), Devils (twice), Canadiens and Flyers as well as both trips to pesky Atlanta, where the Sabres have not won in regulation since Jan. 31, 2006.
Go West, twice: The Sabres requested a New Year's Day home game when the World Juniors are idle and got one against Boston so they wouldn't be sent away for two weeks straight, as Ottawa was in 2008. Thanks for nothing, NHL.
The Sabres have a Dec. 27-28 back-to-back in Calgary and Edmonton, come home to meet the Bruins and then get shipped back out west to meet Colorado, San Jose and Phoenix.
In like a lion: It would behoove the Sabres to hit March 1 in a good spot in the standings because that's the day they start the season's craziest road trip. It lasts 12 days covering seven games and goes like this: New York Rangers, Carolina, Philadelphia, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Boston and Toronto.
Out of division: Hoping for some late four-point games? Not going to happen. All five April games are out of the Northeast Division. In fact, 11 of the final 13 are outside it, the exceptions being trips to Montreal (March 22) and Toronto (March 29).
Back from the break: The Sabres will have off from Jan. 26 to Feb. 3 for the all-star break. They return to action Feb. 4 at Pittsburgh in their first visit to the new Consol Energy Center.