It’s been more than four months since the Sabres ended a forgettable year. The long offseason featured the retaining of Buffalo’s top stars, a call to prepare for suffering, a tantalizing draft and a uniform debacle.
This week, the organization will attempt to learn from the past and begin a new year.
The Sabres are set to open training camp Wednesday. The first of seven preseason games will be next Sunday in Montreal. In just more than 3½ weeks, the 2013-14 season will get underway with a game in Detroit, a new Eastern Conference rival in the teams’ new Atlantic Division.
“It’s a longer offseason than we wanted, but it’s nice that it’s finally over and we’re able to get back at it,” Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers said in First Niagara Center. “A fresh start is always nice. I think it’s pretty safe to say that all the guys know we didn’t have the season we wanted last year. From the guys that are here now, I think everyone’s seeing a good attitude going into this year and a different attitude from last year.
“We have to all buy in together and come in knowing what we have to do to succeed.”
Not many are expecting the Sabres to succeed. They are among the longest of long shots in the eyes of fans, NHL experts and oddsmakers. They’ve missed the playoffs two straight years and sat idly this summer while their conference mates bulked up through free agency and trades.
“Whoever makes our team, we won’t be favored by anyone,” leading scorer Thomas Vanek said. “That’s OK. I think you can be a young team and a good team.
“Teams in the past we’ve had, we had off nights and we would still win. I don’t think that’s going to happen too much anymore. I think we have to be on top of our game to beat the Detroits and those kinds of teams.”
The keywords for training camp will be learning and competition. Ron Rolston will start his first full season as head coach, and he’ll be implementing systems with new assistant Joe Sacco, a former NHL Coach of the Year with Colorado.
They’ll be watching to see who can play their desired style the best. Few spots are locked up on a team that is rebuilding through youth.
“There’s no secret that there’s going to be competition, but that’s good,” said forward Luke Adam. “That shows that there’s going to be a tight race for spots on this team, which makes the team better.”
Here are a few storylines for camp:
• The centers and wingers are scrambled from top to bottom.
Vanek is the only proven, reliable playmaker, but he’s entering the final year of his contract and will constantly be the subject of trade talks. Center Cody Hodgson, the team’s second-leading scorer, is a restricted free agent and doesn’t have a deal in place.
Drew Stafford and Ville Leino will attempt to rebound from down years. Fellow veterans Kevin Porter, Matt Ellis and Cody McCormick will try to earn spots against youngsters such as Adam, Brian Flynn, Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson, Corey Tropp and 2011 first-round pick Joel Armia, who has arrived from his native Finland.
“Every training camp is a tryout,” said McCormick, who spent most of last season in Rochester after two years with the Sabres. “We’ve got a bunch of great young guys here. We’ve been skating with a couple of them this summer, and it’s good to see.”
The Sabres need to figure out if Tyler Ennis is a center or winger, while 19-year-old Mikhail Grigorenko (who’s been promised a spot by General Manager Darcy Regier) will need to learn more in his second professional season than he did in his first.
• The net still belongs to Ryan Miller.
Like Vanek, Miller is entering the final year of his contract and will be subjected to trade questions. The star of the 2010 Olympics wants to prove to USA Hockey that he should be its goaltender again in 2014. The 33-year-old also needs to show he deserves another big-money deal from someone.
Jhonas Enroth shined for Sweden in the world championships, making many believe he’s ready to start. With Miller still around, Enroth remains a backup. Matt Hackett, acquired from Minnesota at the trade deadline, wants more NHL time after getting 13 games with the Wild.
• The defense corps is crowded and young.
The Sabres have three holdovers with extensive experience: Christian Ehrhoff, Mike Weber and Myers. The other spots are up for grabs.
Jamie McBain arrived in a trade for Andrej Sekera after three up-and-down years in Carolina. Mark Pysyk and Chad Ruhwedel finished their first professional seasons in Buffalo and want to start here this year. Brayden McNabb hopes to finally make the leap after two seasons with the Amerks.
Plenty of eyes will be on first-round draft pick Rasmus Ristolainen. The 18-year-old could be ready for the NHL after playing against men in Finland for the past two years.
“I think if you especially take a look at our D corps, we have quite a bit of depth on our back end,” Myers said. “It’s exciting to see. In saying that, it does create competition within the organization. I think that’s good for guys. That just makes them want to up their level of play even more. It makes it more fun and prepares you a lot better for the season.”