Ville Leino relaxed in his locker stall with a smile spread across his face. He looked around the Sabres’ dressing room and noticed his teammates were happy, too. The black cloud that hung over the team seems to be gone, he said, shoved away by a bunch of guys who remembered that hockey is supposed to be fun. ¶ They realized it over the summer while hanging out in Buffalo. The organization encouraged its players, young and old, to work out in First Niagara Center. They bonded and pushed each other. ¶ “Team chemistry is up,” forward Marcus Foligno said. “Guys are familiar with each other. That’s the biggest thing is having fun with each other and knowing when it’s time to be serious and get out on the ice.” ¶ A lot can be said for guys who like and respect each other. The close-knit Sabres of the 1990s took pride in being “The Hardest Working Team in Hockey,” with fans in hard hats ultimately watching members of the group reach the Stanley Cup finals. ¶ “Our organization has done a good job of creating a hard-work attitude,” forward Tyler Ennis said. “This summer, a lot of guys came in and out and were working here, training, learning to do different things, power skating, all these things trying to better themselves. I think collectively that’s been big for us, and it’s just getting started.” ¶ A plot line for the Sabres’ season is whether they can maintain that camaraderie and if it’ll be enough to overcome their shortcomings, specifically talent and experience.
Buffalo finished last season as the youngest team in the NHL at 26.6 years old. The Sabres will be younger this year. Of the final 27 skaters on the roster, 15 were 25 or under. Five had never played an NHL game. Thirteen had never appeared in a playoff contest.
The previous two seasons crumbled when losses and mistakes compounded themselves. The inexperienced Sabres need to prove they can stick together and get out of inevitable ruts.
“If you’re prepared and confident and know what to do every night, it shouldn’t continue to snowball,” Ennis said. “Preparation is pretty key. I think we did a good job with that in the summertime and now.”
Despite the internal glow, it’ll be a major surprise if the Sabres end their two-year playoff drought. Perennial power Detroit is a mate in the new Atlantic Division, while Columbus also joins the realigned Eastern Conference after being on the cusp of the playoffs out West. Most teams made moves to improve their rosters, while the 12th-place Sabres did little.
Though players are saying the postseason is still the goal, reasonable objectives should take precedence.
“The expectations are that we need to improve and grow every day,” Ennis said. “It has to be realistic, and I think it is. We realize we have a change happening and a young group, but the younger guys have a good attitude. They’re working hard. I think already we’re showing what hard work does.”
The Sabres finished tied for 23rd in scoring last year. There shouldn’t be a marked improvement, but output along the wings could help.
Drew Stafford entered last season as the No. 2 right winger. He bottomed out with six goals in 46 games. Foligno totaled just five goals but is expected to maintain a more prominent role this year. Leino is healthy after being limited to just eight games. The scoring ability of former first-round pick Joel Armia should show itself at some point.
The big question – again – is how the centers will stack up. Cody Hodgson has the offensive skills, but his defensive awareness was among the worst in the NHL. The Sabres still don’t know if Ennis can handle the middle or is better at left wing. Mikhail Grigorenko looked as lost in training camp as he did during his 18-year-old rookie season.
Assistant coach Teppo Numminen takes over a power play that ranked 29th in the 30-team league.
A turnaround by Tyler Myers would help the club immeasurably. The Sabres’ cornerstone on the blue line worked to improve his body and mind over the summer. He needs to be the playmaking, shutdown defenseman that Buffalo expects.
Mike Weber is finally guaranteed regular minutes, which should allow him to expand his physical play and leadership ability. Veteran Henrik Tallinder and rookie Mark Pysyk both bring poise despite their difference in experience levels. Christian Ehrhoff will hog minutes and key the power play.
First-round pick Rasmus Ristolainen is an X-factor. Like Armia, his talent should become evident. It’s just a matter of when.
New assistant coach Joe Sacco will run the penalty killers, who ranked 26th last year. Sacco’s club in Colorado was marginally better in a tie for 21st.
Jhonas Enroth will take the reins from Ryan Miller at some point. The 25-year-old finished strong, going 4-1-1 in his last six decisions, and has the confidence of coach Ron Rolston. Miller has the Olympics and free agency ahead of him, and he wants to put together a strong season to get ready for both.
Miller’s willingness to join a preseason brawl showed that his mind is with the Sabres until further notice, which fits in with the new attitude.
“We’ve got guys that want to claw tooth and nail,” Foligno said. “There’s no feeling sorry for yourself or, ‘Oh, good job. We’ll get them next time.’ I think we’re going to be a team that comes to work every night.”