It’s been three years since Randy Cunneyworth coached a hockey team. He’ll be sending Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart over the boards Saturday night, so he’s coming back at a good time.
“It’s an exciting couple of players that we’re going to enjoy for a long time,” Cunneyworth said Friday in First Niagara Center. “I’ve been impressed ever since last year just watching them through their seasons and everything. Just seeing the reaction of the fans is always a big thing, and I was one of them.
“The fans react to every time they touch the puck because they make things happen out there. They’re able to make plays, they’re able to finish plays, and they do it with such flash and style.”
While he’ll still be watching, Cunneyworth’s time as a fan is over. Named head coach of the Rochester Americans during the offseason, the 54-year-old will lead Buffalo’s young players against their New Jersey Devils counterparts during the opening game of the Sabres’ prospect challenge (7 p.m., Radio 550 AM).
“It’s great to be back in it,” Cunneyworth said. “I’m very excited. It’s great to get it all started.”
Cunneyworth spent the past two seasons as a development coach for the Sabres, but he was eager to get back into game coaching. He led the Amerks from 2000 to 2008 before jumping to the NHL as an assistant with the Atlanta Thrashers. His last job was as interim coach of the Montreal Canadiens in 2011-12.
“My concern was being out of it a little too long and having a little difficulty getting back in,” he said. “I thought the timing was right to inquire and find out, and it worked out.”
Cunneyworth is part of an organizational overhaul that features Dan Bylsma taking over as coach of the Sabres. Cunneyworth is running the prospect team with help from Sabres assistant coach Dan Lambert, Amerks assistants Chris Taylor and Bob Janosz, and development coaches Adam Mair and Krys Barch.
The staff has received good grades from the players, who worked with most of the coaches during July’s development camp.
“They want to be a speed-first team and attention to detail,” Eichel said. “They want to change things around here. They want to bring a winning attitude. It starts with the details of being on time, how you prepare yourself for practice, how you prepare yourself for a game, what you’re putting in your body.
“You see the people the organization’s bringing in, it says they want to start winning and they want to start winning soon.”
Cunneyworth, who started his NHL playing career with the Sabres in 1980-81 and ended it with Buffalo in 1998-99, knows that winning leads to fun. After consecutive last-place finishes, the Sabres could use some of both.
“It all goes together,” Cunneyworth said. “With that kind of an attitude, you can have more fun. But you’ve got to put the work in, and I think they certainly have. To prepare and get ready for the tournament, you have to be in good shape, be ready. It should be very competitive.”
The three-game round-robin tournament, which also features the Boston Bruins’ prospects, replaces Buffalo’s annual trip to Traverse City, Mich. While not as prestigious as the Detroit Red Wings’ showcase, the Sabres’ prospect challenge will allow the home folks to see Eichel and Reinhart as teammates for the first time. They were on opposite teams during the development camp scrimmage.
“As of right now they are in both games, but things change and we’ll adjust on the go,” said Cunneyworth, whose team hosts the Bruins at 7 p.m. Monday in the arena.
The Sabres’ No. 2 overall picks from the past two NHL drafts are eager to join forces.
“It’s definitely nicer playing with him,” Reinhart said. “I’m sure we’ll see each other on the ice together at some point. It’s nice. Obviously, we know each other well now, so to finally be able to play alongside him makes things a little easier.”
During Friday’s practice, Eichel centered left wing Evan Rodrigues and right wing Nicholas Baptiste. Reinhart was in the middle of Vaclav Karabacek and Justin Bailey.
“What we’re hoping for is an up-tempo game, play a hard game, but obviously an exciting brand of hockey that can showcase the talent of the guys,” Cunneyworth said. “The skating abilities of the guys is hopefully going to shine.”