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Five things to watch as Sabres open training camp

1. The return of Robin Lehner

It’s been a difficult two seasons for the goaltender. Two years ago, while playing for Ottawa he suffered a concussion in February which sidelined him for the rest of the season. Last year, he suffered a high ankle sprain in the Sabres’ season opener Oct. 8. He didn’t play again until Jan. 15.

Lehner ended up playing 21 games for the Sabres last season, going 5-9-0-5 with a 2.47 goals against average and a .924 save percentage.

This was the first summer in some time that Lehner has been able to fully train and he visibly is different – he’s dropped weight and added muscle, so much so that even defenseman Josh Gorges said he did a double take when he first saw Lehner a few weeks ago.

“Last year was difficult for me dealing with a concussion and going through that, it was harder than I thought,” Lehner said. “Just having the injury I dealt with last year with my ankle, just it’s tough going through injuries over a long period of time. I just wanted to put in a really good summer. I know I’m a good goaltender and I just tried to prepare myself as best as possible for the season.”

2. Missing top two centers

With Ryan O’Reilly and Jack Eichel playing for Team Canada and North America, respectively, the Sabres open camp without their top two centers. The biggest impact may not be on their development but on the development of others at camp, having to find a new source of competition without O’Reilly and Eichel to push them out of their on-ice comfort zones.

“I think it will be the same,” forward Tyler Ennis said about starting camp without those players. “We just have to work harder. Everyone’s going to battle and treat it like regular camp and then when the guys get back, they’ll be in great shape because they’re already in game shape and they’ll be able to push us even harder.”

The World Cup semifinals are Saturday and Sunday with the final series beginning Tuesday. If their team advances, O’Reilly or Eichel could be gone through Oct. 1.

3. When he returns, who will be Eichel’s wingers?

Eichel returns for his second pro season, along with Sam Reinhart. Eichel led the Sabres in goals last year with 24, racking up 56 points and playing in all 81 games. He scored eight on the power play and had five game-winner.

By the end of last season, Sam Reinhart played on Eichel’s right with a rotation of players on the left. The two had some chemistry and the young guns should take their game to another level.

“You know first-hand by watching us we didn’t have the chemistry right away,” Reinhart said. “From an on-ice standpoint we had to work into that. I don’t know what it was. It’s just over time that was built into our games. We were finding each other more. I think we had to know each other’s tendencies a little bit to build off each other. When we went back together … for whatever reason we clicked and we were having a fun time doing it.”

4. Who will make the jump to the NHL?

There will probably be at least one player who cracks the NHL roster out of training camp. Justin Bailey is the early favorite. The Williamsville native led the Rochester Americans in his first season of pro hockey with 45 points (20 goals, 25 assists) and made his NHL debut, playing eight games for the Sabres.

Others to watch in camp: Nick Baptiste, who had 28 points for the Amerks last year and played well during the Prospects Challenge, and Hudson Fasching, a product of the University of Minnesota who is a large net-front presence hoping to make some noise. William Carrier will be looking for an NHL breakthrough while Evan Rodrigues and Cal O’Reilly are other players to keep an eye on.

5. What about Risto?

Rasmus Ristolainen still does not have a contract. The defenseman was playing for Finland in the World Cup of Hockey and said in Toronto that he was not concerned about his contract situation.

Ristolainen finished his entry-level deal last season at the maximum cap hit of $925,000. Last year, his third year with the Sabres, was his best finishing with 41 points (nine goals, 32 assists) while anchoring the team’s defense.

“When you talk about Ristolainen, we all know the stride he took last year,” said Sabres veteran defenseman Josh Gorges. “Really kind of solidified himself as a top-tier defenseman."

Ristolainen figured to pair with Dimtry Kulikov, who also is at the World Cup with Team Russia. The Sabres acquired Kulikov at the NHL draft from the Florida Panthers in exchange for Mark Pysyk and two draft picks. The 25-year-old is entering his eighth NHL season with 28 goals and 110 assists in 460 career games.

 

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