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Sabres are back in business <br> Players report today for start of camp

The time served might as well have been a prison sentence. Except in this case, freedom meant getting back into the big house, not breaking out of it.

There will be plenty of smiles when the Buffalo Sabres convene today in HSBC Arena for the start of training camp, the first time the players have been together as a unit since they cleaned out their lockers April 6, 2004.

"It has been a long time coming," Sabres center Chris Drury said.

A year ago this week NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman triggered an historic lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season.

The prolonged absence has created heightened anticipation within the hockey community and should lead to competitive camps. That's especially true in Buffalo, where there are so many players battling for jobs that a few current Sabres could become former Sabres -- either through trade or waivers -- by opening night Oct. 5.

"We didn't play NHL hockey for a year," Sabres goalie Martin Biron said, "so there are a lot of guys who have to demonstrate what they can do -- and not just the new guys, the veterans, too.

"This is a new era in the NHL, and if things won't work the way teams want them to work, there will have to be changes."

Reintroductory handshakes will be needed today when the players report for physicals. The first on-ice session will take place downtown at 10 a.m. Tuesday, and there won't be much time to prepare for the first exhibition game. The Washington Capitals will drop by the arena on Saturday night.

"It's the first time in two years we actually have a scheduled date for any formal team practice or games," Biron said. "I'm really excited to get going."

Players were downright giddy when a small group gathered at the arena last week for an informal workout.

"We were in the locker room, having a ball," Biron said. "There was a buzz going. The guys are excited to be back in their stalls, and to have the trainers there and a lot of the Euros back in town -- I haven't seen a lot of those guys in 18 months -- it was like a giant family reunion. That was fun."

Only some will have a good time throughout camp. There just doesn't appear to be enough room on the roster -- 23 players maximum -- to retain everybody with NHL experience.

The Sabres enter camp with three NHL-caliber goalies, eight veteran defensemen and 13 veteran forwards, not counting prize rookie-to-be Thomas Vanek.

Then there are valued prospects such as defenseman Doug Janik and winger Jason Pominville, who must clear waivers before they can be assigned to the American Hockey League.

"There will be a bit of an edge," Biron said. "It's going to be more competitive, more intense, a higher pace, more productive. Everybody is battling for a roster spot or a better position than before. Guys have developed in the way you knew they would and are ready to step in. You'll have guys working hard, and I think the guys welcome that."

Biron will be involved in the biggest battle of camp. He intends to maintain his role as No. 1 netminder, while Ryan Miller and Mika Noronen will try to dethrone him.

The biggest question mark at forward is whether Tim Connolly has a place after missing two NHL campaigns. He missed the 2003-04 season because of a concussion, but rebounded to play last winter in Switzerland.

And do any young bucks have a shot to make the opening-night roster aside from Vanek and Miller? Janik and forwards Pominville, Paul Gaustad, Chris Thorburn and Daniel Paille hope so, but they'll need to supplant NHL veterans.

Drury noted an intense camp could propel the Sabres out of the gates quickly. That would break a frustrating trend for a club that has gotten off to an uninspiring start in each of the past three, playoff-deprived seasons.

"Hopefully it creates an atmosphere for a really good start," Drury said. "Our core was kept together, and it's a core that performed so well together down the stretch. And now everyone is a little older and more mature.

"I'm very excited. I really like this team on paper, in the locker room, on the ice -- any which way you want to look at it."

***

The Sabres have re-signed Rochester Americans head coach Randy Cunneyworth and assistant coach Doug Houda to one-year contracts. Cunneyworth's deal puts him in position to pass John Van Boxmeer this season as the team's longest-running coach.

Cunneyworth, a former Sabres winger, will be entering his sixth season with the Amerks. He has won two division titles, including last season, when the Amerks amassed a franchise-record 112 points.

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

Camp log

Physicals: Today at HSBC Arena

First on-ice: Tuesday, 10 a.m.

First exhibition: vs. Capitals, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, at Arena

Fast fact: Open with three NHL-caliber goalies, eight veteran defensemen, 13 veteran forwards.

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