You see them walking around HSBC Arena, their faces fresh and young, their eyes open wide, their lifetime dream so close they can touch it. Their names were taped above stalls in the Buffalo Sabres' dressing room Tuesday, giving the Portland Pirates a sample of what life would be like in the NHL.
Tim Kennedy had envisioned himself with the Sabres a million times while growing up in South Buffalo. He worked out in HSBC Arena during the summers, when he was home from Michigan State, and he would stroll through the Sabres' empty dressing room, imagining his name on his stall for his favorite team.
"You think, 'This could be me soon,' and you're only a phone call away," Kennedy said. "I'm here a lot when nobody's here. I get to think about what it would be like and how great to play in my hometown. It's fun to think about, but it takes a lot of hard work and it's going to take time."
Yes, it's going to take time.
Kennedy set up Nathan Gerbe for the first goal and scored one himself on a perfect shot into the top corner Tuesday night in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Albany River Rats. It was an impressive performance and a special night for Kennedy to be sure, but really it was just one step among many toward beginning his career with the Sabres.
The Pirates are loaded with prospects who arrived in Buffalo with an irrepressible spirit and hunger that comes with young players. The AHL is a jungle, and there isn't a player down there who wouldn't do whatever was necessary for a better life in the NHL. It was obvious for everyone to see in HSBC Arena.
Gerbe scored on a great shot after a perfect pass from Kennedy less than four minutes into the game, offering a glimpse of the Sabres' future. Unfortunately, the pint-sized winger also was thrown out before the first intermission after losing his cool and getting into a fight along the River Rats' bench.
If anything, the game confirmed that the Sabres and their fans will need to be patient as their prospects navigate the maturation process. NHL speed and skill is apparent throughout their lineup, but Tuesday night showed they are still developing NHL heads. Gerbe, for starters, will understand that he's far more valuable scoring goals than mouthing off to the opposition and settling scores.
Almost every player goes through the learning process en route to the NHL, and these guys are no different. Gerbe was unimpressive during a six-game stint in Buffalo, but he learned plenty about trusting his own ability and not giving his opponents too much respect. Don't worry, he'll come around.
Kennedy clearly has NHL ability, but he was given 10 minutes in the timeout chair after jumping off the bench to help Gerbe. While noble, it wasn't needed from a key offensive player. He also had a bad giveaway that led to a goal.
Still, once you looked past the shenanigans Tuesday night, you couldn't help but get excited about the Sabres' future. The potential for greatness is there, and it's hardly just Kennedy and Gerbe.
Mark Mancari is 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, and has a bazooka for a shot. He's willing to throw his weight around, evidenced by a first-period fight. Marc-Andre Gragnani has speed and skill to be an effective offensive defenseman, but his defense needs work. Former first-round pick Marek Zagrapan has been more consistent of late, addressing his biggest flaw.
The aforementioned five make up the Pirates' core, and the Sabres have impressive rookies in defensemen Chris Butler and Mike Weber. Add them and giant defenseman Tyler Myers to a core of veterans locked into long-term deals, and the Sabres can build something special over the next several years.
But there will be growing pains. It will take time.