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Battle for Sabre jobs begins today Veterans arrive at training camp

There obviously are a number of players who are locks to make the Buffalo Sabres. Top goal scorer Thomas Vanek isn't going anywhere. A rough September by captain Craig Rivet would mean nothing. An even cooler month by goaltender Ryan Miller would have no impact on his status.

But as folks in Sabreland know all too well, the team has missed the playoffs the past two seasons. The pressure is there to improve. If some of the regulars who have been around fail to take those steps, they could find themselves out of a job.

The competition begins today when the Sabres open training camp for the 2009-10 season.

"We've missed the playoffs two years in a row, and if somebody takes your spot, they take your spot," coach Lindy Ruff said Friday. "I think you have to be ready to make room for them."

The jockeying for jobs figures to be intense this month. The Sabres have 15 forwards, including injured Adam Mair and unsigned Drew Stafford, with a legitimate chance to secure one of 12 spots. Nine defensemen are in line for the six jobs on the blue line.

The only position that's settled is goaltender, where Miller will again be backed up by Patrick Lalime.

"There are spots open," Ruff said. "I expect guys fighting hard. You're not going to win a spot by dropping your gloves and beating somebody up, but I think we want to see guys competing."

Ruff and his coaching staff have been on the ice with the team's prospects since Tuesday. The youngsters will be in the spotlight again today in HSBC Arena with a 1 p.m. scrimmage. The veterans will take the ice for the first time at 9:30 a.m. for conditioning testing.

It's part of the Sabres' "PuckDrop 2009," which includes free admission for fans, the sale of individual game tickets, an adult street hockey festival, appearances by alumni and the sale of commemorative bricks from Memorial Auditorium.

Though today is designed to have a party atmosphere, it should be workman-like on the ice leading up the season opener Oct. 3.

"The interesting part is going to be going through the [scrimmage] games in the first two or three days, blending these guys in," Ruff said. "These [prospects] have obviously had some game pace; the veterans haven't. It'll be interesting to see what they can do against the veteran players. A lot of time they can surprise you.

"At the same time, you don't evaluate in one or two days. This camp process is a three-week process, and it's preseason games."

The schedule for the first week includes a scrimmage every day.

"If you truly want to evaluate, you get them in game situations," Ruff said.

Ruff is intrigued to see how the Sabres' top offseason acquisitions -- forward Mike Grier and defenseman Steve Montador -- impact the team. One of the Sabres' downfalls last season was the frequent disappearance of intensity. The newcomers have a reputation for not allowing that.

"We finished the end of the year with being grittier," Ruff said. "In the last 10 games [while going 7-2-1], we played a grittier style, and I think that was more advantageous. We added Grier, we added Montador. I think those guys instantly add more grit, more size, more physical play, more energy overall. That takes us a little bit away from the skill part of it, but that's kind of the way the league is going."

Ruff usually uses themes or motivational tools to get the Sabres focused during camp. The emphasis last year was to start quickly. The Sabres did, opening with a 6-0-2 record. But they had trouble dealing with down times -- evidenced by skids of 1-6-1, 1-5-1 and 3-6-1 -- and the coach wants a more even keel throughout the dressing room this season.

"We obviously ran into a couple tough stretches we didn't get through," Ruff said. "We ran into a couple tough injuries we weren't able to get through. Maybe not get as high as a team as we were sometimes, but not get as low. Try to find a happy medium in there and be able to ride it out for 82 games."

The time to learn how has arrived.

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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