The Sabres’ primary goal during development camp was to gauge the progress of their prospects. A secondary goal was accomplished when tens of thousands of fans filled the seats to watch.
“It’s important that the players see as they’re coming in here what kind of a market we’re in,” General Manager Tim Murray said. “We want the players to want to be Buffalo Sabres. I think the fan experience is a big part of that.”
The fans undoubtedly were the stars of the weeklong camp, which wrapped up Sunday in First Niagara Center.
The highlight was 17,115 attending Friday’s scrimmage, but more than 1,000 people came through the doors every day. At least 1,500 watched the prospects close the event with a three-on-three tournament.
“We can do this at the HarborCenter with the doors locked,” Murray said. “We wouldn’t get the exact same results because the players certainly take notice of what’s gone on here.
“It’s an unbelievable hockey market. I call it the eighth Canadian market, and I think we’ve surpassed a lot of Canadian markets when it comes to this type of thing. The response from the public and the press and everything has been outstanding. Our players notice that, obviously, but the most important thing is what we get done here in a week.”
Murray closed the camp with a smile. He liked what he saw from the prospects, especially the ones who played in the first one last summer.
“I don’t want to bring up names because I’m going to forget names, but the guys who were here last year for the first time versus coming in for their second time this year, we saw great improvement,” Murray said. “They know when they get here it’s going to be a lot of hard work and that they have to be ready for it. For the first-year guys, it’s an eye-opener. The second-year guys, you have to see improvement or there’s disappointment from the management end of it.
“I’m going from last year forward, and I like what I see.”
The second-year player who shined brightest was Sam Reinhart. He scored twice during Friday’s scrimmage, and Sunday he earned the Craig Ramsay Award as the hardest-working player at camp. The No. 2 overall pick from 2014 stole the spotlight from Jack Eichel, the No. 2 pick this year.
“I expected him to come in here and say, without saying, to us, to you, to the fans, ‘Don’t forget about me. I’m a big part of this organization going forward,’ ” Murray said. “That’s what he did.”
Eichel’s first team event showed him the organization is eager to erase back-to-back seasons of last-place hockey.
“Obviously, the organization struggled in the last two years, but being around the people, the coaching staff, the player development people, everybody wants success and wants it pretty quickly,” Eichel said. “They expect a lot out of you here, and they’re also going to give you a lot. Nothing’s given, but you earn everything. I think that’s a really good mentality. That’s a recipe for success.”
A six-week run that included the Scouting Combine, NHL Draft and media tours sapped Eichel’s energy for much of camp. He got it back Sunday, scoring five times.
He desperately wanted a sixth when his team was down by a goal during the final minute of the semifinals. He didn’t get it, but his competitive nature was impressive.
“There was 41 seconds left and he demanded a change with somebody, then he pressured a guy right at the blue line and he tipped the puck and he said, ‘White puck,’ and he takes it in on the breakaway,” Murray said. “He didn’t score, but that’s a competitive thing you can take out of something like this. He was (mad) that he lost, and that’s what we want.”
Murray is still competing to improve next season’s team. The GM wants a left-handed defenseman to round out the Sabres’ top four. Johnny Oduya is the biggest name on the market. He’d like to remain in Chicago, but salary constraints have yet to make that possible.
“He hasn’t signed anywhere yet, so I haven’t moved on,” said Murray, who is examining other options. “We’ve looked at everybody we feel are going to need waivers. We’re still talking trades with teams. We’re still talking about a couple guys that are still out there, but there’s no hurry.”
Murray may, however, speed up his search for an Amerks coach.
“I’ve gone through 1,000 different scenarios, but it’s starting to get to the point where I have to quit experimenting with ideas and different scenarios and just get to it,” Murray said. “In saying that, I thought we signed a lot of good depth – guys that can play games up here when we have injuries, guys that are going to be really good players down there – and they never had a question about who’s coaching. I think they trust the fact that what we’ve done so far here that we’ll have a good guy down there. We’ll have a competitive team.”