Most of the Sabres have been skating informally in Buffalo for weeks. They get on the ice for real Friday.
The 2015-16 NHL season will start with training camp in First Niagara Center. The Sabres will practice and scrimmage for three days before traveling to Minnesota on Monday for the first of seven preseason games.
Here are seven things to look for during training camp, which is free and open to the public:
1. Enthusiasm. The Sabres’ ghastly fall to the bottom of the NHL is over. The influx of new talent and coaches has the team eager to bolt away from the dark cloud that hung over the franchise.
“There’s an optimism going into camp, and it should be exciting,” captain Brian Gionta said Thursday. “Last year was one of the more frustrating years, if not the most frustrating year, of my professional career. It was hard to get through. At the same time, you find things to go off of, find things to grow off of, find ways to improve yourself.”
2. Jack Eichel. As expected, the 18-year-old dominated the Sabres’ Prospect Challenge on and off the ice. His young teammates gravitated toward him, then watched in amazement as he controlled play and delivered wins. It will be interesting to see if he can continue to be himself around the veterans.
“It’s tough for any kid to have to mature so quickly,” center Ryan O’Reilly said, “but he seems like he’s handling it really well. He’s a great guy to be around.”
3. Forward line juggling. The Sabres not only have new players, they have talented ones. The chore is to see who plays well together. Left wing Evander Kane, for example, could find himself alongside Tyler Ennis and O’Reilly on Friday, Zemgus Girgensons and Sam Reinhart on Saturday, and Eichel and Gionta on Sunday.
“There’s so many good players, there’s going to be lots of possible combinations and possible good combinations,” O’Reilly said. “There’s definitely a lot of depth on this team now, and that’s exciting.”
4. Coaching. Dan Bylsma will run his first Sabres camp since taking over as coach in May. Though he wasn’t on the ice during the Prospect Challenge, Bylsma’s fellow coaches began implementing his game plan. Fans can expect to see defensemen jumping into the rush, while the forwards will be expected to forecheck hard. The prospect coaches stopped practice often to teach, and that’s likely to happen with the NHL players, too.
“Easy guy to talk to, seems like a real heady coach, real smart,” Kane said. “He’s real detail-oriented. I think it’s going to be clear and concise and make it easy on us players to know what to do on the ice.”
5. Sam Reinhart. The Sabres’ brass is hoping the 19-year-old has the goods to make the team. Reinhart was the star of development camp in July, but he was only good (not great) during the Prospect Challenge. Buffalo has floated the idea of moving the center to a wing spot at the start of his career, so Reinhart may have to compete for a job while learning a new position. He has work to do.
6. Avoiding the final cut. The Sabres have 15 forwards and nine defensemen with legitimate shots to make the team. That’s one or two too many at each position. Guys such as Patrick Kaleta, Johan Larsson, Jake McCabe and Carlo Colaiacovo will look to have stellar camps to stay in Buffalo.
7. Robin Lehner. Buffalo’s new No. 1 goaltender hasn’t played since suffering a concussion with Ottawa in February. He’s healthy, but Lehner knows he won’t be able to just show up and immediately stop pucks.
“I haven’t had a concussion symptom in quite awhile, so I’m happy with that,” Lehner said. “I’m not coming in here thinking that I’m expected to play a certain amount of games. I’m coming in here and I want to earn it. Coming out of a concussion, I have a little work left to do to get ready. The camp’s going to be huge for it.”