The Sabres are going to rely on Rasmus Ristolainen to be one of their top defensemen. It’ll be at least a week before he gets the chance.
Ristolainen recently suffered an upper-body injury and will miss the opening seven to 10 days of training camp, which began Friday in First Niagara Center. Buffalo also took the ice without Cody McCormick, who is out indefinitely after his blood-clot ailment caused him to fail his physical.
Ristolainen led the Sabres’ defensemen in games played (78), goals (eight), assists (12) and points (20) last season. The 20-year-old should be back well before the start of the regular season Oct. 8, though he’ll miss the on-ice introduction of new coach Dan Bylsma’s system.
“He can work out off the ice,” Bylsma said. “He is participating off the ice in meetings and everything that’s going on off the ice.
“He’ll still have quite a bit of time to get on the ice, go through practices and be in a good amount of exhibition games if that’s the case. It’s disappointing not to have him out there today, but I think he’ll have a good chunk of time to get back on the ice.”
McCormick, meanwhile, got the bad news he feared. He was hospitalized with blood clots in his leg in January, and the discovery ended his season. Though he said this week he feels great, an examination by the Sabres’ medical staff Thursday showed that the problem lingers.
“Still related to the blood clots,” Bylsma said. “Cody went through his physical and did not pass his physical, so he is not cleared to take the ice right now with his team.”
McCormick is entering the second season of a three-year, $4.5 million contract. The 32-year-old forward was expected to again serve as a fourth-line role player. David Legwand centered left wing Nicolas Deslauriers and right wing Marcus Foligno on the fourth line Friday.
McCormick’s absence could create room on the roster for Johan Larsson, who skated with prospects William Carrier and Nicholas Baptiste, or Patrick Kaleta, who has a minor-league contract and was listed as the 11th of 11 forwards for his practice group.
The opening faceoff of the first training camp scrimmage featured Jack Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly. That made it immediately clear this is a new team in Buffalo.
“You look around the room and they’re new faces and they’re good players,” right wing Tyler Ennis said. “Throughout the whole organization, there’s been a lot of changes. It’s a fresh start for everyone. It’s exciting.”
The Sabres will conduct a scrimmage during the first three days of camp, and the opening one featured the top forwards on the roster. Group A was led by a line of Ennis, left wing Evander Kane and O’Reilly at center. Eichel centered Matt Moulson and Zemgus Girgensons on the No. 1 line for Group B.
O’Reilly scored twice and added a shootout goal as Group A won, 4-3. O’Reilly drew the biggest cheer of the game with his first goal. The center slowly backed into the right circle with the puck, then unleashed a bomb into the far, top corner that rang into the net off the iron.
“It was an excellent day,” Bylsma said. “We wanted to go on the ice and practice with pace and speed and push it up the ice, which I think they did a real good job of. We got right to how we wanted to play. We want to be a good defensive team and a hard team to play against. We went and did that.”
The Sabres will practice from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Saturday, with the scrimmage scheduled for 10 a.m. All training camp practices are open to the public.
There were about 1,000 fans in attendance Friday, and plenty of them wore No. 15 jerseys with Eichel’s name on the back. Eichel, however, wore No. 41.
“I’ve said this all along: I still have to earn a position, earn a role on the Sabres,” Eichel said. “That’s what training camp’s for, and that’s what I’m trying to do. Until then I’m No. 41 as I wore at development camp and as I wore at the prospects tournament.”
Bylsma likes Eichel’s mind-set regarding the number.
“In the National Hockey League, you don’t get a number until you make the team,” the coach said. “You have to earn it. The number or position’s not going to be given just because we drafted the second pick overall.
“He’s an outstanding player. He’s got elite skill, I think, in speed and skating, but he has to earn it. He will.”