Nathan Lieuwen, in his polite and soft-spoken way, brushed off the question about last season and his brain.
“Let’s just not talk about that,” he said.
It makes sense. The Sabres goaltending prospect had a year to forget. He struggled with vision problems that a neurologist linked to the concussion issues he’s faced since he was 16. His season ended in January, and his hockey future was once again in doubt.
Lieuwen, though, is back in Buffalo’s training camp and eager to continue his career.
He will relieve starting goaltender Chad Johnson at some point Monday night during the Sabres’ preseason opener in Minnesota.
“I just want to prove I’m ready to play at whatever level – and not just play but excel,” the 24-year-old said in First Niagara Center. “That’s what I want to do and that’s what I want to prove here.”
The Sabres drafted Lieuwen in the sixth round of the 2011 NHL Draft, and he made a quick impression on the organization. In 2013-14, he was 17-11-2 with a .922 save percentage in Rochester and earned seven games with the Sabres. The run came to a halt because of a concussion.
It’s an unfortunate story line that has plagued Lieuwen since he suffered his first one in a bad car accident as a teen.
“It’s awesome just to have the opportunity to be here,” the goalie said. “It’s something I’ve never taken for granted. Especially with what happened last year, it’s a special feeling and I’m just dying to play hockey right now.”
Lieuwen opened last year’s camp third on the goalie depth chart, but it’s tough to gauge where he fits in now. Robin Lehner will start in Buffalo, with Johnson as the prohibitive favorite to be backup. Andrey Makarov has impressed and will likely be the No. 1 in Rochester. Swedish import Linus Ullmark will make his North American debut this fall once he recovers from hip surgery.
“There’s competition,” Lieuwen said. “That’s what I crave and that’s what I love to see. You feel like you have an opportunity, and that’s what you need to push yourself to be better.”
Jack Eichel will be in the Sabres’ lineup in Xcel Energy Center.
Coach Dan Bylsma says folks shouldn’t read too much into what does or doesn’t happen on the ice.
The Sabres will have just 10 players categorized as NHL veterans, a number that actually includes the 2015 first-round pick. Eichel will open the game alongside training camp linemates Matt Moulson and Zemgus Girgensons.
“I don’t really think it’s his pro debut,” Bylsma said Sunday. “We’re in the start of camp. There’s 10 veterans out there. They’ve been through three hard days right now. It’s not going to be their freshest legs in that game, so I’m not looking at this game as, ‘Oh, we’re going to see something,’ or, ‘What is it going to show us?’
“He’s going to get a chance with the scoreboard running and different colored jerseys in the National Hockey League.”
Linemates Nicolas Deslauriers and Marcus Foligno helped their group close the Sabres’ round-robin scrimmage sessions with a 4-2 victory. Deslauriers scored twice, including an empty-net goal to seal it, while Foligno tied the game with just more than a minute to play.
In addition to their offensive outburst, the duo caught the eye of Bylsma with impressive physical play.
“Sometimes we get confused and we hit the same guy,” Foligno said. “Whenever he’s going, I can read off him that he’s going for a big hit, or if he’s pulling back I can go for a big hit. It’s going to be tough for other teams to contain us. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Foligno, who was slowed by offseason shoulder surgery at the start of last year, is in the best shape of his life. How’d he get that way?
“P90X,” he said. “No, just kidding.”
Though the infomercial workout system has its believers, Foligno simply had plenty of time and good health.
“It was just a long summer,” he said. “I worked hard with my brother, Nick.”