This isn’t Brian Gionta’s first training camp rodeo.
The 36-year-old has played in the NHL for 13 seasons. But don’t dwell on age. Gionta is quick to point out that no matter how old you get or how long you’ve played in the league, the first game of the season is exciting.
There’s a little added enthusiasm for Gionta and the rest of the returning Buffalo Sabres eager to turn the page from one of the most painful seasons in franchise history.
Gionta will make his season debut Wednesday night skating on a line with Sam Reinhart and Jamie McGinn as the Sabres host the Ottawa Senators for their preseason home opener at 7 in First Niagara Center.
“Every year you get that excitement. You get that anticipation,” Gionta said. “I think even more so this year. Coming off the disappointment, you’re really excited to get back at it and show what kind of team we’re capable of being and what kind of team we’re going to be.”
What kind of team will the 2015-16 Buffalo Sabres be?
With a new head coach and an overhauled roster that includes some big-named veterans and sought-after prospects, the identity is still a work in progress. The direction, however, is one of pace and speed with player after player commenting about the structure of coach Dan Bylsma’s systems.
“It’s great. You know what’s expected of you. You know what you’re supposed to be doing. You know what your responsibilities are,” Gionta said. “When a play is developing you know where you should be and what you should be doing, and you also know what your teammates are supposed to be doing. You know where your outs are. You know where your pressure is coming from and you know where your support is coming from.
“We’re going to be a fast-paced, up-and-down-the-ice team,” Gionta said. “We’re going to use our speed. We’ve got some big bodies too, but our pace of play is where we want to do it. We want to be good on the forecheck. We want to be good on the pressure backcheck to shut teams down and kinda smother them. Be a team that’s hard to play against that way so there’s no time and space out there against you.”
That’s the direction. Bylsma knows that the team is not quite there yet and might not be for a few more weeks.
“You’re trying to also build in a pace and a speed to your team and I’d like to, when a player goes offsides, stop it every time but you don’t get to do that if you’re looking for pace and speed in a drill,” Bylsma said. “You’re looking for implementing systematically how we’re going to play and that’s not going to be perfect. It’s not going to be perfect through the first three days. It’s not going to be perfect in the first probably month of how we play.
“It is new for a lot of people and so you’re building new habits in. You’re pushing through some tired legs at times. You’re pushing through some habits where they might not want to play with that pace and speed and you have to push through that. I’m expecting guys to do that.”
Expectations are part of the package when it comes to starting Robin Lehner in goal Wednesday. It will be the first game action for the goaltender since suffering a concussion in a game in February and, fittingly, it will come against his former team. The Sabres traded their No. 21 pick in the NHL draft to Ottawa for Lehner and forward David Legwand.
Facing his former team is “a little weird,” Lehner said, “but I’ve got to approach this like any other game and just do my best.
“Honestly I just go out and start getting into games. I have no expectations really. I just want to win like always but also realize that camp is a little different for me this year, getting back to things, getting back to games and game situations. I feel really good in practice, and I felt good last scrimmage, but every day is a little bit better.”
Bylsma has no expectations either, saying that Lehner needs time in the net to face game-action shots.
It’s also another chance for the Sabres defense, and coach, to become accustomed to Lehner’s chatty style.
“I always wonder who the heck is talking on the ice. It’s Robin all the time,” Bylsma said. “He’s engaged. He’s talking to his defense and through the play. That’s been the thing – I keep looking back there and saying ‘Who’s the guy yelling back there?’ … You can hear him talking. His voice is like his size – it’s big.”