Two weeks into training camp and the new-look Buffalo Sabres are starting, slowly, to take shape.
New coach Dan Bylsma continues to play around with line combinations and defense pairings, but that was all part of the plan.
With veterans in new roles, veterans new to the organization and rookies ready to make their mark, the Sabres are still very much a work in progress. But progress has happened.
Here are five things learned so far from training camp:
1. The evolution of Tyler Ennis: Technically, Tyler Ennis led the Sabres offense last season with 20 goals and 46 points. More accurately, you could say he was the Sabres offense last year. His offensive skills have created highlights for most of his five seasons in the NHL. Jack Eichel, who centered a line with Ennis and Evander Kane in Ottawa on Saturday, called Ennis “pretty silky.”
But those silky offensive moves aren’t the only part of his game and Ennis has been working to improve outside of the offensive zone.
“I’ve been trying to round out my game a little bit,” Ennis said after the Sabres’ 6-4 preseason win at Ottawa. “Work hard in other areas. Be better defensively. Be better in my own end and I think I’m finally starting to realize when you’re good in all three zones, you get better chances offensively.”
That play away from the puck has caught the attention of Bylsma.
“I think you see how dynamic he is and can be offensively, but for me it’s just how he works,” Bylsma said after Ennis had a hat trick in the game against the Sens. “Yeah, there’s some skill there. Obviously he shows it off and scores the hat trick but we’re down 2-0 in this game and it’s his work … that gets us back in this game.”
2. Battling back: Speaking of being down, the Sabres found themselves in 2-0 deficits in their last two preseason games, coming back for 6-4 wins at Toronto and Ottawa.
“We’ve gotten down in games. Down two goals and kept playing, kept fighting, kept coming back,” Bylsma said.
That’s not a trait to take for granted. The past few years it has been easy for the Sabres to get caught in the “here we go again” downward spiral no matter how much they didn’t want to go there.
Perhaps this speaks to the other thing we’ve learned in training camp – the importance of structure. Nearly every player has referred to “structure” when talking about learning new systems.
“It’s great. You know what’s expected of you,” Sabres captain Brian Gionta said early in training camp. “You know what you’re supposed to be doing. You know what your responsibilities are. 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.”
It’s not perfect in the preseason, especially with lines and defense pairings going through the experimentation phase. But knowledge is power and that breeds confidence, which in turn creates a better brand of hockey.
3. Eichel Mania: There’s something endearing about the way Jack Eichel said “if I make the team” after he was chosen No. 2 in the NHL Draft, all summer long and through development camp, rookie camp and training camp. Really, Jack. You’re making the NHL roster. Not just because of his anointed status but because of his play in the preseason.
In two preseason games he has one goal and three assists. While Eichel will likely play between Matt Moulson and Zemgus Girgensons when the games are for real, Saturday in Ottawa he played between Ennis and Kane and finished with a pair of assists.
“For Jack, it was another solid, hard game away from the puck,” Bylsma said. People “talk about his speed with the puck but it’s his speed away from the puck that’s allowing him to play hard and play well and back track. … It’s easy to kind of get focused on the offensive speed and skill, but for me it’s been a lot more of the stuff away from the puck.”
4. Don’t forget about Sam: Last year at this time, Sam Reinhart was feeling his way through his first NHL training camp, playing a few regular games before returning to his junior team for another season of development. He’s back in Buffalo showing confidence, strength and poise. He had three assists in the 6-4 win at Toronto playing on the left wing with Cal O’Reilly and Justin Bailey. Reinhart has been playing center and wing during the preseason and in Toronto said some of his confidence comes from patience.
“Stay hard down low with the puck, hang on to it more and not just throw it away,” Reinhart said. “Wait and make the right play. Practice has felt a lot better this year than last year and that’s where a big part of the confidence comes.”
5. Stopping the puck: The Sabres have shown they can bounce back and score goals. But can they stop them? Goaltending remains the great unknown. On paper it would seem to be Robin Lehner’s net, but the goalie is getting his first live action after being sidelined for months with a concussion. In 80 minutes over two preseason games, he has given up six goals on 44 shots (4.50 goals against average, .864 save percentage). Chad Johnson has played 100 minutes over two games, allowing six goals on 51 shots (3.60, .882). It’s a small sample size and a few of the goals against came with defensemen screening the goalie or breakdowns from offensive zone faceoffs.