Tyler Ennis, in his backward hat, still has the boyish looks to pass as one of the Sabres’ young roster hopefuls. In reality, he is Buffalo’s longest-tenured player. He’s seen a lot, from playoff teams to last-place squads.
As the 2016-17 edition of the Sabres arrived for physicals Thursday, he recognized the winning attitude that gets teams to the postseason.
“Our mindset now is playoffs,” Ennis said in KeyBank Center. “We’re a team that’s looking to compete and be a real threat. We’re growing. We did a great job toward the end of the year last year of really kind of finding our identity. We added some great pieces, and now it’s coming together.
“We’re ready to really become a solid playoff team that’s growing and isn’t a team that’s rebuilding anymore.”
Indeed, for the first time since the 2012-13 season, the Sabres have a legitimate chance to make the playoffs. They’re in a five-year drought, longest in team history, but there’s real hope the skid will end thanks to a team that won in the second half and has added Kyle Okposo, Dmitry Kulikov and Ennis.
Ennis counts as a new piece because he missed most of last season. As the Sabres went 19-14-7 during the second half, the 26-year-old struggled with the fallout of multiple concussions. He returned to health during the final week, but he’s still looking to play his first game since Dec. 30.
“Incredibly frustrating, so I’m motivated,” he said. “I’m excited. I’m glad it’s in the past. I’m ready for a fresh start, and I’m looking to build on some things I learned over that time.”
The biggest lesson for Ennis during his time off the ice was how much he wanted to be on it. It would be an overstatement to say he took his career for granted, but he certainly didn’t focus the way he could have. He vows things will be different when the Sabres hit the ice for the first time Friday.
“I’m definitely grateful, and it makes you realize that you’ve got a pretty special job and it’s pretty fun to be out there with a great group of guys playing in front of an outstanding crowd,” Ennis said. “It makes you not only appreciate what you’ve got but also be better the next time around.
“There’s things you can do to make sure your body’s feeling good before every practice. You’re taking every drill like you’re trying to get better every drill. In the past, I was probably just enjoying being on the ice and skating and shooting around rather than maybe focusing on things that I could improve on and get better out of practice. I’m definitely looking to practicing and focusing and improving my game and rounding it out, doing all those little things that make you a better player.”
Since Ennis’ injuries were the focal point of his season, it’s easy to forget the forward struggled when he played. After topping 20 goals in consecutive seasons and signing a five-year, $23 million contract extension, Ennis put up just three goals and eight assists in 23 games.
“I was inconsistent and it wasn’t obviously as good as it should have been,” he said.
His teammates still remember the flashy playmaker and believe he can recapture what was missing.
“He’s got some talent that you don’t see every day,” defenseman Josh Gorges said. “We expect big things out of him. I’m sure he expects big things out of himself for this year, so it’s exciting to see him back healthy, feeling good, looking good. He’ll be a big player for us this year.”
Gorges noted that Ennis has added muscle to his formerly rail-thin body. While he’s not going to enter a Mr. Universe competition, the first-round draft pick from 2008 who debuted in 2009 has become more defined.
“All I did was bicep curls and bench press, so I’m ready to go,” Ennis said with a smile. “No, it was a good summer of training, and I’m ready to get started.”
The Sabres will skate Friday through Sunday in HarborCenter. There are practice sessions tentatively scheduled for 9-9:45 a.m., 10:40-11:25 a.m. and 12:50-2 p.m. each day, with scrimmages at 9:50-10:35 a.m. All sessions are free to the public.
“I’m looking forward to this week and ultimately what the year brings,” Sabres right wing Sam Reinhart said. “As each year goes on, our expectations on ourselves get higher. We’re looking forward to challenging ourselves this year.”