Starting training camp is always exciting for Dan Bylsma. What’s different is the number of spots the Buffalo Sabres coach needs to fill.
“More than I’m probably accustomed to,” Bylsma said Friday in HarborCenter. “It’s not very often that you go into camp with a flat-out open spot. At the 13th forward position and at the seventh defenseman, there’s a flat-out open spot for competition.”
The Sabres are kicking off camp with three practice sessions and a scrimmage for three straight days, and the brass is looking hard at those two opening. Here are the 18 skaters who should have their tickets punched already:
Forwards (12) – Jack Eichel, Ryan O’Reilly, Kyle Okposo, Sam Reinhart, Evander Kane, Tyler Ennis, Brian Gionta, Johan Larsson, Marcus Foligno, Zemgus Girgensons, Nicolas Deslauriers and Matt Moulson.
Defense (6) – Rasmus Ristolainen, Zach Bogosian, Dmitry Kulikov, Josh Gorges, Jake McCabe and Cody Franson.
“That doesn’t mean there’s not competition for how those 12 that are on there and how those six that are on there are going to play,” Bylsma said. “We have quite a bit of competition within our roster, whether it’s two or three or four different possibilities. That’s probably more than I’m accustomed to and more than I’ve had in the past.”
As for the 13th forward spot, the list of candidates includes Justin Bailey, Cal O’Reilly, Evan Rodrigues, Hudson Fasching, William Carrier, Daniel Catenacci, Cole Schneider, Nicholas Baptiste and first-round pick Alexander Nylander.
The seventh defenseman may come from the group that includes Casey Nelson, Justin Falk, Taylor Fedun, Mac Bennett and Brendan Guhle.
“It’s easy to see the defensemen that are in the top six, then there’s a group of three or four,” said Bylsma, who is already looking toward the start of the regular season. “We play a home game and then we go out west. We’re definitely going to be having seven defensemen go out west.”
Cole Schneider's last season ended with a dream coming true. This one started with a hat trick.
Schneider, the Williamsville native who made his NHL debut with the Sabres last year, scored three times in the opening scrimmage of training camp to give his team a 5-0 victory.
"Hopefully, I save them for the year," he said.
Schneider had no problems scoring in college or the minor leagues, but he never got an NHL look until Buffalo summoned him for the penultimate game and season finale.
"It definitely made it feel better coming into camp," the 26-year-old said. "The goal is just get back here and play some more games at home."
Bylsma named Schneider as one his three stars of the scrimmage. The coach also picked Bennett, who is signed to a minor-league contract with Rochester and skated alongside Bogosian, plus the line of Reinhart, Kane and Nylander.
The Sabres opened without World Cup participants Eichel, O’Reilly, Ristolainen and Kulikov, though Eichel was expected to arrive in town at some point Friday.
“We’ll see him back at the rink the next couple days and have a conversation about when he’ll get back on the ice,” Bylsma said. “We do not have him scheduled for the first two exhibition games.”
O’Reilly (Canada) and Kulikov (Russia) are meeting in a semifinal Saturday. The loser is done and free to head to Buffalo, but the winner won’t join the Sabres until the first week of October.
Ristolainen is an unsigned restricted free agent and isn’t expected to report until he has a contract. Buffalo will skate from 9-11:25 a.m. and 12:50-2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday in HarborCenter.
Kane said Thursday he has not talked with team officials about his legal situation, but Bylsma said he has talked with the forward. There will be another talk.
“Yes, there will be a conversation about the expectations from Evander both on and off the ice,” Bylsma said. “I think Evander’s eager to get here and put it behind him, so to speak, and get to the business of playing hockey.”