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Sabres open camp with true competition for roster spots

The excitement of starting training camp is the same as always 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 kicked off camp with three practice sessions and a scrimmage, and the brass will be looking hard at those final two roster spots. Here are the 18 players 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, Brendan Guhle and Erik Burgdoerfer.

“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 to 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.”

The Sabres opened camp without World Cup participants Eichel, O’Reilly, Ristolainen and Kulikov. O’Reilly (Canada) and Kulikov (Russia) are still playing. Ristolainen is an unsigned restricted free agent. Eichel is expected to arrive in Buffalo today.

“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.”

Contrary to what Kane said Thursday, Bylsma said he has talked with the forward about his legal situation. There will be another talk.

“I have had a conversation,” Bylsma said. “I didn’t have a formal sitdown conversation. We talked four days ago, five days ago. Yes, there will be a conversation about the expectations from Evander both on and off the ice. I think Evander’s eager to get here and put him behind, so to speak, and get to the business of playing hockey.”

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