Sabres training camp just started last weekend, yet it’s already almost over. Buffalo has barreled through three team scrimmages and more than half of its preseason schedule, and the season opener is less than two weeks away.
A lot has happened in a short time. Here are the key observations from camp as the 2016-17 season rapidly approaches.
1. Someone needs to blink in the Rasmus Ristolainen negotiations.
The restricted free agent is practicing with the Sabres while waiting for a contract. It’s allowing him to stay in shape and helps the team keep its No. 1 defenseman up to speed on systems and game plans.
Though the sides are talking, Ristolainen’s agent said they’re not close in their negotiations. The Sabres have the leverage right now since it’s essentially Buffalo or sitting out for Ristolainen. The team is willing to go long or short term on a contract, but it’s not budging on dollars.
Soon, however, the leverage will shift to Ristolainen. None of the players Buffalo signed for defensive depth has shown they deserve a regular role in the NHL, let alone are capable of taking some of Ristolainen’s responsibilities.
The Sabres will need every point they can muster to end their five-year playoff drought, and having Ristolainen in the lineup on opening night Oct. 13 will be the best way to pick up wins.
2. Tyler Ennis looks fearless.
Despite suffering two concussions last season, Ennis is aggressively driving the net and weaving through traffic. The 26-year-old said the head injuries wouldn’t affect his play, and he certainly seems to have put them out of his mind. A healthy Ennis would be like a top-six signing for the Sabres.
Still, it’ll be awhile before observers see him get knocked down and don’t cringe in fear that he won’t get back up.
3. Derek Grant is in the driver’s seat for a roster spot.
The Sabres had one opening at forward, and Grant is the clear-cut leader to fill it. The center has shown the offensive ability that resulted in 27 goals in 36 minor-league games last year, putting up two goals and four points in three preseason outings. He was impressive in scrimmages, too.
Grant's two-way game is also setting him apart. The 6-foot-3, 212-pounder has the size to compete in the defensive zone. He’s also excelled at key faceoffs. Buffalo ranked 21st in faceoff percentage last year, so it needs someone to take the pressure off draw king Ryan O’Reilly.
4. Alexander Nylander has the skills but needs experience.
When the Sabres’ first-round pick hits full speed during the exhibitions, he’s clearly the fastest player on the ice. The 6-foot-1, 178-pounder has also fit in physically at the NHL level.
He has not, however, shown the poise to make the leap to the big leagues. The 18-year-old has been nervous with the puck. While playing the point on the power play, he’s struggled to keep the offense going. There are glimpses he’ll be special, but time in Rochester appears best for him.
5. Evander Kane knows how to play hockey.
Kane’s ability on the ice has never been questioned. It’s nearly everything else that’s questionable. If he can confine his offensive moves to the opponents’ zone, he seems ready for a big year.
No player in Buffalo’s lineup possesses the size, speed and forechecking ability of Kane. He’s shown the complete package during scrimmages and games.
6. Anders Nilsson is easing concerns about the goaltending situation.
Buffalo learned the importance of backup goalies last year when Robin Lehner went down. Chad Johnson performed well, but the Sabres let him go and acquired Nilsson. There hasn’t been a drop-off.
The 6-foot-5, 229-pounder has filled the crease with authority. He’s let the play come to him and reacted well. Players need confidence in their goalies, and Nilsson’s first impression has been a good one.
7. Casey Nelson has offensive ability but needs to avoid defensive lapses.
Nelson put up four points in seven games after signing with the Sabres late last year, and the defenseman continues to impress when he has the puck. The 24-year-old rookie has a veteran presence, calmly making outlet passes and pinching without hesitation.
He still has work to do in his own zone. His speed helps him close gaps, but opposing forwards have found open spaces, particularly during Nelson’s minus-5 showing Friday in an 8-1 loss to Toronto. He needs a full-time role to grow, so he’ll have to unseat Cody Franson or hope Ristolainen doesn’t sign.
8. Matt Moulson wants to re-establish himself.
Moulson is still penciled in as one of the highest-paid fourth-liners in the league, but this time he’s attempting to do something about it. He worked on his skating during the offseason, which was needed, but the difference during camp is where he’s skating.
Content to stay above the faceoff circles during last year’s forgettable season, Moulson has been near the net and in the mix for rebounds. It was getting to those areas that helped him become a 30-goal scorer with the New York Islanders. Those lamp-lighting days may be gone, but Moulson can contribute 15 goals if he keeps showing desire.
“We talked about exactly what he needed to do, and he’s done it,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “His game, how he’s played, how he’s skated, how he’s played with the puck, it’s been a significant difference right from the start of training camp.”