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Mike Harrington: Summer skates have Sabres in training camp mode

Your calendar says August and so does mine, but things have been humming at HarborCenter for a few weeks now. In the eyes of players wearing Blue and Gold, hockey season has already started.

It's been nearly five months since the Buffalo Sabres have played a game, so there's been plenty of time for self-reflection. The Sabres used to straggle back for some pickup hockey in places such as Riverside Rink or the Northtown Center in Amherst. Not anymore.

Since last week, the likes of Jack Eichel, Kyle Okposo, Zemgus Girgensons, Jason Pominville and Johan Larsson have been joining many of the team's young stud prospects on the ice downtown to get ready for next week's Prospects Challenge. Rasmus Ristolainen and Marco Scandella were on the ice Monday. Scott Wilson and Linus Ullmark were among those there Tuesday.

If you're into good signs, I have never seen so many Sabres back skating so soon in the summer. The veterans are still more than two weeks away from opening camp.

"Everyone is pretty excited for our season to start," Eichel said. "It's been a long offseason and we've had a lot to think about. I was ready to get going, chomping at the bit to get out of Boston and come here to start."

Coaches and front-office types can't be around these unofficial sessions and they're not pickup games, either. There are drills and scrimmages with HarborCenter's Academy of Hockey running the show. Ex-NHLers such as Clarence native/Academy director Kevyn Adams and former Sabres/Amerks center Matt Ellis are doing the honors.

Stanley Cup teams play into mid-June and need as much rest as they can muster to be able to go hard the next season. Losing teams such as the Sabres, meanwhile, have to maximize their time to get things turned around. Even during the summer.

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The Sabres have lots of new faces and lots of prospects who have already spent a couple of weeks here getting ready to meet their counterparts from the Devils, Bruins and Penguins next weekend.

"It was a long summer and you get the itch to get going again," Wilson said. "It was a lot different in Pittsburgh, obviously. With so much hockey we had played there, I got away from the game a little bit to get refreshed and get that right feeling back in your brain.

"When you're playing so much, you can become a robot out there because you're not thinking as much. You've been doing it so many days in a row. This summer, I tried to charge the batteries pretty much."

Eichel started skating with the Sabres, returned to Boston to play for Boston University in the Commonwealth Avenue Classic on Saturday and came right back to Buffalo to hit the ice Monday. And while Eichel is undoubtedly using some time before training camp to get things set up in his new waterfront town house, he's making a statement by being in town this early for the first time in his career.

"We want to be here, be around the locker room and be around the young guys getting ready for the prospects camp," Eichel said. "That's the biggest thing. We want to get back here and get going quickly. With so many guys here early weeks before camp, it allows us to hit the ground running when we do start and then have a better start to our season."

The prospects can only benefit from being here.

When I went to Minnesota at the start of the month to see Casey Mittelstadt and his family, we didn't know at the time it was going to be his last night in Da Beauty League. A few days later, Mittelstadt was making his unannounced trip to the Fattey League in HarborCenter to join Rasmus Dahlin as the No. 1 overall pick had made his trip – photoshopped Jet Ski and all – from Sweden.

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"It's really good to take in what the veteran guys are teaching us and there's a lot to learn from them," said West Seneca native Sean Malone, who broke through with the Amerks last year in his first full year as a pro. "It's not just the ice. In the weight room, they're always working on their bodies. They're in the training room. They're here in the room talking afterwards.

"They show what it means to be a pro. On the ice, their effort is different. Practice translates to games and it's fun to compete and try to measure up with them and learn from them."

Casey brings the 'Team Mittelstadt' competitive spirit to Sabres

During that trip to Minnesota earlier this month, Zach Bogosian said the Sabres' group text chat was burning up the phones more than in the past. Mittelstadt said he was thrilled that Eichel took time to come to the Land of 10,000 Lakes to see him and join a group of Sabres on the golf course.

Those teeing off included coach Phil Housley.

"It's not a bad place to be in the summer so it's not too hard to convince people to get out to Minnesota," Eichel said. "We have a lot of guys here that live out there in the summer and Phil is out there so it was nice. He's a competitive golfer so he was pretty into his round."

Housley promised a tougher training camp this year and the players know they have to be ready. Most pundits expect the Sabres to be better but that won't be hard, given last season's 62-point finish. But how much better?

"You know how magazines are," Eichel said. "If I asked you a year ago how many of those had Colorado and New Jersey making the playoffs, how many would you have said?"

My answer was easy: Zero.

But the Devils and Avalanche somehow climbed from the bottom of their conference into the top eight. The Sabres are now looking at that tall task as motivation.

"We obviously should have the highest of expectations for ourselves," Eichel said. "Every year, your goal is to win the Stanley Cup. If you're reaching for the highest cloud and you miss it, you're probably going to land on a high mountain so I think the higher our goals are, the better.

"There's a lot of new faces, a lot of changes but it all starts with training camp being ready to go every day, being ready to compete."

Even more than that, it seems in today's NHL, it actually starts the weeks before training camp.

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