Training camp in the NHL is always on fast forward. The Buffalo Sabres report for physicals Thursday, hit the HarborCenter ice Friday for three days of practice – and then start a stretch of seven exhibition games in 12 days Monday night in Columbus.
So what are the biggest storylines to watch from Friday until the season opener Oct. 4 against Boston? Here's our top 10 list:
1. Phil Housley and preparation: The second-year coach promised on locker cleanout day in April that this camp will be much tougher than last year's and boldly sent the message to his players they better be ready come September.
Housley said the conditioning of the club was not where it needed to be when he arrived as the coach last season and he was too lax in that area until the regular-season schedule started. He said he won't make that mistake in this camp. The coach's message was likely one reason so many players were back in town skating in late August.
2. Dahlin's debut and partner(s): No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin looked more than the part during the Prospects Challenge, especially in his stirring two-goal debut Friday night. The 18-year-old's development will be a topic for the entire league – as well as a daily discussion point at home in Sweden. Housley & Co. have key decisions to make how much to push him and who to partner with him.
As one line of thinking goes, Rasmus Ristolainen and Marco Scandella will remain as the top pair to give Dahlin protected minutes. That could leave Dahlin on the second pair, perhaps with Zach Bogosian. But at some point, probably sooner rather than later, is it inevitable the Sabres have a "double Rasmi" pair? Dahlin with Ristolainen might be the way to go.
New assistant coach Steve Smith, a Stanley Cup champion on defense in Edmonton and a teammate of Housley's in Calgary, was undoubtedly brought in with Dahlin's development in mind.
3. Captain Jack?: Jack Eichel starts his fourth season and it's a milestone one as the first year of his eight-year, $80-million contract extension signed on the eve of last year's opener. The Sabres didn't make the playoffs – and Eichel never reached 30 goals or 70 points – on his entry-level contract, so now he'll have to push toward a bigger role in the league as a $10 million player.
That's a cap hit bigger than names such as Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos and P.K. Subban, and behind only Connor McDavid, John Tavares, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Carey Price. By salary, Eichel is now a superstar, whether his stats match his checkbook or not.
Does that mean Eichel has to become the captain? At some point in camp, the Sabres will likely make official what appears inevitable. They are one of nine teams currently without a captain and the trade of Ryan O'Reilly clearly says this is Eichel's team.
4. Reinhart's contract: Sam Reinhart is the team's lone remaining restricted free agent. Along with Toronto's William Nylander, he's considered the top RFA in the league among forwards. Although not publicly contentious, his contract talks have stretched all summer. Bridge deal or long term? What can GM Jason Botterill get done, and can Reinhart move forward to try to become a 30-goal player?
5. Casey at the middle: In Casey Mittelstadt, the Sabres have a 19-year-old whom they drafted at No. 8 overall in 2017 with enormous skill. He had five points in six NHL games at the end of last season and engendered enough confidence to allow the team to trade O'Reilly and pencil in Mittelstadt as the No. 2 center on opening night.
But Mittelstadt's play was spotty during the Prospects Challenge, and he will be watched in preseason closely to see if he's ready for the big challenge and needs to be moved down the depth chart some. Like Eichel, he's going to need to be competitive in the faceoff circle as part of his daily duties. Especially now that O'Reilly is gone.
6. Newcomers at forward: Jeff Skinner was acquired in a shocking August trade with Carolina and immediately figures to ride shotgun with Eichel. Conor Sheary brings his two Stanley Cup wins with Pittsburgh into the mix, and depth at left wing suddenly isn't such an issue when they might combine for 50 goals. Then come veterans Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka from St. Louis to add more depth. Berglund, in particular, can lift some of the pressure from Mittelstadt and be that missing faceoff specialist.
7. Is Carter Hutton ready for full-time starter duty? The goaltending of Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson simply didn't get the job done last year and the Sabres quickly turned to former St. Louis netminder Carter Hutton in free agency. Hutton had terrific numbers for the Blues but has never played more than 40 games in a season. He's going to do that here. How will his numbers handle the transition?
8. Which young forward breaks through to earn a roster spot? There are a couple positions to be had and the Sabres' decision might be based on whether it's better for the likes of Tage Thompson, Rasmus Asplund or Victor Olofsson to play first-line minutes in Rochester or bottom-six minutes in the NHL. All three had super moments during the prospect games and will get their chances in the preseason. Andrew Oglevie and C.J. Smith also figure to be in the mix.
9. A corollary: Is this Nylander's time? Alexander Nylander hasn't engendered much love since former GM Tim Murray took him No. 8 overall in 2016, ahead of now established NHL defensemen such as Tampa Bay's Mikhail Sergachev, Boston's Charlie McAvoy or Arizona's Jakob Chychrun. Nylander has only played seven NHL games while his 116 games in Rochester have produced just 18 goals and a complete disappearing act in the Amerks' first-round playoff series in April. But Nylander looked healthy, bulked up and faster during the Prospects Challenge, easily playing his best two-way hockey since joining the organization. That kind of play in the preseason could give him a chance to stick in Buffalo, or at least position the 20-year-old as a top-line stud with the Amerks.
10. D-Day for Bailey and Baptiste: Justin Bailey and Nick Baptiste were drafted by Darcy Regier in 2013 and have yet to crack the Buffalo lineup. Bailey (52 NHL games, five goals) and Baptiste (47 NHL games, seven goals) have been regulars in Rochester with middling results. And this time, they can't go back to the Amerks without clearing waivers. Do they make the big club? Do they clear waivers? Do they get traded? Major decisions at hand.