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Mike Harrington: This is an unusual Sabres training camp, with a mostly set roster but uncertain path

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It's hard to make sense of this Sabres training camp. We can surmise it will be fun to watch, but it's hard to figure out exactly what it will be.

The basic fact is we all can just about name the entire roster before a single practice. There's not much competition for jobs, and it's going to be far more about competition for spots within the framework of the team.

That's because the Sabres have acquired so many young assets who have established themselves or are about to, that they didn't go out and bring in a bunch of veterans and find the need to meld them into a group. That's what Steve Yzerman did in Detroit this summer and it comes off as a bit of a panic move.

There's zero panic coming from GM Kevyn Adams and coach Don Granato. Not since the Ruff-Regier days has this ship been so steady.

Now, some annual reminders in the midst of all the Bills hysteria: A hockey training camp is not like a football training camp. Your draft picks aren't competing to make the team and you're setting up the roster of the minor-league team simultaneous to getting the big club ready. There's no Triple-A or AHL in football.

In hockey, there aren't breathless recitations of the results of each play in a camp drill. And there is actual meaning in every preseason game. All six of them. That's where you can mesh forward lines and defensive pairs and see how they work. Many of your key players actually play, too. Unlike in Fake Football.

Still, even knowing who will be on the team, there remain key points of emphasis for the next 2½ weeks. How good do Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka look? How about Casey Mittelstadt? How will Owen Power handle his first NHL training camp? (Yes, it was easy to forget after his eight games late last season that he's never been to one). Who will be Power's partner? 

How ready is newly acquired Eric Comrie to become the No. 1 goalie? How healthy are Craig Anderson and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and is UPL ready for a 50- or 55-game run in Rochester? Can Tage Thompson, Jeff Skinner and Kyle Okposo match last season's production? How much offense will come from Dylan Cozens and Rasmus Dahlin? How much can Alex Tuch produce in a full season? 

(In the we're-all-getting-older department, Thompson's seven-year contract extension that kicks in next season is the first one in the organization to stretch to 2030. Obviously, it won't be the last.)

Here's my big question: When are Adams and Granato naming a captain? They should do it on Day One come Thursday. End the questions about it. The assumption here is that it will be Okposo, with Tuch getting put in the leadership group as the captain-in-waiting with a couple of others.

The prevailing feeling is this is a franchise on the rise, that there's too much talent for it not to be. It feels like Okposo has everyone's ears and one of his messages all summer is that the Sabres actually have expectations now and have to be ready to meet them.

"If you're on a team like this and you're playing coming into camp, this is opportunity," NHL Network analyst and former Stanley Cup champion Mike Rupp said of the Sabres earlier this month. "(The Atlantic Division) for the last number of years, you basically know you're not going to be in the playoffs. Now you've got a chance and that's exciting."

But then you look at last season's standings and you remember how hard things were in November, December, January and February.

When the Sabres hit the All-Star break in early February after a dreary loss in Vegas, they were rolling snake eyes. Too many injuries, too many Covid cases, too many times when a goalie wasn't making a basic save. They were on pace to be a 65-point team.

But March and April felt unlike any time in the last 10 years, an organization that was no longer spinning its wheels. There were points in 19 of 28 games, including wins in 16 of them, and a 103-point pace if you carried it through a full season. There was the Tank-era exorcism in the rematch with Vegas, with Jack Eichel on the ice – and Tuch stripping the puck from him for an empty-net goal.

There was the triple punking of the Leafs, who were made to look like Laffs again and couldn't keep up with the Sabres twice in Scotiabank Arena and once outdoors in front of 25,000-plus at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton.

By the end of that memorable afternoon, you had to raise your double-double to the Sabres for the way they were in the Leafs' heads.

Auston Matthews was so frustrated he got suspended for trying to decapitate Dahlin, and Cozens was a crazed maniac ready to take on anyone in a 1918 Toronto Arenas jersey. There were no takers.

On a day filled with snow flurries and wind, in front of more than 26,000 fans and in a tie game after 40 minutes, the Sabres made all the plays. Then they added the exclamation points. It was a 5-2 win over the in-crisis Maple Leafs, a Heritage Classic triumph that will live for all-time as the first outdoor victory in franchise history.

There was the crazy four-goal comeback in Chicago, with Thompson scoring the winning goal on a wild pinball ricochet after snapping his stick with 10 seconds left. And there were the burned-in-our-memory bank pair of nights celebrating the one and only Rick Jeanneret.

The vibes have been terrific all summer. The hype around making three first-round picks at the draft was immense, the buzz at development camp was enormous and all you had to do was see the autograph line at Sahlen Field last month when Power, Okposo, Skinner and Malcolm Subban showed up to get even more confirmation.

The players only had about an hour to sign before the first pitch and, as Okposo noted to Power, "this is not an hourlong line."

The masses wanted to see the Sabres. In August. And with good reason. It's been a while around here since we could say that.

"They've got a good skill set. I mean, they've drafted quite well and made some astute trades," former Islanders coach Barry Trotz said here in April after his team went home with a loss. "Obviously, they have a real good skill base. I think that the experience that some of their younger 'D' are getting is paying off.

"They're playing so well as a team. I just said to someone I could see this team taking a big jump forward based on how they're finishing up a real strong year."

But for all the good feelings we have about where the Sabres are going, you have to get some reality checks, too. They finished 35 points out of the top three in the Atlantic Division, 32 points behind fourth-place Boston and 25 points out of the last Eastern Conference playoff spot.

That's not a deficit you generally make up in one season.

"At the end of last season, we got to a good spot in our game," Skinner said that night at Sahlen Field. "We still have a lot of work to do and we also have to sort of start back up again. So that was a good stepping stone, I guess. We've got to keep moving forward."

Camp comes at you quick. The first practice is Thursday. The first preseason game is Sept. 25 in Washington. We're already under a month to the season opener, Oct. 13 against Ottawa.

March and April don't count toward this year's standings but they matter big-time. So will September. It will be fascinating to see what we're about to learn.

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