Rebuilding Sabres boast size, skill in young forwards

Monday, 07.21.2014 / 3:00 AM
Joe Yerdon  - NHL.com Correspondent

BUFFALO -- If there's a saying that might become popular in Buffalo in coming seasons, it's "Youth is king."

The players taking part in Buffalo Sabres development camp make up the foundation of the organizational rebuild that's underway. All positions feature players the Sabres expect to become NHL players, in some cases great ones.

A major key to the future comes from the forwards they've collected through the draft and trades, and the spotlight is on Sam Reinhart, taken with the No. 2 pick of the 2014 NHL Draft.

His big season with Kootenay in the Western Hockey League, when he had 36 goals and 105 points, has fans hoping he'll be in the Sabres' opening-night lineup. It's a challenge he's ready to take on.

"The biggest thing for this week was getting comfortable with it," Reinhart said. "Obviously it's another step up when the next training camp comes around, so I think the biggest thing is pace of play, and obviously that's something I've been working on for some time, so it was pretty good to get in here and experience that."

It was Reinhart's first experience of what it’s like to be a professional hockey player, and he headlined a group of first-round picks.

"Seeing him in the uniform, and to me this is the start of team-building," Sabres general manager Tim Murray said. "Whether he's on the team this year or next year, these guys will be together at certain points of the year and then some of them will play together. Not all of them, obviously. It's the start of team-building, it's the start of these guys knowing they'll go forward with each other and create relationships."

Reinhart’s potential teammates include forwards Mikhail Grigorenko, Zemgus Girgensons and Joel Armia, and defensemen Mark Pysyk, Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov. Each was a Sabres first-round pick since 2010. They're part of what's become a growing stable of talent in Buffalo.

"Obviously there's a lot of skill here with Reinhart, Grigorenko and Armia," said Pysyk, the 23rd pick in 2010. "It's always, I suppose for the young guys, a little bit nerve-wracking. I don't think you're seeing what you're going to get out of them come fall time. I think there's going to be another step up. That's exciting too."

With that level of talent on the ice in practice and scrimmages, the competitive level has grown. That's something that hasn't been lost on those who already have time at the NHL level and know what it takes to make it there.

"There's definitely a higher level this year," said Girgensons, taken 14th in 2012. "Personally I have more of a leadership role as we have a couple guys that have been around and I have a full year [in the NHL] under my belt. It's been more about trying to lead the guys and be more of a role model."

Girgensons is someone the Sabres want to see other young players emulate. He had eight goals and 22 points in 70 games last season playing in a physical, checking role. Finding other players to be a complementary fit with the scorers is important, and that's where a couple of players acquired from other teams fit into the equation, Jordan Samuels-Thomas and Hudson Fasching.

Samuels-Thomas was acquired from the Winnipeg Jets in a trade July 9 and signed a one-year contract July 12. Fasching was acquired at the 2014 NHL Trade Deadline from the Los Angeles Kings for defenseman Brayden McNabb. Landing two big power forwards to go with the skill players could pay off in the long run.

"When I'm playing on a line with a guy like [Reinhart], I want to create space for him," Samuels-Thomas said. "That's what I'm supposed to do. Go to the hard areas, like in front of the net or the corner, and dig pucks out for them. And when I'm going against them I want them to hate playing against me. I want to make their life miserable and hit them whenever I can, because I know the more body contact the less they're going to want to play their game."

Samuels-Thomas is 6-foot-4, 215 pounds. At 24, he's the oldest player at the camp, and after graduating from Quinnipiac University it's time for him to show what he can do as a professional.

"No. 1 is competing. I think that's something you can't teach. You just have to go out and do," Samuels-Thomas said. "No. 2 is being physical, whether I have the puck or don't have the puck, taking the puck to the net. All the stuff an NHL power forward should do, that's kind of what I've been working on my game in college to be and I think that will translate well here."

Physical play and defense are good to have, but the Sabres need offense from their young forwards. Reinhart's prowess is one thing, but it's Grigorenko they'd like to see break out this season.

After two seasons of not meeting expectations at the NHL level, Grigorenko was returned to his junior team, the Quebec Remparts in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Now it's time for him to show he was worth being drafted 12th in 2012.

"From past experience I realized it's probably no one's fault but mine that I didn't go into the NHL," Grigorenko said. "If I want to play in the best League in the world it's just on me. No one's going to make me play just because I was drafted in the first round. I just have to go out there and be the best."

If Grigorenko blossoms into the offensive player the Sabres believe he can be, and Reinhart can live up to his potential and join Girgensons in the NHL, it'll pave the way for others hoping to be a part of the rebuild. Players in camp see what the organization is doing and it's leaving a positive impression on them.

"I think they really are making strides," Fasching said. "They're signing some older guys, like bringing in [Brian] Gionta and guys like that. I just think all the prospects and all the guys that they have here, I like the attitude that they've got around here. They're realistic about where they're at now, and I think they're realistic about where they want to be too. I think that's a big part of it."

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