BUFFALO -- If there's a position battle to keep an eye on in training camp for the Buffalo Sabres, it's defenseman.
Sabres development camp boasted a roster that featured four defensemen who played in the NHL last season, three first-round picks. Mark Pysyk, Buffalo's first-round pick in 2010, and 2013 first-round picks Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov joined 2012 second-round selection Jake McCabe as the headline players.
The four will challenge for spots in the NHL this season, but at development camp they were there to measure up against each other, and it set the table for what's to come in September.
Experienced players Tyler Myers and newly acquired Josh Gorges are likely the two sure bets to have spots in the Sabres lineup this season. After that, competition figures to be intense between the four young players at development camp, as well as established Sabres Mike Weber, Chad Ruhwedel, and free-agent signings Andrej Meszaros and Tyson Strachan.
With the kind of talent the players have and expectations of the organization, tough decisions could be ahead for coach Ted Nolan.
"It's going to be tight come fall here," Pysyk said. "That's good. All these good, young defensemen and some older guys as well, it's going to be a tight race. It's going to push everyone to be better."
Even with those veterans in place, the attention figures to be on the potential young corps who make up what the Sabres hope is their future.
"They're tough players. It's tough to even practice," forward Zemgus Girgensons said. "They're big bodies, heavy. Just to get around them is hard. I think it's great for everyone to go against them. Even in drills, that kind of gets you into game shape because NHL guys are strong and those guys are heavy, strong, hard to go against."
"Big" is the operative word when talking about the defense. Zadorov is the largest at 6-foot-5, 238 pounds. McCabe is the shortest at 6-1; he weighs 215 pounds. Their experiences vary, but each had a chance to show what he can bring to Buffalo's blue line.
"I got a taste of what it feels like to be in the NHL," McCabe said. "It was only a couple weeks, but everything just happens that much faster. The one thing I did really take is that I do belong. I know I can play at that level. Obviously I need to improve every year and continue to get better. It wasn't like I got in there and I didn't know what I was going to do. I was comfortable and I gained confidence every game, got more comfortable. It was a great learning experience and it drives me to make the team this year."
McCabe played in seven games after being signed out of the University of Wisconsin and had one assist and 15 penalty minutes. He may be at a disadvantage compared to Ristolainen and Pysyk, who have spent time in the NHL and American Hockey League.
"I think I ended the season pretty good here, it was better than when I started here," Ristolainen said. "I feel more comfortable every day and I'm waiting for camp to start to show I'm going to earn a spot.
"I showed that I'm in really good shape and I'm better than last year. I've got a little bit more time after this camp before the main camp so I'll be stronger and faster."
Zadorov may be the most intriguing player for the Sabres. Like McCabe, he played in seven games last season. But he spent the rest of the season in the Ontario Hockey League with the London Knights and was a key player for them in the Memorial Cup.
"I think I was more of a leader there," Zadorov said. "I had more ice time, more power play time, everything than my first year in North America. I wasn't the oldest guy. We had Olli Maatta, [Scott] Harrington, all these old guys who played more than me. This year I played a lot there. I think I got a great experience and it got my confidence really up."
Zadorov's brief stay in the NHL before he headed back to junior showed flashes of all parts of his game. His ability to move the puck and play tough physically in his end gave the Sabres a glimpse of what his future might look like. If he wants to stay in Buffalo full-time next season, he'll need to show the maturity he had in London.
"I think I'm that kind of player, kind of like a leader for sure," Zadorov said. "In every situation I try to be my best every time. I like when people watch my game and they say, 'Yeah, I like seeing this guy on the ice. That's my kind of player. That's my style of game.'"
One thing Sabres general manager Tim Murray wanted out of development camp was strong competition. The Sabres organized a scrimmage on the second day and wrapped things up with a 3-on-3 tournament.
"We have a lot of good defensemen in the system and it's nice to be part of that," McCabe said. "We're fighting for spots on the roster and competition brings the best out of you. Everyone is a great player and good buddies too. It's not like you despise them because you're battling for a roster spot."
Though fans have reasons to get excited about what might be on the horizon for the Sabres, putting everything into perspective is important.
"I love the guys that step up, obviously," Murray said. "There are too many guys to go through, 'One guy did this, one guy did that.' I think there were a lot of individual, short flashes of what each guy can do. Obviously everybody didn't do it all week, I shouldn't say that's not expected, it's just not realistic this time of year.
"I thought it was a good camp. I thought it was intense… We set it up to be a type of a battle camp where effort and work ethic will be rewarded or will be noticed and I think we got that."
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