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Camp Preview: Internal competition at center

Sabres have variety of options beyond Eichel, Mittelstadt and Berglund

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

Following his final transaction of a busy offseason, when the Sabres snagged Jeff Skinner from the Carolina Hurricanes on Aug. 2, Sabres general manager Jason Botterill was asked about the potential for Skinner to play alongside top center Jack Eichel. He answered earnestly. 

"I think it's certainly a possibility," Botterill said. "… We'll leave it up to [head coach] Phil [Housley] to see where that sort of all falls out come the start of the season. But what gets me excited as a general manager is we're at least giving our coach options."

Botterill and Housley have both cited internal competition as a central ingredient in the recipe for a winning culture. With an influx of veteran players and a core of prospects looking to establish themselves as such, it's fair to expect competition for roster spots at every position in the weeks ahead. 

Today, we're looking at the candidates to claim a spot down the middle. We'll look at the wing tomorrow and the defense on Wednesday. 

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The conversation at center starts with Eichel, who set a career-high in ice time last season and could see his responsibilities evolve even more with the departure of Ryan O'Reilly. Behind him, the Sabres hope to have another dynamic young playmaker in rookie Casey Mittelstadt.

Mittelstadt showed he can contribute offensively at the NHL level during his cup of coffee with the Sabres at the end of last season, tallying a goal and four assists in six games. He was noticeably stronger when he arrived at development camp in July.  

"You think about a year ago, he's playing public high school hockey," assistant general manager Steve Greeley said then. "Now he's got a year of college hockey under his belt and a couple NHL games. 

"I think when we got him here in the spring it opened up his eyes a little bit on what it means to be a National Hockey League player, what the guys are doing after a game in terms of workouts, what they're eating. I think the Casey we're seeing now, he's more mature. He's more refined."

Video: BUF@TBL: Mittelstadt nets PPG for first career tally

Mittelstadt has stood out as much for his unflappable confidence off the ice as his mind-bending skills on it, so expect him to be eager to take on any challenge presented to him as a rookie. That said, the fact remains that he'll begin the season as a 19-year-old with limited experience. 

The Sabres can lean on newly-acquired Patrik Berglund to alleviate Mittelstadt's transition, be it against more difficult second-line matchups or in defensive-zone situations. Berglund has a 52.5 Corsi-for percentage in his career and posted a personal best 55.1-percent mark in the faceoff circle last season. 

That's not to say Berglund won't contribute offensively as well. He scored 17 goals and 26 points in 57 games last year, and his mark of 1.11 goals per 60 minutes was the second-highest of his career. That number would've tied Eichel for the Sabres lead. 

Berglund also averaged 56 seconds of shorthanded ice time and 1:43 on the power play last season, making him a versatile asset on special teams. 

"We're very excited about that," Botterill said. "He comes into the league as a first-round pick, been in St. Louis his entire career, played in a lot of different roles - power play, penalty killing, wing, center - and I think that versatility is something that we were really intrigued by."

Tage Thompson, who was acquired from St. Louis along with Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka, described the veteran centerman in a similar manner. 

"Having a guy like Berglund who's very versatile - he can play top six, bottom six, he can do it all," Berglund said. "He can put up points, be a shut-down, matchup guy. I think that does help the team, not only Casey but I think it helps the team in general because whatever we need, he can do it."

Beyond the trio of Eichel, Mittelstadt and Berglund, the Sabres have a variety of options for the fourth spot at center. Johan Larsson has held a starting job for the past three seasons when healthy, but he'll be pushed by a crowded group of players looking to make the next step. 

Daniel O'Regan played 19 games for San Jose prior to being acquired by the Sabres at the deadline last season, and he was the AHL's Rookie of the Year the season before that. Sean Malone has the organization excited after consistently developing as a rookie in Rochester last year.

Video: Americans Made: Sean Malone

Rasmus Asplund hasn't played a pro game in North America, but he played plenty against grown men during his four seasons in the Swedish Hockey League. Andrew Oglevie is entering his first pro season after a three-year collegiate career at Notre Dame. You can read more about them here. 

We haven't even mentioned Evan Rodrigues, who could be the favorite for this spot if the Sabres choose to play him at center as opposed to the wing. Rodrigues has fought his way onto the roster before, and last season he led the team in points per 60 at even strength (2.06 in 48 games).

Like Rodrigues, Zemgus Girgensons, Sam Reinhart and Vladimir Sobotka all have the versatility to move from the wing to center if needed. Girgensons and Reinhart both entered the league as centers but have played primarily on the wing in recent years; Sobotka won 54.3 percent of his faceoffs last season. 
 

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