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Camp Preview: Competition on the wing

Veteran additions, prospects make for crowded field

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber /

Following his final transaction of a busy offseason, when the Sabres snagged Jeff Skinner from the Carolina Hurricanes on Aug. 2, 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. 

Here's a look at the candidates on the wing. We looked at the team's centers on Monday and will conclude with the defense on Wednesday. 


Left Wing

With speed and a proven scoring touch, Skinner seems like an ideal complement to play alongside one of the league's top playmaking centers in Eichel. The same can be said for Conor Sheary, who's already had success playing alongside Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh. Brian Duff wrote about both players in more depth, which you can read here. 

On paper, then, it seems fair to suggest that Skinner and Sheary could end up playing alongside Eichel and Casey Mittelstadt, in some order. Beyond those two, there are at least eight players who could carve out a role on the left wing, be it on opening night or later in the season. 

Veteran options on the left include Zemgus Girgensons, Scott Wilson and newcomer Vladimir Sobotka. Evan Rodrigues is also a candidate to play left wing if the Sabres choose not to use him at center. 

Girgensons, Sobotka and Wilson have 983 NHL games between them, but they'll be pushed by a group of young players looking to make the jump from the AHL. That list starts with Justin Bailey and C.J. Smith, both of whom have already put together successful campaigns in Rochester. Bailey has more experience, but Smith was an All-Star as a rookie in the AHL last season. 

Video: Americans Made: C.J. Smith

Alexander Nylander enters his third pro campaign looking to benefit from a healthy start to the season, having missed the entirety of camp a year ago. He improved as last season progressed in Rochester and scored his first NHL goal during a brief stint with Buffalo in April. Amerks general manager Randy Sexton emphasized the importance of this offseason for Nylander in June. 

"Probably the most important offseason of training in his young life, really," Sexton said. "It's critical for him. He's going to be a third-year pro, and I think everybody gets wound up because Alex may or may not have delivered at the same offensive output that people may have expected or anticipated. But I think we have to recognize his age. 

"If he was playing in Mississauga in the OHL, he might have had 140 points. People would be saying, 'Eureka, what an offensive gem we have.' Everything needs to be held in perspective. The American League is a very good league and it's a very difficult league for young players. It's not unusual for them to struggle a little bit, and Alex is no different ... We still continue to have high expectations for Alex."

The wild card at left wing is Victor Olofsson, readying for his first North American campaign after leading the Swedish Hockey League with 27 goals last season. He'll need to adjust to smaller ice, but having three-plus years of SHL experience at age 23 could smooth the transition and allow him to bring his NHL-ready shot to Buffalo sooner rather than later. 

"I would say he's become a terrific prospect, really," Sexton said at development camp. "It's a big step from the Swedish Elite League to the National Hockey League. But for him, what he brings is an NHL release. We saw glimpses of it today, saw lots of evidence for it during the week. 

"He's got an NHL release and he's got a nose for the net. He'll need some time to transition to the North American game but we're very excited about the offensive capabilities that he brings."


Right Wing

Sam Reinhart remains a restricted free agent, but Botterill has remained confident throughout the summer that the two sides will reach an agreement. Reinhart will look to channel the consistent play that saw him score 37 points (18+19) over his last 38 games in 2017-18 and apply it over a full season. 

Kyle Okposo will also look to be a more consistent presence this season and hopes to benefit from having a full summer of training under his belt. A concussion sustained late in 2016-17 stifled Okposo's typical offseason routine heading into last season. 

"It was a big relief to where I could just train the way I want to and do the things that I know make me a successful hockey player," Okposo said. "Last summer was just a lot about working on my mind and making sure I could play the game again. 

"Now it's like, OK, I can play, let's get back to trying to be an elite player. That's something that I just didn't have the base last year and excited that I put the work in this summer to get it back. I'm really looking forward to the season."

Jason Pominville is back as well, along with a group of young players pushing for spots. Nicholas Baptiste took a step toward claiming a full-time spot last season when he played in a career-high 33 games for Buffalo, scoring six points (4+2). Bailey, a right-handed shot, will compete for time here as well. 

Joining Bailey and Baptiste in the competition will be 20-year-old Tage Thompson, the 26th overall pick in 2016 who was acquired in the deal that sent Ryan O'Reilly to St. Louis. Thompson is a 6-foot-5, 205-pound power forward who, despite his age, already has 41 games of NHL experience. 

Botterill said he sees Thompson as part of the team's young core, and Thompson suggested he'll be given an opportunity to earn a top-six role. How soon he gets there depends on his performance at camp. 

"One of the biggest things we like about him is his size, his reach, his ability to protect pucks," Botterill said on July 1. "But also, we really like his hockey sense. He has a little bit of a shooter's mentality and that's what we're looking for. 

"We feel with Jack and Casey and Sam, we have players that can make the plays. Now we're looking for more players to finish them off."

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