Practice was broken into two groups for the Sabres at KeyBank Center on Wednesday morning, and both featured players returning from the World Cup of Hockey. You had Dmitry Kulikov in the first session, participating in his first practice as a Sabre, and Jack Eichel in the second.
"The skill level of our team spiked today with both those guys on the ice," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "Jack's Jack, but to see Dmitry out there, his commanding presence, his skating ability … the ability of the D-men to get the puck up to the forwards improved today with Dmitry. It's good to see."
Both are returning from strong performances at the World Cup. Kulikov was replied upon heavily for Team Russia, which made it to the semifinal against Canada, while Eichel was the second-line center on Team North America.
North America's tournament ended prematurely, failing to advance beyond the preliminary round due to their head-to-head tiebreaker with Russia. Eichel revealed Wednesday that he and his teammates actually thought their overtime goal to end a thriller in their finale against Sweden had propelled them to the Semifinal, only to realize afterward that their fate was actually out of their hands.
Still, Eichel seemed just as grateful for the experience of playing for North America as most fans were for being able to watch North America play. It was a rare opportunity for him to play with Canadian stars that will revert to being his rivals on the international stage, and he said the team became close very quickly. They were given the reigns to play fast and loose and they had fun doing it.
Video: EICHEL: After Practice
"It was something that was definitely in the back of our minds throughout the tournament that the coach had talked about," Eichel said. "You know, you have a chance to be a part of hockey history just playing on this team. We don't know where it's gonna be, we don't know where this tournaments gonna be, so pretty special for us to do that."
Bylsma said he believes that Eichel has returned from the World Cup a more confident player, having had success while honing his skills in six games against the best competition in the world. What's next for Eichel as he begins his second professional season remains to be seen, but his coach thinks it's up to him.
"The sky is really the limit for where he can go with his game," Bylsma said. "If he hones in on his game and hones in on where he can be with his shot, I think he can be a massive goal scorer. He may turn into a playmaker, but I think it's really more where he decides to go with his game. I think that's gonna be kind of the exciting part about what we see this year."
For Eichel, the next step in year two is to become an even better leader on and off the ice, which is asking a lot for any 20-year-old. But he has high expectations for himself, and so do the Sabres coming off a strong second half of last season.
"I think there are numbers and goals in the back of your mind but I think, for the most part, we all have the same one," Eichel said. "Make the playoffs. You can say make the hunt or whatever; I think we have the guys in the room and I think that we all believe in ourselves. We have the team to do it."
Part of that equation will be Kulikov, who was acquired from the Florida Panthers in July. He called his experience at the World Cup "amazing," and has spent the last few days resting off the ice while watching film and learning his new team's systems.
Watch: Dmitry Kulikov
"Having gone through a full camp with team Russia and playing and practicing with the best players in the NHL, it does help a lot and there's no secret there," Kulikov said. "It just feels like I'm more ready, more prepared, more into game shape and sharper on the ice."
You might not have to wait much longer to see Kulikov make his Sabres debut. Bylsma said the defenseman might play against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday night. Eichel, at this point, is not expected to play in either of the team's two upcoming games against Toronto on Thursday and Friday.
Jack and Sam, linemates and roommates
Eichel also spoke Wednesday about his new living arrangement with Sam Reinhart, which he said was decided upon rather quickly on a whim. Eichel and Reinhart were roommates on the road last season and were linemates again at practice on Wednesday along with Eichel's former housemate, Matt Moulson.
Eichel detailed his morning with Reinhart on Wednesday.
"I woke up to him this morning playing guitar on the couch downstairs," he said. "He thinks he's an artist."
Apparently, Reinhart is no Ryan O'Reilly with the strings.
"He's just strumming the thing," Eichel said. "He doesn't know what he's playing."
63 Tyler Ennis - 22 Johan Larsson - 21 Kyle Okposo
82 Marcus Foligno - 19 Cal O'Reilly - 12 Brian Gionta
10 Cole Schneider - 72 Jean Dupuy - 56 Justin Bailey
71 Evan Rodrigues - 48 William Carrier - 85 Daniel Muzito-Bagenda
4 Josh Gorges - 34 Casey Nelson
77 Dmitry Kulikov - 47 Zach Bogosian
54 Brycen Martin - 81 Mac Bennett
31 Anders Nilsson
35 Linus Ullmark
26 Matt Moulson - 15 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
9 Evander Kane - 27 Derek Grant - 70 Alexander Nylander
44 Nicolas Deslauriers - 43 Daniel Catenacci - 52 Hudson Fasching
73 Nicholas Baptiste - 74 Vaclav Karabacek - 42 Justin Kea
29 Jake McCabe - 6 Cody Franson
45 Brendan Guhle - 41 Justin Falk
64 Paul Geiger - 54 Brycen Martin
40 Robin Lehner
33 Jason Kasdorf