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by Staff Writer / Buffalo Sabres
The Buffalo Sabres took the ice today for the first time during the 2011-12 season as training camp officially opened up at the Northtown Center in Amherst, N.Y. With 69 players invited to participate and a stretch of five preseason games in seven nights coming up, head coach Lindy Ruff split up his veterans and prospects into three separate groups

“The first day of camp is always different,” said winger Thomas Vanek. “You try to stay in shape and every guy does stay in shape but your decision-making just has to go from zero to 100.”

Tyler Ennis (Getty Images)
Group A, which featured 14 players with NHL experience – more than any other group – skated bright and early at 7:30 a.m. Center Ville Leino, who signed with Buffalo as a free agent on July 1, centered wingers Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford. Ruff hopes that the playmaking abilities of Leino and Ennis can help Stafford become an even more productive player.

“It’s not something that’s etched in stone but it’s something we want to look at,” Ruff said. “Early on here, we’re going to try it. If it doesn’t [work], we’ll slide different personnel in there.”

Nathan Gerbe, Paul Gaustad and Patrick Kaleta played together last season and Ruff put them back together for the start of this training camp.

Defensemen Tyler Myers, Andrej Sekera, Mike Weber and Marc-Andre Gragnani, all of whom logged significant minutes with the Sabres last year, also skated in the first group in front of goaltender Jhonas Enroth. Myers saw time during the practice with both Weber and Sekera.

Group B featured the Sabres’ two biggest acquisitions on defense as Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff were paired together for some of their session. Defenseman Jordan Leopold was the other veteran in the group and also took some reps with Regehr. Leopold and Regehr played together in Calgary from 2002-06 and again in 2009.

“As a new player, who have to work with whomever, for me it’s a defense pair, for a forward it’s their line. You have to work with them and create some chemistry,” Regehr said.  “It’s a lot of work but it’s a lot of fun, though, too when you come to a new team because there are so many things that are new.”

Ruff said he tried to divvy up the veteran defensemen between the three groups and that no one should read too much into the defensive groupings.

“The defense pairs were just whoever they were skating with. I didn’t say anyone was going together in particular,” Ruff said. 

On forward, Vanek and center Derek Roy were reunited.  Roy suffered an injury to his left quad that caused him to miss 47 regular season games and all but the final postseason game last year.

Jason Pominville, returning from a severed tendon in his leg that caused him to miss Games Six and Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals in April, joined Roy and Vanek on the group’s top line.

“It does feel nice to be back out there and skating and getting back into the feel of things,” Pominville said. “As much as you practice on your own before training camp, when there are coaches out there, intensity rises. Players are a little more physical now than they were in the summer stuff we were doing.  It’s nice to get this first one by and it’ll be nice to get that first game by and go from there.”

Veterans Ryan Miller, Jochen Hecht, Brad Boyes and Shaone Morrisonn skated with prospects such as Dennis Persson, Drew Shiestel, Brayden McNabb and Mark Pysyk in Group C.

Former Sabre Teppo Numminen was also on the ice with the team. He’s been added as an assistant coach to Ruff’s staff for the upcoming season. 

“He’s going to be the guy upstairs on the headset,” Ruff said. “In the past we’ve had various people fill that role and now we’re going to have a full-time assistant do it. His role is going to be helping out on the player development side with the younger defensemen. James’ role has elevated during games so he’s going to give us a little bit of a European flair."”

After talking with Numminen a few times over the summer, he and general manager Darcy Regier made the decision to hire the 43-year-old former defenseman, who retired in 2009. They shared the news with him on Thursday.

“[Coaching has] been in the back of my mind. When I was playing, when I was young, I said, that’s the last thing I want to do, be a coach,” Numminen said. “My dad was a coach; he was a national team coach. So as a family I grew there with all the good times and bad times.”

As he grew older, he realized that coaching would be coming up in his future and would be something he might be interested in pursuing. In leading as a veteran player, he also saw that, in a way, he was acting as a coach to the younger players.

“Retiring two years ago, [I realized] that I really care about the game and it’s still a passion for myself and [I] couldn’t get rid of the game,” Numminen said. “So then just a great opportunity came and I’m just excited it worked out.”

Numminen, a three-time Olympic medalist, played 1,372 career NHL games with Winnipeg, Phoenix, Dallas and Buffalo. He served as an alternate captain for the Sabres in 2006-07.

Training camp will continue Sunday morning at the Northtown Center. The first group is scheduled to take the ice at 8 a.m. The Sabres play their first preseason game at 7 p.m. on Monday against the Carolina Hurricanes at First Niagara Center.
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