Ryan O’Reilly and his new Sabres teammates know that they have work to do in Training Camp. New faces can be found all over the locker room and with those new faces come the job of assimilating, both to your new teammates and your new surroundings.
They’re playing under a new coaching staff and leaning on the maturation of young players, all while trying to build on a 54-point season.
But O’Reilly also looks around and sees the talent that’s been brought into the organization over the summer; he sees the ability of prospects like Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, the potential to play alongside Evander Kane and Tyler Ennis; the intellect of the Sabres’ new coach, Dan Bylsma. Most of all, O’Reilly and his teammates see an opportunity to win games, and high expectations were already set at the outset of camp Thursday morning.
“Obviously the goal is to win the Stanley Cup, and I think people expect that in a few years. But for us, let’s try to do it right now,” O’Reilly said. “Your career is only so long, you never know what can happen. I expect every time we touch the ice, it’s towards a Stanley Cup – whether it’s now or in a few years or whatever game it is, we’re preparing to win that.”
Optimism was the overwhelming feeling amongst those at First Niagara Center on Thursday, where the team had its first off-ice day of camp. It was a day full of good news: Evander Kane, who underwent surgery prior to being acquired by Buffalo via trade last February, said he was 100 percent healthy and summer-acquisition Robin Lehner said he hadn’t felt concussion symptoms in “quite a while” since having his season cut short in February.
Sabres captain Brian Gionta has, like many of his teammates, already been coming to the arena in past weeks to organize captains’ practices as a way to get on the ice prior to the official start of camp. In the short time they’ve been together, he’s already seen the hope that his teammates have for the new season.
“Guys are excited, guys came back early, wanted to get out there and I think everyone’s excited and has that optimism going into camp,” Gionta said. “You see the progression, you see the way the team is starting to shape up and the direction we’re going now. I love it.”
Gionta isn’t coy when talking about last season, a season he calls one of the most frustrating of his career. He struggled personally at the out of the gate – it took him until Nov. 18 to score his first goal as a Sabre – but his play improved as the season wore on and he finished the year with 16 points (6+10) in his final 14 games. He attributed that progression to growing more comfortable with his new team.
Off the ice, he was getting his family acclimated to a new community; on the ice he was building chemistry with new teammates.
This year, the Sabres will have several players looking to make that transition. But with multiple players going through it together and a good system of structure having been put into place by Bylsma, the Sabres captain is comfortable with the team’s outlook.
“Just knowing that the guys are in the room, the talks you’ve had with Bylsma, the direction we’re going, the systems we have in place, things like that,” Gionta said. “It will be a great learning curve for a lot of young kids to have that structure.”
The “kids” that Gionta is speaking of are Eichel and Reinhart, Buffalo’s No. 2 overall selections from the past two drafts, both of whom are surrounded with hopes of contributing to this year’s NHL roster.
There’s no question that they’ve been in the spotlight at First Niagara Center over the summer during Development Camp and the Prospects Challenge. But with major veteran acquisitions now coming into camp, Gionta believes that the more experienced players can alleviate the pressure being put on Buffalo’s young stars.
“It’s showing how to be a professional, showing what it’s like to be in the NHL day-in and day-out, and the more veteran guys in that room who have that experience and go through it, it’s better for everyone involved,” Gionta said.
'I WANT TO SCORE AS MANY GOALS AS POSSIBLE'
Kane is only 24 years old, but he’s also in his seventh season in the League. He’s one of those veteran guys now – and he wants to make it clear that he’s up to the challenge.
“I think that’s just the way a career usually naturally progresses,” he said. “Going into my seventh season I do have that experience to be able to lead and help out. But at the same time, the best way to lead is usually on the ice so that’s what I’ll try to do.”
On the ice, Kane wants to score “as many goals as possible.” He scored 30 goals in 74 games as a 20-year-old in Winnipeg, but hasn’t played in more than 63 games since then. That’s why news of his being at 100 percent health was so welcome – with a full season of games and his offensive talent at the wing, the sky is the limit for his offensive ability.
Now it’s just about shaking the rust off during camp.
The same can be said for Lehner, for whom the Sabres dealt a first-round pick to Ottawa in June. Lehner never had the chance to grab a hold of the starting goaltender job with the Senators due initially to the other goalies on the team’s roster and then to that concussion that ended his season in February.
Lehner’s early impressions of Buffalo and his new teammates have been positive and he knows he has the confidence of general manager Tim Murray, whom he knew well in Ottawa. With that being said, he’s not ready to proclaim himself as the starting goaltender until he proves himself out on the ice.
“If I play good I’ll play, if I don’t play good, I don’t play,” Lehner said. “That’s how it should be and that’s what brings the best out of you. “
If he does plays well, he’ll find out that another reward will be the reception from the people of Buffalo. Players like O’Reilly have already noticed the excitement throughout the community, adding to the anticipation for the start of the season.
“Coming from Denver, the market wasn’t the same as it is here,” O’Reilly said. “The excitement around, everywhere you go the people are saying how they’re happy to have me here and can’t wait for the season. It’s a great thing to be a part of, I’ve never experienced that.”