The Buffalo Sabres don’t officially open camp for another week, but there’s already a healthy buzz among the players about the upcoming season.
While the next crop of Sabres will compete in the Prospects Challenge presented by Tops, Post Foods and Honey Bunches of Oats this weekend at First Niagara Center, Buffalo’s veterans have been holding informal skates until they report for training camp on Sept. 17.
Thursday morning, the veterans were joined by their newest teammate, Cody Franson. The 28-year-old, right-hand shot defenseman signed a two-year contract with the Sabres before he took the ice.
“It’s an organization that’s going in the right direction and it made my decision very easy to want to be a part of that,” he said.
Sabres general manager Tim Murray sees Franson as an asset that can help the team put the puck in the net. Left wing Evander Kane taking a crisp pass from Franson in stride to generate offensive zone time is a new dimension Murray believes Franson brings to the table.
Murray has also talked with the coaching staff about using a player like Franson in analytically advantageous situations. That would likely include starting him in the offensive zone and using the last change at home to their benefit.
Of course, with Franson, who has 400 NHL games in six seasons under his belt, in the fold, it’ll be tougher for some other blueliners to make the NHL roster out of camp.
“We’ve got some young guys here that we’re quite comfortable going into camp and letting them battle for a job. And they’re still going to,” Murray said. “There’s no givens here, but we’ve just added one more guy to the mix. He’ll certainly have a job here.
“The battle will change between different guys, but we feel we’ve got a top four/top five guy that can play on our first power play. He’s had good numbers.”
Franson, who scored five of his seven goals with the man advantage last year, is confident that he’ll be able to fit right in.
“I know Josh Gorges very well. He’s very excited about this group,” Franson said. “It’s a young group. Being an older guy now, it’s very comfortable for me to come in and try to help younger guys. I feel like I can help in a number of different areas and hopefully try to bring some balance to the roster.”
Bringing in Franson is just the latest move Murray has made to help improve the club. He really got the ball rolling in February when he acquired Kane and defenseman Zach Bogosian in a blockbuster deal with Winnipeg.
Murray’s big summer splashes included his trade with Ottawa for goaltender Robin Lehner and center David Legwand and another huge deal with Colorado to add forwards Ryan O’Reilly and Jamie McGinn. To top things off, they selected highly touted center Jack Eichel with the second-overall pick in the draft and hired Stanley Cup-winning coach Dan Bylsma.
Players who went through the pains of a last-place season in 2014-15 certainly took notice.
“The guys that were here from last year, we all started texted each other. We’re talking about things that happened in May, June and July, which is so far away from the season,” Gorges said. “But guys were all excited, talking about the potential of what we can do this year. I think everyone shares my enthusiasm of what’s to come.”
O’Reilly has seen first-hand what can happen when a new group comes together and exceed outside expectations. His Colorado Avalanche went from having the second-worst record in the League in 2012-13 to winning the Central Division the next season.
From just being in town for a few days, O’Reilly has felt a similar vibe with his new club.
“It’s a different team. Being part of it now and just in skating and talking to the guys now, there’s an excitement,” he said. “You have a sense that we want to make that change and become a legitimate team.
“The word I think is just ‘fresh.’ Everyone’s just excited and it’s something we’ll continue to build on. I just can’t wait to back on the ice and start playing.”