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Veterans embracing internal competition at camp

News and notes from Sunday's practice

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber /

In a lot of ways, you can see why Jake McCabe would see a bit of himself in William Borgen. 

Their on-ice identities are a match - both are brash, physical defensemen who can hold down their own end but also possess the skating and puck-moving abilities to get involved offensively. There's also the fact that Borgen currently finds himself in the same position McCabe was in four years ago, a promising young talent who's had a taste of the NHL and is now looking to take the next step. 

Yet Borgen took a long pause when asked about the comparison, noticeably uncomfortable with the idea of placing his name alongside a veteran of 274 NHL games. 

"Sure, I guess," Borgen finally offered. "I mean, he's a really good player. That would be a nice comparison for me if that was it."

McCabe, meanwhile, went out of his way to note their similarities.

"I think me and Borgs feed well off each other," he said. "We play similar styles, rugged and physical and we both can skate pretty well. I like our intensity, especially in the D-zone. We talk a lot. I just really love the way he plays, and I feed off his energy."

Video: SABRES IN :50
The defense pair of McCabe and Borgen serves as a microcosm for the larger picture of competition that exists through three days of training camp and the dynamics it entails. 

Borgen is trying to force his way up a crowded depth chart, yet his reverence for McCabe is evident. McCabe is trying to protect his role and his minutes, yet he's extended himself as a communicative presence for his younger counterpart. 

"I mean, that's their job to push us and it's my job to keep my job," McCabe said. "That's the way it goes. I was in their position not too long ago, that I'm trying to force my way into a lineup and grab a spot here. Once you get the spot, you can't be complacent. You've got to continue to get better and strive to get better each and every day."

Meeting on the eve of their first practice sessions, Sabres general manager Jason Botterill and coach Ralph Krueger laid it out clearly to players that competition would be the driving force behind their decisions, from roster spots to ice time distribution.

Krueger wants his players to take that competitive edge and use it constructively. 

"I think everything is a competition," he said. "The minutes on defense, the minutes for forwards, the minutes in goal. This is only the first day. Let that competition live and let it be a part of who we are. There's going to be always players that are grumpy and fighting for more minutes. But let's just find a basis to make that positive and see opportunities from there to grow."

Throughout the roster, young roster hopefuls have been placed alongside veterans in preparation for their first preseason games on Monday and Tuesday. C.J. Smith and Casey Mittelstadt are skating alongside Sam Reinhart. Victor Olofsson and Rasmus Asplund have practiced on a line with Marcus Johansson.   

"We have a vastly diverse group and a lot of different skillsets," Reinhart said. "It's good to see guys kind of sticking to their own game and seeing where they fit. A guy like [Smith], a guy like [Olofsson], kind of see how they adapt and stick to their game because they're a heck of a talent, those guys. 

"Those are just two that come to mind because they're in my group. To kind of see them progress, they don't have to change anything. It's just a matter of fitting them in, really. There's a lot of competition and it's only going to help everybody."

The mindset extends to the net, where Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark are entering their second season as goaltending tandem. Asked if there was a "starter" going into camp, Krueger said the next three weeks would influence their rotation. 

Last season, the split wrought 48 starts for Hutton and 34 for Ullmark. The two goalies formed a supportive relationship along the way, recognizing that the success of the Sabres depended on both of their individual performances. 

"He's a heck of a goalie," Hutton said of Ullmark. "We have each other's back, and that's the main thing. The main thing, I think, that we both try and demonstrate is that we support each other and we're playing for the Sabres, not for [ourselves]. 

"There's obviously contract stuff, and everybody wants to play and be the guy, but you can do it from a good place."

Veterans throughout the roster have tried to embrace that same attitude. Olofsson, Smith, and Borgen all played NHL games last year, as did Tage Thompson and Henrik Jokiharju. The older players are aware that there's a talented crop of prospects fighting to push its way up. 

McCabe laughed recounting his experience going up against the young guys on the first day of camp, when they were fresh off the Prospects Challenge.

"I got burned wide a couple times by the younger guys, I can tell they've been playing at a high level for about a week prior," he said. "It's great to see. It really just brings everyone's level up that much higher when you're being pushed internally. Competition brings the best out of everyone."


Let the games begin

Video: TRAINING CAMP: Krueger

The Sabres open their preseason schedule with a pair of road games, against Pittsburgh at Penn State on Monday and in Columbus on Tuesday. Krueger had not yet finalized his rosters when he met with the media Sunday, though he did say they'll be sending two different teams for the games.

Don Granato and Steve Smith will join Krueger on the bench. Granato will work with the forwards and scout opposition play while Smith will run the defense. Mike Bales will join video coaches Myles Fee and Kyle Smith offering support from the press box. 

As for what to expect stylistically, Krueger said players have been provided with a simplified game plan. 

"We're going to give them just a couple simple principles we want to see," he said. "Defensively, you want to feel that group working together. You definitely want to feel everybody involved and understanding and hopefully we can get them quickly into the spaces we want them to be. 

"With the puck, we believe we have a lot of skill. There's a strength in possession for us and how we manage that, we've been giving them some tools. I'd say overall, we want to begin with a defensive structure that limits our D-zone time and offensively, we'd like to be really strong at managing the puck and maintaining possession."

Here's how the two practice groups lined up Sunday:

Blue Group

13 Jimmy Vesey - 9 Jack Eichel - 43 Conor Sheary
53 Jeff Skinner - 71 Evan Rodrigues - 27 Curtis Lazar
81 Remi Elie - 42 Dylan Cozens - 72 Tage Thompson
28 Zemgus Girgensons - 22 Johan Larsson - 52 Andrew Oglevie 
47 Sean Malone - 46 Eric Cornel

26 Rasmus Dahlin - 10 Henri Jokiharju 
58 John Gilmour - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
6 Marco Scandella - 33 Colin Miller / 78 Jacob Bryson

40 Carter Hutton
34 Jonas Johansson
50 Michael Houser


Gold Group

49 C.J. Smith - 37 Casey Mittelstadt - 23 Sam Reinhart
73 Matej Pekar - 17 Vladimir Sobotka - 21 Kyle Okposo
90 Marcus Johansson - 74 Rasmus Asplund - 68 Victor Olofsson
20 Scott Wilson - 25 Arttu Ruotsalainen - 15 Jean-Sebastien Dea
12 Kevin Porter - 82 Kyle Olson

8 Casey Nelson - 62 Brandon Montour
19 Jake McCabe - 3 William Borgen
44 Brandon Hickey - 45 Casey Fitzgerald 
61 Devante Stephens - 38 Zach Redmond

35 Linus Ullmark
36 Andrew Hammond

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