At first glance, the scene on the ice at First Niagara Center on Friday morning didn’t seem all that different from that of Development Camp in mid-July.
The Buffalo Sabres prospects were running drills, dressed in color-coated jerseys according to their respective lines. Fans again filled the seats, coming to catch yet another sneak peek at the organization’s future.
But for Jack Eichel and the other Sabres prospects, there was a different feeling on the ice in their first practice for this weekend’s Prospects Challenge. They know that training camp is right around the corner and games against other organizations are slated for this weekend.
In other words, hockey season is about to begin.
“It’s getting there,” Eichel, the Sabres top pick in 2015, said after practice Friday. “We were here for Development Camp but obviously the size of the group has minimized a lot and this seems like a lot more hockey season and everyone’s a lot more dialed in.
“It’s a little different playing in September than in the beginning of July; everyone’s trying to prepare for the season and find a role somewhere.”
The Sabres will play two games during the Prospects Challenge presented by Tops, Post Foods and Honey Bunches of Oats. First, they’ll take on the New Jersey Devils on Saturday at 7 p.m. and then face the Boston Bruins on Monday. The Devils and Bruins will play each other Sunday night at HARBORCENTER.
In those matchups, the Sabres’ young players will again look to impress coaches and management as they continue to vie for eventual spots on the NHL roster.
Buffalo’s prospects team will be helmed by a face familiar to the organization in Rochester Americans head coach Randy Cunneyworth.
Cunneyworth was hired to coach the Amerks in July after previously spending seven years as their head coach from 2000-01 to 2007-08. His main job at the American Hockey League level is the same as his job for this weekend: establish a winning attitude, from the bottom up.
“The challenge for me will be to bring the guys together, no matter who we have,” Cunneyworth said. “Just to have some fun and bring the guys together, be a close-knit group. When you’ve got a real close gang of guys, nothing can stop you. And I think that’s part of the chore, obviously it has to translate to work on the ice and everything and results, that’s kind of the focus.”
The players have already taken notice with the coaching staff’s efforts. Both Eichel and Sam Reinhart said after practice that their coaches had brought a “new mentality” to the ice, expecting they’re players to work hard every day and transform that hard work into results.
“I think they want to be a speed-first team and attention to detail,” Eichel said. “They want to change things around here, they want to bring a winning attitude and it starts with the details of being on time, how you prepare yourself for practice, how you prepare yourself for a game, what you’re putting into your body
“… I think when you see the people the organization is bringing in it says that they want to start winning, and they want to start winning soon.”