Last year, the Buffalo Sabres opened the 2013-14 season as the youngest team in the NHL and became the first team to dress four teenagers in a game since 1995-96.
It doesn’t look like that will be the case again in 2014-15.
Sabres general manager Tim Murray spent this past summer adding veteran players to what was once a very young NHL roster.
Matt Moulson and Cody McCormick return as forwards and Rochester native Brian Gionta, formerly the captain of the Montreal Canadiens, will also provide leadership. The blue line has been retooled as well with Josh Gorges coming over in a trade with Montreal and the signings of free agents Andrej Meszaros and Andre Benoit.
However, some attention will still be focused on a few teenagers hoping to crack the Sabres opening night roster.
Youngsters like defensemen Rasmus Ristolainen, 19, and Nikita Zadorov, 19, and 2014 second-overall pick Sam Reinhart, 18, will look to use the NHL Prospect Tournament, which wrapped up Tuesday in Traverse City, Michigan, as a springboard to stick in the NHL.
The Sabres open training camp on Thursday with the first on-ice sessions starting Friday morning at 11 a.m. All on-ice sessions of training camp are open to the public.
They’ll play their first preseason game of the year Sunday evening at 5 p.m. against the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center.
Reinhart had only one assist in four games in Traverse City, but feels confident that the production will come. He’s taking a patient approach that has worked for him in the past and said the tournament helped him test the waters of what he’ll be up against this week.
“I think for the first couple games, I felt really good on the ice. The pace, I was right there, felt comfortable,” Reinhart said. “I had a lot of chances right from the first game and it’s something in previous years, at the start of the year, I’ve had a lot of chances but haven’t capitalized.
“But [then] I’ve been able to start bearing down, getting a little comfortable in game situations and that’s something I going to work on towards main camp now.”
Rochester Americans coach Chadd Cassidy, who coached the Sabres in Traverse City, made it a point to let the players going to main camp know that the competition is only going to get harder in the coming weeks.
“My message after [Monday’s] game was, ‘Guys, we’re playing in a rookie tournament in Traverse City and a lot of you guys are going to be playing against men here in the next week. So prepare yourself mentally and physically for that.’” he said. “A lot of that is determination and concentration to battle through a little bit.”
Justin Bailey, a second-round pick in 2013, has played on the Sabres team in Traverse City the past two years and said the experience he's gained has been invaluable. He was named the Most Valuable Player on his junior team, the Kitchener Rangers, last season, scoring 25 goals. He said playing in Traverse City – and scoring a goal in the final game of the tournament – will give him some confidence heading into Sabres camp.
“For me, even from last year, you play here [in Traverse City] and everything’s so fast. You don’t have a lot of time. Then you go to junior and everything kid of slows down. Then you come back the next summer and everything’s ramped up again,” he said.
“For us to get our feet wet the first couple games, for everybody – the younger guys who are new this year and even the older guys that haven’t been in this tournament yet – I think it’s a little bit of an adjustment period at the beginning.”
While their teen years are behind them, defenseman Mark Pysyk, 22; Joel Armia, 21; defenseman Jake McCabe, 20; and center Mikhail Grigorenko, 20, could also make a push to start in Buffalo if they have outstanding preseason performances.
Pysyk, Armia and Grigorenko are all first-round picks of the Sabres. McCabe was selected in the second round in 2012.
The available roster spots should make for a competitive training camp.
Only a few positions on the defense might be up for grabs, but Zadorov, a first-round pick in 2013, is looking to put Sabres coaches and management in a spot where they’ll have no choice but to keep him in the NHL. Like Reinhart, Zadorov is not eligible to play in the AHL, so if he doesn’t make the Sabres roster, he’ll have to go back to his junior team.
“All the best D are going to be on the roster,” Zadorov said. “We’ll see who’s going to be best.”