Stepping up to the podium is a far cry from stepping out onto the ice, but the players who spoke to open training camp for the Buffalo Sabres at KeyBank Center on Thursday morning all conveyed the same sense of optimism for a team that they believe is ready to take the next step.
It's the same excitement that existed one year ago, when Ryan O'Reilly and Jack Eichel were among the handful of players who were brand new to the team and Dan Bylsma had not yet coached his first game for the Sabres. For as much enthusiasm as there was back then, however, there was also an unfamiliarity they'd have to overcome.
Now, that's behind them. A slow start in 2015-16 eventually gave way to a strong second half in which they established a sense of identity and performed at a playoff pace. The expectation to begin this season, quite simply, is to pick up where they left off and improve from there.
"That's on us," Sabres captain Brian Gionta said. "There is no new system, there's no new style of play. Everybody knows it; everybody knows what's expected of them. That's where, coming out of camp , we want to kind of pick up where we left off at the end of last year with the success we had going down the stretch there. We want to get back to that as quickly as we can."
Gionta and Gorges, two of the veteran leaders on the team, were both happy with the condition in which their teammates have come to camp. Tyler Ennis is noticeably stronger. Sam Reinhart says he worked harder than he ever has before, and Robin Lehner lost so much weight during his first healthy summer in years that Gorges had to do a double-take to even recognize him.
Lehner took his commitment a step further when he gave up his spot Sweden's roster for the World Cup of Hockey in favor of spending as much time as possible with the Sabres training camp. After dealing with a concussion last summer, Lehner missed the majority of last season due to an ankle injury he sustained on opening night.
"It looks like a fun tournament and it would always be fun representing your country but this is more important to me right now in all honesty," Lehner said. "It's a big year for me personally but I think it's a very big year for our team. It's a season where we can start putting our mark in and do everything we can to start making the playoffs."
Watch: Robin Lehner | Watch: Kyle Okposo I Watch: Josh Gorges | Watch: Brian Gionta | Watch: Sam Reinhart | Watch: Tyler Ennis | Watch: Evander Kane
That seems to be a shared mentality. No played was required to show up prior to Wednesday, yet for the past two weeks the majority of the team has been participating in player-run practices at HarborCenter. Among those present has been Kyle Okposo, Buffalo's big prize in free agency, who said he's already learned a bit about his new team.
"Everyone works hard - really hard," Okposo said. "A lot of guys are staying on the ice late, trying to get better. Everybody's really focused on that work ethic and that's something that the coaching staff definitely stresses. I'm looking forward to that aspect of the team."
The informal skates also allowed Okposo an early chance to get acclimated to his new teammates, not that it should have been an issue. They said it time and time again last season, but the players reiterated it on Thursday: the players on this team are as close as any, a bond that contributes to their shared mentality.
"Our whole team is so close," Reinhart said. "Whether it's Brian Gionta or Jack [Eichel], we're all hanging out. We're close and we can all joke around with each other. This team is definitely the closest I've ever been on and I know there are a lot of other guys that would say that too and that says a lot."
Let's take a look at some of the other things we learned from the players who spoke on Thursday:
Reinhart is comfortable playing the wing
He came up as a center, but Reinhart spent the majority of last season playing on the wing, first alongside O'Reilly and then with Eichel. He and Eichel developed particularly strong chemistry at the end of last season, which Reinhart says he's open to continuing to build on this season.
Video: Highlights: Eichel & Reinhart as Linemates
"You look at our depth at center and I certainly feel comfortable [on the wing]," Reinhart said. "I'm very comfortable with it … I think it works well for both the centermen and me when I play wing because the work load could be minimized a little bit, if someone gets caught I can go down low for a bit and switch out."
As for their off-the-ice relationship, Reinhart confirmed that he and Eichel have become roommates. He also confirmed that he won't be providing the same type of care that Eichel may have received while living with Matt Moulson and his family last season.
"I think it's going to be a little bit different here for him," he said, laughing.
Just like you, the Sabres are enjoying Team North America
Ennis said that he and his Sabre teammates gathered to watch the third period of Eichel and Team North America's thrilling overtime victory over Sweden while at the Buffalo Sabres Foundation Golf Tournament on Wednesday and were just as impressed with their speed and skill as the rest of the hockey world seems to be.
North America can only advance to the semifinal at the World Cup of Hockey if Rasmus Ristolainen and Finland defeat Dmitry Kulikov and Russia on Thursday. As disappointed that Reinhart is that he's not there to compete himself, that won't change who he's rooting to see advance.
"You see what they do and it's pretty amazing," he said. "It's no surprise I'll be rooting for Finland tonight."
The team is excited to have Tyler Ennis back
Ennis played only 23 games last season due to multiple injuries, including a season-ending concussion, and in those games he was admittedly inconsistent. But in skating with him in recent days, his teammates have seen the same skill Sabres fans have grown accustomed to and are excited to have him back.
"You look at the steps that we took last year and a lot of that was with Enzo being hurt, not being there and not being a part of it," Gorges said. "He's a special player. I mean, he's got some talent that you don't see every day."
For his part, Ennis showed the same enthusiasm on Thursday and said that he's come back with a greater appreciation for the game after struggling to come back from the concussion for the better part of a season.
"I'm definitely grateful," Ennis said. "It makes you realize you've got a pretty special job. It's pretty fun to be out there with a great group of guys playing in front of an outstanding crowd and it really makes you not only appreciate what you got but also do better the next time around."
The Sabre way
Gorges did a good job on Thursday of describing what he hopes the team identity to be going forward.
"When you ask other teams about the Buffalo Sabres, when you ask what it's like to play against us, we want teams to say, 'They're hard to play against. They're in your face,'" he said. "You know, we're winning battles, we're doing the little things. Yeah, we're fast, we make plays, we've got some skill guys that can go out there and do some special things with the puck. But it's when we don't have the puck; we're in your face. We're on top of you. You don't have the time and space. We kind of want that to be our M.O."
Establishing that identity is a task that began last season, and it continues on Friday when the first practices of training camp are held at HarborCenter. Practices are open to the public, and the full schedule can be found in today's Sharpen Up.