By Dave Ricci
The time for growing is over. It’s time to win.
As the Buffalo Sabres reported to the KeyBank Center Thursday morning for the start of training camp there was a sense of excitement and optimism. Which isn’t really out of the ordinary. Training camp is the time to be optimistic. This time camp is different because this season, unlike the more recent years, that sense of optimism is coupled with the expectation and demand to succeed.
“Since August 1 I’ve been excited to get back,” forward Sam Reinhart said when he spoke with the media.
As the Sabres prepare for the 2016-17 season they are looking to build off the strong second half from last season.
Captain Brian Gionta said the team seemed to find its identity as a group. He, the rest of the team, expect to continue making those strides forward. Gionta says it starts with the basics like playing consistently every night.
“We’re a team that’s learning how to win,” said Gionta.
“We’re a team that’s grown together. I think as we mature as a group that’s where we saw it at the end of last year. It’s starting to mature and become a team that knows how to win.”
Goalie Robin Lehner added. “I expect us all to step up and few steps.”
While the Sabres return key pieces like Jack Eichel, Ryan O’Reilly and Rasmus Ristolainen as well as veterans Josh Gorges and Gionta, the line-up is also bolstered by the arrival of forward Kyle Okposo and defenseman Dmitry Kulikov who add skill and dramatically improve the team’s depth. Which includes six to seven reliable defensemen which can take the burden of eating minutes off the shoulders of the top pairing. “You don’t have to rely on your top two guys to play 30 minutes every night,” said Gorges.
The Sabres will also have the added plus of a healthy Tyler Ennis returning to the line-up. Leading the team in scoring during the two years of “tanking” Ennis displayed uncanny skill. “He’s a special player,” Gorges said of Ennis.
“He’s got some talent that you don’t see every day.”
Ennis, who suffered a concussion, was limited to 23 games where he scored just 11 points last season.
Feeling and looking better than he ever has in his career, the 27-year-old Ennis is eager to return to the ice and remind everyone of just what he is capable of doing.
“I’m motivated. I’m excited,” said Ennis.
“I’m glad it’s in the past and I’m ready for a fresh start.”
Looking at the mold of how Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup last season with a deadly mix of speed and skill, the Sabres feel they can compete with the speed-based team that they have. Speed and skill was the same formula the Sabres used when they were Cup contenders a decade ago.
“We want to play fast,” said Kyle Okposo.
“That’s good for me. Good for my game.”
The team will hit the ice at the HarborCenter on Friday with session one on the New Wave Energy Rink 9-9:45am and a scrimmage from 9:50-10:35 on the KeyBank Rink. Session two 10:40-11:25 and session three will be 12:50-2pm.
Eichel, O’Reilly, Kulikov and Ristolainen were obviously not present as all four are still competing in the World Cup of hockey.