BUFFALO – In Denver, a city with almost 400,000 more people and four major league teams, Ryan O’Reilly blended in. Fans rarely recognized the new Sabres center on the street.
“I guess the market wasn’t the same as it is here, the excitement around,” O’Reilly said this morning inside the First Niagara Center after the Sabres reported to training camp for physicals.
In hockey-mad Buffalo, O’Reilly, a June 26 acquisition, keeps getting stopped by fans.
“Everywhere you go people are saying that they’re happy to have me here, they can’t wait for the season,” O’Reilly said. “It’s a great thing to be a part of. I’ve never experienced it. Everywhere I go everyone’s talking about hockey and can’t wait for the season.”
This season should be fun for the Sabres and their rabid fan base. Having finished 30th overall two straight seasons, expectations are still low. The playoffs might have to wait for another season. But fans and players sense something special is being constructed.
Center Jack Eichel, the second overall pick, is beginning what could be a brilliant career. O’Reilly, the marquee piece of a blockbuster trade with Colorado, was brought in to be the No. 1 center. Former 30-goal winger Evander Kane, a February acquisition from Winnipeg, has recovered from shoulder surgery and is ready to make his Sabres debut. New coach Dan Bylsma won a Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh.
“We built so much up over this summer,” Sabres captain Brian Gionta said.
In all, eight or nine new faces could be in the lineup opening night, a dramatic overhaul of the NHL’s worst lineup.
“You see the progression,” Gionta said. “You see the way the team is starting to shape up and the direction we are going now.”
Kane, 24, hasn’t played since Feb. 2, shortly before his career with the Jets went sour. The long layoff gave him “a little taste about retirement would be like,” he said.
“Hopefully,” he said, “that’s in 13, 15 more years.”
Kane got on the ice once in June and started skating regularly in late July.
“Getting back on the ice, I think it was kind of like starting something new,” Kane said. “I’d been off … for the longest I’d ever been in my life. So just kind of getting that discipline back with training, kind of learning how to battle through the pain a little bit in terms of getting back into shape was tough. But I feel good.”
Kane feels so good he’s willing to set lofty goals.
“I’ve scored 30 goals before in 74 games as a 20-year-old,” he said. “If I can ever play 82 games … obviously I can score 30 goals. ‘Will I?’ is more the question. I hope to score as any goals as possible. Thirty is just kind of a set number. I’ve already scored 30. So maybe I want to score 40 or 50.”