BUFFALO – In the more than three months Tyler Ennis spent recovering from a concussion last season, the Sabres’ longest-tenured player learned he needed to approach what he calls a “pretty special job” differently.
“It makes you really not only appreciate what you got, but want to do better the next time,” Ennis said Thursday inside KeyBank Center after veterans reported to training camp for physicals.
That’s probably one reason why Ennis, who’s generously listed at 5-foot-9, spent the summer packing some noticeable muscle onto his 156-pound frame.
“All I did was bicep curls and bench press, so I’m ready to go,” Ennis joked. “No. It was a good summer of training.”
Kidding aside, the season-ending concussion Ennis suffered Dec. 30 – he endured two head injuries in two months – changed the shifty winger. As Ennis, 26, watched from afar, the Sabres started winning without him. He also saw the new regime’s philosophies in action.
Ennis, a Sabre since late 2009-10, realized he had to adjust his habits. General manager Tim Murray said after last season Ennis had learned he needed to start practicing with a purpose.
“I enjoy being out there, but there’s things you can do to make sure your body’s feeling good before every practice, you’re taking every drill,” Ennis said. “You’re trying to get better before every drill. In the past, I probably was just enjoying being on the ice and skating and shooting around rather than maybe focusing on things that I could improve on and get better out of practice.”
A productive Ennis would be vital to the Sabres as they try to end their five-year playoff drought. At his best, Ennis is one of the NHL’s slickest forwards, often creating highlight-reel plays.
“He’s a special player,” Sabres defenseman Josh Gorges said. “I mean, he’s got some talent you don’t see every day. You look at him, the couple years I’ve played with him, he’s got arms, he’s got a back. He’s put on some muscle.
“He’s put some time in this offseason. … I think he’s really understanding what it takes to be a professional. We expect big things out of him this year. I’m sure he expects big things out of himself.”
Following consecutive 20-goal campaigns, Ennis had big expectations for himself last season. But instead of busting out, he mustered only three goals and 11 points in 23 games. Ennis, who loves to freewheel, was often a non-factor in new coach Dan Bylsma’s rigid system.
Ennis hasn’t scored a goal since Oct. 27, a 14-game drought.
“I was inconsistent and it wasn’t obviously as good as it should have been,” he said. “I’m ready to go. I’m in better shape. I excited. I’m enthusiastic.”
Ennis, like his other teammates who spoke Thursday, is also enthusiastic about the Sabres’ playoff chances.
“Our mindset now is playoffs, and that’s looking to compete and be a real threat,” Ennis said. “We’re growing … but we did a great job toward the end of the year of finding our identity and we added some great pieces.”
He added: “We’re ready to become a really solid playoff team that’s growing and isn’t rebuilding anymore.”
Clearly, the Sabres, who finished last season 20-14-7, feel comfortable after playing a full season under Bylsma.
“There’s no new system,” Sabres captain Brian Gionta said. “There’s no new style of play. Everybody knows what’s expected of them. So that’s where coming out of camp, we want to kind of pick up where we left off the second half of last year.”
Ennis missed so much time it almost feels like the Sabres added a new player. With Ennis and recent signee Kyle Okposo, the Sabres could potentially have an extra 50 goals in the lineup.
“It’s one of those years, the moves we made, how we finished last year, things like that add up to the excitement of going into this year,” Gionta said. “I’ve said it before, I said it every training camp, you come in and you expect or want to make the playoffs. I think if we don’t this year, it’s a disappointment for us.”
Notes: Sabres goalie Robin Lehner, who recently said his ankle is 100 percent following surgery in late March, has officially been cleared, he said. … The Sabres have their first on-ice sessions of camp today inside HarborCenter. … Former Sabres defenseman Tyson Strachan, who signed an AHL contract with the Rochester Americans last week, has also been invited to NHL camp.