BUFFALO – More than two weeks before training camp starts, around 20 Sabres – from star center Jack Eichel to rookies preparing for the upcoming prospect tournament – are already skating regularly at HarborCenter.
Informal summer skates, of course, are common. Still, having so many guys in town so early – heck, it’s still August – sends a strong message.
“It says you want to be here, right?” Eichel said Monday. “It says you want to be around the locker room, be around the young guys that are getting ready for the prospects camp. I think that that’s probably the biggest thing. We want to get back here, we want to get going quickly.”
Barely four months removed from a disastrous season, a freshness surrounds the revamped Sabres. A busy offseason clearly helped recharge some players who looked beaten down by a wretched 31st-place finish, including Eichel.
About eight new faces – most notably, the Sabres drafted defenseman Rasmus Dahlin first overall, signed a starting goalie in Carter Hutton and traded for two-time 30-goal scorer Jeff Skinner – should be in the lineup opening night.
Eichel recently arrived in Buffalo, jetted back to Boston last weekend for a charity hockey game and was on the ice again here Monday morning.
At 21, Eichel is already the face of the franchise and its most dynamic player. The eight-year, $80 million contract extension he signed last October is about to kick in. He will likely be awarded the captaincy in the coming weeks.
Eichel’s actions and words matters, so when he hurries back to Buffalo for a late-summer skate, people notice.
“I think everyone’s pretty excited for our season to start,” Eichel said. “It’s been a pretty long offseason. We’ve got a lot to think about. I think that’s probably why some of us are here so early.
“I was ready to get going and I was kind of champing at the bit to get out of Boston and start our season.”
In July, Eichel joined Sabres coach Phil Housley and his Minnesota-based teammates for a golf outing and dinner, a get-together that illustrates some of the camaraderie players often say they have. Eichel said he kept in close contact with a lot of teammates this summer, perhaps more than in past years.
“Obviously, we added a lot of new faces,” Eichel said. “We drafted a pretty remarkable player. I’m trying to get to know those guys, too.”
One of those players, Skinner, will likely be Eichel’s left winger. When the Sabres acquired Skinner from Carolina on Aug. 2, Eichel was playing in a summer league game.
“Somebody on the ice said, ‘Skinner just got traded to the Sabres,’” he said. “Obviously, we picked up a guy who’s scored 30 goals a couple times, 20 goals basically every year of his career. He brings an element to our team I don’t think we’ve had the last few years, that element is skill and speed. We’re really lucky to have him.”
The Sabres added so much skill and speed they should shed their also-ran status. Despite that talent infusion, most NHL preview magazines believe the Sabres won’t crack the postseason for the first time since 2011.
Remember, they also traded Ryan O’Reilly, a former NHL All-Star and one of the league’s most versatile centers, to the St. Louis Blues.
Eichel scoffs at the preseason predictions. In an age of parity, he knows teams can vault up the standings in a hurry.
“Last year, how many of those magazines had Colorado and (New) Jersey making the playoffs? How many would you have said? Zero,” he said. “I think we obviously should have high expectations for ourselves and we should have the highest of expectations for ourselves. If you go in every year and your goal is to win the Stanley Cup, then the higher your goal is, if you’re reaching for the highest cloud and you miss it, you’re probably going to land on a high mountain.
“I think the higher our goal there the better. There’s a lot of new faces, changes. But I think it all starts with our training camp, coming in here ready to go, ready to compete, being ready to go every day, just trying to get better and I think using that to jumpstart our season.”