BUFFALO – It’s an odd dynamic. Some fans, even the most diehard ones, want the Sabres to lose this season so they can draft a franchise-changing prospect.
“I didn’t come here to lose,” Sabres winger Brian Gionta said Thursday inside the First Niagara Center. “The first step is to get into the playoffs.”
That kind of talk has been rare here for the last 18 months as the Sabres quickly morphed into the NHL’s worst team. But as training camp opened Thursday, Gionta, a marquee July 1 signing, set the bar high.
“I think our goal is to make the playoffs,” said Gionta, who won the 2003 Stanley Cup with New Jersey. “If you’re not looking at doing that coming into camp, you don’t have the right mindset.”
While no one else mentioned the playoffs, everyone spoke optimistically as the new season started.
They all talked about the great things the rebuilding Sabres, the league’s laughingstock last year, can do this season after revamping the lineup this summer.
“I think this team is destined for great things,” said Sabres winger Matt Moulson, who re-signed following a stint in Minnesota.
Winger Drew Stafford has a message for anyone hoping the Sabres lose games.
“I’m not going to apologize if we’re winning games,” he said.
Ted Nolan, who’s starting his first full season as Sabres coach since 1996, said “prospects are great.”
“Then some of them turn into suspects,” he said. “Then some of them turn into rejects. You never know with the drafts. The one thing I … already know is to compete and to battle and to work and to try to win.”
The Sabres have their first on-ice sessions today.
Nolan said he wants to name a captain soon.
“I believe in doing things early,” he said. “If you’re going to do it, do it quick. As the coaching decision at the end of the season, you don’t want it to linger around too much. If you basically know who the decision is, you try to do it as quick as you can, let it settle in and let the leaders lead.”
Many believe Gionta, Montreal’s captain from 2010-14, will wear the ‘C’ in Buffalo.
“There’s a couple on this team that deserve to be captain, so we talked with the coaching staff quite a bit about the leadership on this team,” Nolan said. “We’ll talk to those people first, and we’ll let you guys know.”
Gionta called captaincy talk “a little far off.”
“I’m just trying to come in, get comfortable with the guys, get comfortable with the coaching staff, the organization,” he said.
Nolan, who doesn’t like playing 18-year-olds out of junior, on keeping slick center Sam Reinhart, the No. 2 pick in June:
“We’re going to do it the old-fashioned way, we’re going to earn it, and Sam’s no different. But here’s some special players that come around once in a while that don’t have to wait until they’re 22.”
Nolan on the upcoming goalie battle between Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth:
“They both want to be No. 1, which is a good thing, and that’s one good thing about training camp is that you battle. You put them in. You see how training camp goes, and you let the war begin. Who wants it? It’s going to be a healthy competition. It’s not going to be, ‘I’m going to try to be better than you because I am better.’ It’s going to be whoever is going to better for the team.”
Nolan doesn’t attend many football games, but with Sabres owner Terry Pegula about to take over the Buffalo Bills, the coach said he “might be able to go to a couple.”
What Nolan would really like is a meeting with the Bills coaching staff.
“You learn different things from different points, so I’m looking forward to maybe getting to know the Bills coaching staff and maybe take some ideas from them and they can take some from us,” Nolan said. “We’re both in the same position. We both want to make the people of Western New York very proud of their franchises.”
Nolan considers former Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson a personal favorite.
Sabres winger Patrick Kaleta, an Angola native, grew up watching the Bills with his father. Naturally, he’s ecstatic they’re staying put under Pegula.
“Hopefully, one of these days I’ll have a kid, too,” Kaleta said. “To be able to take him to a Bills game in Buffalo is going to be special.”