BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres had their first on-ice practices of training camp on Thursday, and as you can imagine, the word expectations got thrown around a lot. Yes, these players are aware that the playoffs are not just a far-off possibility but a destination this hungry fan base is anticipating. General manager Kevyn Adams said the Sabres’ “window is open.”
That’s all long overdue but not worth fixating on beyond the first day opening remarks. As captain Kyle Okposo noted, “you don’t achieve a long-term goal by staring at it every single day and obsessing over it. You do it by your habits.”
So I guess that means no picture of the Stanley Cup in the locker room will be necessary to remind the Sabres what they’re working toward. While Okposo’s point about habits may seem boring, it’s also essential to Buffalo’s hockey team in 2023-24. Okposo noted that this team needs to start off as focused on the details as it was at the end of last season. The Sabres were the third-highest scoring team in the NHL but also allowed the fourth most high-danger scoring chances, according to Natural Stat Trick.
“If we can focus on the details first and make sure that also becomes a part of our foundation, then I think we’re going to be a pretty dangerous team,” Okposo said.
This won’t be the last we hear about those details. The conversation around the Sabres has been a big-picture one for the last few seasons as the young core developed. But Buffalo’s hockey team being competitive is no longer just a fun idea. It can be a reality.
Here’s what we learned on the first day of camp.
Adams said talks have “intensified” recently with the agents for both Rasmus Dahlin and Owen Power. The two stud defensemen are both in the final season of their respective contracts before becoming restricted free agents. Adams didn’t put a timetable on the talks, noting that the team extended Mattias Samuelsson in October last year and got Dylan Cozens’ deal done in February. Dahlin didn’t seem particularly worried about it when addressing reporters Thursday. Power’s agent, Pat Brisson, told The Athletic last week that if Power is going to sign with another year left on his deal it would likely be a long-term deal. If he got to the end of his contract, a bridge deal might be explored. Clearly Adams is eager to get both done as he believes those two defensemen can be cornerstones of what the Sabres are building.
While we’re on the topic of defensemen, Dahlin had a new partner in the first practice of camp. Free-agent signing Connor Clifton was Dahlin’s running mate, and Granato noted they were “impressive” in how they both read the same play together. Dahlin joked that he used to be scared to play against Clifton because of his gritty style. That got a laugh out of Clifton, who noted, “I didn’t come here to help Rasmus with his offensive game.” Playing on a top pair with a player like Dahlin is the type of opportunity Clifton has been working toward his entire career. That could be a fun match. Clifton already is bringing an edge to Sabres practices with his physical play, but he also has the speed and offensive mind to keep up with Dahlin. Dahlin said he and Clifton see the game the same way. Keep in mind when Clifton played with Hampus Lindholm last season for 276 minutes last season, Boston had 60 percent of the expected goals, according to Natural Stat Trick. When he was on the ice with Dimitry Orlov for 77 minutes, the Bruins had 67 percent of the expected goals. So Clifton, in a small sample, has shown he can handle that type of role.
The Sabres will keep mixing up the pairs, but Granato also had Erik Johnson with Samuelsson and Owen Power with Henri Jokiharju in practice on Thursday. That’s a much more balanced blue line than the one Buffalo had last season.
Erik Johnson is a 35-year-old defenseman with a Stanley Cup to his name. If anyone can help this team understand how to get from being a team on the rise to one that gets into the playoffs, Johnson can. Dahlin said Johnson has already taught him a lot about recovery including making him buy a sauna for his house. Johnson was one of the last players on the ice Thursday, working with Power and Samuelsson. Granato said he thinks Johnson will help others start “walking with less fear and more confidence.” If Johnson is a fixture on the third pair, that should be a huge improvement over Ilya Lyubushkin from a year ago, especially if he’s paired with Samuelsson.
Adams and Granato are not scared off by the fact that so few goalies have jumped straight from college hockey to the NHL. What they saw from Devon Levi in seven NHL games last season (plus all he did in college) was enough to convince them he’s ready to jump into the net in what will be a pressure-packed season. The Sabres brought back Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and Eric Comrie and didn’t add another experienced goalie to the mix, so Levi will have every chance to handle a big workload. Adams is confident because he sees how mature Levi is on and off the ice and that should help him handle the inevitable lows that come for every young goalie.
The Sabres are going to try out plenty of combinations in camp, but because you waited all summer to see how these guys would look on the ice, here’s what we saw from the two groups that will be scrimmaging one another on Saturday.
Jeff Skinner – Tage Thompson – Zach Benson
Jordan Greenway – Tyson Jost – Victor Olofsson
Aleksandr Kisakov – Brandon Biro – Kyle Okposo
Brett Murray – Peyton Krebs – Lukas Rousek
Jiri Kulich – Casey Mittelstadt – Alex Tuch
JJ Peterka – Dylan Cozens – Isak Rosen
Zemgus Girgensons – Tyson Kozak – Linus Weissbach
Filip Cederqvist – Justin Richards – Olivier Nadeau
Two things worth noting. Granato said he’d love to keep Mittelstadt at center. He also singled out Lukas Rousek as someone who understands his role within a team and can play to that objective. That along with Rousek getting to pass on rookie camp makes me think he has the inside track to a roster spot.
Adams said Matt Savoie is going to be week to week after injuring his shoulder in the final game of the Sabres’ rookie tournament. That’s considered a positive outcome for Savoie as he’s avoiding surgery at this point. Adams said there’s a chance he’ll be on the ice by the end of training camp but didn’t want to commit to a timetable. The only other Sabres players who weren’t on the ice at the start of camp were Jack Quinn, who is rehabbing an Achilles injury that will keep him out until at least Christmastime, Vsevelod Komarov, who is progressing from an injury that kept him out of rookie camp, and Viktor Neuchev, who missed the last game of the rookie tournament with an injury.
(Photo of Rasmus Dahlin: Bill Wippert / NHLI via Getty Images)