A year ago, walking around the First Niagara Center brought about feelings of reserved hope from players in the Buffalo Sabres organization.
The realization that the team wasn’t going to be very good during the upcoming season was starting to set in with players, despite the fact that they weren’t saying as such during the various interviews at training camp. It was a down vibe.
Fast-forward to this year. There’s an atmosphere inside the confines of the arena that feels different. There’s excitement and hope that the worst is over for a franchise that is in the midst of its longest playoff drought in franchise history at four years.
“It’s been that way since I’ve been here the last two, three weeks,” Sabres captain Brian Gionta said regarding the buzz amongst the team. “Guys are excited; guys came back earlier (and) wanted to get after it.”
Gionta sensed a certain optimism with the players that he didn’t see last year. The progression that the team has made under general manager Tim Murray has led to the belief that this group can be better – much better – than what they are expected to be.
The Sabres have brought in names like Evander Kane and Ryan O’Reilly to help right the ship, and get back to being true contenders in the Eastern Conference. Each player brings a unique skillset and talent level to the team that hasn’t been seen since the mid-2000s.
When it comes to which players will actually skate together, everyone is excited about the possibilities.
“I think there’s a lot of guys on the team, especially up front, that are options,” Kane said about potential linemates.
As far as who he’s most excited to play with, Kane rattled off a number of Buffalo’s key players.
“There’s a few. There’s a lot of guys, and you can go down the list,” he said. “Jack (Eichel), Tyler Ennis, Ryan O’Reilly, Matt Moulson – those are all guys – Brian Gionta.”
O’Reilly added that even though he hasn’t really thought about specific lineup possibilities, it was hard to keep him from smiling when speaking of what could be a special team this season.
“There’s so many good players,” he said. “There’s a lot of possible combinations – possible good combinations – so I’m going to be happy playing with whoever. There’s definitely a lot of depth on this team.”
That depth couldn’t be more emphasized. At least six new players are expected to take the ice come opening night in October. Players like Eichel and Sam Reinhart won’t be forced to carry the workload at such a young age, making the team’s chances for better matchups that much higher.
Of course, the team assembled on paper and in the locker room may be an impressive one, but it’s the on-ice results that ultimately determine just how good a team really is. Everyone knows that, and knows it would be foolish to think otherwise.
“Obviously, Tim made some big moves to kind of push our team to the next level – on paper,” Kane said. “Now we’ve got to go out and prove it, and that’s the thing.”
Michael is a former Managing Editor for The Hockey Writers. He’s covered the Buffalo Sabres, along with the NHL in general, for various outlets since 2009. His work has been featured on outlets such as Yahoo, Sports Illustrated and Fox Sports.