It goes without saying that the Buffalo Sabres need to be a more challenging team to play against this season than they were last year. But the organization is being vocal about it anyway, and coaches have started implementing elements into their drill book to notch up their players’ competitiveness.
Rochester Americans’ coach Seth Appert began fanning the flames on the embers of this fire during last week’s prospects camp. He attacked the need to battle and compete on a nightly basis with the same aggression the Sabres hope their players bring over the course of an 82-game schedule. Head coach Don Granato will take up the torch from Appert when training camp begins this week and continue to preach pugnacity.
Sabres Prospects Battling to Start Camp
From the first practice, Appert designed his workouts to have a slant towards putting pressure on opponents and winning pucks up for grabs. Maintaining possession of the puck and control of the game are not easy things to do in the NHL, but if you aren’t working on these things as a team in practice, you can’t expect them to improve when the puck drops for real. For two prospects moving to the center from the wing (Jack Quinn and Arttu Roustalainen), improving in these areas will be vital to their success at the position.
The first drill focused on puck battles, pitting team members against each other to play mini-games of keep away. Next, the prospects worked on angling opposing players into pressure situations and forcing them to make a play with the puck.
“It doesn’t matter how talented you are. If you can’t win a puck battle, you always play defence,” Appert said from the podium. “If you can’t angle teams and force them into uncomfortable situations with pressure, then again, you’re always playing defence. We need that as an organization. We need to keep working towards becoming demanding to play against.”
Murray Led the Sabres’ Charge
One player who seemed to get the message was Brett Murray. His tenacious in-your-face attitude was on display versus the New Jersey Devils last Friday night. It’s something the coach took notice of after the game.
“I was really happy with his performance,” Appert said in his press conference. “Right from the start. The first shift he had a real hard finished check.” All that talk about making life difficult for the opposition got through to the team as well, and numerous times, when play got chippy, they stuck up for themselves and each other. That plays right into the game plan going into the season.
“That’s what you want to have when you pull that jersey over your shoulders. You need to have pride in playing for this organization and this city. I thought our guys did that but particularly Murray.”
It was a statement game for the 23-year-old former Penn State Lion. The message to the Sabres is that he is going to keep coming. Murray will look to have that momentum roll over as he competes for a roster spot with the big squad this season.
Sabres’ Camp to Continue Preaching Team Toughness
With the prospects camp out of the way, Granato is now up to continue to breed in a new element to the Sabres game. By all accounts, the prospect’s group set the tone for what the coaches want.
“We want to be an organization that is hard to play against,” Appert said. “That means increasing our competitive level, how hard we are on pucks, how hard we are on our opponents, getting to the net. I thought we saw a lot of good things [with the prospects].”
Some of those players Appert appraised at the prospects camp will be on the ice with Granato this week, trying to show they are buying into the system. For Murray, there remains a chance that he can push someone out of their job.
On the flip side, some veterans like Kyle Okposo could find themselves on the outside looking in if they aren’t at their best. It’s the time of the year where the offseason workouts turn into on-ice work. The next few weeks will show us who can make the next step and who has taken a step backwards.
Mike Carter is a freelance writer and contributor for the Buffalo Sabres with The Hockey Writers and NHLTradeRumors.Me He is @mikecarterlives on Twitter. Mike has been writing professionally since 2012, with stints as a reporter in northern British Columbia and Edmonton, Alberta. He now calls Salmon Arm, B.C. home.