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By Warren Kosel

The puck isn’t scheduled to drop on the 2017-18 season for about another three months, but hockey returned to Buffalo today as more than 40 Sabres prospects, including all seven draft picks from this year’s NHL Draft, took the ice on Saturday for Day One of the organization’s four-day long summer Development Camp. The camp, now in its sixth straight year and second at HarborCenter, is designed to introduce prospective players to the Sabres’ playing system while providing them with the necessary tools and conditioning programs in order to be successful at hockey’s highest level.


Similar to years past, the roster for the annual camp features a balanced mix of young players, most of whom have been drafted by Buffalo in recent years. Some have already turned pro, others are getting ready to make the jump to the professional ranks and some will return to their respective college or junior teams in the fall. But the goal for all of them is the same: to improve their game and make an impression on the coaches and front office staff.

For many, Saturday’s two-hour practice session served as an unofficial introduction to the organization. Participants were divided up into two groups and were put through a series of drills that emphasized skill development and further exposed them to NHL rules. Most importantly, though, it was an opportunity to acclimate themselves with Buffalo’s specific style of play and make a positive first impression on those who were watching nearby.

Chris Taylor has only been on the job just over a week, but like many of the prospects he was observing, he too was out to make a good first impression on the players and management in his first act as head coach of the Rochester Americans. Taylor, who Amerks general manager Randy Sexton described as “one of the most positive professionals” stressed the importance of a hard work ethic while also keeping the players relaxed and comfortable.

“The first day is always the toughest as guys are trying to make a good first impression and I’m sure the nerves are going a bit, but I thought it was great first day,” Taylor said. “The guys worked hard, so the rest of the camp should be exciting.

"You get kind of the vibe of what they're looking for," forward Hudson Fasching said. "I think they're trying to keep it fun. Having guys with a lot of passion out there, playing hard, keeping it lighter, try to keep a positive attitude going at all times."

Taylor was joined on the ice by new assistant coach Gord Dineen, who was named to the position on Thursday, as well Buffalo Sabres development coaches Krys Barch and Adam Mair.

Speaking of making a good first impression, there’s probably nothing more important to any player that standing out, especially on Day One of camp. First-year attendees are looking to validate why there were drafted in the first place, second and third-year guys are out to prove they’re worthy of a contract extension and players who received a small dose of the NHL are looking for more opportunities.

With new management and a new coaching staff running this year's camp, however, the first impressions work both ways. At the conclusion of Day One, the players seemed to like what they've seen and heard.

“Everything has been great,” said forward Nick Baptiste, a 25-goal scorer last season for the Amerks. “Botterill (new Sabres GM Jason Botterill) and Housley (new Sabres coach Phil Housley) have been great. They really talked about how they want to play. The mood here is pretty upbeat and happy. You can tell the direction they want to go in for both Buffalo and Rochester.”

The players also took notice to the changes within the organization and the commitment management has to winning and developing across the organization. After enduring two lackluster seasons with the Amerks, Baptiste admitted he’s equally excited for what’s in store entering this season.

“You want to be part of a team, whether it’ Buffalo or Rochester, that’s competitive and trying to make the playoffs and ultimately winning championships. That’s the goal for this organization and that’s been made clear. It’s not going to happen overnight obviously, but the moves made by Buffalo and Rochester are in the right direction and I’m excited to be a part of it.”

As was the case last year, Alexander Nylander was still very much at the center of attention. The Amerks reigning Rookie of the Year arrived to his second development camp a little bulkier, admitting one of his goals entering next season was to build strength and add more muscle in the hopes of evolving his game.

“I’ve been working hard off the ice back home in Sweden preparing for next year,” said Nylander.”

His biggest goal, of course, remains to stick with the big club out of training camp. After spending much of his rookie campaign in Rochester, and a successful stint with Team Sweden at the 2017 World Junior Championship in between, Nylander earned a four-game call-up at the end of last season and he’s committed to doing whatever it takes to be in Buffalo permanently.

“It was exciting getting my four games in last year. It was really good for me to get that NHL experience. I’m going to work my butt off to make the team this year. It’s up to me to get there.”

Among those in attendance at Development Camp were 10 players that suited up for the Amerks last season. They included forwards Justin Bailey, Nick Baptiste, Eric Cornel, Hudson Fasching, Vaclav Karabacek, Alexander Nylander, defensemen Anthony Florentino, Brendan Guhle, Brycen Martin and goaltender Jonas Johansson.

Headlining the list are Bailey and Baptiste, who are both coming off productive second pro seasons with the Amerks in 2016-17 and scored their first NHL goals with Sabres. Baptiste paced all Rochester skaters with a team-best 25 goals while Bailey became the first Amerk since 2007-08 to reach the 20-goal mark in back-to-back years.

This year’s camp may be the fifth for both forwards, but it’s also the first in front of the new Sabres regime. While they understand the importance of making yet another good first impression, they also see the opportunity to take the younger prospects under their wing as veterans of the camp.

“For me, it’s all about being a mentor,” said Baptiste. “I was in their shoes four or five years ago. I understand what they’re going through with their nerves, so I’m just trying to help them out and ultimately show the new GM and new coaching staff that I’m ready to make the jump to Buffalo.”

Days 2 and 3 of Development Camp feature lengthy on-ice skills practice beginning at 10:00 a.m. The French Connection Tournament, an intra-squad three-on-three tournament, will highlight the final day of camp on Tuesday, July 11. On-ice camp sessions at HarborCenter throughout the week are free and open to the public.

10/26/2018 7:05 PM / Rochester, NY
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