By Jourdon LaBarber for Sabres.com
If the smile on Brendan Guhle's face when he was asked about Phil Housley wasn't enough to confirm his excitement about the new coach of the Buffalo Sabres, then perhaps his memory was.
Guhle, asked to describe why he was looking forward to playing for Housley, didn't need to think twice before going into detail to describe one of Nashville's goals from this past postseason. It was Game 6 of the Predators' second-round series against St. Louis, and defenseman Mattias Ekholm darted down low to feed his partner, Roman Josi, with a pass across the net.
"They were both [near] offensive dots, so that was pretty crazy and pretty exciting," Guhle recalled. "It's something I'd love to be a part of."
There's a large group of players at development camp who would say the same thing, and not just defensemen. Housley is looking to bring a fast-paced, up-and-down style of hockey to the Sabres, and the organization has a group of prospects who fit that billing.
Some of those players have already tasted the NHL. Justin Bailey played 32 games in Buffalo last season. Nicholas Baptiste played 14. Hudson Fasching made the Sabres roster out of camp last year before his season was plagued by injuries, and Alexander Nylander ended his season with a two-game NHL stint.
The task for all of these players now is to prove to new management and a new coaching staff that they're ready to make the full-time jump. While management has stressed that this week's camp is about development and not evaluation, making strong impressions is already on the prospects' minds.
"Regardless of who's at the helm, you're working your hardest and you're trying to impress," Baptiste said. "I'm in a contract year and I've got to prove that I'm a full-time NHL player. I thought I did a lot of good things in Rochester last year, I thought I did a lot of good things when I was called up. For me, I'm shooting to be a full-time Sabre and that's my goal."
One year ago, Baptiste and Bailey were in a similar situation as veterans at camp, albeit with little to no NHL experience under their belt (Bailey had played eight games, Baptiste had played none). They performed accordingly; the two were men amongst boys at the Blue and Gold Scrimmage and the 3-on-3 French Connection Tournament.
The duo then went on to make great leaps in their second professional seasons in Rochester. Bailey scored 36 points (23+13) in 52 games, while Baptiste scored 41 (25+16) in 59.
"Any time you go into a new season, you have the best outlook on it," Bailey said. "For me, last year, I tried to have the best year I could. I was fortunate enough to play a few NHL games and I thought in some of the games, I played well and showed what I can do in the future. I've been fortunate enough to have a decent amount of success in the minor leagues.
"I want to take that success I've had in the AHL and translate it here to help the team."
Looking at the team's situation, they certainly see opportunity. Baptiste referenced Sabres general manager Jason Botterill's teams in Pittsburgh, where a young player like Jake Guentzel was able to come up from the AHL midseason and contribute to the team's run to the Stanley Cup.
Botterill has made it clear that young players will have every opportunity to make the NHL roster, but only when they're ready. The additions of free agent forwards Seth Griffith, Kyle Criscuolo and Kevin Porter and defenseman Matt Tennyson were made to encourage competition in training camp, which Botterill has stressed as a vital experience for young players.
The biggest opportunity to crack the roster right now may be on the left wing, the position formerly occupied by Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis. The Sabres signed Benoit Pouliot to help fill that void, but Bailey and Baptiste, both of whom traditionally play on the right, have taken notice.
"I've made a conscious effort this offseason to work on some of the little things - wall work and some of the things in the D zone that I wasn't used to as much on the left side," Bailey said. "We saw a little bit of that last year when I played my games in the NHL. Cleaning that up a little bit, and then making sure I can do whatever they want me to do, to give me the best chance come September."
Also jostling for those positions will be Fasching, who has seen some time on the left side at the NHL level, and traditional left wingers in Nylander and C.J. Smith. Smith played two games upon signing with the Sabres as an undrafted free agent out of UMass-Lowell at the end of last season.
"The [NHL] game's just a lot quicker and you've got to prepare for it one day at a time and you've got to try to get better one day at a time," he said. "That's been my goal since the end of the season, and I really want to try to make the lineup come towards preseason."
Then there's Guhle, who in each of the last two training camps performed well enough to stir conversation about him potentially making the NHL roster in spite of his young age. After he came up on emergency recall and excelled in two games with the Sabres last season, some speculated a job out of camp this upcoming season might be his to lose.
Since then, Botterill has reshaped the Buffalo defense, particularly on the left side with the additions of Victor Antipin, Nathan Beaulieu and Marco Scandella to a group that already included Jake McCabe, Josh Gorges and Justin Falk.
But that hasn't changed Guhle's goal. He still hopes to find himself in Housley's system, pinching down low and joining the rush like Ekholm and Josi and like Housley once did for the Sabres back in his own Hall of Fame career.
"I think whatever happens, my goal is still to make the team this year," Guhle said. "It's not supposed to be easy. I'm not supposed to be able to just come in and have a spot ready for me.
"I've got to earn it."