Sabres open camp with playoff or bust mindset

Sabres open camp with playoff or bust mindset
Posted at 1:18 PM, Sep 22, 2016

When the Buffalo Sabres arrived at Key Bank Center to kick off 2016 training camp, they all seemed to have on thing on the brain — the playoffs. After getting settled in, they walked one-by-one into the Sabres media room and said one after another, that this year is about one thing:

Taking the next step.

Sabres captain Brian Gionta started things off, saying early on that every year teams go into the season expecting to make the playoffs, but this year, if the Sabres don’t, it will be a disappointment.

“There is no new system, there is no new style of play, everybody knows it and everybody knows what’s expected of them,” Gionta said. “That’s where coming out of camp we kind of want to pick up -- where we left off the second half of last year. With the success we had down the stretch we want want to get back to that as quickly as we can.”

Gionta, 37, is the oldest player on the team and believes they can -- and will -- make that jump. So does goaltender Robin Lehner, whose 2015-2016 season was overshadowed by injuries, playing in only 21 games. The 25-year-old goaltender reiterated that he and his teammates are ready for the challenge.

“I mean I’ve got to have a good year. Every single one of us has to be better than last year,” Lehner told reporters. “Slowly but surely I feel like our team is coming together and that’s just the first piece. Now, we have to start getting some lines together and people have to perform.”

There’s no denying that Lehner’s health will be a huge storyline. If he suffers another injury the Sabres will likely have to rely on newly acquired goaltender Anders Nilsson, who played in 29 games last year.

Players can’t control injuries, but they can better prepare themselves by getting stronger, which defenseman Josh Gorges said Lehner did this offseason.

"We know that Robin has the ability to be that number one guy. I think the fact that he took the extra time in the offseason and trained hard and worked hard and got himself into great shape. (That) bodes well for him and bodes well for our team, as well.”

Lehner was cleared by the team's athletic training staff today. At a quick glance, the 25-year-old goaltender looks much leaner and stronger. Gorges said he didn’t even recognize him at first, but Lehner wasn’t the only player that looked different.

Tyler Ennis, who also dealt with injuries during most of last season, looks like he’s in better shape than he ever has.

“All I did was bicep curls and bench press, so I’m ready to go,” Ennis jokingly said.

His teammates said getting the 26-year-old forward back is a huge addition. It’s almost like adding another free agent — and Ennis made it clear: He’s motivated and ready for a fresh start.

“I think it’s a different mindset. Our mindset now is playoffs, you know we’re a team that’s looking to compete and be a real threat. We’re growing but I think we did a great job like we said towards the end of the year last year finding our identity. We added some great pieces and now it’s coming together and we’re ready to really become a solid playoff team that’s growing and isn’t a team that’s rebuilding anymore.”

Prior to last season Ennis was one of, if not the best, Sabres forwards on the roster. If he can rebound, he and free agent Kyle Okposo can provide a scoring spark the Sabres need.

“I think there’s a lot of room to improve and the upside on this team is extremely high,” Okposo added. “There is light at the end of the tunnel and for this team I think it could come a lot quicker than my experience with the Islanders.”

And that of course remains the question — will the Sabres end their playoff drought this season? That quest will begin tomorrow when the ice portion or training camp begins.

Happy hockey season.