Steve Ott is – how shall we put this? – rambunctious when he’s on the ice. He’s pestilent, intense and energetic during the most normal of NHL times.
This, however, is not an ordinary time. The Buffalo Sabres are set to gather today for the first time in nine months. Ott, acquired in July, also hasn’t played since April.
Not surprisingly, he’s a bit eager for training camp this week and the long-awaited season opener next Sunday.
“It’s going to be like an uncaged bear once it starts,” he said.
The grisly, bare hockey landscape has finally transformed back to the place of Stanley Cup dreams.
The Sabres are scheduled to conduct physicals, on-ice testing, and possibly practice today. They’ll welcome the fans to First Niagara Center on Monday for a 5:30 p.m. scrimmage that should help the players and coaches get a feel for where they stand after a long time apart.
“The challenges really are evaluating where the guys are that haven’t been playing,” coach Lindy Ruff said. “They’re going to be in good shape. The area I’m concerned with is the physical part of the game, the shorter bursts, the physical part of the game that you don’t get when you train in practice.
“You can skate and you can do drills, but until somebody’s chasing you around or somebody’s trying to track you down or somebody’s backchecking you, you’ve got to get that extra gear, get that extra stride in.
“You’ve got to make your legs burn when you don’t think you have any more left in you. Those are just examples of what the players will deal with.”
The Sabres will have three groups of players during their brief camp.
The first are those who’ve been idle since last season ended. It includes notables such as goaltender Ryan Miller, forwards Drew Stafford, Ott and Ville Leino, and defensemen Jordan Leopold and Robyn Regehr.
The second are players who competed in Europe during the lockout. This group includes forwards Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and Tyler Ennis, and defensemen Tyler Myers, Christian Ehrhoff and Andrej Sekera.
The third group consists of youngsters and hopeful veterans who been playing in Rochester for the Sabres’ minor-league club. Cody Hodgson and Marcus Foligno head that list.
Though the American Hockey League and European clubs were not as elite as the NHL, the players at least retained their feel for competition while their locked-out colleagues skated in youth rinks.
“Some guys haven’t played in six to nine months, and you never can replace a game with a practice,” Ehrhoff said. “Maybe in the start there’ll be an advantage for the guys who have played, but the other guys will catch up pretty quick.”
Ott, who split the lockout between Buffalo and Windsor, Ont., feels the previously idle players have done all they could to prepare for league intensity.
“I don’t think there’s a question of guys being ready,” he said. “We’ve been going hard for months and always trying to be prepared to have this season. It’s kind of been ups and downs mentally, but physically everybody’s ready to go.”
The Sabres don’t have many questions to answer before the season opener against Philadelphia next Sunday afternoon in First Niagara Center.
They are set at goaltender with Miller and backup Jhonas Enroth. The first two forward lines are penned in with Hodgson centering Vanek and Pominville, and Ennis in the middle of Stafford and Foligno. The top four defensemen figure to be Myers, Ehrhoff, Leopold and Regehr.
The intriguing competitions will be for spots on the last defensive pairing and at third-line center.
The Sabres have five more blue-liners who are eager to dress. Sekera, Alexander Sulzer, Mike Weber and T.J. Brennan, who has torn up the AHL, spent time in the lineup last year. Adam Pardy, acquired as part of the trade that sent Derek Roy to Dallas for Ott, also has NHL experience.
First-round draft pick Mikhail Grigorenko will attempt to show he belongs in the lineup at age 18. The center can play up to five games before the Sabres need to decide whether to send him back to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for more seasoning.
He may start on the third line between Ott and Leino. The Sabres also have Jochen Hecht, Patrick Kaleta, Matt Ellis and John Scott at forward. Nathan Gerbe and Cody McCormick are expected to start the season on injured reserve.
“It’s reasonable to think we’re going to work with a roster of 23,” Darcy Regier said.
Most importantly for players, teams and fans, the conversations are about hockey and not the lockout.
“Our job is to come out firing and be entertaining because I know we have the greatest fans,” Ruff said. “It’s going to be great to be back out in front of them.”