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There’s a difference between being in an NHL organization and being part of the team. Mark Pysyk remembers when he made the jump with the Buffalo Sabres.

The 2010 first-round draft pick traveled with the club to a prospects tournament in 2011. Pysyk had taken part in development gatherings and made a brief appearance in training camp, but he’d always worn a practice jersey. The tournament in Traverse City, Mich., changed that.

“It’s the first time you’re wearing the Sabres uniform, the first real game that you feel like you’re with an NHL team,” Pysyk said by phone Tuesday. “You’re definitely nervous. There’s a lot of GMs, scouts, coaches watching. It’s definitely nerve-racking, but it’s a lot of fun just playing. You’re waiting all summer to get some games, so it’s good to get it going.”

It gets going again this week, and a number of Buffalo’s top prospects will achieve Pysyk’s same feeling of belonging.

The Sabres are heading back to Traverse City today to defend their 2011 title. Last year’s tournament was canceled because of the lockout, so Buffalo has been carrying the championship banner for 24 months. The Sabres will be challenged by prospects from Columbus, Carolina, Dallas, Detroit, St. Louis, Minnesota and the New York Rangers, starting with a game Thursday afternoon against the Blue Jackets.

Though the main purpose of the five-day tourney is to allow the organization to gauge and learn about its young players, winning is indeed important.

“We want to get to know our players, how they’re going to compete in a situation, especially when they’re in their own age group,” said Rochester Amerks coach Chadd Cassidy, who will lead the prospects. “It’s really important, too, that our guys understand, especially for where our organization is at, that whenever we put the jersey on we’re competing for something, whether it’s a prospect tournament in Traverse City or a preseason game in Buffalo or Rochester.

“Whatever it might be, we want to instill a winning culture.”

The Sabres’ roster includes first-round draft picks Joel Armia, Mikhail Grigorenko, Zemgus Girgensons, Rasmus Ristolainen, Nikita Zadorov and Pysyk. Cassidy is among those eager to watch Ristolainen and Zadorov, the big defensemen Buffalo chose in the top 16 picks this year.

“Those are two guys as an organization that we’re really excited about, just what they can bring to the back end for us and having all the ability and the potential that they have to potentially be impact guys at the National League level,” Cassidy said by phone. “This is kind of their first step in a big year for them after their draft.”

After opening against Columbus, the Sabres will face the Rangers on Friday and Carolina on Sunday. The title and placement games will be held Monday.

“There’s going to be a really strong cast of good players here, so it’ll be interesting to see where our prospects stack up,” said Cassidy, who is beginning his first full year as the Amerks’ bench boss. “You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and that’s where a lot of these players are at. Things can stick in your mind whether it’s from a general manager, coach or scout’s point of view. For these guys, there’s a lot on the line for them in terms of making a good impression.

“It’s a great opportunity to kind of instill in the players what we think is really important for our organization.”

email: jvogl@buffnews.com