Victor Olofsson and the Buffalo Sabres are gearing up for the final days of training camp ahead of the 2020-21 regular season, beginning on Thursday against the Washington Capitals at KeyBank Center.
For the second-year winger, this training camp has been a long time coming after last getting in some action back in March before the National Hockey League shut down its 2019-20 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I've been trying to prepare myself all summer, but I feel like even though you're working out and skating for 10 months, it's different coming into training camp and working out with the team again," said Olofsson following Sunday's practice at KeyBank Center. "It's been on a different level, for sure. So it's nice to be able to get a week, at least, before the season starts and kind of get back into it."
The last time Olofsson had skated with his teammates before the start of training camp was back on March 11 before a scheduled game with the Montreal Canadiens. However, they never got to play that game as the league halted the season the very next day after the National Basketball Association had its first COVID-19 positive test and shut down its season.
Fast forward 10 months later and it's been a whole different environment for Olofsson and the Sabres. While the on-ice team practices are resemblant of what they were before the COVID-19 pandemic, the off-ice lifestyle has been completely flipped upside down. However, Olofsson feels that the team is making the best out of the situation, given the circumstances.
"It's obviously a little bit different. You don't see all the guys all the time, we have to be split up into different groups. But it's been good," Olofsson said. "I think the coaches are able to talk to everyone and get the message out there to everyone. I think we're doing a really good job with the situation."
However, things could have been much worse off for Olofsson at the start of training camp after going down on the second day of practices with an upper-body injury. The 25-year-old was going hard against defenseman Rasmus Dahlin in a 1-on-1 drill when he lost his balance at full steam and crashed hard into the net. It appeared as though he took the brunt of the impact with his left arm, and it took him some time to get off the ice and head to the locker room. After a brief amount of time back on the ice, he left again and did not return to the session.
After a day off from practicing and missing the first Blue and Gold Scrimmage of training camp on Monday, Olofsson stepped back on to the ice on Wednesday and immediately skated on a line with Taylor Hall and Jack Eichel.
Despite feeling the after-effects of his upper-body injury for a couple of days, Olofsson said he has been feeling just fine ever since.
"I kind of slammed my elbow into the post there. It was more of just a bruised elbow, and everything looked good on the x-ray," Olofsson said. "There's nothing serious there. It hurt, and I had some pain there a few days after, but I'm feeling really good."
After a couple of practices skating on the line with Hall and Eichel, head coach Ralph Krueger and his staff altered their lines just a bit as Olofsson moved from the right wing on Buffalo's top line back to the left wing on the second line with Sam Reinhart and Eric Staal. Olofsson has plenty of familiarity with Reinhart, playing with him on the top line with Eichel for most of his rookie 2019-20 season.
However, Staal comes in to Buffalo after being one of the first roster moves made by new general manager Kevyn Adams in a trade with the Minnesota Wild. Olofsson says it has been great to play with a veteran like Staal, where he can get to know more about the NHL game as he grows his own game.
"He's just a really smart player," Olofsson said. "You can see he has a ton of experience, and he's a great player to play alongside with. He knows everything about the game, so if there's any questions I have, he knows it all. It's really nice to play with a player like that."
In the recent practices at training camp, Krueger has been working on getting his power play and penalty kill units ready for the upcoming season. As usual, Olofsson is getting in the work with the top power play unit on the off wing, where he can utilize his powerful and accurate shot.
While the top unit consists primarily of the same players from last season in Eichel, Dahlin and Reinhart, one new addition to that group is Hall, who has really gotten Olofsson's attention as a new dynamic piece to the roster.
"It's been really good. It's nice to get a few reps in here before the season starts," Olofsson said. "It looks and feels really good, especially with a player like Taylor Hall coming in. He adds more depth and more options into our power play, so it feels good."
The winger is looking to add on to an impressive rookie season in the NHL, where he scored 20 goals and added 22 assists for 42 points in 54 games played. He finished the 2019-20 season in seventh place for voting for the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year, but was named as the NHL's Rookie of the Month for both October and December.
As for Sunday's practice, Buffalo was without three players who have been practicing with the main group throughout training camp. Forwards Curtis Lazar and Kyle Okposo, as well as defenseman all did not take part in the morning's session, but Krueger said it is nothing to be concerned about.
"Those were pure maintenance days," Krueger said following Sunday's session. "We did an assessment of everybody and felt that they could use two days off the ice. They're working out off ice, and I expect all three of them back in the fold on Tuesday."
With the days winding down at training camp and with the opening of the season just a few days away, the time is coming for Krueger and his staff to get their final looks at the roster before making decisions on who to keep in Buffalo, who to place on the taxi squad this season, or who to send down to the Rochester Americans in the American Hockey League.
After practicing for several days with the main group taking the ice in the morning and the secondary group in the afternoons, the team held practices on Sunday with the main group on the main rink at KeyBank Center, while the rest of the group went across the street to Harborcenter.
Here is how the lines looked on Sunday without Lazar, Okposo and Ristolainen, as well as the power play units:
Hall - Eichel - Thompson
Olofsson - Staal - Reinhart
Rieder - Eakin - Cozens
Skinner - Asplund - Sheahan
Jack Quinn and Casey Mittelstadt worked in as the extra skaters.
Dahlin - Montour
McCabe - Jokiharju
Irwin - Miller
Bryson - Borgen
Power Play 1:
Eichel - Hall - Olofsson
Power Play 2:
Thompson - Cozens - Staal
When asked about the way he is going to construct his rosters for practices as the season progresses, Krueger explained that the way he puts it all together will be to best keep his guys healthy and fresh for the entirety of the campaign.
"[It's] what is best for our corps of 20 players," Krueger said "There will be skates where that group will skate, and there will be skates where we think it's better to have a larger number to lower the load on the players. Probably very rarely will we actually only practice with 20. It'll probably be three goalies, eight [defense] and 14 forwards. The extra taxi squad players would be working out separately in other ice times. What you saw today with numbers is something that I felt would be a good number to train with here, so this is the way we're intending right now."
Sabres forward Jeff Skinner was a topic of discussion on Sunday after a subpar performance in Saturday's Blue and Gold Scrimmage at KeyBank Center.
The 28-year-old appeared to be trying to do too much with the puck, which resulted in a number of sloppy turnovers in both ends. He's struggling to find the back of the net again, which is starting to bring out the bad side of Skinner with his frustrations and anger.
The most telling aspect of Skinner's frustrations are the reactions and body language he expressed throughout the night. After a missed shot or a turnover, he often looked to the sky or said something to himself in anger and completely took himself out of the mindset of getting back into the play. A couple of times in the offensive zone, he missed a shot or pass, and then skated around in anger instead of sticking with it.
When asked about Skinner's struggles on Sunday, Krueger said that the coaching staff is working with the veteran winger to get him back to form, but the heavy-duty workload will be on Skinner himself to get back to the player he was back in the 2018-19 season when he was a top-offensive performer with 40 goals.
"For us, it's important, no matter your role, no matter your skill level, is that in general, you play within the principles," Krueger explained. "He's continuing to work on that together with the coaching staff. Once he lets that go and relaxes and trusts his instincts, he's going to give us what we need, which is scoring right through the lineup. ... It'll be important for Jeff to keep working hard. Our principles need to be the guideline, but within that framework, every player has the opportunity to let his genius express itself. For Jeff, that's usually in the danger zone in front of the other team's net. His linemates need to get him there, he needs to do the work to get himself there, and the goals will follow. It's always hard work before you get rewarded, and at the moment, he's working at it, he's communicating with [the coaches], and we're confident we'll be able to get Jeff in a good place here."
The Sabres will be off from practice on Monday before returning to the rink on Tuesday at 11 a.m. EST.
The next few days will be busy for action around the NHL:
The Sabres reportedly placed a total of four players on waivers on Sunday, as they are likely bound for the Amerks ahead of the start of their season on Friday, Feb. 5:
- G - Dustin Tokarski
- C - Steven Fogarty
- LW - C.J. Smith
- D - Brandon Davidson
It is not expected that any of these players are sticking around to be a part of the taxi squad.