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Enthusiasm high in Buffalo for rebuilt Sabres, revitalized waterfront

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Evander Kane excited for fresh start in Buffalo (1:46)

Sabres LW Evander Kane discusses his role in Buffalo and the depth of the club up front with the additions of No. 2 pick Jack Eichel and Ryan O'Reilly. (1:46)

BUFFALO -- Not far from where Jack Eichel was taking his first training camp shifts with Matt Moulson and Zemgus Girgensons at Buffalo Sabres training camp, people were walking and cycling along the refurbished canal area near downtown Buffalo and young hockey players were preparing to work out at the $210 million HarborCenter complex.

Discussion at the high-end Tim Hortons on the ground floor of the new hotel/shopping/hockey complex a block from First Niagara Center meanders from the Sabres to the Buffalo Bills and their matchup with the hated New England Patriots, but not much further.

Autumn is approaching in Buffalo and there is nary a mention of tanking, unless it's a reporter forcing veteran Brian Gionta to revisit last season's 82-game journey into darkness.

In fact, if there is a single face that tells the story of the Sabres' forgettable 2014-15 season, it is that of Gionta, the proud winger and former Montreal Canadiens captain who signed as a free agent with the Sabres before last season.

"Complete frustration," Gionta told ESPN.com, making the kind of face a player makes when he realizes he's doing a shot-blocking drill without his protective cup. "All the way around. It was a tough year."

Chatting with Gionta a year ago in New York, he was optimistic his new team -- his de facto hometown team, having grown up in Rochester, N.Y. -- wasn't going to be as bad as people thought.

However, the Sabres were every bit as bad as predicted. In fact, they were worse. Buffalo fans openly cheered for visiting teams down the stretch as the Sabres bungled their way to a 51-loss season that saw them land prized prospect Eichel with the second-overall pick in the draft.

In almost every meaningful statistic, they were dead last, or close to it: 30th in goals scored; 29th in goals allowed; 30th in power-play efficienty; 30th in penalty-killing efficiency.

They stunk because they were built to stink, but from the moment Eichel joined the fold they have moved steadily to not just put last season behind them, but to race away from the memories entirely.

Night and day? That pretty much sums it up, Gionta said.

"To be through it," he said. "You're frustrated. You're disappointed. All those things. But at the same time it makes coming into this year with the changes even that much more exciting."

So, how different is this season's team?

Under normal circumstances, the return of Evander Kane -- acquired in a late-season trade with the Winnipeg Jets -- after a shoulder surgery might have been the story of training camp.

And if he returns to the form that saw him score 30 goals in 2011-12, Kane might still be the most important part of this new Sabres team.

But if it's possible for an immensely talented, outgoing young player to be under the radar, Kane has managed to do so. That speaks more to the team's overhaul than it does of Kane himself.

"Yeah. I was the big story when I first got traded and then [Sabres general manager] Tim Murray did what he does best and makes some magic happen and brings in a couple of more people that are also high-profile," Kane said. "I think it's great. And everybody's going to be counted on, and if I'm considered under the radar, perfect."

Kane, like many of the team's key additions, has lots to prove after a tumultuous tenure with the Winnipeg franchise.

"Obviously, my first years in Atlanta were great. No issues. Then, we moved to Winnipeg and it was a different type of environment, I guess you would say," Kane said, putting on his best diplomat's hat. "And now that I'm here, I'm looking forward to a fresh start and looking forward to kind of just reminding everybody what I can do and trying to be the best player I possibly can this year."

Funny how things work out, isn't it? Murray has become something of a rock star in Buffalo despite presiding over one of the worst seasons in franchise history. His bespectacled face even adorns T-shirts sold in the area.

The swiftness with which Murray moved from positioning his team to earn one of the most important draft picks in franchise history to returning them to relevance in the city is nothing short of meteoric.

Having acquired Kane, Murray then added a top center in Ryan O'Reilly, a top-end young goaltender in Robin Lehner and, late in the offseason, good defensive depth in Cody Franson. There's a Stanley Cup-winning coach in Dan Bylsma, and the team that put the "tank" in "stank" a year ago seems to be in completely different universe.

If one of the projected storylines heading into camp was how the team would alter the culture of losing, it's a moot point given the overhaul of the roster. With seven to nine new faces expected to suit up on opening night against the Ottawa Senators, former Pittsburgh Penguins coach Bylsma might not know exactly what he has, but he does know it's completely different from what happened last season.

And that has to be a good thing.

"We don't have an identity as a team and as an organization right now," Bylsma said.

That will evolve at its own pace, but what is clear is that young players Eichel and Sam Reinhart, who look like good bets to start as the team's second- and third-line centers, won't be thrown to the wolves. O'Reilly will be the top center, likely playing with Kane and Tyler Ennis.

Veteran David Legwand came over in the Lehner deal. Jamie McGinn, a player Bylsma has had his eye on for years, is in the mix and will provide depth to buttress the high-end young talent.

"People are going to be in the right spots," Bylsma said. For the record, Eichel began camp playing with new landlord Matt Moulson and natural center Zemgus Girgensons.

Let's not overstate things, but it's fair to say there hasn't been this kind of optimism in the Buffalo sports world in general, and for the hockey team specifically, in years.

Moulson was a Sabre before being traded to the Minnesota Wild at the 2014 trade deadline, but he opted to return as a free agent because he was so impressed with the team's blueprint to return to respectability.

"I think it starts with the Pegulas. Terry and Kim are tremendous and they want to win," Moulson said of the team's ownership.

"They're not in the business of owning teams for the sake of owning teams. They want to win in hockey. They want to win in football. That's what they want to do. They provide the whole organization with everything you need to succeed."

And Moulson was taken with Murray's boldness.

"There's just a vibe about him," Moulson said. "I just love what he does. It's as simple as that. He makes bold moves. He knows what he's doing and he's obviously got a great reputation for scouting and scouting talent. I think he's put together a great team for us this year."

The Sabres were as good a team as there was in the NHL during the two seasons following the 2004-05 lockout, losing in back-to-back Eastern Conference finals. But ownership issues begat personnel issues, and the team went into a period of decay, highlighted by last season's embarrassing race to the basement.

However, the team's eagerly anticipated renaissance has dovetailed with a waterfront revitalization that includes a $210 million development spearheaded by the Pegulas, including a state-of-the-art twin-pad hockey facility that houses a cutting-edge hockey academy.

"It's no insult to America, but I call this the eighth Canadian market," Murray said of his new home.

"And I say that for a reason. They had to stop season tickets at 16,000. We've just come off two 30th-place finishes and we have 17,000-plus for a scrimmage in development camp. Which they charged for, by the way. Which was not free. Which is amazing. And it goes on and on."

The HarborCenter is a beehive of hockey activity, from learn-to-skate kids right up to the pros who work out here during the offseason.

On any given day, you might run into former Sabres such as Martin Biron or Michael Peca -- who coaches the under-16 junior Sabres team on which his son plays and manages the main Junior Sabres team that competes in the Ontario Junior Hockey League.

For years, people talked about what could or might happen in the waterfront area. That talk has translated to bricks and mortar, and without any public money involved. More development is planned, and the Sabres are part of the fabric of that optimism.

"There's an incredible wave of energy, emotion, enthusiasm," in the city, Peca told ESPN.com.

If there has been a well-bred history of skepticism or disappointment when it's come to the local pro team, the Pegula family -- owners of both the Sabres and the Bills -- have slowly changed that mindset.

"Now all of a sudden people are starting to see their commitment to 100 percent being successful," Peca said.

Daniel Briere was with the Sabres when they were a Cup contender a decade ago. On this day, one of his three boys is playing in the HarborCenter. Briere admitted to being agog at the changes in the downtown area and the enthusiasm for the new-look Sabres.

"I remember when I was here and how excited and vibrant the city was when we went to back-to-back conference finals, and that's what is so cool for me, is to see that," Briere told ESPN.com. "Just to see that excitement again."

It might be too much to expect a playoff berth, but this team won't be a pushover anymore, predicted Briere, who retired from the NHL a few weeks ago.

"I think they're certainly going in the right direction," he said. "I think they're going to be a tough team to play against."

Kevyn Adams grew up in the Buffalo area. He played for the Sabres after winning a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes. He was a coach with the Sabres for a short time, and just when it looked like he might move out of the community, Adams ended up taking on the top spot with the hockey academy that operates out of HarborCenter.

He's got an MBA and has the smarts and personality to be a successful NHL manager, but he's a Buffalo boy, and can recall the days when he walked out of the rink for lunch and there wouldn't be a soul in sight. Now, there are tourists and hockey families and business folk filling the sidewalks and restaurants that have popped up in the area.

Already, two of his staff at the academy have moved on to important hockey jobs, including former NHL player Adam Mair, who is with the Sabres' development staff.

There is a renaissance taking place in the city, Adams said, and the Sabres are part of it.

"There's a feeling that we're on our way to where the community wants to be," Adams said.

Who knows how good this Sabres team can be. The Eastern Conference is pretty wide open. Could they be playing meaningful games in January or February, perhaps beyond?

For that to happen, Lehner has to be the real deal. Kane has to stay healthy. Eichel has to be as good as advertised. The defense has to come together under Bylsma. That's a lot of questions.

Still, for the first time in a long time, the questions are are colored by something akin to unabashed, unbridled optimism.

"You get a lot of pats on the back, and we haven't done anything yet," Murray told two reporters after the team's on-ice workout.

"Last I saw, we finished 30th and we're trying to improve and I think on paper we've improved. There's a lot of variables. New coaching staff. How quickly we gel with a lot of new guys. Two new goalies that didn't play here last year at all. I think there are a lot of question marks.

"We're excited about the questions, obviously, but we have to see what we do here. I'm confident we're going to get a lot better. I'm just not quite sure what that means."