Buffalo, N.Y. (WGR 550) – Casey Fitzgerald returned to practice on Wednesday after two days out due to injury.
Fitzgerald is one of eight NHL caliber defensemen with the Buffalo Sabres, and head coach Don Granato loves the competition.
“The competition is great, because it pushes everybody," said Granato after Wednesday's practice. "Putting into context the ages that we’re dealing with here, if you put them into a competitive environment, there’s so much room for these guys to get better, and that’s what happens.”
Fitzgerald spent parts of three seasons in the AHL before getting his chance last year to play 36 games with Buffalo. With Lawrence Pilut, that’s where I come up with eight NHL defensemen in camp.
The 25-year-old has never been handed anything, and he worked to get better to get his shot in the NHL. He says he’s still not afraid of competition.
“If you’re not having competition, you’re probably in a pretty tough spot as a team," said Fitzgerald on Wednesday. "It’s good that we have such a trust, and it’s great because we’re all best friends. We’re all trying to make the team, but we push each other to be our best.”
Fitzgerald isn’t like Rasmus Dahlin or Owen Power. He's very difficult to play against, as he’ll stand up for teammates and he’s great in his own end. Granato loves the fact that he's able to bring different things to the table
"We know the bite and the grit, but the important thing is, the guy wearing the other jersey is well aware when Casey Fitzgerald is on the ice. That is extremely important,” Granato said.
Fitzgerald embraces the way he plays on the ice.
“It’s nice to fill a void, and it’s something I’ve had to adjust through my pro career, and figure out what I need to do to help the team,” he said.
During last season’s Calder Cup Playoffs, Fitzgerald spent a lot of time adding to the offense. He scored some huge goals by going to the net and picking the right time to be deep in the offensive zone. Granato says adding that to his game was by design.
“We pushed him before he went back down to push that, and he went back there with a lot more confidence to play that way," he said. "He got the defensive part down, now let’s focus on the offensive opportunities that you may have. I thought he did a nice job in the playoffs with that.”
Fitzgerald agreed that he never wants to settle and be happy.
“I want to get better this year and make big strides, and I think I can make a lot of changes this year in my game," he said. "But I also definitely won’t shy away from my game.”
I’ve been talking a lot about how I’m not sure that JJ Peterka will start the season with the Sabres. He has struggled in training camp, and I remember a point early on a few years ago when I wondered if the Sabres should send a struggling Dylan Cozens down to Rochester. Granato insisted that wasn’t going to happen and that they could get Cozens through it up here and he was right.
It sounds like Peterka is going to get the opportunity to work through his troubles with the big club.
“These young guys come into the league and they’re so accustomed to getting away with moments of carelessness. So for JJ, he’s learning to gauge that," Granato said of the 2020 second-round pick. "Unfortunately, he’s got to go through it. We just hope that a player in JJ’s position can acclimate fast.
“He is talented, he does work, he takes critique very well, and if he was missing one of those areas, I’d be more nervous about having him playing for us in the NHL. But he doesn’t mind when I bring things to his attention, and he doesn’t mind when I push him. If I thought those were a concern, he probably would have to go learn more at the previous level. But I think he’s in a situation where he can learn here fairly fast.”
Granato said Kyle Okposo will still be out of practice for a few days.
With Okposo out, Vinnie Hinostroza slipped into his spot at right wing with Rasmus Asplund and Zemgus Girgensons.
Craig Anderson played the whole game on Tuesday, and didn’t practice on Wednesday.