It was a good weekend for the Buffalo Sabres prospects, even though it would be hard to characterize some of them as "prospects" as their ages push that term to it's very limits. Players like winger 24 yr. old Victor Olofsson
stood out and was clearly head and shoulders above the other skaters out there. As he should have been. Olofsson looks as if he's ready for a top-nine role in Buffalo this year after playing nearly four full seasons in the Swedish Elite League before hitting North America last season and leading the Rochester Americans in scoring.
Others on the near-term radar include center Rasmus Asplund
, who had a great September last year and looked even better this year, and defenseman Will Borgen
, who has become quite the presence on the ice after only one full pro season. It will be tough for either of them to crack the Sabres lineup for 2019-20 but their development has them on pace to be there in a full-time role next season. Forward Andre Oglevie
and defenseman Brandon Hickey
look like they'll be carrying some heavy weight in Rochester while defensemen Jacob Bryson
and Casey Fitzgerald
look primed to compete for bigger minutes with the Amerks in their first pro seasons.
It was good to see forward Dylan Cozens
on the ice in a competitive situation after undergoing surgery for an injured thumb. Buffalo's 2019 first round pick (7th-overall) showed what he had and looked good in the process. There are openings on the wings in Buffalo for the 18 yr. old to have a shot at, but it seems as if the organization is leaning towards one more year for him in junior. "I just think it's a big jump for an 18 yr. old to step into the National Hockey League and really contribute," said Sabers general manager Jason Botterill to the gathered media at the close of the tournament yesterday. "But we'll certainly give him and opportunity over the next couple of weeks here and see what materializes."
Training camp opens Thursday as players report for testing and physicals followed by practices Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The first preseason game is Monday against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Pegula Ice Arena on the campus of Penn State University. While it's a big camp for a number of players, some like forward Arttu Ruotsalainen
and defenseman Henri Jokiharju
, both of whom excelled at the Prospect Challenge, have even more on the line.
Ruotsalainen was signed out of Finland after a very successful season for Ilves Tampere of SM Liiga, Finland's top professional league. He scored 21 goals and had 42 points, both tops on the team and was signed by Buffalo this off season to an entry-level deal. A clause in his contract states that should he not make the Sabres out of camp he'll return to Finland unless his club gives him permission to skate for the Amerks.
Jokiharju was acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks on July 9 after a pretty successful debut as a teenager. The fluid puck-mover skated in 38 games for the Hawks and another 30 for their AHL affiliate, the Rockford Ice Hogs. His demotion to Rockford seemed to revolve around coaching philosophies as Joel Quenneville was fired and Jeremy Colliton to over as head coach on November 8 although his trade was described as dealing from a position of strength by Chicago GM, Stan Bowman. Jokiharju was skating first-pair minutes along side future Hall of Famer Duncan Keith before sliding down the depth chart and out to Rockford under Colliton. There are plenty of mixed reactions about the trade, but most view Jokiharju as at least a quality NHL d-man.
There are an overflowing number of NHL bodies set to fight for a limited number of spots on the Buffalo blueline and Jokiharju will be one of them. Right now veteran Zach Bogosian
is recovering from hip surgery and he may or may not be ready for opening night while second-year pro Lawrence Pilut
is recovering from shoulder surgery and won't be back until at least the middle of October. That creates a little less competition for a roster spot but it's best to keep in mind that Botterill traded for veteran NHL d-men Brandon Montour (ANA)
and Colin Miller (VGK)
over the past seven months which added to the log-jam on defense. When all's said and done come October, the organization may think it's best that a young player like Jokiharju play big, meaningful minutes in Rochester instead of a diminished role in Buffalo. It's something training camp will help sort out.
The roster in Buffalo is pretty full right now, to the point where Botterill doesn't anticipate having any players coming in on a tryout basis. The GM stated yesterday that the reasoning behind that has more to do with making sure the players here right now get more practice time under new head coach Ralph Krueger. "With playing only six preseason games, we set it that way, we want to have a lot of practice time," said Botterill, "but it's always sort of that balance of finding enough games for your veteran players and giving enough for your young players."
Krueger will be sifting through a lot of players at different ages, different skill levels and at different stages of their development. Competition for spots will be stiff as Botterill added depth and has players coming up through the system that seem to be on the verge of making some noise. It's something Kruger likes. "It's quite clear that competition is what you want," he said yesterday to reporters at Harborcenter. "You want players to come in a little uncomfortable about where the ice time is going to be and how they're going to get there.
"I think that the processes will be laid out clearly," the coach continued, "it will be a very open communication of what it's going to take, and then it's up to the players to answer those questions."
For the record, Buffalo's prospects finished 2-1-0 in the tournament after losing to Pittsburgh yesterday.
Buffalo goal-scorers in the tournament: