The Road to the Show Begins Next Thursday
The path to the NHL for some young Sabres hopefuls begins next week as the Buffalo Sabres will once again host their (mostly) annual Prospects Challenge at the Harborcenter.
This year’s tournament will run from Thursday, September 15th through Monday the 19th and will feature some of the best prospects in the Sabres organization along with youngins from the Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Prospects Challenge will be the first opportunity for several young players – perhaps JJ Peterka, Jack Quinn, Jiri Kulich and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen among them – to make their case for an NHL job before training camp opens in two weeks. And while fans are certainly hopeful that at least a couple of those players will make the opening day roster, it must be said that the Sabres can ice a complete 23-man roster with none of the aforementioned players onboard:
Jeff Skinner – Tage Thompson – Alex Tuch
Casey Mittelstadt – Dylan Cozens – Victor Olofsson
Rasmus Asplund – Peyton Krebs – Vinnie Hinostroza
Zemgus Girgensons – Riley Sheahan – Kyle Okposo
Mattias Samuelsson – Rasmus Dahlin
Owen Power – Henri Jokiharju
Jacob Bryson – Ilya Lyubushkin
That’s definitely the most boring roster build imaginable.
It’s also by no means the most realistic roster imaginable. Rather it's an exercise to show that it’s up to the young players whom many hope to see in Buffalo to show that they’re more deserving of a place on the roster than say, Riley Sheahan or Anders Bjork. If intriguing assets like Quinn and Peterka are in fact not up for it, the Sabres are able to fill their forward, defense and goaltending spots with players who have NHL experience.
Controlling play at the prospect level will be the first step for guys like Jack Quinn to show that they are ready for an NHL role rather than a bus ticket back to Rochester for training camp with the Americans. It's also a step Kevyn Adams is seemingly keen to see Quinn take as evidenced by his frequent comments about letting young kids play their way on to the team.
“In terms of the big picture, I’m really excited about the internal answers we have here in the organization for down the road,” Adams said back in May. “We’ll look at different options but we wont box ourselves out… down the road.”
That’s where players like Riley Sheahan come in. When training camp starts, Quinn – and Peterka for that matter – will have every opportunity to supplant the once-and-current Buffalo center and send him to Rochester in their stead. All of that will start during the tournament next week.
It’s a fact of NHL life that general managers will usually take the road of least resistance when building their rosters, and that often means sending a young waiver-eligible player back to the minors if he’s not head-and-shoulders above his established competition. Sometimes even that isn’t enough, so for Quinn to make the team, he will have to be demonstrably better than Anders Bjork during the preseason due to the conservative nature of NHL general managers.
The same could be said of JJ Peterka in his battle to make the team. The Sabres have no firmly entrenched fourth-line center, although Sheahan is currently the front runner due to his past history in the league, and while Peterka is not vying for the same role as Sheahan, he is certainly vying for his spot on the roster. Peterka will need to prove to management that his value as an offensive threat is more important to the roster than the perceived value of a veteran bottom-six center. That job will start during the Prospect Challenge next week.
Thankfully for both Quinn and Peterka, head coach Don Granato is not as tied to veteran players as say, Ralph Krueger, and Granato has shown that he’s willing to put a player like Anders Bjork in the press box when he’s not happy with their play.
For someone like Kulich, it’s a much harder row to hoe.
Kulich, of course, is an absolute longshot to make the team as a young 18-year-old who was only drafted this past summer, and the Sabres would be wise not to rush his development. His path to the NHL is almost certainly blocked as the Sabres try to develop him in a more seasoned all-around player, but if he’s an undeniable, unstoppable force during the prospect tournament, he will have the attention of Sabres management and therefore the opportunity to carry momentum into training camp. The Prospect Challenge is a necessary first step for Kulich if he’s to have any chance of cracking the 23-man roster.
Goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen may have an easier time making his way to The Show. The math on the roster may become a little tricky, but stay with me. If we assume that two out of Sheahan, Bjork, Quinn and Peterka make the roster while the other two are sent to Rochester, then Luukkonen could occupy the 8th defenseman spot held in the above roster projection by recent returnee Lawrence Pilut.
According to CapFriendly, Pilut is still waivers exempt, meaning the Sabres could send him to Rochester without fear that another team could poach him. That contractual situation would allow the Sabres to carry one extra forward, one extra defenseman, and one extra goalie. If Luukkonen is undeniably better than Anderson in September, the Sabres could decide to roll with Comrie and Luukkonen to start the year, while letting the 41-year-old Anderson watch from the press box. The lack of game activity would in all likelihood have little effect on Anderson who has logged 683 games in the NHL to this point. If anything, less activity may actually benefit Anderson if-and-when he’s pressed into service.
While none of these roster questions can be answered now, the Prospects Challenge will begin to answer some questions next week.