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Sabres at Prospect Challenge
Taking a look at who stood out for Buffalo and other observations
Confession time: I am not super good about prospects. I read up on players, I watch the highlight reels on YouTube, I’ll talk to people I trust to get their opinions on the players, but part of my brain always wants to be right and that’s really dumb.
The players are anywhere from 18-24 years old (26 in Josh Passolt’s case) and most of them have a lot more growth to go through mentally and physically to become pro hockey players. Not necessarily NHL players, just guys that will continue beyond college or junior hockey or, in some cases, play professionally in North America.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a dummy when it comes to creating an opinion about a player—either they impress me, or they don’t—but the ridiculous need to be correct in my analysis can get the best of me. This even goes for things as ridiculous as predictions. Sure, I could goof off and pick a lot of craziness, but the voice in my head tells me I’m going to hear about it from some jabroni online and they’re going to be really annoying about it and I’d rather not deal with it.
It’s amazing I’ve lasted this long online.
Through the three games of the Prospects’ Challenge in Buffalo, there’s a pile of thoughts I’ve put together about the Sabres players that inspired me to write some notes down about how they performed.
The Sabres first of three first-round picks in 2022 came as advertised. He’s a fast and tenacious skater with a lot of skill. The aggressive up-tempo forecheck style Buffalo played (and plays at all levels of the organization now) really seemed to suit Savoie. He was a determined threat without the puck because he was pressuring puck-carriers to make poor decisions or flatly turn it over.
In the final game of the challenge against Ottawa, he put up two goals and nearly pulled off a creative move on a faceoff that got him to the front of the net where his five-hole attempt was just stopped to prevent a hat trick. His passing is outstanding, and he has a great touch on his more difficult passes. He’s got his head up for teammates at all times, but his linemates are also eager to look for him. He’ll be a major addition to the Sabres lineup sometime during 2023-2024.
“He doesn’t feel like an 18-year-old. And his game, how electric and how talented he is, he has a mature game and a mature approach for an 18-year-old which is very, very impressive,” Appert said. “Doesn’t feel like this is too big for him at all. And I really like that his game – as talented as he is, as smart as he is, his games is a working game. He’s a hunter of the puck. He’s a dog on a bone. Those guys as they translate to pro, he has a so-called B-game … He’s not a player that just relies on his mind and his skill and being more skilled than players in junior hockey. He is, but he relies on his work to be a special, special player as well.”
He’s going to training camp and he’ll likely get a long enough look to see how he plays with his NHL bound teammates before heading back to Winnipeg in the WHL. Whether he plays center or wing in the NHL is yet to be determined, but after the Thursday game against Montreal I was feeling he’d be more active and dangerous as a winger, but his play against Ottawa up the middle makes me hesitant to commit to that. If anything prevents him from being a center in the NHL it’ll be his size, but his skill level is so high he might be able to make up for that with other talents.
The third Sabres first-round pick from 2022 had a wild start to the weekend because he was originally off the ice with an injury. Then the injury turned out to be not at all serious and into the games he went, and he was good. He had two assists and an empty-net goal against Montréal and showed that his defensive prowess is strong. Like Savoie, he was in on forechecks well up the ice and pressured puck carriers and potential puck receivers to create chances for his linemates. He showed strong chemistry with fellow Czech Lukas Rousek and an uncanny ability to find him in the offensive zone.
“He has a great swagger about him,” Appert said. “It’s not arrogance at all, but there’s a real swagger and belief that he carries around. He’s an elite player, carries himself like that, looks like it on the ice, accepts coaching but you also know he’s going to make his own decisions out there which is good.”
We heard from Kulich a little bit during the weekend, and “swagger” is completely the right word to use with him. He exudes confidence in himself and his ability and said his goal is to make the NHL this year (obviously) but he knows he has to work hard and do all the things coaches rave about to make that impression. He’s probably going to be around training camp for a while, but with how the Sabres roster is virtually set it’ll be really difficult for him to make the final roster. But he will be a fascinating player to watch in Rochester this season with the number of other younger players they’ll have there as well. I look forward to seeing how he adapts to the AHL and what he’ll do to find his way through it.
Rosén’s speed is a real game changer compared to the other forwards both on the main roster and in the system. Watching him toy with some of the Senators defenders was fun. He would skate up the wing with the defenseman set in front of him and minding his gap well. Then Rosén would flip to another gear and rip past him to generate a scoring opportunity. Any time a forward gets a defenseman to make the “Oh shit!” turn, they’ve done something really good. In his case, it’s just being that fast.
Like the other top-pick players (Rosén went 14th in 2021) he was very responsible on defense and used his speed on the forecheck to his advantage creating turnovers. His speed will certainly translate in the AHL this season, but his size has to be a concern at 5’11” 168 pounds. He’s gotten bigger and stronger since he was drafted a year ago so that’s good, but the bigger thing for him will be to play games and get minutes after being stunted of that at Leksands of the SHL last season.
Power forwards have been a weakness in the Sabres organization for a while. After adding Alex Tuch in the Eichel trade that gave them an absolute NHL-level one to go with Brett Murray who is developing into one more and more in Rochester. Cederqvist will be the next one. At 6’3” 208 pounds he was perhaps the biggest Buffalo forward during Prospects Challenge and he played the role of a power forward to the hilt.
Cederqvist parked in front of the net on the power play and used his body and reach to shield the puck from defenders when taking the puck to the net. Watching how he grows in Rochester is going to be curious because with his size and skill set, he should be able to have success in the AHL once he adapts to the game there. He’s got decent hands and he’s hard to move off his position. He was able to improve each year he played in the SHL and bounced around a bit between there and Allsvenskan and the junior SHL teams when he was younger. He’ll get the opportunity to fit in and improve right away in Rochester.
Having seen very little video of Kisakov’s game, I was very curious to see how his first taste of North American play would go during the tournament and I was impressed. He’s a very shifty skater with a knack for threading his passes on the tape. Like others, he used his quickness to pressure opponents on the forecheck and his small-ish size (5’10” 160 pounds) didn’t deter him from finding his way in the offensive zone.
What I like was that he was strong at keeping the puck moving within the zone. Cycling doesn’t exactly happen the way it did before but using puck movement to put it into spots where others can create better chances is something I caught from Kisakov more than a couple times. He said he’ll do whatever it is the coach wants him to do so I’m sure Appert likes to hear that, but I expect he’ll enjoy being able to deploy him in offensive situations to take best advantage of his abilities. With all the players new to North America or new to the AHL, it’ll take some time for them to find their way. Kisakov’s skills show promise.
“He is a coach’s dream… he is a coach’s dream, because he naturally and innately plays the game the right way,” coach Seth Appert said about Kozak and watching him play it’s very easy to make that assessment. He’s everywhere the puck is. Forecheck, backcheck, offensive zone, defensive zone—he just hounds whoever has the puck and in the offensive zone it means he’ll be all around the net. He’s the brand of player that will drive opponents nuts, not because he’s a dangerous physical player or a master chirper (maybe he is!) but he’s an unshakable presence.
I’ll be eager to see him in a preseason game against some NHL talent to see how he stacks up there, because against players in his age group he excelled during the weekend. He could wind up being a classic late bloomer because he had 32 goals and 69 points in 66 games with Portland in the WHL last season after putting up 40 total points (16 goals 24 assists) in his previous 86 games. He was initially known for his strong defensive game, but after breaking out last season and potting a couple more during the challenge you have to wonder if his offense has caught up completely with the rest of his game.
“He has underrated skill, he and [Filip] Cederqvist,” Appert said. “You saw some of those things, they’re not just hard-working honest players. They have skill, they are intelligent. They’re not just workers.”
He is eligible to return to the WHL this season (he turns 20 in late December) but he’d be an over-age player there. I’d expect to see him in Rochester and help the Americans out this year. Not bad for a seventh-round pick in 2021.
The points may not have been there during the weekend, but his play with Kulich was outstanding and he didn’t have a ton of puck luck for goals. His puck handling is very good and his skill with the puck looks good. I’m high on Rousek’s play and I think he’s poised for a very good year in Rochester to the point where he might make his NHL debut at some point this season.
When I’ve got a high opinion of a player, I’ll sometimes watch them with a mind to find the slip-ups and mistakes. Whatever the antithesis of rose-colored glasses is that’s what I was trying to employ and, honestly, there wasn’t a lot to really pick out that stood out as obvious issues. The whole weekend is a small sample size, of course, but Rousek is a player I’ll be watching closely to see how he does in what will be his first full, and hopefully uninjured, AHL season.
Lindgren is such a smooth skater and an adept puck handler already at 18. He’s headed back to the WHL with Red Deer this season and how he grows there will be fun to watch. He comes from NHL lineage (his father Mats was with the Oilers, Islanders, and Canucks over seven years) and how well he handles himself on the ice already shows he’s had that advantage growing up.
Lindgren got to show his power play quarterbacking ability a bit during the weekend, and he was very good at distributing the puck around the zone and helping facilitate chances. There were some five-on-five defensive hiccups
He’ll be counted on to lead the Rebels’ blue line on what is a fairly young team as is. He was a fourth-round pick in the 2022 Draft, but there is a load of upside with him.
The knock on Laaksonen since he’s come over to North America is that his defensive game was lacking. As a defenseman that’s a bit of an issue. During the weekend it appeared Laaksonen wanted to make sure that would not be a problem. There were some old flashbacks early on Thursday night against Montreal, but the work Mike Weber has done in trying to strengthen his defense showed progress.
Laaksonen wasn’t caught wandering in the defensive end and he made it a point to get in front of shots throughout the games. He showed his ability to run the power play is still as good as it’s been but the signs of a focus on better defense are encouraging. He’ll have a lot of competition on defense in Rochester this season and if the defense catches up with the offense, he won’t have to worry about being scratched.
Weissbach was one of the older prospects in the challenge and he showed how much more mature his game has gotten. He had great patience with the puck, played a disciplined game at both ends, was strong on the forecheck, and facilitated offense well all throughout. He was a very good offensive player with Wisconsin and that was more apparent when he had Cole Caufield as a linemate. He’ll be counted on to be the solid young veteran with the numerous young forwards in Rochester. The maturity in his game, however, will be what sets the pace for him and will allow him to have more success.
Suchanek was an intriguing name to see when the Sabres prospects challenge roster was announced. The Czech goalie was coming off an excellent performance at this summer’s World Junior Championship after he took his lumps with Tri-City in the WHL last season. His numbers there didn’t jump out at anyone, but how he conducts himself in goal is what raised eyebrows.
He played a full game and a half and showed that he only cares about stopping the puck and not so much about being robotic with his style. Suchanek would throw a blocker in front of a shot, knock it down with his glove, or kick the legs out at will to stop the puck and none of it was predictable. It’s easy to say it’s reminiscent of Dominik Hasek but who else would a young goalie from Czechia watch to see how they played the game?
There’s something there with him and there’s no doubt other teams have taken notice. There’s more for him to learn as he gets older but there’s an intangible quality about him that gives off the vibe that he’ll be able to ascend as a pro down the road.
Sova was an invite to the challenge and will be at training camp with the Sabres, but the 18-year-old defenseman from the Erie Otters showed a lot of promise. Sova was undrafted this past year but how he played during the Prospects Challenge made you wonder how that happened.
“He’s very athletic, so he’s very competitive, but he’s very athletic,” Appert said. “He’s an explosive skater, when he goes into battles it’s hard, he has a great shot so there is athleticism in there that looks like it belongs at this level.”
Sova carried the puck with confidence and was aggressive with his offensive game without putting himself in trouble on defense. He wasn’t afraid to take a shot and was decently physical. Since he’ll be at training camp you have to wonder if he winds up getting a contract sooner than not.
Obviously, there weren’t just Sabres prospects playing, there were other teams. I watched a bit more of the Montreal Canadiens, taking in not only their game against Buffalo but most of their matchup against Ottawa. Same can be said of the Senators’ prospects as well. Caught the Devils as well (they also played Buffalo) and a tiny bit of the Bruins and Penguins. I didn’t see nearly enough of the latter two to provide any kind of thoughts, so we’ll pass on that, but a full game of the very experienced Devils group? Yeah, I got that.
Here are a few players I took note of:
It’s impossible to not enjoy the No. 1 pick in the 2022 Draft. He’s affable, he’s funny, and immensely likable. He also made it clear he, “wants to dominate every game.” There is so much talent with him that my initial thoughts of Montréal passing on Shane Wright for him being a huge mistake have been allayed. At least a little bit.
What I saw against Buffalo was a player testing his limits and what he can and can’t get away with. We know he can’t defeat a 1-on-4 attempt to attack, but no one’s told him the odds of success in doing that before. Even if there was a Hockey C-3PO he’d probably say to never tell him the odds anyway.
It was a lot of the little things he can do with the puck that caught my eye. He’s a big guy listed at 6’4”, 229 pounds and he very well might be heavier than that. He’s large but not out of shape and it was evident in how he was able to move around the ice. His hands in traffic were excellent and he can make things happen in an instant with his intelligence and vision on the ice as well as his raw ability.
It wasn’t a 100% perfect performance by any means. The 1-on-4 is good for a laugh, but I’d bet coach J.F. Houle would’ve loved to see him toss it into the corner rather than skate through a wall of players. There was also a turnover on a power play that turned into a shorthanded goal for the Sabres. Mistakes are part of the game, of course, and young players will make them. Old players make them, too.
But through all of that there was so much of what made me think of a couple players. His size and affability alone made me think of Alex Ovechkin or Jaromír Jágr. He was used at the front of the net on the Habs power play which was an interesting idea. He’s certainly large enough to take away any goalies’ eyes so I get it, but his ability to pass and get to the net made me wonder if they just wanted to try something different.
But after all he showed in the game against Buffalo, I found myself looking for him a bit more against Ottawa and there were a couple of chances I caught but there wasn’t a lot that stood out. He’s got main camp and the NHL ahead of him, so I get it. Still, what I watched against Buffalo made me want to watch him more to see how his career evolves. I think Montréal got a really good one and a guy capable of handling the intensity of that market.
Slafkovský’s fellow Slovak first rounder played all three games during the weekend which was a bit of a surprise. He’s quick, he can dart in and out of traffic, and his passing and shot are both very good. He seeks out the puck to move it up ice and he looked good at helping the Canadiens get up the ice and set up in the offensive zone.
Was also impressed with how he attacked on the forecheck, particularly getting some penalty kill time. Many of the “name” players in the challenge were getting equal amounts of power play and PK time but putting pressure on the puck was a strong point of his play. He and Slafkovský combined to score a delightful shorthanded goal against Buffalo that’s one of the highlights of the weekend.
The 2022 second-round pick by Montreal was very good throughout the weekend and he showed a great stick by being able to dispossess skaters that tried to skate at him. He also showed he can dig in along the boards and corners to come away with the puck of be physical if needed. What impressed me most was how he gave any opposing players with the puck no room at all to think about where they wanted to pass next. That kind of play will take him a long way and get him to the NHL sooner than not. He’s a good facilitator of the puck on offense as well. Plays seemed to run through him and were sustained longer by doing that. Eye test warning there, but it seemed to be the case.
Heineman was a second-round pick of the Florida Panthers in 2020 and this will be his first season in North America. What I gathered from him is he has a tremendous shot (his goals against Buffalo and Ottawa were lasers) and he seemed to be everywhere all over the ice.
Coming over from Leksands in the SHL—where he was a teammate of Rosén—it’s easy to see why it’s time for him to give North America a shot. He’ll likely be with Laval in the AHL, and I’ll be curious how he develops there and where his game goes. He could make for a solid two-way threat with his forechecking ability and shot.
It was said when he was drafted and his first AHL season has shown it to be true, but his shot is going to be his meal ticket. Had the OT winner against Boston in New Jersey’s first game and he was very obviously who the Devils’ power play was trying to feed for shots. His shot is outstanding and dangerous anywhere he can let it loose. It’ll be up to how he can forecheck and backcheck and defend overall that determines whether he makes the NHL full-time this season or next, but he’s going to make it. He had 26 goals and 51 points in 52 games.
I keep saying to anyone who will listen, but he’s another Victor Olofsson type of player. Only Olofsson’s shot is better and he’s improved his overall game year to year. Holtz will have to make it uncomfortable for Devils staff to keep him in the AHL.
New Jersey leaned a lot on the No. 2 pick of the 2022 Draft and that speaks volumes about his talent. He’s 18 and carried himself like a 10-year veteran on the ice against his peers. There’s a calm demeanor in his game that is very impressive. His puck handling is outstanding, and his decision-making was very good. Again, it’s just one game and that’s the impression I’m left with, but it’s a comfort to know that the build-up of how a guy can play turns out to be accurate.
The only disappointment I had was his good pal Slafkovský didn’t play against New Jersey so we could see the top-two picks (and friends) face each other. I think we’ll get to see that plenty in the future anyway.
Boucher was the No. 10 pick in the 2021 Draft and what my take on him was will sound insulting but I swear it is not. Boucher is a work in progress. I saw a player who was more than willing to drive the net with the puck and to always attack the net without it. I kept finding myself wanting more. I wanted to see more of him taking charge as one of the higher-up prospects on the Ottawa roster. Whether that’s by controlling the puck and setting up teammates or being a consistent threat shooting the puck or getting into dangerous areas and there wasn’t a whole lot of that in the game-and-a-half I watched of him.
I say it that way to highlight the size of the sampling. It’s not much of a look and just a blip when it comes to evaluation. That said, when you’re taken in the top-10 of a draft I want to see a lot of why that was the case. There was a lot of that from the other first-round picks I witnessed, but not as much as I hoped from Boucher. The tools are there but everything needs more refinement and to be more well-rounded.