Recapping the Sabres Prospects Challenge

Brayton Wilson has some thoughts from last weekend's Sabres Prospects Challenge at HarborCenter

Brayton Wilson
September 14, 2017 - 11:28 pm

Let me first apologize for this coming days after the conclusion of the Sabres Prospects Challenge. I've spent the past couple of days away in the Finger Lakes with my wife celebrating our wedding anniversary.

Now that I'm back, the Buffalo Sabres reported to camp on Thursday before their first open practice on Friday at HarborCenter.

This past weekend, some of the Sabres' prospects took part in the third annual Prospects Challenge in Buffalo against prospects from the New Jersey Devils, Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Sabres were a win away from claiming their second title on Monday, but the Penguins win the title after scoring with nearly 10-minutes remaining in the game to take the lead for good. 

Looking back on the weekend, there was a lot to take in from the future of the Sabres organization. Some positive, some negative.

Here are some of my thoughts from Buffalo's performance:

Best Player: Brendan Guhle - Defenseman

Aside from the first 20 minutes of play against the Devils on Friday, Brendan Guhle was, arguably, Buffalo's best player in the tournament.

Guhle finished the weekend leading the Sabres in assists (4) and points (6) in three games. However, Guhle did all the damage on the score sheet in the final two games against the Bruins and Penguins with a goal and two assists in each game.

While Guhle produced on the score sheet, it was his overall play on the ice that was the most impressive. Guhle showed off his skating skills with his ability to join the rush and contribute offensively, while being able to get back defensively and be reliable in the defensive zone. Guhle was also aggressive on the attack, willing to take the puck into the offensive zone or move the puck and create chances that way.

Guhle is exactly what head coach Phil Housley wants in a defenseman. Housley wants to have an aggressive, five-man attack while playing reliable, responsible hockey in the defensive zone. Guhle's skating and his ability to efficiently move the puck also makes him a weapon from the blue line for years to come in Buffalo.

He may be a lock to start the 2017-18 season in the American Hockey League with the Rochester Americans, but Guhle is certainly one of the young bright spots in the system. If he blows everyone away at training camp, there's a chance he can make the NHL roster starting from Day 1. But Guhle will certainly get a ton of ice-time in the AHL, and will be relied upon to play in all situations under Chris Taylor in Rochester.

Most Clutch Player: Justin Bailey - Right Wing

If there was a time for Justin Bailey to step up and take advantage of his opportunity, this was that time.

Bailey got off to a great start in preseason action with a very strong performance over the weekend. Bailey was going at 100-percent just about every shift he played at this tournament, using his speed, size and skill to his advantage. In three games played, Bailey scored twice and added an assist along with eight shots on goal.

Bailey looked as dominant as he should have for having the most NHL experience among any of Buffalo's prospects. The 22-year old looked fast, shifty, over-powering, and looked like the leader he set out to be before the start of the tournament.

With a possible roster spot up for grabs in the top-six forward group, this was a promising start for the 2013 second round pick. If Bailey can arrive for camp and continue to compete and play at the level he did against NHLers, there's a chance that he will get a crack with the Sabres to start the 2017-18 season.

If not, look for Bailey to take on a bigger leadership role with the Amerks while possibly being at the top of the call-up list throughout the season. If Bailey can figure out his game mentally and become a complete player, he has the potential to become a very dangerous weapon for the Sabres.

Most Surprising Player: Cliff Pu - Center

There's no denying that Cliff Pu is an exceptional talent in the Sabres organization. The former third round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft put up 35 goals and 86 points in 65 games this past season with the London Knights in the Ontario Hockey League. The 19-year old centerman is very quick on his feet and has the smarts and awareness to make plays at a high pace.

Where Pu surprised me this weekend was how he played in all areas of the ice. 

Pu was everywhere in all situations for the Sabres this weekend. He played on the Sabres' top-line all weekend, while also taking responsibility on the team's top powerplay and penalty kill units.

Where Pu also impressed this weekend was his willingness to sacrifice himself and make the necessary play when it mattered. On the penalty kill, Pu was getting in shooting lanes and attempting to block shots. On the powerplay, he utilized his space given to him and made some nice passes and plays to set up his team to put some production on the scoreboard.

One play in particular that stood out was a play on the powerplay against Pittsburgh when Pu chased down a puck along the boards that jumped off his stick. Pu dove after the puck and was able to keep the puck away from the Penguins defender. Bailey was able to come in for support, get the puck back to Guhle, who fed the puck over to C.J. Smith for the goal.

Sabres head coach Phil Housley mentioned Pu as a standout player this weekend, but it is doubtful that he makes the NHL roster this season, even for his nine-game tryout. Instead, he will go back to London, work to further develop his game under Dale Hunter, and possibly get a look from Team Canada for the 2018 IIHF Under-20 World Junior Championship in Buffalo this December.

Feel good story: Colin Blackwell - Center

When looking at the lineup for the Sabres on Friday, I'm sure many people saw the name Colin Blackwell and had no clue who he was. The 24-year old forward was an invitee to the tournament after spending last season with the San Jose Barracuda in the AHL. In 57 games with the Barracuda, Blackwell scored four goals and registered eleven points.

Blackwell stepped up his game this past weekend, scoring twice on Friday against New Jersey while adding an assist on Saturday against Boston. Blackwell played primarily as Buffalo's third line center, but also stepped up on the second powerplay unit and the penalty kill.

While Blackwell only stands at 5' 9" and 190-pounds, the smaller center plays a gritty, physical game and is not afraid to get into the dirty areas.

Blackwell has since been assigned to the Amerks training camp, where he will look to get the chance to start a new chapter in his career. Even if he signs an AHL contract, he can provide some good depth for the Amerks or the ECHL Cincinnati Cyclones. With the way he played and worked at the Prospects Challenge, Amerks general manager Randy Sexton should give him a look.

Can't wait to see more: C.J. Smith - Left Wing

While the Sabres did not land top college free agent Will Butcher this offseason, they did land one of the top college free agents at the end of the 2016-17 season.

C.J. Smith came in from UMass-Lowell after producing a team-high 23 goals and 51 points in 41 games with the River Hawks. In two games in Buffalo last season, Smith registered an assist in his first NHL game, but was a healthy scratch for the final three games of the season.

While not much was known of Smith during his time at UMass-Lowell, he showed in his two games in April his speed and playmaking qualities that can make him a piece to the puzzle in Buffalo.

This past weekend, we got the chance to see more of that speed and exceptional vision that makes Smith a good playmaker. He put himself in spots to score, which included two goals on the powerplay in the last two games against Boston and Pittsburgh. He also showed a strong physical presence that one would expect from a college player compared to a junior player.

Can C.J. Smith make the NHL roster starting Day 1? Sure. Is it likely? No.

Let him start the season in Rochester to further develop his game at the professional level. If his play continues to progress, then give him a shot.

Many will certainly be looking forward to seeing Smith play more in the organization, and getting the chance to evaluate his style of play. From the small sample size we've seen to this point, so far so good.

Left wanting to see more: Nick Baptiste - Right Wing

Not that Nick Baptiste had a bad tournament or anything, but I was expecting to see more from the 2013 third round pick.

The 22-year old winger did score the game-winning goal against Boston on Saturday and showed his under-rated speed and physicality, but he had a lot of bounces go against him and the puck never really found his stick for good, quality scoring chances.

Baptiste put up some good production in the limited NHL action he saw last season in Buffalo, scoring three goals and an assist in 14 games. Baptiste also led the Amerks last season with 25 goals in 59 games. He has the capability of competing at the NHL level, but really needs to show that he can dominate at the AHL level first before making the next big jump.

With a good training camp, Baptiste has the opportunity to grab that top-six open spot on the wing with either Jack Eichel or Ryan O'Reilly. If he is sent back to Rochester, he has to continue to produce and show that he can dominate at the AHL level. If he can, it won't be long before Baptiste is back in Buffalo.

Most Concerning: The defense minus Guhle

One thing that we have learned about Tim Murray's tenure as general manager in Buffalo is that he lacked the ability to draft and acquire quality defensemen to fit today's NHL game. Brendan Guhle, Will Borgen and maybe Casey Fitzgerald are the only exceptions to this statement, but the defensive depth behind them is a mess.

In the 2014 NHL Draft, Murray selected only one defenseman out of the nine picks they had that season. Brycen Martin was taken in the third round and was projected to be a good skating defenseman with the ability to move the puck. Since making the jump to professional hockey last season, Martin has struggled mightily to transition from juniors to the AHL and even the ECHL. While he's a decent skater, Martin's decision making is really what brings his game down. He missed a number of passes over the weekend, and also missed a wide-open net on Monday in the third period with the Sabres down to the Penguins.

2015 fifth round pick Devante Stephens has improved over the past couple of years, but also struggled in the two games he played. Where he has made strides is in his skating, but he struggled with size and his puck movement. If Stephens can't figure out his transition to the professional game and struggles early on, he could end up playing in the ECHL.

Buffalo's second pick in the fifth round pick in 2016 NHL Draft, Vojtech Budik, spent the entire tournament playing on the top-pairing with Guhle. While his defensive-end play was good, he struggles with his skating and his puck movement. Budik really needs to work on his passing and ability to clear the puck out of his own end, or else he will be spending most of his time on the ice in his own end.

2016 seventh rounder, and East Aurora native, Austin Osmanski also needs a lot of practice with his footwork, skating and puck movement. He was also very undisciplined, especially on Monday by taking three penalties in the final 40 minutes of action.

Hopefully some of the Sabres' defensive prospects can turn the corner in the near future, but the state of the defensive depth down the pipeline is concerning.

Check out some of these prospects at HarborCenter as training camp is officially underway. All open practice sessions are free and open to the public. You can view the full schedule here:

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