Still plenty of optimism within Sabres' prospect depth

Many of Buffalo's prospects had strong outings at the Sabres Prospects Challenge

Brayton Wilson
September 13, 2019 - 9:15 am

Photo: Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres)

As the Buffalo Sabres are set to kick off training camp on Friday, many of the team's prospects got the chance to hit the ice early for game action at the Sabres Prospects Challenge last weekend.

The Sabres managed to grab two wins in the tournament against the New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins, but failed to claim the title after a loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on the final day on Monday.

The last several years for the Sabres have not gone well for the team in the regular season, resulting in a number of top picks being awarded to the Sabres at the NHL Draft. Players like Sam Reinhart, Jack Eichel, Casey Mittelstadt, and Rasmus Dahlin have all played in past Prospects Challenges before getting the opportunity to crack the NHL roster over the past few seasons.

A number of prospects have now either graduated to the NHL level or moved on to other organizations, while others are at school or playing professionally overseas. That had an impact on who was eligible to play for the Sabres in this year's tournament, and also didn't give fans a chance to look at the future of the organization.

However, a number of prospects for the Sabres put up strong efforts at this year's tournament that will still give people optimism for the future in Buffalo.
 

  • Victor Olofsson

​​​​​​​This was the second consecutive Prospects Challenge for Olofsson after coming over from North America last season and scoring 30 goals with the Rochester Americans. This tournament was the chance for Olofsson to play at an exceptional level above his counterparts to prove that he is ready to make the jump to the National Hockey League in 2019.

Olofsson often looked like a men amongst boys on the ice in the three games played, using his gifted shot to put him above the rest.

The 24-year-old finished the tournament with two goals and five points, but was active in both ends of the ice throughout playing as one of Buffalo's top forwards. 

Olofsson played the first two games of the tournament with both Rasmus Asplund and Andrew Oglevie, before shifting to a line with Dylan Cozens and Kyle Olson for the game against Pittsburgh.

The Swedish winger was able to re-kindle his chemistry with Asplund in the opening two games, both being able to find one another on the ice and use their speed and stick work to create disruptions in both ends of the ice.

What put Olofsson ahead of the rest was his shot and showing off his capabilities as a shooter. Even though he only scored twice, Olofsson got off a number of quality shot attempt on goal that kept Buffalo active offensively throughout the tournament. Some shots hit the post, others were stopped, and if he missed on a shot, it was only by a matter of inches.

If Olofsson can show that his play is going to transfer to the NHL level during training camp and the preseason, he should have a spot on the roster on opening night. If not, he should not have to wait long in Rochester to get his next chance in Buffalo.

 

  • Rasmus Asplund

The other veteran Swede of this tournament put up a strong show playing as one of Buffalo's top centers in the three games played.

Asplund finished the tournament as the leading scorer with six points (3+3) while playing in all sorts of situations on the ice. He stepped up on the power play, penalty kill, and any shut down situation the Sabres faced in the tournament.

Amerks head coach Chris Taylor really relied upon Asplund last season in Rochester in similar situations after he had gotten used to the North American game. Taylor really called upon Asplund once again this past weekend, and he really stepped up in a big way.

What makes Asplund such a promising prospect is his strong, solid play down the middle and in both ends with his speed, skill and stick work. He skates very well, is getting stronger every game, and is very well composed mentally.

Will Asplund break into the NHL this season? Maybe not right away, but it's very possible that we can see Asplund with the Sabres as the season churns along.

 

  • Arttu Ruotsalainen

We got to see a bit of Ruotsalainen during Sabres development camp back in late June, and early on we could see the drive that he has as a bit of a smaller player at 5' 8" and 181-pounds.

In three games at the Prospects Challenge, Ruotsalainen was able to show off the complete package and put up a really decent performance.

It was evident that the 21-year-old has played professionally in Finland for the last years compared to a number of kids who have yet to take part in any professional level game. Ruotsalainen was quick on his feet and saw the ice really well when the puck found his stick, while also being able to withstand the physical aspect of the game in the open ice and around the boards. His confidence was beaming in both ends of the ice, and was not afraid to try and make a play on the smaller ice surface in North America.

The Finnish forward ended his tournament with only one goal, but had a few more chances that he helped set up or generated on his own.

What Ruotsalainen needs to continue to work on moving forward is adjusting to the pace of play in North America, but that will come with time.

If he can come close to cracking the Sabres' roster on opening night, there may be a chance that his Finnish club (Ilves) will allow Ruotsalainen to play this upcoming season in the American Hockey League with Rochester. While that sounds nice and all, it's more likely that he heads back to Finland for the 2019-20 season before having a chance to play with the Amerks for a potential playoff run.

 

  • Dylan Cozens

The seventh overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft really showed off his raw talent while playing in two of the three games, and was given the opportunity to play some key situations in his first close-to NHL action.

The 18-year-old finished the tournament with a goal and three assists while playing as a top-six forward. His goal came on the power play with a wrist shot that found its way through the goaltender. Cozens also used his speed and footwork to take advantage of the opposition and create scoring chances.

Where Cozens needs to improve is with his strength and some of his decisions with the puck. A few times in both games, Cozens tried to battle 1-on-1 with the opposition and it didn't result in a scoring chance. He will need to bulk up a bit more before he gets to the NHL, as well as rely on his teammates to contribute instead of trying to do it all by himself.

But will Cozens possibly get a look at the NHL level? There's a chance that he could. Maybe he gets his nine games with the Sabres before having to burn a year off his entry-level contract. Why not give the kid a look?

That will come in a solid showing during training camp and the preseason. If not, it's back to the Western Hockey League and the Lethbridge Hurricanes.

 

  • Matej Pekar

Pekar showed up to this year's tournament and appeared to successfully irritate the opposition like he's accustom to doing.

The 19-year-old brought some nastiness to his game, he got his nose into places where it shouldn't be, and even got physical with a fight and plenty of hits.

On the other side of things, Pekar was able to contribute offensively with two goals in the second game of the tournament against the Bruins. He can bring some good offensive instincts with good awareness for the net, as well as the size to get the positioning needed to make a play.

Where Pekar needs to be careful of is his discipline when getting involved in some scrums. A couple of times in the tournament, he took it up another step in a scrum and got the only penalty. That led to a couple of power play goals against, which will never make any coach happy.

Pekar will likely head back to the Ontario Hockey League this season to re-join the Barrie Colts, and also be part of the Czech Republic team that will host the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship.

However, many fans have already fallen head-over-heals for Pekar's future in Buffalo.

 

  • Kyle Olson

Although Olson is not a Sabres prospect, he makes the list because of how he showed up for the team as an invitee.

The 20-year-old didn't look out of place playing as a top-nine forward in the tournament, and even got the chance to play on the power play and penalty kill with some of Buffalo's top prospects. He went on to score a goal and pick up an assist in three games, but his ability to gel into the lineup was noticeable.

Olson is set to return to the Tri-City Americans in the Western Hockey League as an over-ager this season, but earned a training camp invite to the Sabres along the way. He was able to 21 goals and register 70 points in 62 games with Tri-City in the 2018-19 season.

If he has another solid showing at training camp and any preseason action he may get, there's a chance he could earn an entry-level contract from the Sabres.

 

  • Henri Jokiharju

In his first action as a Sabre, Jokiharju came as advertised.

The 20-year-old defenseman showed off his composure on the blue line at the Prospects Challenge with and without the puck in both ends of the ice. His transitional game from defense to offense was on-point with his passing, as well as his ability to carry the puck through the zones himself.

The Finnish defenseman earned a spot in the NHL last season with the Chicago Blackhawks, and got the chance to play 38 games before being sent back to the AHL with the Rockford IceHogs. Jokiharju also competed internationally for Finland twice last season, where he won the gold medal both at the IIHF World Junior Championship, as well as the IIHF World Championship in Slovakia.

Jokiharju went on to play in the first and third game of the tournament, and in each game picked up a pair of assists. He's very solid in the offensive zone with his puck movement and finding lanes to get pucks to the net, and is not afraid to even join the rush and make a play happen himself. 

Where Jokiharju can continue to improve his game is in the defensive zone, as well as continuing to build up some strength in front of the goaltender.

Nonetheless, he is up for a spot at the NHL level this season. However, there may not be room for him with the Sabres, which means he would head down Interstate-90 to play with the Amerks to start the 2019-20 season.

Expect to hear a lot of Jokiharju's name in Buffalo for the upcoming future.

 

  • Jacob Bryson

What Bryson may lack for size he sure makes up for with his skating.

The 21-year-old is a very fast and shifty skater on the blue line who generates a good amount of power with his short strides. Bryson stands in at only 5' 9" and 179-pounds, but his speed alone helped him avoid trouble on a number of occasions.

Not to mention, he showed that he is much stronger than it looks as he was able to win a number of puck battles along the boards. Playing at Providence and in the Hockey-East Conference at school probably helped him out in that department.

Bryson finished his tournament with an assist in three games played, but was a key piece to the Buffalo power play, and was also featured in some other key positions on the blue line.

The only thing that cost Bryson on a couple of occasions is when he was pressured and turned over the puck in the open ice. That's probably just the pace of the game catching up to him, which can be corrected with more work on the smaller ice surfaces of the NHL and AHL.

It's more likely to see Bryson in Rochester for all of the upcoming season rather than in Buffalo, but the Sabres seem to be high on his potential moving forward. This weekend showed exactly why the team was so high on him.

 

  • Will Borgen

Borgen came to work in both games that he played to start the tournament, even getting in on the offensive action with a goal in the opening game.

The smooth-skating two-way defenseman has grown a lot in the past year as he completed his first full season of professional hockey. In this tournament, Borgen looked like the mature and reliable veteran on the blue line who was more of the stand-pat type of defenseman, but willing to jump up if needed.

Borgen did not play in the third and final game of the tournament, but his strong play in Games 1 and 2 show that he's ready to take the next step in his development.

With the current logjam in Buffalo, finding a spot for Borgen in the NHL is unlikely to start the season. However, he will be a likely call up candidate throughout the season when bodies start to fall.

 

  • Casey Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald may have been the prospect to jump off the page the most at this year's Prospects Challenge.

The 22-year-old made his professional appearance with four games played in Rochester after signing his entry-level contract in March. In those games, he scored a goal and registered two assists, and didn't look to out of place in those games.

At this year's tournament, Fitzgerald was all over the ice with his speed and skating. He was aggressive with the puck in the offensive zone and in transition, and was also reliable in his own end. His puck movement was on par, and he was willing to throw his body around and even throw some punches when needed.

It's likely that Fitzgerald spends most of this upcoming season in the AHL with Rochester, but if he continues to be aggressive and show what he did at the Prospects Challenge, he could quickly start to rise up the ranks and be another call up option if needed.

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