Monday, September 14, 2015

Buffalo opens up the inaugural Prospects Challenge with a bang.

Reprinted with permission from

Last night's display of hockey by the Buffalo Sabres in the inaugural Prospects Challenge was a far cry from how they performed last year when they played in the Traverse City Tournament. How far, you might ask? The six goals the Sabres scored last night equaled their total output last year when the team went 0-3-1 and finished last in the eight-team field.

Perhaps it was the competition as last night's opponents, the New Jersey Devils, couldn't match the Sabres' prospect talent and depth. Perhaps it was the number of older players on the Buffalo bench, all of whom contributed immensely to the offensive output. Or maybe it was the coaching as veteran Randy Cunneyworth took the reigns.

Or, one could say a rested Jack Eichel knows how to set the tone and lead the way.

On his first shift wearing the Blue and Gold, Eichel took a feed from linemate Evan Rodrigues and hit the red line with speed. Blazing speed. By the time he hit the faceoff circle to the right of Devils goalie Mackenzie Blackwood (2015, 42nd-overall) he was behind the Devil's defense. Charging up the right side and doing everything he could to get into the play was RW, Nicholas Baptiste (2013, 69th) and the two essentially created a 2-on-0. Eichel fed Baptiste on the doorstep who chipped it over Blackwood's pad for a 1-0 lead just :25 seconds into the contest.

Those who attended the 2015 Sabres Development Camp scrimmage in July saw a tired Jack Eichel. The 2nd-overall pick in the draft that June had just completed a whirlwind season which included non-stop "McEichel" coverage (and it's still going) on his "duel" with fellow draftee, Connor McDavid (1st overall.) In addition to that he (and Rodrigues as well) lead his Boston University Terriers to the NCCA Frozen Four Championship Game then travelled to the Czech Republic to play in the IIHF World Championships where he helped Team USA win the bronze. After putting the skates away it was back to Buffalo for the NHL Combine, down to Sunrise, FL for the draft, constant media coverage thereafter and finally four days of development camp before the puck was dropped at the scrimmage.

The 17,115 in attendance that night saw a tired Eichel whereas the 5,505 at First Niagara Center last night got a first-hand view of what he's all about.

They also saw strong performances from others on the Sabres including Baptiste who followed that goal up with another one on a laser shot from the slot. Baptiste is a strong, 200' player with enough skill and finish to amass 228 points (106+122) in 248 OHL games. “He’s a finisher," said Cunneyworth. "If he can get any pucks in the slot, he’s got a good shot and good release.”

Another finisher is the 22 yr. old Rodrigues.

It was only fitting that Rodrigues would bury his own goal after being in on the first two goals by his linemates, Eichel and Baptiste which included stripping the puck from a Devils d-man to feed Baptiste for his goal. He's another one who's deadly in the slot. With the Sabres on the powerplay Rodrigues found open ice between the circles. He collected a nice feed from Daniel Catenacci took a couple of strides and wristed a rocket top-shelf, glove-side.

Rodrigues had gotten rave reviews for a strong development camp including the 3-on-3 tournament and once again forced the Sabres to take notice. “He was one of the best tonight of the group,” Cunneyworth said of Rodrigues.” I thought he’s shown that niftiness –puck skills, stick skills – that he can get away from guys, have that little juke and find the pass or take the shot if he needs.”

While others might be new to what Rodrigues has to offer, his performance since being signed by the Sabres back in May is nothing new to Eichel who had Rodrigues on his wing at BU. “He’s a pretty good player, huh?" said Eichel, "I think he kind of flew under the radar a little bit last year in college and I think he’s definitely making a name for himself. You see his skill and he’s a good player for sure, I think he’s gonna show a lot of people that.”

Although his success at BU as a senior (21 goals and 40 assists last year) will always (unfairly or not) be linked to Eichel, Rodrigues is out to prove that he can stand on his own. “I think I belong here just like anyone in this room," he said last night. "I’m just obviously trying to prove that.”

The charge of the youngins last night continued with 2013 second-round pick (52nd,) Justin Bailey.

Bailey has been getting stronger by the year and as he continues to fill out his 6'3" frame, his confidence grows along with it. "As soon as he got stronger and then realized how strong he was, his game took off," Kris Baker of told me. Bailey really kicked things in gear after being traded to the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds where he scored 28 points (12+16) in 22 games and was a plus-17. Bailey continued that strong run in the playoffs with seven goals and seven assists in 14 playoff games.

He didn't rest on his laurels either. "He continued to work this summer by spending his own money to work with Belfry Hockey," said Baker.

As Bailey's confidence grows, more of his skill-level begins to show. At the scrimmage in July, he buried a shot from his knees and last night he intercepted a pass in the New Jersey zone, split the defense and buried a quick shot glove-side past a surprised Blackwood.

Other players also made names for themselves. Another BU alum, Cason Hohmann (free agent) scored a goal on a nice tip in the slot off of a Brycen Martin (2014, 74th) shot. Starting goalie Andrey Makarov, who will be looking for consistency this year in Rochester, turned aside all 14 New Jersey shots in just over 30 minutes of playing time. Cunneyworth will be his coach with the Ameks this season and he impressed.

Defenseman Matt Prapavessis (free agent) who signed a amateur tryout contract with Rochester in March and played in 10 games (one assist,) made a good impression with a plus-3 rating while defenseman Josh Chapman continues to impress while turning into a fan favorite. Chapman was a development camp invitee who dropped the gloves with Justin Kea at the scrimmage then scored the only goal in his team's championship victory during the 3-on-3. He's a hard-working, no-hold-barred d-man who patrols the ice and can play defense. Rochester signed Chapman to a one-year AHL deal and Eichel likes what he brings.

"On a winning team you’ve got to have a lot of different pieces," said Eichel. "There’s a lot of good players in this room, and I think some of them don’t get enough credit. You look at Josh Chapman, he’s a guy you like to have on your team. You know that he’s got your back every time he’s on the ice, and I think he’s a great guy to have in the organization.

“There’s a lot of guys like that. Obviously, it’s important to have guys to score goals, but a team’s a lot more than that."

One of those pieces, and an integral part of the future is 2014 second-overall pick, Sam Reinhart.

As it is with Bailey, and nearly every other teenager drafted into the NHL, being strong enough to handle the rigors of playing against men is of the utmost importance to a players success. Last October, after a nine-game stint with the Sabres where managed only one assist and ended up on the fourth line, GM Tim Murray said that it was a tough decision to send him to Kootenay, but that it was in the best interests of both Reinhart and the team.

Said Murray at the time, "I told him (Reinhart,) you're my first 1st-round draft pick as a GM. I was cheering for him, but obviously, I can't let emotions come into play.

"I told him he’s just not heavy enough. He’s not strong enough yet."

Although he initially took the demotion hard, Reinhart proceeded to do exactly what Murray wanted him to do and had an excellent hockey season which included helping to lead Team Canada to a 2015 World Junior gold medal (he also lead all scorers with 11 points and was named to the all-tourney team.) While playing top-line minutes in Kootenay, Reinhart also spent time in the gym and when he came to development camp in July, there was a noticeable difference in his physique. He was the best player at the scrimmage.

Reinhart always had the mind but needed to work on his physical attributes to take it to the next level. This summer he worked on his skating, mainly his explosiveness and that really showed in his goal last night. He split the defense at the Devils blueline, took a feed from Vaclav Karabacek (2014, 49th) and snapped a quick shot past Blackwood. Although he'll never be cut like Zemgus Girgensons, the player who introduced him to the rigors of the NHL with a board-rattling check in the 2014 scrimmage, Reinhart will bulk up just enough to handle what's thrown at him at the pro level.

Tournaments like the Prospects Challenge and Traverse City offer the opportunity for players to see how they stack up against their peers in an NHL setting while also showing how a players development is progressing.

There's a lot to look at other than the score sheet, but for everyone in Sabreland, it was a treat to have the team score six goals while dominating the opposition. After two years of bottom-dwelling and four years of focusing upon the draft, it was a pleasure to see the positives that will come from all the "suffering." It was something summed up nicely by our very own HonkfortheGoose who attended the game last night, "I completely forgot what it feels like to watch my favorite team dominate a game. It's a great feeling."

The Sabers take on the Boston Bruins Monday, the final day of the event.

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