The annual Blue and Gold Development Camp Scrimmage took place at HARBORCENTER yesterday afternoon before an estimated crowd of about 1,600 hockey fans. It's a far cry from the 17,000+ that watched Jack Eichel last season at First Niagara Center but, then again, none of the youngins on the ice had Eichel's stature so it was to be expected.
After spending years in a rather secluded area of Niagara County at Dwyer Arena on the campus of Niagara University, Sabres Development Camp was moved downtown and has become an event beginning in 2014 just after the Sabres drafted Sam Reinhart with the second-overall pick in the draft. From the sleepy twin rinks at Dwyer to NHL ice of F'N Center the scrimmage that year boasted 8,725 fans in attendance on a hot day in July. And with last year as it's apex, the event now gets back to it's roots in an intimate setting at HARBORCENTER.
Logistics prevented me from going to the scrimmage but the Sabres streamed the game live at sabres.com. We were greeted with the legendary voice of Rick Jeanneret, who was in mid-season form, nailing names and numbers as if he'd been watching these newbies for years, on play-by-play and Sabreland's most trusted man in Brian Duff who's smooth delivery and quick anecdotes kept things rolling throughout the commercial-free game.
As always, it's best to keep in mind that it's a scrimmage in July well after competitive games have been played. On the ice are younger players, this year's draft picks, camp-invitees and a few players on the verge of the NHL. The "vets" are expected to control the show, the younger players are expected to show progress, the draft picks are expected to showcase a little of why they were drafted and the invitees should be looking to do everything in their power to get noticed.
With that in mind, it was a game that started out with a lot of nervousness on both sides until the first goal by Team Blue which seemed to settle things down. Blue did not have the pure skill of Team Gold, but they did have more vets, some capable scorers and a line that would end up dominating. They played very well under Rochester Americans head coach Dan Lambert in every zone. Their forecheck was relentless and lead to a few of their five goals while their defense was stout enough to allow only one Gold goal five-on-five. The other two goals scored by Gold came on penalty shots.
Since there was no powerplay, a penalty shot was awarded in lieu of 2:00 minutes in the box. The cool part about the penalty shot in the scrimmage yesterday is the "Chase Game." With the puck at center ice and the player taking the shot ready to go, the remaining skaters line up on the blue line behind him. Once he gets the puck all players chase behind him while he's going in on the goalie. If he scores the play is stopped. If there's a save or a missed shot, play continues.
It was extremely fun to watch and on one penalty shot by Cliff Pu, he was actually caught by Devante Stephens who interrupted the shot. On another one, Brandon Hagel went in for his and his weak five-hole attempt was stopped by Williamsville's own Steve Racine. But Eric Cornel swooped in and poked home the rebound on a puck that was just laying in the crease.
Could the NHL incorporate this into the game? I doubt it, but it sure is fun to watch and adds a whole new dimension to the penalty shot.
For fans of the Sabres, it was a good way to spend a few hours in an intimate setting with more than a few players who will be donning the Blue and Gold in the future. And after spending a couple of hours in the chill of an ice rink they could catch the rail to Chippewa and Delaware to indulge in the tasty treats of the Taste of Buffalo happening at the same time.
For those who missed the game (maybe because they were pounding down some Chiavetta's BBQ Chicken or cooling off with an Anderson's custard cone) here are some notes while sipping an Ice Pick while watching the live stream:
LW, Alexander Nylander--Taken with the 8th overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft the only knock on this highly-skilled player was his invisibility at times. Sure enough, the first thing I jotted down about him came in the second period was "Nylander decides to show up." That said, when he did, he dazzled, at least on his two penalty shots for Team Gold. His future development centers around bringing it more consistently and bringing it against the opposition's top players, but my oh my, the kid's got some skills.
C, Rasmus Asplund--Drafted with the 33rd pick in 2016, Asplund was the apple of GM Tim Murray's eye when he pulled off the trade with Florida and moved up in the draft. He's quick and shifty and always seems to be on the puck. He ended up with a goal (and also rang one off of the post) and a fine showing in his first action as a Buffalo Sabre.
LW, Brandon Hagel--Who? Right. Hagel was the workhorse on his line and ended up with two assists for his efforts. The 17 yr. old was the youngest player on the ice and showed the gumption to prove he belonged with this group. Selected with the 159th pick in last year's draft, Hagel will return to Red Deer (WHL) next season knowing the he can hold his own against some elite talent with an eye towards improving upon his rookie line of 13 goals and 34 assists for the Rebels.
C, Connor Hurley--This was Hurley's third development camp and the key for him is year-over-year improvement. Hurley was the youngest player taken in the 2013 NHL Draft (38th-overall) and he's on a long development curve at Notre Dame. His skills always remind me of Tim Connolly's, but unlike the injury-prone Connolly who began playing in the NHL as an 18 yr. old, Hurley will have all the time he needs to develop both physically and mentally. He looked bigger on the ice and played with much more confidence as he darted in and out of the play in all three zones.
D, Austin Osmanski--There was a sense of nepotism involved when Osmanski was taken with the 189th pick of the 2016 draft as he's friends with Murray's son. But he showed that he's more than just a token draft pick from East Aurora. Osmanski was physical and handled himself very well against the Gold forecheck. He's a project but like Hagel, he should be headed back to junior with a ton of confidence.
C, Judd Peterson--Peterson's another draft pick that was one of the youngest in his draft class. The 7th rounder was taken with the 204th pick in 2012 and will be entering his junior season at St. Cloud State. Peterson centered the best line on the ice yesterday with wingers Nic Baptiste and Hagel and he controlled the play in all three zones. Peterson was always in the right spot and showed off some pretty slick moves while notching a goal and an assist.
RW, Victor Oloffson--Here's yet another late draft pick (181st, 2014) who's on a long development curve that's slowly getting better and better. The kid can skate and he's got a great set of hands. At 5'11" 173 lbs. he's on the smaller side of the equation, but he creates space and can get the puck where it needs to be as he did on Estephan's goal. Last season in the Swedish Elite League he increased his production and there's reason to believe he'll match or better his 14 goals and 15 assists in 2015-16.
The Vets--Justin Bailey, Baptiste and William Carrier were all expected to be a presence on the ice, and all three were. Anthony Florentino played solid hockey on defense and played a very chippy game. It looked like he was ready to drop the gloves, but this time there was no willing partner like there was in 2015 with Justin Kea.
G, Antoine Samuel--Don't let his stats from the QMJHL last year fool you. The Quebec League is anything but goalie-friendly and for an 18 yr. old playing in an offensive-minded league, they're bound to be weak. But yesterday he showed very well as he was quick in the crease and positionally strong. Samuel went undrafted this season and will definitely be on the radar next season.
D, Brendan Guhle--Just a pleasure to watch. Looks every bit the part of an NHL'er in the very near future. How soon is the only question to be answered.
Goalies Cal Petersen and Jonas Johansson. Petersen was again pretty stout in net and was only beaten by a great shot from the stick of Giorgio Estephan. He didn't need to be spectacular as Blue's defense was pretty solid. Johansson on the other hand had a real rough go of it. Although the goals he let in were mostly legit, he looked shaky and it didn't help that most of the players in front of him were of the skilled variety. That said, they're goaltenders and most don't even begin to get going until they've played a handful of competitive games so nothing really should be read into it.
The youngins have the day off today and will resume workouts tomorrow for two sessions. The camp will finish with the annual 3-on-3 competition known as The French Connection 3-on-3 Tournament. Tickets for the tourney to be at HARBORCENTER main ice rink are $10.