Wednesday, August 31, 2016

On the 2nd annual Prospects Challenge, Cody Franson and Jack Eichel

With Labor Day weekend close at hand bid adieu to a rather uneventful summer of 2016 and gear up for the beginning of hockey season. The National Hockey League is staging their World Cup of Hockey slated for September 17th to October 1st as two divisions comprised of four teams each will battle it out for "world" supremacy in the game of hockey.

While the biggest and brightest stars will be on display at the WCOH, including a North American team featuring Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews anchoring a 23-and-under squad, various prospect tournaments will be taking place to highlight younger talent not quite at the WCOH-level. Among them is the Traverse City Tournament celebrating its 17th year, a tournament in Coral Springs, Florida and the 2nd annual Buffalo Sabres Prospect Challenge.

The Sabres attended Traverse City from 2011, the off season after Terry Pegula bought the team until 2014. They won the tournament in 2011 and after the NHL lockout scrapped the 2012 tourney, the Sabres found themselves back in the finals dropping the championship game to the host Detroit Red Wings. The 2014 tournament was a disaster for the Sabres featuring this quote from former Buffalo d-man Nikita Zadorov, "Maybe it wasn't our tournament." after the team finished 0-3-1, were outscored a combined 17-6 and scored more than one goal only one time.

Last year Pegula and his charges struck out on their own inviting the Boston Bruins and New Jersey Devils to join them in a round-robin tourney called the Prospects Challenge. The event was held over three days using the NHL ice at then-named First Niagara Center as well as the main rink at HARBORCENTER. For posterity's sake, the Sabres came out on top with four points, the Bruins had three and the Devils one when all was said and done.

Those three teams return next month on September 16th in the 2nd annual Prospects Challenge. This time it will be held exclusively at HARBORCENTER.

Kris Baker of got to fooling around with line combinations based upon what he feels the roster will look like. Baker notes that "NCAA players do not attend training camp, a situation that eliminates 11 players from this exercise. The Sabres' four Swedish prospects will be in season with their home clubs and should not be expected to participate."

Here's what he proposed:

Alex Nylander - Evan Rodrigues - Justin Bailey
--Curiously enough, he has Rodrigues, known for playing wing, as a center stating, "my original draft of lines had Giorgio Estephan between Nylander and Bailey, [but] The simple plan is to place speed on the outside with an experienced worker down the middle." Baker also noted that Rodrigues might "get a hall pass for the tournament," but it might be better for the new coaching staff to see what he can do and how he might fit in over in Rochester.

William Carrier - Jean Dupuy - Hudson Fasching
This is a bruiser of a line with Carrier and Fasching on the wings. "This trio makes sense if you're constructing an AHL lineup that is tough to play against," wrote Baker.

Brandon Hagel - Cliff Pu - Nick Baptiste
Baptiste was once considered to be in the upper portion of the prospect system but has since fallen a bit, but he still has all the tools. Baker also notes, "the tenacious Hagel and speedy Baptiste complemented each other well with Judd Peterson between them in the Blue-Gold scrimmage." Peterson will be a junior at St. Cloud State during the tournament.

Vaclav Karabacek - Vasily Glotov - Eric Cornel
Karabacek and Cornel are a part of the next wave of rebuild draft picks to hit Rochester as they enter their rookie seasons.

Also available: Daniel Muzito-Bagenda, Matthew Lane

On defense, no surprise as he has Brendan Guhle on the top pair, but what is surprising is that Baker went off the board with "suggested" invite, Jaden Chatfield, who attended Sabres Development Camp back in July.

On the second-pairing he has Brycen Martin - Paul Geiger. Geiger was signed as a free agent by Rochester this off season.

Vojtech Budik - Austin Osmanski/Devante Stephens round out Bakers projected third pairing.

Linus Ullmark and Jason Kasdorf are expected to be in goal.

Although Year-2 of the Prospects Challenge didn't add any teams, the Sabres organization is riding a pretty strong wave after hosting the NHL Draft Combine for the second year running while also hosting the NHL Draft for the first time in nearly 20 years. They've been able to show off Pegula's commitment to the game of hockey, specifically in Buffalo.

The more they continue to build upon their strong reputation the more teams will show interest in everything hockey emanating from Buffalo, including the Prospects Challenge.


WGR beat writer Paul Hamilton talked with Sabres defenseman Cody Franson the other day after some Sabres gathered on HARBORCENTER ice for informal workouts. Franson was having a rough 2015-16 before suffering a concussion that caused him to miss the final 20-plus games of the season and he drew the ire of the media and fans alike.

Franson is a big d-man at 6'5" 213 lbs. but is known more for his offense than anything else. The seven-year veteran had some pretty good seasons when he played for the Toronto Maple Leafs from 2011-14 but he's been unable to duplicate those numbers since. Things dropped off considerably for him after signing with Buffalo last off season and he's well aware of how things went down before he was injured. "Last season was a terrible season for me," he told Hamilton, "I think by far my worst as a pro, so I’m excited to get back at it and try to reestablish myself here.”

Among other players at the skate were Buffalo defensemen Zach Bogosian and Casey Nelson as well as Dan Girardi of the NY Rangers who told Hamilton that "he spends a lot of the summers in Niagara Falls."


Also at the skate was Eichel who will be headed off to WCOH's North American camp next week.

Hamilton had done some yeoman's work catching up with the 19 yr. old Eichel with the youngin stating that this summer, as opposed the whirlwind surrounding his 2015 draft year, was much more palatable. "It was good, it was nice to go home and spend some time there and be able to unwind more than I did last year and focus on training to prepare for the season,” Eichel told Hamilton.

As mentioned, the burgeoning superstar will be joining two other franchise-type players in McDavid and Matthews in what could turn out to be a very intriguing North American roster.

Eichel, as is well-know, is a friend of Jimmy Vesey who ended up signing with the Rangers after Buffalo traded for his rights. “It would’ve been great to have him here, but I don’t think we’re going to dwell on our losses. He had his opportunity to come here and he didn’t. I’m happy for him if he’s happy in New York and that’s good for him and I wish him all the best.”
We also found out that he'll no longer be staying with Matt Moulson and his family as he did last season. Eichel and fellow second-overall pick Sam Reinhart now have their own apartment.

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