Published by hockeybuzz.com, 9-8-2017
The third annual Buffalo Sabres Prospects Challenge kicks off today. The four day event features prospects and invitees from four teams that will compete in a round-robin format beginning this afternoon at HarborCenter in downtown Buffalo. At 3:30 p.m. the Boston Bruins take on the Pittsburgh Penguins and at 7 p.m. the Sabres take on the New Jersey Devils.
Tickets are $10.
Fans of the Blue and Gold will be able to watch the future of the Sabres with players like Brendan Guhle, Alexander Nylander and Cliff Pu face off against prospects from other teams in peer vs. peer competition. Although the object is to win, and there will be plenty of skill on display, Rochester head coach Chris Taylor, who will be behind the bench for Buffalo, is focused upon compete-level. "It doesn't matter their skill level. It doesn't matter anything else. Their compete is what we're looking for," he told the press. "Are they willing to go in front and take the goalie's eyes away? Are they willing to box out in front of the net? Are they willing to get pucks off the walls? How hard are they going to battle?"
Nylander is one to keep an eye on in that department. Drafted eight-overall in 2016, Nylander possesses all the skill to be an impact forward yet there were concerns about his full-game compete. "We’d like to see more of a three-zone effort and commitment in the greasy areas," wrote Kyle Woodlief's RedLineReport. "He spends far too much time on the perimeter. Rarely initiates contact, and if he’s not scoring, he’s not helping. But he’s a gamebreaker; can be invisible for 57 minutes, then win the game."
We saw that last year in Rochester. Longtime Amerks broadcaster Don Stevens attributed some of those negatives to lack of pro-ready frame which, in-turn, affects his confidence. "He's so worried about not getting killed, sometimes he's not doing the things he needs to do and stays away from the physical contact."
Adding bulk was Nylander's homework and he passed with flying colors as he's visibly bigger and thicker and seems more ready for the pro game. "He looks a little bigger," said Taylor. "Everything about him, he looks confident in what he's doing and how he's handling himself. He just looks a little more mature."
As mentioned in yesterday's blog, there's a huge hole on the left side after Evander Kane and a strong camp by Nylander, beginning with the Prospects Challenge, may give him a shot at a top-six role.
Guhle is another one to keep an eye on. The 2015 second round pick (51st-overall) just completed his junior career and heads to the pros full time after playing 12 games for Rochester in two years and appearing in three games for the Sabres last season. The 6'1" 186 lb. d-man from Edmonton, Alberta has made an impression whenever he was given a professional opportunity.
It began in the preseason in 2015 when there were thoughts that he could make the team and finished in April, 2016 when he played in six games for Rochester registering four points (1+3) and an even plus/minus rating. This past December he played for Buffalo on emergency recall (zero points, +1) and once again finished the year with the Amerks playing in another six games with two points (1+1) and a minus-3 rating.
Another player to watch is center Pu, who will eventually head back to London to skate his (probable) final season with the Knights in the OHL. Pu had a banner season while leading the team in scoring last year with 35 goals and 51 assists in 63 games. The skilled two-way forward was used in a different role during the playoffs, according to Kris Baker of sabresprospects.com/sabres.com, when "the Knights' staff used him in a match-up capacity against the opposition's top line."
Absent from the Prospects Challenge are college players and those overseas which represents a huge chunk of Buffalo's prospect pool. The breakdown, according to Baker has 12 players playing in the NCAA this season and five playing in Sweden and Finland.
Prized forward prospect Casey Mittelstadt (2017, 8th-overall) begins his college career at the University of Minnesota. Mittelstadt dazzled at Buffalo's development camp in July and caught everyone's eye at the World Junior Summer Showcase later that month and into early August. Should he progress at the level of his skill and talent, Mittelstadt could be a one and done with the Golden Gophers and end up in the pros next season. Also missing from the tournament is center Rasmus Asplund, who's entering his third season on the senior circuit in Sweden. Baker sees Asplund playing a big role for Färjestad BK this season "with his eyes set on forcing his way on to Sweden's Olympic team."
The Prospects Challenge is a place for "older" players like Justin Bailey an Nicolas Baptiste as well as invitees. It's a chance to play against peers and see how one stacks up against them. And it's a good place to make an impression.
The New Jersey Devils are first up for Buffalo and fans at HarborCenter tonight will get to see 2017 first-overall pick Nico Hischier don the Devil for the first time.
Hischier was said to have taken over the Devils development camp (which he should) and tonight will be his first opportunity to show his stuff in a game situation. It should be a treat watching the Swiss center who models his game after Pavel Datsyuk.
Also on the ice for the Devils will be defenseman Will Butcher. The Denver Pioneers defenseman spurned the Colorado Avalanche, the team that drafted him 123rd overall in 2013, opted for free agency and signed with the Devils after a number of teams, including the Sabres, went hard after him.
Some fans might be inclined to boo or heckle Butcher but regardless, those in attendance will see first-hand what he has to offer in a game setting against his peers.
Jason Botterill will have the opportunity to watch his own charges competing for the first time at the Prospects Challenge. The first-time general manager spent years working his way up the front office ladder soaking up everything he could along the way. He helped the Pittsburgh Penguins win three Stanley Cups under two GM's and he'll be joining two of his former bosses, Ray Shero (NJD) and Jim Rutherford (PIT,) as an equal these next four days.
Shero put together a Penguins team that went to back-to-back Stanley Cups and came out victorious in 2009. Botterill was hired by Shero in 2007 as director of hockey administration with the salary cap being a prominent focus and was moved up to assistant general manager on May 22, 2009. When Shero was relieved of his duties in May, 2014, Botterill was named interim GM before the Penguins hired Rutherford, and at his press conference, he promoted Botterill up to associate general manager.
"I owe so much of my career and where I’m at right now to Jim [Rutherford] and Ray [Shero]," Botterill told Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. “I hope Ray and Jim look at it as a situation where I’m under their tree. They’re the ones who created me. Now there’s an opportunity for me to run my own team.”
The Devils have been a part of the Prospects Challenge since it's inception three years ago while this will be Pittsburgh's first time and Botterill was the chief negotiator for the spot while he was still with the Penguins, according to Mackey. It was also pointed out that Botterill was the driving force in the preseason game between Buffalo and Pittsburgh at the Pegula Ice Arena on the campus of Penn State.
Rutherford, especially, played a key role in Botterill landing his first GM position. Prior to Rutherford taking over, Botterill was considered an up and comer and his former boss never stood in the way of his goal. In fact, Rutherford "kept pitching his top lieutenant," according to Mackey. “What I really like about what happened over the last couple of years is Jim has been very supportive of promoting me to other organizations," said Botterill. "When other job opportunities came about, I know he was behind the scenes. I always knew I had great support from Jim.”
Botterill also knew that the goal of running his own team wouldn't happen in Pittsburgh with Rutherford at the helm and he ended up in Buffalo. This weekend he'll have the opportunity to sit down with Shero and Rutherford as their peer while watching the youngins hit the ice. And like many of his players on the HarborCenter ice, Botterill will be seeing how he measures up against his equals.
Buffalo's Prospects Challenge Roster:
95 Bailey, Justin RW 6’3” 214 (2013, 52nd-overall)
13 Baptiste, Nicholas RW 6’1” 206 (2013, 69th)
65 Blackwell, Colin C 5’9” 190 Invitee
46 Cornel, Eric RW 6’2” 194 (2014, 44th)
70 Danforth, Justin C 5’9” 181 (2017 FA, Rochester)
24 Fasching, Hudson RW 6’2” 209 (2013, 118th, LAK)
83 Glotov, Vasily C 5’11” 158 (2016, 190th)
62 Hagel, Brandon LW 6’0” 160 (2016, 159th)
64 Karabacek, Vaclav RW 6’0” 196 (2014, 49th)
81 Kile, Alex LW 6’0” 194 (2017 FA, Rochester)
37 Malone, Sean C 6’0” 190 (2013, 159th)
85 Muzito-Bagenda, Daniel LW 6’1” 205 (2016 FA, Rochester, re-signed)
92 Nylander, Alexander LW 6’1” 180 (2016, 8th)
59 Pu, Cliff RW 6’2” 192 (2016, 69th)
49 Smith, C.J. LW 5’11” 185 (2017 FA, Buffalo)
76 Atwal, Arvin D 6’0” 200 (2016, Cincinnati, ECHL, re-signed)
79 Budik, Vojtech D 6’1” 189 (2016, 130th)
72 Florentino, Anthony D 6’0” 207 (2013, 143rd)
45 Guhle, Brendan D 6’1” 186 (2015, 51st)
54 Martin, Brycen D 6’2” 212 (2014, 74th)
73 Neill, Carl D 6’1” 200 Invitee
58 Osmanski, Austin D 6’3” 196 (2016, 189th)
53 Stephens, Devante D 6’1” 172 (2015, 122nd)
34 Johansson, Jonas G 6’4” 206 (2014, 61st)
50 McGrath, Jake G 6’1” 158 Invitee