The Buffalo Sabres’ first practice of rookie camp on Wednesday featured five first-round picks. That’s a luxury not many teams in the NHL have when it comes to putting together a roster for a prospect tournament.
Buffalo has arguably the best prospect pool in hockey and will get a chance to show it off during a three-game schedule at Harborcenter this weekend. Among the notable players who won’t participate are goalie Devon Levi and Lukas Rousek, who are getting ready to compete for spots on the NHL roster. Vsevolod Komarov will also miss the tournament with a lower-body injury.
Here’s what we’ll be watching this weekend.
Schedule: Friday, Sept. 15, 7 p.m. vs. Canadiens; Saturday, Sept. 16, 7 p.m. vs. Devils; Monday, Sept. 18, 5 p.m. vs. Penguins
Jiri Kulich’s big chance
Jiri Kulich says he added 16 pounds to his frame since last season. Throughout last season, Rochester Americans coach Seth Appert and his staff made a point of having the rookies do extra lifting sessions. In some cases, players would sit out games to have the time to do extra lifts and get the necessary recovery. That’s how seriously the organization took the strength portion of development for some prospects.
Kulich has embraced that aspect of his training. He’s also looked like a man since he walked into the building at 18 years old. That’s what allowed him to have such a strong season in the AHL. He said he wants to play a more physical game this year and also spent the offseason trying to get faster. It’s clear he’s motivated to get one of those roster spots that could be up for grabs when the Sabres open training camp next week.
“As strong as he was as an 18-year-old, he looks outstanding,” Appert said. “He looks like he had a very explosive summer. Good for him for not being overconfident by the year he had. He put a lot of work in. It’s very evident.”
If Kulich ends up back in Rochester this season, that’s not a bad thing. Appert said he could be a play driver and someone who sets the tone for the team with practice habits. That would be a great experience for him and set him up for success when he does jump to the NHL. But if he dominates this prospect tournament and can steal the show at training camp, Kulich playing in the NHL isn’t out of the question.
Zach Benson and Matt Savoie together again
The Sabres had Matt Savoie take development camp off after a long, grueling season in both the WHL and AHL. So this will be the first time Savoie and 2023 first-round pick Zach Benson practice and play together as members of the Sabres. They’ve spent the last few years playing together on the same WHL team and now are two of the most promising prospects in the Sabres organization. Benson and Savoie will likely be linemates this week, and that could make for some of the most compelling hockey of the prospect tournament. On the first day of practice, Savoie and Benson were skating on a line with Filip Cederqvist, who is one of Buffalo’s bigger prospects. That’s going to be a fun line to watch.
What’s more interesting is that Benson and Savoie will get an early chance to make an impression before veteran training camp opens next week. Benson will more than likely end up back in the WHL for another season, but he has the talent and the hockey IQ to make a splash when playing against pros. Savoie is in a challenging position. He either has to play in the WHL or the NHL this season, because he’s not old enough to play in the AHL due to the CHL rules. That means the next few weeks will be huge for him. The expectation is that he’ll be one of the best players on the ice in this tournament.
“Obviously, it’s my goal to stick around here as long as I can and play NHL games this year, but I just want to do what’s best for my development,” Savoie said. “Continuing to develop and continuing to play against good competition is a priority for me. And wherever I am this year, I’m going to work hard and continue to get better.”
Asked if he really has anything left to prove in the WHL, Savoie paused for a few seconds before saying there is always room to improve. It seems foolish that Savoie should have to go back to juniors, but maybe he’ll find a way to crack the NHL roster.
Aleksandr Kisakov in an expanded role
Last season, Aleksandr Kisakov did a lot of work behind the scenes. The Amerks sat him out for some games so he would have more time to dedicate to strength training. That was a smart approach. We often hear about how these young players need to add muscle, but it’s not easy to do that when you’re playing so many games and not getting the proper time to rest and recover. Strength is going to be the biggest question mark in Kisakov’s game because his offensive talent and hockey sense are terrific. He’s an outstanding skater and cerebral as a passer in the offensive zone. He’s also able to create scoring chances with his puckhandling. If he can build up his body to be able to handle the rigors of professional hockey, Kisakov has a chance to become an NHLer.
This season will be a pivotal one for Kisakov because he should be set up for success. He has a year of experience in the system and now has two other Russians, forward Viktor Neuchev and defenseman Nikita Novikov, joining him in Rochester. He should be stronger, more comfortable and playing a larger role for the Amerks on a nightly basis. That all starts with the prospects challenge this week when he will get a chance to show off his progress with high-leverage minutes.
How will the other Russians look?
Neuchev and Novikov will be in Rochester this season after signing entry-level deals in the offseason. Neuchev, a third-round pick in 2022, will play on a line with Kisakov during the prospect challenge and could end up playing with him in Rochester to help make his transition easier. Kisakov and Neuchev have so much offensive ability. Their challenge will be handling the physical grind of playing an AHL schedule, but their creativity and offensive vision should shine during this tournament.
Novikov is also going to be a fun player to track in Rochester. His combination of size and skating ability gives him the upside to become an NHL defenseman. The major concern with him in his draft year was that he wasn’t going to sign to play in North America. That’s the only reason he was available in the sixth round when the Sabres drafted him. Otherwise, he has the talent of a second- or third-round pick. This weekend will provide a baseline by which to gauge his development this season.
Under-the-radar names to watch
One of the best parts of rookie camps is seeing lesser-known prospects get a chance to stack up against their highly drafted peers. I’ll have my eye on Zach Metsa, who signed an AHL deal with the organization after leading Quinnipiac to a national title in the spring. He’ll be one of the older players in this prospect tournament and may be Buffalo’s best defenseman. He was skating on a pair with 2019 first-round pick Ryan Johnson at practice on Wednesday, which indicates he should see some game action. Metsa made an instant impact for Rochester in the playoffs last season, showing off his strong skating, outstanding hockey sense and some sneaky offensive skill.
Up front, Tyson Kozak was centering a line with Kisakov and Neuchev at practice. While Kulich and Isak Rosen got a lot of attention in Rochester last season, Kozak also put together a strong first season of pro hockey. His scoring numbers could take a jump if he gets to play with two gifted offensive playmakers like Kisakov and Neuchev.
(Top photo of Jiri Kulich: Frank Jansky / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)