SABRES PROSPECTS PREPARING FOR PROSPECTS CHALLENGESep 14, 2023
By Ryan J. Harr
Roughly 25 Buffalo Sabres prospects have taken the ice at LECOM Harborcenter in downtown Buffalo in preparation for the 2023 Prospects Challenge. The annual event, now in its eighth year, kicks off on Friday, Sept. 15 with the Ottawa Senators and New Jersey Devils hitting the ice for a 12 p.m. puck drop.
For the second consecutive year, the Sabres will be joined by the Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, Pittsburgh Penguins, New Jersey, and Ottawa to compete in a round-robin challenge featuring prospects from each team. The participating teams will each play three games over the course of the event.
The Sabres roster features not only four of the team’s first-round picks over the last three years, including highly touted prospects Jiri Kulich and Isak Rosen who are both returning for their second year at the event, but offers a glimpse of what the future looks like for the organization.
Most importantly, though, the roster could be an indication of what the Rochester Americans’ roster could potentially look like this season following an impressive run to the American Hockey League’s Eastern Conference Finals this past spring.
Amerks head coach, Seth Appert, who will be behind the bench in Rochester for his fourth season, is not looking too far ahead of what his roster could look in the Flower City, but rather focusing on the task at hand this weekend.
“When I’m here in Buffalo, my focus is on the Sabres,” said Appert when asked if he’ll be using this week to imagine his potential roster. “I, along with the rest of the Rochester staff, am here to help get these guys ready for training camp. That is their dream, to be here full time in Buffalo, and it is our goal to get them here.”
“All great competitors want to be where their feet are,” explained Appert. “You can be motivated and driven to where you want to be, but the only way to reach that goal is to be great where you are today.”
Among the five first-round picks comprising this year’s roster is Kulich, who’s coming off one of the most dominant performances by an 18-year-old in the American Hockey League last season. Kulich led the Amerks with a team-high 24 goals, the second-most ever by an 18-year-old in league history, and added seven more during Rochester’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals, earning him a selection to the AHL’s inaugural Top Prospects Team.
“Every day I try to work hard and be the best I can,” said Kulich. “That is the key. You have to enjoy playing hockey at the moment without looking ahead.”
In addition to Kulich and Rosen, Tyson Kozak, Aleksandr Kisakov, and Filip Cederqvist are attending the event after completing their first year of professional hockey with the Amerks in 2022-23.
Matt Savoie, who the Sabres took ninth overall in the 2022 NHL Draft, will be joined by this year’s first-round pick in Zack Benson. The duo were teammates last season in Winnipeg where they finished first and second on the team in scoring, respectively, and led the ICE to an appearance in the WHL Finals.
“Obviously, that is my goal to make the Sabres’ opening night roster, but that is the end goal,” said Savoie, who made his professional debut with Rochester during the Eastern Conference Finals. “I need to focus on right now and nothing else. It’s a great opportunity to get to know a bunch of the new guys and showcase yourself against other NHL prospects. I want to continue to develop my own game and do what is best for me.”
Chris Jandric joined Rochester’s blueline late in the campaign while Zach Metsa, who captained Quinnipiac University to its first-ever NCAA National Championship in the spring and later joined the Amerks in the postseason, are embarking on their first full pro seasons.
Olivier Nadeau and Ryan Johnson accompanied the Amerks during the playoffs but did not see any game action.
“It will be good to go up against other pro, top-end talent,” Johnson explained when looking forward to the weekend. “The other teams here have some very good players but after catching up and getting to see the other guys who I met during developmental camp, it is something else that has been fun.”
“It’s a pretty cool opportunity for the players to be the first ones to put on the Buffalo Sabres jersey this season and play another NHL franchise this weekend,” continued Appert. “That in itself is very special.”
“I now know how hard it’s going to be,” said Kulich when talking about the difference going into this season compared to last. “I worked a lot on my speed, being more physical and of course my shot. I am excited to be back and get the season started.”
The challenge is an opportunity for the second-year skaters to get a jumpstart on the 2023 training camp, but it’s also a chance for them to set the tone while also serving in a leadership role for the other younger prospects.
“The five forwards (Cederqvist, Kozak, Kisakov, Kulich and Rosen) had very productive summers,” said Appert. “Over the course of last season, we lifted those guys so much. They all put on 10 pounds of lean muscle mass. They all passed the eye test. When looking at them you see how hard they worked this summer, which is impressive since they did not get home until the second week of June.”
“I talked to them and told them, ‘You are not rookies anymore. You need to be guys that can drive us, how our practice habits are, how we want to play, our identity.’ It is a great opportunity for them, and it is chance for them to grow as a person and professional,” continued Appert.
“Last year I did not have a full summer workout,” admitted Kulich. “This past one, it was one of the best summers I had. I put on about 16 pounds and I am an on-ice guy.
“It was one of the most productive summers I have had in recent years,” said Rosen. “I had no injuries or restrictions going into the summer, so I was able to work as hard as I could. Last summer I had a hand injury so I could not do upper body, but it was a really good summer for me.”
Following two practices, the prospects will have one final tune up Friday morning prior to their contest with the Canadiens at 7 p.m. All games will be streamed live on the team's YouTube channel.