6 Sabres Prospects Shoot for WJC Rosters

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Not just for the holidays, but for the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship, which will be hosted by the Czech Republic from Dec. 26 through Jan. 5. It marks the fourth time in the tournament’s history they’ll be held in the Central European nation.

Several Buffalo Sabres prospects have been invited to training camp for a shot at making the roster and playing for their country.

Matej Pekar

Team Czech Republic
Sabres4th round pick (94th overall) in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft

The pesky center from Turnov, Czech Republic is only 19 years old and in his second season with the Barrie Colts. He’s performing at better than a point-per-game pace, with 16 goals and 13 assists in 26 games this season.

Matej Pekar Sabres
Matej Pekar likes to model his game after Boston Bruin forward Brad Marchand. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

This year, Pekar will likely be on the first line, as a top-six player who played for his country in last year’s World Junior Championship, though he failed to register a point in five games. The team had a rough go at it, failing to find any traction.

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It won’t get any easier this year, as many players from the 2016 Hlinka Memorial Championship have since graduated. They will need to avoid relegation in front of hometown fans.

Erik Portillo

Team Sweden
Sabres3rd round pick (67th overall) in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft

Standing at 6-foot-6 and weighing 207 pounds, Portillo is another giant netminder in the Sabres’ system. He likes to play with the puck on his stick and considers himself a hybrid goaltender, modelling his game after Tampa Bay Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, Nashville Predators’ Pekka Rinne and Dallas Stars’ Ben Bishop.

Roman Josi Pekka Rinne Mattias Ekholm Predators
Portillo looks up to Pekka Rinne. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

He’s looking to help Team Sweden win its first U20 World Championship since 2012. The 19-year-old goalie from Gothenburg, Sweden is committed to Michigan in 2020-21, but is currently playing for the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL. In 15 games, he has a 12-2-1 record with a sparkling 2.05 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage. He’s dominating the crease and most statistical categories in the USHL.

“We are proud of Erik as he gets a chance to represent Sweden on the world stage,” said Saints general manager Kalle Larsson. “Him making the team speaks volumes to the work he put into his craft together with his teammates and coaches. It also continues to show what a great league the USHL is and how strong the college path is for players from all over the world.”

“We are very happy for Erik,” said head coach Oliver David. “He has done a great job with us these first few months. In doing so he has solidified a spot with his national team and there isn’t much cooler than that.”

“I am extremely excited and honored to be able to represent my country in the World Juniors,” said Portillo. He’s the first Fighting Saint since fellow Swede William Lagesson to participate in the World Juniors.

Dylan Cozens

Team Canada
Sabres1st round pick (7th overall) in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft

The 18-year-old center from Whitehorse, Yukon is playing his third full season with the Lethbridge Hurricanes and is on fire.

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In 30 games, he has already lit the lamp 20 times with 26 assists. He’s almost eclipsed his 53-point total from 2017-18 and is on pace to shatter his 2018-19 84-point season. It’s no surprise these numbers have him atop the WHL points leader-board.

Related: Sabres Go to the Yukon to Improve

Though the team is stacked with talent, the strong skating and highly competitive Cozens should make Canada’s World Juniors roster. His quick release, two-way game and hockey sense makes him an impact player.

Mattias Samuelsson

Team USA
Sabres2nd round pick (32nd overall) in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft

The 6-foot-4, 221 pound, 19-year-old defenseman from Philadelphia is the son of Kjell Samuelsson and one of four players to return from last January’s silver medal-winning USA Team.

Mattias has four points in 12 games for Western Michigan Broncos this season, his sophomore year. As a freshman, he had five goals and seven assists in 35 games.

Samuelsson has learned a lot from his coach Andy Murray, an NHL veteran with 16 years of experience as head coach of both the St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings. “He’s unbelievable,” Samuelsson said about Murray. “You can sit with him and talk for hours about stories from when he coached in the NHL. He’s coached unbelievable players. He knows what it takes to get to the NHL and that’s why I’m here at Western. He demands a lot every day from the players in practice.”

Mattias Samuelsson Sabres
Mattias Samuelsson is hoping to play for Team USA. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The native of Voorhees, NJ has experience playing with the USA Hockey National Development Team and attended the Sabres development camp. He’s constantly working on his game, knowing it takes more than talent: “It was easy to see the guys that were playing pro or on the verge of breaking the lineup, to see how hard they worked every single day in every aspect – the off-ice training, the on-ice training. And seeing what a professional does on a daily basis,” said Saumelsson.

Ryan Johnson

Team USA
Sabres1st round pick (31st overall) in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft

The 18-year-old defenseman from Irvine, CA is the son of 10-season NHL veteran Craig Johnson. Ryan has five assists in 18 games this season as a freshman at the University of Minnesota. “Ryan’s had a really strong first half,” said Gophers coach Bob Motzko.

A skilled skater, he reads the game well but isn’t the most physical player. He defends the blue line well by standing up opponents.

He is hoping to make the squad after an outstanding performance for USA at the World Junior Summer Showcase in July and August. “It’s an honor to represent your country and it’s a great opportunity, too,” said Johnson. “I have to make the most of it and put in a lot of work.”

Ryan Johnson Sabres Draft
Ryan Johnson will be vying for a roster spot for Team USA. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Last year, Johnson played for the Sioux Falls Stampede. In 54 games, he netted six goals and 19 assists, posting a plus-24. In 12 playoff games, he chipped in eight points. He played for Team USA at World Junior A Challenge in 2018 and finished in 1st place. He also won USHL’s Clark Cup during 2018-19 season with Sioux Falls Stampede.

Miska Kukkonen

Team Finland
Sabres5th round pick (125th overall) in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft

The 19-year-old, right-shot defenseman is playing for Lukko Rauma in the SM-Liiga. In 18 games this season, he has two assists and has struggled to find consistency. The native of Jokioinen is a smooth skating two-way defenseman but his ice time was reduced when Winnipeg Jets prospect Ville Heinola was returned from his short tryout in the NHL. Heinola could be his defense partner if he makes the final roster.