The NHL’s faithful will endure another month before ‘real hockey’ begins. While the off-season may lack the entertainment value of the regular season and playoffs, there is still plenty to chew on in the form of trades, signings, tournaments and training camps.
One such tournament will take place Canalside in downtown Buffalo from Friday, Sept. 7 to Sunday, Sept. 9. The Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins and New Jersey Devils will each send a squad of recent draft picks and acquisitions to Western New York. The fourth annual Prospects Challenge takes place at Harborcenter located next door to KeyBank Center, home of the Buffalo Sabres.
The round-robin style format will feature a selection of the best young talent in each organization, many of whom will be fighting for a roster spot on an NHL or AHL roster in a matter of weeks. The Prospects Challenge is a chance for young players to compete against their peers and stand out for coaches, scouts and fans who will be on hand.
Focusing on the host Sabres, the following is a collection of both hyped and under-the-radar players who will be vying for the level attention previously drawn to Jack Eichel, Alexander Nylander, Casey Mittelstadt and Rasmus Dahlin. They have a chance this weekend to make a lasting impression before contributing at the pro level in the future.
Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, G, Sudbury Wolves (OHL)
Goalies taken early in the NHL Entry Draft, especially in the first two rounds, pique our interest. A solid goalkeeper can steal wins and anchor a team into and through the playoffs. The opportunity cost of forgoing a position player in the early rounds is significant, but the upside of that gamble is enormous. General manager Jason Botterill’s first two picks in 2017 were F Casey Mittelstadt at eighth overall and G Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen taken in the second round at No. 54.
Luukkonen was the second goalie taken after the Dallas Stars picked Jake Oettinger out of Boston University at No. 26. The 6-foot-4, 200-pound, 19-year-old from Espoo, Finland recently signed his entry-level contract and joined the Sudbury Wolves of the OHL. The Sabres addressed their goalie situation by signing free agent Carter Hutton from the St. Louis Blues to work with Linus Ullmark. Scott Wedgewood and Jonas Johansson will man the pipes in Rochester but the hope is that Luukkonen’s stellar play will allow him to crack the Rochester and Buffalo rosters in the next few seasons.
Judd Peterson, RW, Rochester Americans
Judd has been a part of the Sabres’ organization since 2012. Drafted in the seventh round out of high school, he spent two seasons in the USHL before attending St. Cloud State for four years. From 2014 to 2018, Judd played in 151 collegiate games, contributing consistent point totals and earning the captaincy in his senior year. The 6-foot, 190-pound forward will transition to the pro game in 2018-19 and has an opportunity to prove that he belongs.
Former Sabres GM Tim Murray did not invite Judd to development camp in 2014 or 2015 (after he attended in 2012 and 2013), creating thoughts of self-doubt and leaving a chip on his shoulder. The motivation to prove his doubters wrong led to a greater leadership role with the Huskies and may reveal itself at the next level. He’ll need to showcase that his two-way game is strong enough to endure the pro level after improving in the NCAA. Look for Judd’s stock to rise beginning this weekend.
Vasily Glotov, C, Rochester Americans
One of the newest Amerks is 5-foot-11, 175-pound Vasili Glotov of Barnaul, Russia. The 2016 seventh-round pick signed a one-year contract in July after spending two years in the QMJHL, putting up 93 points in 128 games. Although he experienced a brief taste of the ECHL and AHL last season, this year will be the true test of his will to perform and convince Botterill that he is worthy of an extension.
Now at the age of 22, the quick moving and fun-loving forward attended his third straight development camp this summer. With this opportunity to compete in Buffalo and Rochester, he will aim to become more of a professional, primed to take the next step towards the NHL.
Victor Olofsson, LW, Rochester Americans
Victor was taken by the Sabres in the seventh round of the 2014 Entry Draft just shy of his 19th birthday. In the four years since joining the Sabres’ prospect pipeline, the undersized (5-foot-10, 170-pound) left-shooting winger has been a goal-scoring machine. The Sabres’ 2018 first overall pick, Rasmus Dahlin, Victor’s teammate with Frolunda HC in Sweden, told the Buffalo News that “he has the best shot I’ve ever seen” (from ‘Rasmus Dahlin on Sabres’ Olofsson: ‘Best shot I’ve ever seen”, The Buffalo News – 5/8/18).
In his last three seasons (150 games), Olofsson has tallied 50 goals and 49 assists (and 16 points in 20 playoff games), leading the league in goals with 27 in his most recent campaign. The Sabres signed him to a two-year entry-level deal in April, bringing him to the United States for a chance to experience the size, speed and smaller ice surface of the North American game. If his shot translates into goals stateside, he may be helping the Sabres much sooner than expected.
Devante Stephens, D, Rochester Americans
The 6-foot-2, 190-pound, left-shooting defenseman was a 2015 fifth-round Sabres selection and has shown steady progress at both ends of the ice. Hailing from White Rock, British Columbia, just a 45-minute drive south of Vancouver, Devante recently spent three seasons with the Kelowna Rockets of the WHL. In 2014-15, he put up 11 points and a plus-12 rating in 72 games. He made a sizable jump the following year, tallying 35 points and a plus-27 rating. Now 21 years of age, the Sabres will build on the 33 games he played with Cincinnati and six with Rochester that he earned in 2017-18.
While the Sabres’ projected roster is loaded with defensive talent for the 2018-19 campaign, Stephens will have a chance to log significant minutes with the Amerks and could see his NHL debut with a strong showing and injuries to the big club. A durable, quick skating and physical player, he has all the makings of an NHL caliber defenseman. Now, comes the experience.
Brandon Hickey, D, Rochester Americans
There are several players in the Buffalo system who wore a “C” on their jersey at the college level. There are also quite a few who played college hockey at Boston University – Eichel, Evan Rodrigues, Danny O’Regan and Brandon Hickey. Hickey did both, captaining the team in 2017-18 before turning pro. He was originally drafted in the third round by the Flames in 2014 before being traded to the Arizona Coyotes in 2017. The Sabres acquired the 6-foot-2, 200-pound defender for Hudson Fasching in June of this year.
Hickey’s size and finesse will be on display in Buffalo this weekend. He credits his smooth skating and vision for his success on the blue line, providing a strong anchor for his forwards to create offense. The Prospects Challenge and training camp will grant him the opportunity to jell with new and old teammates while finding the best place to develop and contribute. Like many of Botterill’s newest acquisitions, Hickey will provide strong competition for players hoping to see their name on the roster come opening night.
Born and raised in Maryland with roots in Western New York. I became a Sabres fan at an early age and have decided to write about the team. There will be much to discuss on this journey back to the top.