The 5th annual Prospects Challenge takes place this week, starting Friday, Sept. 6 and ending Monday, Sept 9. Prospects from the Buffalo Sabres, Boston Bruins, New Jersey Devils and Pittsburgh Penguins are set to play in a round-robin tournament at Harborcenter, where each team will play three games.
The Prospects Challenge is a great opportunity to make a good impression. In addition to many up-and-coming Sabres prospects, Devils center Jack Hughes, the first-overall selection in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft will be among the players to watch.
Cracking the lineup of an AHL or NHL team is a process, even for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs for eight seasons. It requires depth at each position. Sabres general manager Jason Botterill has added talent to inspire internal competition and groom a pipeline of NHL talent.
Prospects Challenge Schedule
Tickets for the games are only $10
Friday, Sept. 6
- Penguins vs. Bruins, 3:30 p.m.
- Sabres vs. Devils, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 7
- Devils vs. Penguins, 3:30 p.m.
- Sabres vs. Bruins, 7 p.m.
Monday, Sept. 9
- Bruins vs. Devils, 9:30 a.m.
- Sabres vs. Penguins, 12:30 p.m.
Sabres Prospects to Watch
A total of 25 Sabres prospects will hit the ice this weekend: 14 forwards, 9 defenseman and 2 goaltenders. Here are the ones to keep an eye on.
Victor Olofsson, Winger
Olofsson earned the moniker “Goalofsson” last season in Rochester, putting up 30 goals in 66 games. He was tied for 8th in goal-scoring in the AHL and among AHLers playing in 60 or more games his goals-per-game average ranked 4th (.455). His best weapon is his lethal shot. He has laser-like accuracy and a quick release that can catch netminders flat-footed. Should defenders play him tight, his vision will find open teammates.
The former seventh-round pick in 2014 is committed to his defensive game and knows where to be when he doesn’t have the puck. Plus, his skating and stickhandling are NHL-ready.
At 5-foot-11, 181 pounds, the veteran of six Sabres development camps should be on the Sabres’ roster coming out of training camp. His late-season audition included two goals and two assists in six games. He’s a dynamic player who could add much-needed secondary scoring.
Arttu Ruotsalainen, Forward
Ruotsalainen’s 5-foot-8 frame complements his deft stickhandling and shiftiness. He’s coming off a terrific season in Finland, where he potted 21 goals and 21 assists in 59 games. The versatile forward led his team’s offense in average ice time and in faceoffs. The undrafted 21-year-old free agent then inked a three-year, entry-level contract with the Sabres in May.
“He was almost one of the best centers in the whole league,” said Ruotsalainen’s coach Karri Kivi. “We didn’t know in August how he was going to play. We put him on the first line and he was excellent there. He played a lot. He was first power play, first penalty kill, first line, everything.”
Kivi said that after each game, he and his staff would track each player’s actions with and without the puck. More often than not, Ruotsalainen was in the right place at the right time. “Ruotsalainen is number one in every game, meaning he’s where the first center should be,” he said. “He’s not skating around the rink. He goes there when it’s happening.”
If Ruotsalainen does not make the Sabres roster, he’s required to return to Finland and play for Ilves. While his team could grant him permission to play in Rochester with the Amerks, it’s doubtful that will happen. That said, this tournament is an ideal chance for fans to see what he’s capable of bringing to the table before he makes the move to North America at the end of Ilves’ season.
Rasmus Asplund, Center
Asplund is on the cusp on making the Sabres roster this season. He’s a tenacious skater, with playmaking skill and great speed. The 21-year-old forward played well for the Amerks in Rochester last season, his first season in North America. He put up 41 points (10 goals, 31 assists) in 75 games and was dependable at both ends of the ice. He also killed penalties.
Drafted by the Sabres with the 33rd overall pick in 2016, Asplund signed his entry-level contract on May 23, 2018, after registering 28 points in 50 games during his fourth season with Färjestad BK.
It’s likely the 5-foot-11, 176-pound Asplund will start the season in Rochester, continuing to work on his game, but should injuries happen with the Sabres, he’d be one of the first call-ups, making the trip west on the I-90.
Matej Pekar, Winger
At last year’s development camp, Pekar stood out by rattling rookie Casey Mittelstadt and Rasmus Dahlin and then receiving a crushing hit by the blueliner. He’s feisty and thrives to get under his opponents’ skin.
Taken with the 94th selection in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, the 6-foot forward opted to play for the Barrie Colts instead of the NCAA and became general manager Botterill’s first draft pick to play Canadian Junior hockey.
Pekar, a pesty, physical forward who models his game after Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins, has been bitten by the injury bug. In January of this year, he suffered a broken collarbone that ended his season. The 19-year-old finished with 14 goals and 22 assists in 33 games with Barrie of the Ontario Hockey League. It was enough to earn him an entry-level contract with the Sabres.
The Czech-born prospect is expected to represent his country again at the IIHF World Junior Championships. It’ll be interesting to see where Pekar plays this season. He could play another season with Barrie or make the jump to the AHL. A strong tournament could sway Botterill and company.
Henri Jokiharju, Defense
Jokiharju, 21, was acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for winger Alexander Nylander last July. In the short-term, the deal looks to favor the Sabres as Nylander has yet to find his NHL game while Jokiharju has already a half-season of experience.
Last season, the 2017 first-round pick (29th overall) appeared in 38 games for the Blackhawks and recorded 12 assists. He fell out of favor in Chicago after his biggest supporter, coach Joel Quenneville, was sent packing. Once Coach Q was gone, Jokiharju was sent down to Rockford IceHogs, but he did play well at the IIHF World Championships last spring, helping Finland take home gold.
Right now, it’s too early to tell where Jokiharju will play this season–the Sabres’ blue line is crowded, especially on the right side with Rasmus Ristolainen, Brandon Montour, Colin Miller and Casey Nelson. If Ristolainen is moved, Jokiharju’s odds of making the roster improves significantly. The offensive defenseman moves the puck well and can skate the puck out of the zone as well as make a great first pass.
Will Borgen, Defense
Drafted with the 92nd overall pick in 2015, the physical 22-year-old is a defensive defenseman, taking care of his end and chipping in minimal offense. He played 71 games for the Amerks (3 goals, 11 assists) and four for the Sabres last season. Before that, he played three seasons at St. Cloud State, earning the title of defenseman of the year by the NCHC.
With Zach Bogosian recovering from hip surgery and unavailable until mid-October, Borgen, a right-shot defenseman, could very well make the Sabres’ roster out of camp this season. If not, he’ll battle with Jokiharju to be the first call up.
At 6-foot-3, 196 pounds, his size, physicality and grit would be a welcome addition to the Sabres blue line.
Jacob Bryson, Defense
With his 5-foot-9 frame and a deep blue line in Rochester, it’ll be interesting to see how the speedy defender handles the jump from college to the AHL in the first year of his entry-level deal.
Bryson, a top NCAA defenseman and co-captain of the Friars, finished with 11 goals and 73 points. After three seasons with Providence College, the left-shot defenseman was drafted by the Sabres in the 4th round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. He’s participated in three Sabres development camps, making him a veteran of sorts.
Sabres on the Sideline
The Sabres’ 2019 No. 1 draft pick Dylan Cozens is not likely to play in the tournament as he’s still rehabbing from thumb surgery in July. He mangled his thumb after an awkward fall to the ice at development camp.
Luukkonen will also be on the sidelines. The Sabres’ goaltender of the future is recovering from double hip surgery in April and isn’t expected back on the ice until late October or early November.
Sabres’ Pipeline of Talent
After the tournament is over, Botterill, assistant general managers Randy Sexton and Steve Greeley and several other development coaches will keep tabs on each player. The young prospects are crucial to the future of the team’s success, so they will try to build strong relationships with them while investing significant time and resources into their development.
Related: Sabres 2019-20 Schedule
The franchise’s full roster is listed below. All three of the Sabres games in the tournament will be streamed live on Sabres.com to viewers inside the Sabres’ local broadcast market.
- 25 Arttu Ruotsalainen
- 52 Andrew Oglevie
- 57 Brett Murray
- 59 Stephen Harper
- 65 Shaw Boomhower
- 68 Victor Olofsson
- 73 Matej Pekar
- 74 Rasmus Asplund
- 75 Bobby MacIntyre
- 76 Pascal Aquin
- 80 John Wiitala
- 82 Kyle Olson
- 84 Sebastian Vidmar
- 93 Lukas Rousek
- 3 William Borgen
- 10 Henri Jokiharju
- 44 Brandon Hickey
- 45 Casey Fitzgerald
- 56 Kurt Gosselin
- 61 Devante Stephens
- 70 Tobie Bisson
- 78 Jacob Bryson
- 83 Justin Baudry
- 34 Jonas Johansson
- 60 Matthew Welsh
Jeff has been covering the NHL for over a decade for various sites. He’s been with The Hockey Writers as a lead Sabres writer three years, while also writing a satire column called “Off the Crossbar.”