The Buffalo Sabres kick off the first weekend of live hockey with the Prospects Challenge Friday night against the New Jersey Devils at LECOM Harborcenter, and there’s no shortage of news in the lead up to it.
Since Wednesday, Rochester Americans’ head coach Seth Appert has been running drills to prepare the young group for their first test. The organization has made some surprise moves to the lineup as well. The Sabres also released a behind-the-scenes look at the draft this week, which gave fans a chance to see the management team in action. A lot is going on in Sabreland. Keep tabs on it all by following The Hockey Writers’ Sabres season preview section.
Buffalo Sabres: Embedded
On Thursday, the Sabres released “Embedded” on the team’s official YouTube channel. In it, you get a glimpse of what happens “at the table” during an NHL draft. Viewers might take more than a few interesting notes away between the discussions about each selection and the trade calls coming in.
Watching general manager Kevyn Adams and others from the Sabres’ brass make appearances in the media, as it’s easy to forget that behind their polished public relations, these folks are human.
Fans are, at times, eager to forget that there are people behind the decisions, especially if they disagree with them. That’s why these candid looks are always so intriguing.
Sam Reinhart Believed in the Sabres
In one scene, Adams calls Reinhart to tell him he’s on the move. He thanks him for his service to the team and says some nice words about how he likes him as a player. Many teams throughout the league made calls to the Sabres’ GM that day to try and obtain the gritty, offensively talented forward, but ultimately, the Florida Panthers sealed Reinhart’s fate.
“I’m disappointed on one hand because I love you as a player, and you’re a great person,” Adams told Reinhart over the phone. “But I think it’s a pretty good opportunity for you.”
The next day, Reinhart surprisingly calls Adams back. The GM isn’t sure why but leaves the table with all the scouts and executives to take the call into his office. After a brief discussion, he returns to the room and reveals that the player had called to say he really believed Adams and head coach Don Granato could turn things around for the Sabres.
Every day it seems, there’s another bit of negative content surrounding this team, so fans should take solace that one of their former players believes in the direction the club is heading. The fact that the Sabres had to move on from Rasmus Ristolainen and Reinhart has little to do with who they are as players. It was a lot more about Adams banking on them not returning after this season. The question then became, how can the team get some return for the future.
With Reinhart, the Sabres managed to get a solid goaltending prospect in Devon Levi and a 2022 conditional first-round pick. The condition is that if the pick is in the top 10, it will be exchanged with Florida’s 2023 1st round pick. And with Ristolainen, Adams was able to acquire the first round 2021 pick that turned into Isak Rosen, defenseman Robert Hagg and a 2023 second-round pick. These are all pieces that should help the team forge ahead.
Two Sabres Prospects Move to Center
Arttu Ruotsalainen and Jack Quinn have made the shift to center ice during the prospects camp, and that’s where the Sabres will most likely need them to be when they are entirely NHL ready. Mind you, they could end up in the lineup before they are completely ready for the big show, simply out of necessity.
For a team that lost Reinhart and will not have Jack Eichel available for a full season (if he joins the team at all), there is an organizational deficiency down the middle. That’s why these two are being primed to take on the role. The Sabres passed on centers Marco Rossi and Cole Perfetti in the 2020 draft, but hindsight is always 20/20.
Quinn played a bit of center for the Amerks last season in the American Hockey League, and Ruotsalainen played a lot of the position in Finland. So neither are unfamiliar with it. The organization believes that both have what it takes to be effective in that role, and time will tell how well they adapt to it. Amerks’ assistant coach and former Sabre, Michael Peca, is already working with Quinn and more than likely will spend time with both during their transition.
Sabres Go with Luukkonen to Start Tournament
Prime goaltending prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen will get the start in the first game of the prospects tournament, Appert confirmed on Friday, “he felt very good in practice the last couple of days.” The big Finn was rehabbing from an ankle injury suffered in his fourth NHL start last season this offseason, and recovery seems to be on track. Appert said he is confident that he is ready to go tonight.
While there are a couple of big names on the prospects roster, several undrafted players are also taking part this weekend. Ahead of the action Friday morning, Appert was asked why so many unknowns were getting a look. “Our scouts have liked them,” he said frankly. “Just because they didn’t get drafted — there’s a lot of players in the NHL that haven’t been drafted. When they come here, they want to show that there’s an upward progression still left in their game. That they have versatility. For them, they’re not just showcasing themselves to us, they’re showcasing themselves to the other teams here as well.”
The work begins now on trying to make the Sabres a more challenging team to play against. That’s why the first practice on Thursday focused on puck battles and possession drills. “If you can’t win a puck battle, you’re always playing defence,” Appert said. “If you can’t angle teams into uncomfortable situations with pressure then again, you’re always playing defence.”
Too many times last year, other teams walked into KeyBank Center and pushed the Sabres around. Appertt begins the process of trying to change that now, and Granato will pick up where he leaves off during next week’s training camp.
Mike Carter is a freelance writer and contributor for the Buffalo Sabres with The Hockey Writers and NHLTradeRumors.Me He is @mikecarterlives on Twitter. Mike has been writing professionally since 2012, with stints as a reporter in northern British Columbia and Edmonton, Alberta. He now calls Salmon Arm, B.C. home.