With the return of the NHL a few weeks ago, there has been no loss of nightly action, and hockey fans haven’t had to search long for something to watch. It’s understandable, then, that the return of the American Hockey League (AHL) has seemed to go under the radar.
The AHL is set to begin their 2020-21 season on February 5th, marking the long-awaited return to play for many of the NHL’s top prospects currently rostered with their minor league clubs, some of whom haven’t played in almost a calendar year.
The Buffalo Sabres went roughly nine months without playing hockey from the initial NHL pause in response to the outbreak of COVID-19, and the organization’s minor league players on the Rochester Americans have gone even longer. This extended hiatus is about to be over, though, and Amerks players are itching to get back into some game action at Blue Cross Arena in downtown Rochester, NY.
Sabres fans ought to pay attention to how the Amerks are playing, too, as the lineup is full of young, future Sabres talent in the making. Here are five players to keep an eye on as the AHL season gets underway.
1. Arttu Ruotsalainen
Ruotsaleinen tops the list of Sabres forward prospects. The 23-year old native of Oulu, Finland went undrafted before being signed by the Sabres but has shown the teams who passed on him that they might have made a mistake in doing so.
At just 5′ 8″, Ruotsaleinen’s size probably contributed to teams looking over him when he became draft eligible. But he’s shown once again that size doesn’t matter, and he can get points no matter how big the guys are around him.
Ruotsaleinen posted back-to-back 40 point seasons in Finland’s Liiga in the 2018-19 season and again in the 2019-20 season, and broke the 20 goal barrier in the former. On loan to Liiga from the Sabres organization earlier this season, he scored 16 goals and 11 assists for 27 points in just 19 games.
Ruotsaleinen will be in his first season with the Americans but has a couple of seasons of professional experience under his belt, and the learning curve shouldn’t be too steep in adjusting to the North American style of game. The center is signed through the 2021-22 season at $925,000 AAV.
2. Mattias Samuelsson
Samuelsson is another highly-touted Sabres prospect, the 20-year old dual citizen of the United States and Sweden has become a well-known player on the international stage with his appearances in the 2020 and 2021 World Juniors.
A native of Voorhees, New Jersey, USA, Samuelsson was chosen in the second round of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft by the Sabres and is set to join the Americans for his first season in the AHL.
Standing at 6′ 4″ and weighing a hulking 223 pounds, Samuelsson is already a big, sturdy defenseman, and should fit right in with the older swath of players he’ll be facing this season.
Samuelsson was a part of the U.S. National Team Development Program, and then of Western Michigan University in the NCAA, where he played two full seasons of college hockey. While at Western Michigan, he scored seven goals and 19 assists for 26 points in 65 total games played.
The left-shooting d-man is signed through the 2022-23 season, with a $925,000 AVV.
3. Matej Pekar
Pekar is another 2018 draft pick, selected by the Sabres in the fourth round, the same in which they chose Rasmus Dahlin first overall, and Samuelsson in the next round.
A native of Turnov in the Czech Republic, Pekar is a good-sized forward listed as both a center and a left wing, and at 20 years old, is one of the younger Sabres prospects the team is hoping turns into something more than that.
Pekar also made his name on the international stage, playing for the Czech team in the 2020 and 2021 World Juniors. He recorded 1 assist in WJC tournament action this past month.
Pekar spent the last few months on loan from the Sabres organization to Bili Tigri Liberec in the Czech league, and HC Benatky nad Jizerou in the Czech 2 league. He recorded a goal and three assists for four points in Czech and two goals and seven assists for nine points in Czech 2.
Signed through the 2022-23 season at $764,167 AAV, Pekar will be playing in his first season with the Amerks and looks to make an impact as one of the youngest players on the team.
4. Brett Murray
Murray might be an “under-the-radar” player for a lot of Sabres fans. Drafted in the fourth round way back in the 2016 Draft, he has had a number of years now to develop into a complete player.
Murray is still just 22 years old, though, and I wouldn’t count him out of the Sabres lineup in the future, by any stretch of the imagination. At 6′ 4″ and 216 pounds, Murray is the definition of a power forward and could add some grit and skill to any bottom-six.
This will be Murray’s second full season with the Amerks, his first being the 2019-20 season where he scored nine goals and 15 assists for 24 points. That’s good production for a young power forward and gives him room to grow into a well-rounded prospect for the Sabres to watch.
Murray was signed by the Sabres to a two-year, entry level contract in the summer of last year, and is signed through the 2021-22 season at $775,000 AAV.
5. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen
Luukkonen is considered the crown jewel of all Sabres prospects. Frankly, the team is throwing all their chips on the table when it comes to his development, which is a contributing reason to their lack of urgency in finding a new goalie for the time being.
Luukkonen is still young, and at 21 years old, it’s widely understood that the last thing the Sabres should do is rush him into the NHL. The 6′ 4″ Finnish netminder has accomplished quite a lot in his young career, however, and on quite big stages, too.
After being drafted by the Sabres in 2017, Luukkonen won a gold medal with Finland in the 2019 World Junior Championship, posting a 1.80 goals-against average (GAA) and .932 save percentage (SV%) in six games. In that same year, he won the OHL Goaltender of the Year Award with the Sudbury Wolves, starting 53 games and posting a 38-11-4 record with a 2.50 GAA and .920 SV% with six shutouts in the 2018-19 season.
Luukkonen appeared in one game with the Amerks that season, and in 10 games the following year. While he struggled in AHL action, he played 23 games with the Sabres’ ECHL affiliate Cincinnati Cyclones and played exceptionally well there.
The Sabres loaned Luukkonen to TPS in Liiga to start the 2020-21 season, where he played 13 games, going 6-3-4 and posting a 2.52 GAA and .908 SV% before flying to Rochester to join the Americans’ training camp. Luukkonen is signed through the 2021-22 season at $778,333 AAV.
Dustin Tokarski is the veteran goaltender in the Amerks locker room, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he started the season in net for the team. But expect Luukkonen to earn his fair share of playing time, and to make a massive improvement from the year before. He is an exciting goalie to watch.
Season Outlook for the Amerks
The Amerks will be playing their 65th season in 2020-21, and drop the puck for the first time on February 5th at home against the Utica Comets.
In the 2019-20 season, the Amerks finished second place in the North Division, with a record of 33-20-4-5 and 75 points in the standings, behind only the Belleville Senators.
The Amerks are always in the AHL playoff hunt and typically finish near the top of the standings. This year should be no different, as they have a good mix of youth and veteran presence in the room, not to mention tons of skill.
The five prospects mentioned here should help them be as competitive as ever this season.