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Sabres prospect challenge: 10 thoughts on Jiri Kulich, Isak Rosen and others


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Mike Weber, now an assistant coach for the Rochester Americans, played 351 NHL games and 237 AHL games. He totalled 104 points, but found a way to make himself valuable and carved out a long career without always being on the scoresheet.

So he has the proper perspective when discussing the reality facing Buffalo’s young players. Speaking at the Sabres’ prospect challenge, Weber noted the skills that got certain players to this point may not be the ones that get them to the NHL. Yes, the Sabres’ prospect roster had top-end talent. First-round picks Matt Savoie, Jiri Kulich and Isak Rosen have the special traits that have the Sabres excited about their potential. But for a lot of other players in attendance this weekend, their future depends on what else they bring to the table.

“You have to be willing to dive in and own something to help a team win,” Weber said.

“There’s the special players in the National Hockey League. There’s the good players. And then there’s the guys that scratch and claw and are unwilling to go away. They’re going to find a way to make it and make an impact and help teams win. That’s a special player. A lot of these guys here, yes we have really talented players. But there’s really special players already in Buffalo. So for you to make it, you have to do something uncharacteristic to what you’ve done before.”

According to The Athletic’s Corey Pronman, the Sabres have the best prospect pool in the NHL. That’s driven, in large part, by the high picks the Sabres have had. What became clear when the Sabres prospects went 3-0 over the weekend is that this prospect pool is defined by more than just the first-rounders. Those players performed well, but Buffalo also has players who could become the ones who scratch and claw to stick around. The organization is deep with prospects who could develop into bottom-of-the-lineup players in the NHL. That was on display every time Buffalo was on the ice.

“The only way to have three games like that is to come with the right mentality every day,” said Amerks coach Seth Appert. “We challenged them to play differently than they’ve played in junior hockey.”

Here’s what we learned about the Sabres’ talented prospect pool over the last week.

1. After a months-long immigration process, Aleksandr Kisakov finally got to put on a Sabres jersey and get familiar with the organization. It’s tough to overstate the daunting off-ice challenge facing players in Kisakov’s situation. The Moscow native speaks very little English and spent most of his time away from the rink in his hotel room talking with family back home in Russia. Despite this, he still showed a confidence that translated into a strong performance on the ice. On Saturday night against the Devils, he showed off his shot with a goal on the rush. His lateral skating in short areas stands out, too.

For a smaller player, he has an edge to his game and is willing to stand up for himself and teammates. He had a savvy forecheck on Monday afternoon, picking off a careless pass from the goalie and quickly feeding Linus Weissbach for an easy goal. He added another pair of primary assists in the game to finish the tournament.

“When he has the puck, he’s at his best. That’s not always the case,” Appert said. “Some guys are great in other areas. He’s very intelligent. He’s a great passer. His lateral agility is crazy. The first day of practice we had an angle drill and one of his teammates had him lined up, he gave a little shimmy, walked right through him and went on a breakaway. You were like, ‘Woah.’

“He’s learning now how to play away from the puck in North America. In Europe, without the puck you play a little more passive. You back off because of the big ice sheet and you get into traps and things. He skates well enough. He’s going to be a good forechecker. He’s going to be a good back checker. We just need more time with him.”

Rochester is going to be a huge adjustment for the 19-year-old Kisakov both on and off the ice. He’ll have to adjust to playing against stronger players on a nightly basis and get comfortable with life in the United States. But it’s easy to see the potential in his game. Getting him to North America at this age will benefit him and the organization in the long run.

2. Filip Cederqvist was a pleasant surprise at development camp, measuring in a few inches taller and with added weight to his frame. Coaches raved about the way he performed in the conditioning tests, a clear sign of the work he’s done in the weight room. That definitely translated into results in game action. He has a strong presence in front of the net. He scored a goal against the Devils, using his size to get positioning in front and depositing a rebound into the back of the net. He made it look easy. On Monday against the Senators, he drove the net and got a shot off that resulted in a Tyson Kozak goal off the rebound. A late bloomer at 22 years old, Cederqvist has a shot to play his way into a future with the organization.

3. We detailed Matt Savoie’s debut on Thursday night, and he kept his strong play going through the weekend. He scored against the Devils, but this was about more than points for the Sabres’ top pick. His speed and skill consistently stood out the way you would hope it would given his draft status. Coming off injury, this was a perfect chance for Savoie to get himself back up to speed in time to report to training camp with the veterans this week. He’s a long shot to get NHL action out of the gate, but this experience should lay the foundation for another stellar season in the WHL. He’s certainly not ready to go back to Winnipeg without putting up a fight in main camp later this week, though.

“I love when the pressure is on,” Savoie said. “That’s when you really see what guys are made of and see how hard guys are willing to compete and do stuff. When the stage is the biggest, I’m playing my best hockey. I always want to rise to the level and I think I can play with anyone.”

4. After a 70-point season for Portland in the WHL last year, Tyson Kozak received an entry-level contract from the Sabres. The 2021 seventh-round pick built on that success in the three games this weekend. Appert described him as someone who plays “winning hockey.” He scored a pair of goals in the opening game against Montreal, including an impressive game winner in which he drove the net on the backhand. He scored two more goals on Monday and you could make a strong case he was Buffalo’s most valuable player in this tournament. The scoring is nice, but Kozak has the self awareness to know what he is as a player and leans into his strengths. He was one of the best forecheckers on the ice. His play in the defensive zone was sound. He knows that’s his path to the NHL. It sounds like he should have a real shot to play in the AHL this season.

“I think I’ll be coaching him soon,” Appert said. “He’s a coach’s dream. He is a coach’s dream, because naturally, innately, he plays the game the right way. He wants to win puck battles. He wants to be first on the forecheck. He penalty kills like a street hockey goalie and wants to block shots. He’s a real honest player. All coaches love those types of players, but he has underrated skill.”

5. Jiri Kulich looks ready for the AHL. After sitting out the first game with soreness, Kulich jumped in against the Devils on Saturday night and had two assists and an empty net goal. He has the size and complete 200-foot game to play for the Amerks right away, and that seems to be the plan as long as he earns a spot. Kulich gets a lot of praise for his shot, and it’s an elite trait. But he also has the hockey sense to adapt quickly to the North American game. It’s clear he’s willing to play physical and not back down to opponents.

6. As the son of an NHL player, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that 2022 fourth-round pick Mats Lindgren looked poised as an 18-year old at this tournament. Weber lauded Lindgren’s skating, and it stood out in the number of odd-man rushes he created. He’s more than just an offensive defenseman, though. He’s quick to retrieve the puck and decisive in finding outlets and breaking the puck out.

“Special skater,” Weber said. “His edge work, I wish I had that for one game I played. His skating and his hockey IQ are pretty special.”

This tournament was a strong start for Lindgren. He got better and more confident offensively as the tournament went along. That should give him a spring board to have another productive year in the WHL.

7. Lukas Rousek was outstanding for the Sabres in all three games. Appert called him “an elite passer,” and he showed that while playing alongside Kulich and Rosen. His energy on the forecheck stood out. He has the vision to set up his teammates and the tenacity to win puck battles in this setting. That’s a strong combination. In the final game of the weekend, Rousek got in on the scoring himself. It’s easy to see why he could be a useful player in Rochester this season.

“They all want to play with him,” Appert said. “He finds plays everywhere. He’s now also learning how to play hard and hunt. Jack Quinn would come back to the bench laughing because of the stuff he pulls off out there.”

8. Vsevolod Komarov, the Sabres’ 2022 fifth-round pick, is an interesting prospect. He has the size and strength that help him stand out in this setting. But as Weber said, the point of emphasis with him will be developing his first three strides. There were multiple instances in game action where his lack of quickness cost him. Of course, he’s only 18 years old, so he has plenty of time to develop his skating. Another year in the QMJHL will serve him well.

9. Isak Rosen, Buffalo’s second first-round pick in 2021, might be their most interesting prospect to watch this season. Up close, it’s incredible how quick his release is and how hard the puck comes off his stick. He also has speed that could make him dangerous in the NHL. He was an offensive standout in this tournament, but Rosen’s most notable play might have been his blocked shot to help the Sabres hold on and beat the Canadiens in the first game.

Patience will be required with Rosen. While he’s already gotten stronger since development camp, Rosen needs to learn how to hold up over an entire season in the AHL. Playing a more physical game on smaller ice will be an adjustment for him. If he can put it together, the offensive tool kit is impressive.

“I think he was clocked as like the second-fastest player at top speed in the whole World Junior tournament,” Appert said. “He has explosive acceleration. He does it very effortlessly. So, his skating is special. He has very good creativity with his vision. But he is a bit of a goal scorer, which is great to see for a young player. I told him yesterday as well, good on him because of how much better he even looks now than he did two months ago. And that’s a credit to his work.”

10. I don’t know what the immediate future holds for Linus Weissbech and Oskari Laaksonen, but both players made an impression on the organization with the way they led the younger players over the last week. Getting older prospects to buy into a rookie camp isn’t always a given, but those two stood out in that regard. Weissbach was also an important piece of the Savoie-Kisakov line. Weissbach finished the tournament with a goal and three assists. That was encouraging after he was unable to finish the season due to injury last year. He’s working his way into becoming a potential bottom six player for the Sabres down the line.

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

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