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Sabres prospect takeaways: Matt Savoie’s injury, Isak Rosen and Jiri Kulich ‘knocking on the door’


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Less than a minute into the Buffalo Sabres’ final game of their three-game prospect tournament, Matt Savoie went hard into a player and the boards and stayed down on the ice. The No. 9 pick in the 2022 NHL Draft is one of the best players in Buffalo’s loaded prospect pool, and he played like it this weekend. He scored two flashy goals Friday and was constantly around the puck. This wasn’t the ending the Sabres wanted for one of their top draft picks.

Seth Appert, who coached the Sabres prospects to a 2-1 record in this rookie tournament, said only that Savoie is dealing with an upper-body injury and will miss “some time” at main camp. He’s going to be re-evaluated Tuesday, and the team will have more information. But for a player who was hoping to push for an NHL roster spot, that’s not an ideal end to rookie camp.

When describing what makes Savoie a special player, Appert mentioned that he’s an “elite competitor.” That’s the aspect of Savoie’s game that stands out every time you watch him. It’s consistent every shift, too. He’s not afraid to go into the corner and battle for pucks. He’s not the biggest guy on the ice (listed at 5 foot 10 and 170 pounds) and needs to keep getting stronger, but he has the competitive drive general manager Kevyn Adams is always looking for in draft picks. That can lead to injuries at times. He played through a shoulder injury in his draft year.

“A lot of high-end skill, smart players that are drafted as high as he is aren’t as hungry to go get the puck back as he is,” Appert said.

Even before his injury, Savoie was in for an interesting development year. He’s not old enough to play in the AHL without an exemption, so he was either going to make the NHL roster or be back in the WHL for another season. It was clear when he spoke last week that his focus was on making the NHL roster, and he didn’t hesitate to state his case with his play in this tournament. Unfortunately, the injury will set him back.

Here’s what else we learned from Buffalo’s three-game prospect tournament.

1. Isak Rosen hasn’t gotten as much hype as the more recent first-round picks in the system like Savoie, Jiri Kulich and Zach Benson. But he might have been the best of the bunch in this tournament. His biggest issue is strength, and the only way he’s going to answer that concern is against bigger and stronger competition. It was still encouraging to see him stand out the way he did in this tournament. Rosen said he felt much more confident heading into this rookie tournament than he did last season. He’s gained 10 pounds (listed at 173), and Appert loved the effort he gave away from the puck, particularly as a backchecker. Rosen could play his way into a few NHL games this year if he keeps progressing at this rate.

“Why should I not aim for that going into camp?” Rosen said.

2. Kulich says he added 16 pounds this offseason, which is impressive because the 19-year-old has looked like one of the strongest players in his age group for a while. It’s clear he’s motivated to make the jump to the NHL this season, but he’s going to need to prove himself at veteran camp for that to happen. He scored two goals in the first two games of the tournament and then didn’t play in the third. His shot is already NHL caliber, and he’s probably strong enough to play in the NHL, too. He said he spent the summer working on getting faster and more physical. It will be interesting to see if that translates to NHL training camp because the only thing separating him from the top level right now is his play away from the puck. He looks like he could step into the league and play on Buffalo’s second power play right now if asked.

3. The big question with Rosen and Kulich is whether they have taken enough of a step to compete for NHL playing time. Appert sat them out for the third game of the tournament because he felt the way they played with their work ethic and habits earned them the right to get a breather before NHL camp opens Thursday. Appert thinks they’re ready to compete.

“They know now what real hockey is and how much work they’ve put in to get to this spot,” Appert said. “So the answer really is their play in the first two games showed that they’re knocking on the door and that they’re ready. I was curious. Were they going to come here and be kids again like they were last year and show flashes but be kids really? Or were they going to come here and play a man’s game? And they showed that in the first two games. I was really proud of them.”

4. Benson didn’t take over this tournament the way Connor Bedard took over the rookie tournament for the Chicago Blackhawks, but he showed why the Sabres were so excited to get him at No. 13. He plays a fast game without being the fastest skater on the ice because he thinks the game so well. He always seems to be one step ahead of the opposition, and that’s notable as an 18-year-old in a tournament like this one. He scored a goal Saturday in which he showed off his quick release and deception. He led an odd-man rush and looked at his passing option just long enough to freeze the goalie and beat him with a shot. He’ll likely be back in the WHL this season and should be one of the league’s most productive players.

5. Viktor Neuchev put together a few strong games. He’s around the puck a lot and does the little things that help keep plays alive. He stops on pucks, changes direction quickly and has an active stick. He’s got speed, too, which doesn’t hurt. Some players just have a knack for collecting loose pucks, and Neuchev is one of them. He got some time on the power play with Kulich in the first game. Then he opened the scoring in the second game off a one-timer in front of the net. He should have a chance to earn a big role with the Rochester Americans this season.

“His hockey intelligence is extremely strong,” Appert said. “Very good offensive instincts. He can play the game we want to play organizationally, which is give-and-go hockey and making quick plays, thinking fast.”

6. Nikita Novikov had five assists in the first two games of this tournament. The 2021 sixth-round pick signed with the Sabres this summer after spending his first two post-draft seasons in Russia. He’s 6 foot 4 and willing to use that size to separate forwards from the puck. But his offensive instincts continued to stand out in this tournament. He was pushing the play up the ice and showed off what his teammates described as “elite” passing skills. His first season in North America might come with a learning curve off the ice, but he’s already played over 100 KHL games so he should be able to handle the level of play in the AHL without issue. He could rise through Buffalo’s system in the next few years.

7. Tyson Kozak has become one of the most consistent players in Buffalo’s prospect pool. He doesn’t have the same flashy offensive upside as other forwards, but he does so many things that help a team win. In the second game of the tournament against the New Jersey Devils, he had an effective forecheck, won a puck battle behind the net and hit Neuchev with a perfect pass to set up the Sabres’ first goal. He was a mainstay on the penalty kill and is showing more and more offensive touch. It’s not out of the question that he develops into a bottom-six NHL forward at some point in the next few years.

8. Ryan Johnson got his first taste of rookie camp after signing his entry-level contract in May. His skating is his best trait. He uses it to create zone entries and offense, but Appert also noted he’s improving in his ability to use his skating to close gaps on the rush and break the puck out of his own zone effectively. Appert thinks Johnson is talented enough to run a power play in Rochester but said he won’t use him that way because it’s not his path to the NHL. With Owen Power and Rasmus Dahlin occupying those top two power-play spots, Johnson is going to get to the NHL by being an effective player at five-on-five and improving in his own end. Those will be the areas of focus for Johnson in Rochester this season.

9. The Sabres gave fifth-round pick Scott Ratzlaff two starts in this tournament. He looked noticeably more in control in his second appearance Monday despite Buffalo’s 3-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. That’s all you can ask of an 18-year-old goalie in this rookie tournament. Ratzlaff will get a chance to start in the WHL this season and will likely be at Canada’s world juniors selection camp in December, as well. He has a chance to be Team Canada’s backup this season with a strong showing. After trading Erik Portillo at the deadline last season, adding another goalie to the pipeline was necessary. And Ratzlaff is showing some potential.

10. Zach Metsa jumped into the AHL playoffs last season and immediately made an impact for Rochester. He then showed up to rookie camp and looked like one of Buffalo’s best players and wore a letter in all three games. That’s expected to an extent because he’s 24 years old. But Metsa has exceeded expectations at every level. He’s only on an AHL contract right now, but the way he’s played, he may get more than that before too long.

“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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