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Matt Savoie's injury might hurt prospect's bid to make Sabres' roster


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Matt Savoie was on the ice in pain as the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrated a goal 22 seconds into the first period Monday night in LECOM Harborcenter.

Savoie, the Sabres' top pick in the 2022 draft, managed to stand, then slowly skated back to the Buffalo Sabres' bench, hunched over in pain after taking a hit near his net.

His teammates were forced to play without him for the rest of their final game at the Prospects Challenge. A 3-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins to cap the event was the least of General Manager Kevyn Adams' concerns as fans filed to the exit.

Not only did Savoie suffer what Rochester Americans coach Seth Appert referred to as an upper-body injury, but the 5-foot-9 center might not be on the ice at the start of NHL training camp Thursday in Buffalo.

"I don’t have a medical update yet, other than it’s upper body and he’s gonna get reevaluated here in the next day – tonight, tomorrow," said Appert. "Probably expected to miss a little bit of time at main camp. We’ll have more details in the next couple days."

Savoie, the ninth pick in the 2022 draft, scored two goals in the opener of the Prospects Challenge, and he was in line to be among the Sabres’ leaders in ice time Monday because they chose to rest top prospects Jiri Kulich and Isak Rosen. Russian wingers Aleksandr Kisakov and Viktor Neuchev sat as a precaution because both are dealing with minor injuries. Kulich and Rosen, like Savoie, are among the young forwards vying for an NHL roster spot created by Jack Quinn’s Achilles injury.

The injury occurred approximately 22 seconds into the game Monday when Savoie skated toward his own net to prevent a Penguins forward from scoring a back-door tap-in. Savoie spun after colliding with Jagger Joshua and slid toward the end boards before returning to his bench as Pittsburgh celebrated Sam Poulin’s goal.

It was a brutal ending to a stellar rookie camp for Savoie. He looked much stronger than last fall when he was returning from a bothersome shoulder injury that impacted his summer training. 

"You hate seeing it happen to any player, whether it’s a first-round pick or invite," said Appert.

It’s not clear where Savoie will play this season. At 19 years old, he’s too young to compete in the American Hockey League unless it’s part of an NHL conditioning assignment. His junior hockey rights are held by the Western Hockey League’s Wenatchee Wild, where fellow Sabres prospect Zach Benson is slated to play. Savoie has already played 214 games of junior hockey and produced 90 goals with 226 points over the past two years between the regular season and playoffs. 

Here are observations on other Sabres from the three-game Prospects Challenge and rookie camp:

Top prospects

Jiri Kulich: There weren't any jaw-dropping plays by Kulich in his two prospect games. He whiffed on two shots during the first period Saturday. His first goal was the result of a perfect, cross-ice pass by Isak Rosen on the power play, and the second was a backhand shot New Jersey's goalie should have stopped.

Yet there were signs in Kulich's game that showed he's ready to compete for a spot with the Sabres in training camp. He looked sharp defensively while playing center. His backchecks were well-timed, and he didn't take any unnecessary risks. Kulich, 19, also showed in fitness testing that he's gained strength since Rochester's season ended in June.

Regardless of where Kulich plays, he's physically ready to build on the 31 goals he scored between the regular season and playoffs in the AHL.

“He doesn't look like a 19-year-old, I'll tell you that, with his size,” said new Rochester assistant coach Vinny Prospal, who dined with Kulich in Czech Republic this summer. “Well, let's put it this way, even though I have not been coaching for the last two years, I follow hockey closely, like any kind of level, and he's an up-and-coming player from Czech Republic. So, there's a lot of media coverage, and he had a great season. ... The first thing that stands out, I guess, is his skating ability and his shot. I remember coaching in Czech Republic, he skated against us, and he was already playing men's hockey when he was a fairly young age.”

Isak Rosen: It’s no secret the Sabres brought Rosen to North America sooner than expected. He wasn’t physically ready for the AHL, but they wanted more control of his development after watching from afar as he received little ice time in Sweden the season before. The results were ugly at first last fall. Rosen struggled until December when he left for the IIHF World Junior Championship and looked like a different player once he returned to the Amerks.

Now, Rosen looks like a prospect who could earn a call-up to Buffalo this season. He’s a dynamic skater with an electric shot and showed every shift at the Prospects Challenge that he’ll work relentlessly to get the puck back when the Sabres don’t have it. 

Ideally, Rosen would have another year in Rochester to get stronger and build his game at that level, but it’s encouraging that the 2021 first-round draft pick has made significant progress in one year. 

"They know now what real hockey is and how much work they've put in to get to this spot," said Appert. "Their play in the first two games showed 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, are they going to come here and play a man's game? They showed that in the first two games, and I was really proud of them."

Zach Benson: Recent draft picks often struggle at Prospects Challenge because they spent the first half of their offseason training for the combine, so it’s notable that Benson looked like he belonged. He was dynamic each time he touched the puck and showed the competitiveness that’s a staple of his game. Benson, who the Sabres selected with the 13th pick in June, bugged opponents throughout the week with his tenacious play in all three zones. He’s exceptional on his edges, and his skill was a step above everyone else on the ice Monday. 

Amerks watch

Ryan Johnson: Each of his puck touches during the Prospects Challenge showed that he’s ready for pro hockey. Johnson is an outstanding skater and learned at the University of Minnesota how to use that strength to defend. The Sabres’ staff, including Appert, also made the right decision to not have Johnson on the power play at rookie camp because his path to the NHL will be as a penalty-killer and reliable defender who can start a team’s 5-on-5 offense with smart breakouts. 

His end-to-end rush Friday night was one of the subtle highlights of camp because it showed there’s a dynamic element to his game that wasn’t on display in college. He looks more confident than ever and primed for a good rookie season in Rochester.

“We have (Rasmus) Dahlin and Owen (Power),” Appert explained. “They’re going to be running (the power play) for a long time. … So, (Johnson’s path to the NHL) will be being an elite defender, being a transitional, puck-moving defenseman and getting us on offense 5-on-5, being a strong penalty-killer.”

Nikita Novikov: You won’t be wowed by Novikov at first glance. His skating needs work, particularly his lateral agility. Doing so will help him become a better defender. The language barrier is also going to be a challenge as he learns the nuances of defending with the Amerks. But he’s an intriguing 6-foot-3 prospect with a long reach who is eager to use his size to thwart his opponent’s scoring chances and he showed confidence with the puck Friday when he made a backhand saucer pass to set up Tyson Kozak’s goal. The Sabres will be patient with Novikov. 

Aleksandr Kisakov: The Russian winger looks ready to take another step in his development. He appears stronger than at any point last season in Rochester when he had six goals and eight points in 48 games before he was a healthy scratch throughout the playoffs. Kisakov’s skill was evident throughout the Prospects Challenge and his skating looked better. He didn’t have a goal in two games, but he earned breakaways two breakaways Friday and showed strong on-ice vision with some of his playmaking, most notably his cross-ice pass to set up a one-timer by Viktor Neuchev.

Viktor Neuchev: Another prospect who wowed at times at Prospects Challenge, Neuchev will need to use his intelligence and skill to overcome what he’ll lack in strength and experience this season in Rochester. His skill and shot stood out throughout rookie camp. He showed that he can find pockets in the offensive zone to make himself an option to score, including Saturday night when he capitalized on a great pass by Tyson Kozak and scored on a one-timer from the slot.

Temper expectations for Neuchev this season. He’s only 19 years old and needs to learn the North American game. He’ll deal with more physical players in the AHL compared to what he saw in 62 games in the KHL.

“Hockey intelligence, that's probably number one,” Appert said when asked what he’s seen from the 2022 third-round draft pick. “Neuchev's hockey intelligence is extremely strong. Very good offensive instincts. Can play the game the way we want to play the game organizationally, which is give-and-go hockey and making quick plays and thinking fast.”

Tyson Kozak: The 2021 seventh-round pick has made a meteoric rise in two years and looks like a future bottom-six fixture in the NHL. He turned pro sooner than expected and delivered a promising rookie season with the Amerks, becoming one of their best penalty-killers and checking-line forwards. His performance at rookie camp showed that he can produce more offensively. Don’t be surprised if the 20-year-old sticks around Sabres camp longer than other Rochester-bound prospects.

“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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