Who to watch: Sabres Prospects Challenge

September 6, 2019
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Hockey is back! Well, sort of.

The 2019 Sabres Prospects Challenge gets underway on Friday at Harborcenter with some of the Buffalo Sabres' top prospects set to face the best prospects from the New Jersey Devils.

For many prospects, it will be their first game action of the season and a nice tune up before the start of NHL training camp next week. While a number of these prospects are likely heading back to their junior team, European club or to the Rochester Americans after this tournament, a few players are hoping this tournament could be a springboard for them with the chance to earn a spot with the Sabres to start the 2019-20 season.

While not all of these players are bound for Buffalo to start the year, here are five Sabres prospects with a legitimate chance to earn a spot in the NHL right away:

 

1.) Victor Olofsson

Of all the players taking part in this weekend's tournament, Olofsson is the prospect that many observers see having a spot with the Sabres for the season opener on October 3 against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The 24-year-old had a stellar season in his first year in North America, scoring 30 goals and registering 63 points in 66 games with the Amerks. His play was so impressive that it eventually earned him a late-season call up from the Sabres, where he scored two goals and added two assists in six games with the parent club.

For most players transitioning from the European game to North America, it takes some time for the player to properly adjust to the style and culture of the game at the AHL and NHL level. The size of the ice is different, the schedules are different, and the pace of play is drastically different.

The transition for Olofsson was almost seamless as he immediately put up a 30-goal campaign with the Amerks after leading the entire Swedish Hockey League with 27 goals the year before. His shot alone allowed him to become one of the better goal scorers in the AHL last season, while his speed was up to par with the rest of the league.

Where Olofsson may have taken some time to adjust was with his strength and physicality, but by the time February rolled around he was ready to take the next step to the NHL level.

With the Sabres needing more offensive production and goals, Olofsson seems like a perfect fit.

In his six games with the Sabres, the Swedish winger was stellar playing on the left wing with Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart. He did not look a bit out of place at the NHL level, and things seemed to click for him from Day 1.

The question becomes where does Olofsson fit in with the Sabres right now? Buffalo already has a number of left wingers on the roster with Jeff Skinner, Conor Sheary, Marcus Johansson, Jimmy Vesey, Evan Rodrigues and C.J. Smith among the notables of the group. Can Olofsson swing over to the right wing with the ability to get off his incredible shot on his off wing?

Olofsson has played a majority of his time on the left wing dating back to his SHL days with the Frölunda Indians. With the Amerks, Olofsson spent a majority of the season on the left wing playing with Rasmus Asplund and Danny O'Regan.

Where he plays a majority of his time on the off wing is on the power play, where he sets himself up at the top of the faceoff circle. However, Olofsson says he is no stranger to playing on the right wing, and maybe that would be the best fit for him and the Sabres heading into this season.

Will he have the same efficiency playing on the off wing as he has had on the left wing over the past two seasons? Will he get a look on the right wing with Ralph Krueger during the preseason in Buffalo?

Only time will tell.

Olofsson will play on the left wing with Rasmus Asplund and Andrew Oglevie on Friday under the direction of Amerks head coach Chris Taylor. If he is truly ready to make the jump to the NHL this year, he should play like a men among pee-wee players in this tournament.

However, don't expect Olofsson to play in all three games this weekend.

 

2.) Rasmus Asplund

Last season was a slow start for Asplund in his first season in North America, but the youngster really started to pick up steam in the second half of the 2018-19 season. Overall, Asplund ended his campaign with 10 goals and 41 points while playing in all but one game during the regular season.

The 21-year-old got his start to the season with Olofsson and O'Regan, while slowly getting his feet wet in the North American style of game. His speed was immediately noticeable at the AHL level, but his size, physicality, and skillset took some time to really flourish. Once he gained his confidence around the halfway mark of the season, Asplund really looked like one of Rochester's most reliable players in both the offensive and defensive end.

While with Färjestad BK in the SHL the year before last, Asplund wanted to reach the 30-point mark, but just missed by two points. To make the jump from 28 points to 41 points in his first season was saying something to his development under Taylor in Rochester.

Asplund was a standout player for the Sabres in last year's Prospects Challenge, skating well with the puck while also creating some nice scoring chances with his underrated speed and good puck moving ability. However, it was clear that he needed the time with the Amerks to truly get himself up to the pace of the North American game during the preseason.

If Asplund can come out and dominate down the middle with Olofsson and Oglevie in this year's tournament, he may have a good shot to make some noise at training camp. However, a spot in the NHL will be tough to come by with players like Johan Larsson and Zemgus Girgensons still in the picture.

Could he win a spot on the Sabres with a strong preseason at center? Anything is possible, but some more time in the AHL will do Asplund plenty of good moving forward.

However, don't count out seeing Asplund with the Sabres at some point this season.

 

3.) Dylan Cozens

The seventh overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft is healthy from his thumb injury suffered during development camp and has been cleared to play in this weekend's event. He will center the second line on Friday playing alongside Matej Pekar and Lukas Rousek.

While the most likely route for Cozens is for him to return to the Western Hockey League with the Lethbridge Hurricanes, there is the chance he starts with the Sabres and plays his nine games allowed without burning the first year of his entry-level deal.

The 18-year-old is a very confident kid, and feels that he has a chance to play at the NHL level right away because of his size and his skating abilities. Standing at 6' 3" and 185-pounds, Cozens still has some room to grow in his body before he is fully developed at the NHL level.

Last season in his draft year with Lethbridge, Cozens put up an impressive 34 goals and 84 points in 68 games. That generated a lot of noise surrounding Cozens heading into the 2019 NHL Draft, and the thoughts of being a top-five player in his draft class. However, he ended up falling to the Sabres at the seventh pick, which was too good of a spot for general manager Jason Botterill to pass on him.

If Cozens gets a nine-game look with the Sabres, it is possible he would get the look as Buffalo's third line center behind Eichel and Casey Mittelstadt. He would likely have to blow the Sabres' staff out of the water in order to stick around beyond the nine games, but it could happen with a very strong outing.

Cozens is likely to serve as a leader this season with the Hurricanes in the WHL, as well as represent Canada this winter in the Czech Republic for the IIHF World Junior Championship.

Brighter days are certainly ahead for the young forward.

 

4.) Arttu Ruotsalainen

Not much was known about Ruotsalainen before he signed with the Sabres as a free agent out of Finland back in May.

The 21-year-old was a highly-touted prospect when he first played in the Finnish Liiga with Ässät Pori, but it took some time for him to grow into the player that he eventually became with Ilves. Last season, Ruotsalainen ended up leading Ilves with 21 goals and 42 points in 59 games, and helped lead the team to a playoff appearance.

What Ruotsalainen lacks in size (5' 8" and 181-pounds) he certainly makes up for in skills. He showed off some of those skills for the first time at development camp this June, and we got to see his speed and skating, as well as his exceptional puck movement and shot. And while his size may be a disadvantage, he was not shying away from displaying his strength on the puck and willingness to throw his body around a bit.

Ruotsalainen is primarily a center, but has also been able to shift to the wing when necessary.

If Ruotsalainen has any chance at making the Sabres roster to start the season, he will not only have to come out like a gangbuster during the Prospects Challenge and training camp, but he will likely have to earn a spot playing on the wing. He certainly does not have the experience of playing the North America style of game yet, but he does have plenty of experience playing at a professional level of hockey.

However, there is the chance that we see Ruotsalainen playing at the AHL level with the Amerks this season. If he is on the cusp of making the NHL roster and just misses out on a roster spot in Buffalo, his club in Ilves can elect to loan him to the Amerks for the season. But if he struggles and does not stick in Buffalo as one of the final roster cuts, he will likely head back to Finland and play the season with Ilves.

He's certainly a name to pay attention to this preseason.

 

5.) Henri Jokiharju

While Jokiharju already has NHL experience when playing with the Chicago Blackhawks organization, it will be interesting to see where he fits in with the Sabres with the current log-jam on the blue line.

The 20-year-old right-shot defenseman got to experience 38 games in the NHL last season, where he picked up two assists and was a minus-7 in Chicago. With the Rockford IceHogs in the AHL, Jokiharju scored two goals and picked up 15 assists for 17 points in 30 games.

Where the young defenseman really stood out this past season was his play at the international level with Finland. In the winter, Jokiharju won gold at the IIHF World Junior Championship in Vancouver and was a top defenseman with the Finns throughout the tournament. Later in May, Jokiharju ended up winning gold with Finland at the IIHF World Championship in Slovakia, where he put up three assists in 10 games played as one of the only players on the roster with NHL experience.

Jokiharju is a very smooth defenseman on the blue line who can transition really well from defense to offense. He moves the puck with clean, crisp passes and has the vision to see the game at a very high level.

Injuries alone may help Jokiharju earn a spot on the NHL roster, but if Buffalo remains healthy heading into the regular season he still has a legitimate shot at a spot with the Sabres. That is also, of course, if Botterill decides to make any moves on the blue line before the start of the season.

If someone is dealt, that greatly improves his chances of earning a roster spot. If nothing is done and everyone stands pat, he will need to really put himself ahead of some other defensemen to punch his ticket to the NHL.

Another split season between the NHL and AHL could be likely at this point, but Jokiharju has proven enough that he's capable of a full-time spot with the Sabres.

 

Coverage of the Sabres Prospects Challenge gets underway at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday on WGR, and at 12:30 p.m. on Monday over on ESPN 1520. Paul Hamilton and Brian Koziol will have the call of all the action, while I will be joining them during intermissions and following the games.