The Buffalo Rookie Challenge came to a close Monday afternoon with the Sabres defeating the Ottawa Senators by a score of 6-3.
Buffalo was the only team to run the table, finishing with a perfect 3-0 record.
Pittsburgh only played once in the tournament. The Penguins defeated the Boston Bruins 6-4 on Saturday afternoon.
Montreal had wins over Ottawa and New Jersey, with their lone defeat coming at the hands of the Sabres 4-3.
New Jersey also finished with two wins and a loss. Their wins were over Boston and Montreal and their only loss was a 7-4 defeat versus Buffalo.
The Ottawa Senators never quite got on track as a group. They finished with an 0-3 record.
Full marks to the Sabres organization, and their fanbase, for supporting the season-opening tournament. Two out of three of the Sabres games were sold out and the fans in attendance were plenty loud for exhibition games. The LECOM Harborcenter, home to Canisius College and the Buffalo Jr. Sabres of the OJHL, is a perfect size venue for this event.
Here are some player notes from the tournament. All scouting notes from TheProHockeyGroup.com.
Juraj Slafkovsky: 2GP, 0G, 1A
All eyes were on the first overall pick from the draft, and he generally didn’t disappoint. He ended with only one assist in the tournament, but he played with a physical presence and relentless compete. By the end of his second game he did look frustrated with his play and clearly was looking to produce more offence.
It’s going to take some time for Slafkovsky to adjust to the North American ice surface and play with more consistent three zone detail. Main camp starts this week in Montreal. I expect his game to continue to evolve in the coming weeks before the start of the regular season. I believe he will get NHL games to start the season, but there is a good chance he will spend some time with AHL Laval as well.
PROJECTION: Top 6 NHL Power Forward
Owen Beck: 3GP, 2G, 0A
Beck was outstanding this weekend. He played with exceptional detail in all three zones. He was never late with his offensive zone exits and kept the play in front of him on most shifts. For the amount of time he had the puck on his stick he could have produced even more offence with a bit of puck luck.
Beck is excellent in the face-off circle. He wins draws on both sides of the ice and has his own unique approach (flips his stick over to take face-offs on the strong side of his blade). He demonstrates the hockey IQ to be used in all situations, if required, at the pro level.
PROJECTION: Middle 6 NHL Forward
Arber Xhekaj: 2GP, 0 Pts
Xhekaj set the tone early and often with his physical play. He has a presence. His pace was solid. He was creative, at times, on the offensive blue line. His outlets were accurate. It’s early but Arber has established himself as a player to watch closely at Canadiens main camp. He’s close to challenging for an NHL job.
PROJECTION: Heavy, Physical, No. 5 D. Potentially Top 4 in time.
Kaiden Guhle: 1GP, 1A
Guhle only played one game in the tournament, versus Ottawa, but it provided a positive look at what’s to come. In my estimation he’s NHL ready. He played a fast, physical, determined game. He showed he has the legs to lead the rush on his own or join as an extra layer. Defensively he’s quick to space and bodies up very well. Guhle is a relentless competitor who can be deployed in all situations.
PROJECTION: Top Pairing NHL Defenceman
Emil Heineman: 3GP, 2G, 1A
Heineman was solid for the Canadiens. He displayed more skill than expected. Emil is the kind of player who needs to play with energy and tenacity in all three zones to be effective. He had the puck on his stick more than I’ve witnessed since I first started tracking him three years ago. He should be confident heading into main camp.
PROJECTION: Bottom 6 NHL Forward. Needs AHL seasoning
Justin Barron: 2GP, 1A
Barron wasn’t outstanding in Buffalo. He also wasn’t poor. He transitioned pucks and made some crafty plays in the offensive zone. He distributed well on the PP. Barron is a two-way, transitional defenceman. His defending required more growl at times. It’s early in camp, but he was outplayed by both Xhekaj and Guhle.
PROJECTION: Middle Pairing NHL Defenceman. Might need time in AHL Laval.
Angus Crookshank: 3GP, 2G, 2A
Crookshank missed all of the 2021-22 season after suffering a torn ACL at the Buffalo Prospects Challenge last fall. He was, by far, the most competitive and energetic Senators prospect this weekend. He’s a rash that never goes away. Angus has the ability to get under the skin of his opponents. He played fast and was a threat off the rush. When there was a loose puck to be found around the crease he never shied away from battling in the trenches.
PROJECTION: 4th line NHL forward. Spot Middle 6 duty if required. AHL Belleville to start
Jake Sanderson: 1GP, 0 Pts
Sanderson only suited up for one game, but it was enough to see he is ready to compete at main camp for the Senators. He’s an elite skater who sees the ice very well. He outlets responsibly, extends plays in the offensive zone, and closes quickly on opponents. He’s ready to compete for an NHL job in the coming weeks.
PROJECTION: Top Pairing NHL Defenceman who will be deployed in all situations
Tyler Boucher: 3GP, 1G
I didn’t love Boucher’s game at this tournament. He gives me the impression he isn’t sure about how he should define himself as a player. There were times he set up shop around the crease in the offensive zone, causing distraction in the process. There were other times, however, that he didn’t battle enough along the wall or in the hard areas. He scored his goal on the power play, a top shelf wrister from the middle slot. His defensive detail was 50/50 at best. His overall compete was the same. I expected him to be better than he was.
PROJECTION: Middle 6 Forward if he trends in the right direction but it’s going to take time
Mads Sogaard and Kevin Mandolese
Sogaard faced 27 shots against Boston and allowed five goals against. Mandolese faced 44 shots versus Montreal and allowed seven goals against.
Neither established enough and will need to build up their games as training camp roles along.
PROJECTIONS: Sogaard likely gets the net more than Mandolese at AHL Belleville this season. They both need time.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
Simon Nemec: 2GP, 1A
The second overall pick from July took some time to get going, but showed more positives than negatives. He did try to force his way up ice, occasionally, with the puck on his stick. He also over-skated the play in the neutral zone a few times, anticipating the team was in control and going on offence. In the coming weeks he will get more acclimated to the smaller ice surface and learn to pick his spots better. He’s an elite prospect for the Devils who can log a ton of ice time in all situations, but isn’t likely going to be used on the penalty kill early in his career.
PROJECTION: Top Pairing, Two-way Transitional NHL Defenceman
Alexander Holtz: 2GP, 2G
The Devils first rounder from the 2020 draft showed off his pace and skill, but still left me wanting more consistency. His element is offence. Holtz ripped home pucks from the flank on the power play. When he is competing to his full potential, he has the look of top six NHL forward for New Jersey. His three zone effort and detail will need to improve.
John Beecher: 3GP, 3G, 1A
Beecher was a bit of an enigma in Buffalo. He produced offensively, but there were stretches his pace and pushback needed to be better. When at his best he plays quick and fast and gives opponents all they can handle along the boards and crease. He’s not naturally gifted with the puck and I don’t project him to score a ton at the NHL level. He has more to give despite the fact he led the Bruins in scoring in Buffalo.
PROJECTION: Middle 6/2-way Forward
Ryan Humphrey: 3GP, 2G
Humphrey jumped out at me for all the right reasons. He was a relentless pain in the butt! He didn’t back down from engaging in the hard areas and played with some quickness and skill. It will be interesting to see what happens with Ryan in the coming days. He’s at camp on a tryout and will be returning to OHL Hamilton at some point. It will be interesting to see if Boston invites him to their main camp.
PROJECTION: 13th Forward/Minor League Recall. Trending Up
Tyson Kozak: 3GP, 4G
A seventh round pick from the 2021 draft, Kozak has a chance to be an NHL player someday. He scores goals, plain and simple. On the weekend he found pucks in high danger areas and cashed in on his chances. He has some work to do off the puck and in his zone. He will need to be more committed at the pro level. But you can’t teach what he has skill-wise. He could be a feel good story down the line.
PROJECTION: Middle 6 NHL Forward is possible.
Isak Rosen: 3GP, 1G, 2A
Rosen’s element is offence. He will never be deployed on the PK at the NHL level. Off the rush he showed some deception and the ability to get the edge and drive, or pull up, to make plays. Defensively he was average but it’s not his area of strength. He’s a skilled, light, forward who will need to find a role in the top half of the Sabres lineup to have impact. It’s going to take time, but he showed glimpses of what he is capable of this weekend.
PROJECTION: He will either be a Top 6 NHL forward or a 13th forward
Jiri Kulich: 2GP, 1G, 2A
Kulich came to camp with a nagging leg injury that held him out of the first game of the tournament. He scored all three of his points versus New Jersey on Saturday. His goal was scored into an empty net. His pace looks sound and there is no question he has the skill to be an impactful NHL player. In order for that day to arrive, sooner than later, his three zone detail and off the puck effort will need to be much better than it was this weekend. I’m trying not to be too critical, since this is his first camp and he’s adjusting, but his defensive zone awareness was very concerning.
Matt Savoie: 3GP, 3G
Savoie emptied the tank every shift. There is no question he will produce offence at the NHL level someday. This is his first pro camp and the Sabres played him in the middle. It looked, at times, like it was a big ask for him to track up and down the ice and sustain his energy enough to play to his element offensively. Time will tell, but he’s better suited to play the wing at the NHL level in my opinion.
Colin Sawyer: 1GP, 4A
Sawyer is entering his first year of pro hockey after four years at Michigan Tech. It was only a single game viewing but he had a big day. Sawyer is capable of skating pucks from his zone and attacking with speed. He has a transitional element. He also distributed very well on the power play. I would describe his defending as “high end of average.” He’s not tall (6-foot) but does have some weight and strength (190 pounds). He’s a 24-year-old who looked more mature than others in the game versus Boston.
PROJECTION: Bottom Pairing NHL Defenceman/ 7th D
Samuel Poulin: 1GP, 1G, 2A
The Penguins' first round pick from 2019 is entering his second season of pro hockey. He played to his identity on the weekend. His goal was a tap in from just outside the right post after the puck took a friendly bounce off the dasher behind the net. Being around the crease creating a screen and looking for a tip or rebound is exactly where Poulin will have success at the NHL level. He played a pretty heavy power game versus Boston. He’s not naturally gifted offensively and his pace has room to go to another level. If he plays to his strengths, wearing down opponents in the hard areas, he has a chance to be an NHL player.
PROJECTION: Bottom 6 NHL Power Forward