Jiri Kulich, Matthew Savoie, Sabres Prospects, Tyson Kozak, Zach Benson

Standouts at Sabres 2023-24 Prospects Challenge

The Buffalo Sabres recently wrapped up their weekend prospects tournament, and they finished with a 2-1 record. Throughout the course of the event, there were a number of players that stood out for good reasons, some that stood out for poor performances, and others that were generally invisible. I was personally at each of the Sabres’ games, so I was able to get a first-hand look at how these players were performing compared to the usual video highlights. The results did not generally disappoint, but there were a few players that flopped.

There was a lot to take in, but ultimately the entire event was fun to watch as the young players put on a very entertaining show, and it left a great feeling heading into training camp. Many of these players are destined for a return to their junior teams, or to the minor league Rochester Americans, but based on how they performed, there will be a couple that deserve to get extended looks in training camp and the preseason.

Sabres Prospects Who Needed To Show More

This is less a knock on these players for a lack of performance, as it is a desire to have seen more from them compared to what was noticeable on the ice each game. The players in question that could have done a lot more are Aleksandr Kisakov, Oliver Nadeau, and Zach Benson. Each of these players has the skills to produce at a high level, but all ended up looking flat for most of the tournament. Benson and Nadeau were both a part of the top two lines and had every opportunity to impress, but both ended up having their own issues.

Zach Benson Buffalo Sabres
Zach Benson, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Kisakov will be back in Rochester this coming season and there is an expectation for him to make a positive jump with his scoring and overall game. For the tournament, he made around two or three good plays, but was otherwise invisible. His game was not bad per se, but he just did not do anything of note for the majority of his time on the ice. Nadeau was a staple on the top line with Kulich and Rosen for the first two games, and the only thing of note he did was get in a couple of scrums. He did not do much else as he was not driving or finishing any plays as was expected with his skill, and quality of linemates. Benson played with his junior teammate Matt Savoie for the entirety of the tournament, and even had a massive amount of power-play time, but his gameplay looked off. He appeared slower than usual, and played like he was nervous or trying too hard.

Between the three of them, there is nothing to panic over as they are all still very young. Benson will likely be back in juniors this season as Kisakov and Nadeau will be in Rochester. All three will be given further development opportunities and will grow beyond what was shown over the weekend. The likelihood of any of them getting an extended look for the preseason is fairly bleak, but for now that is alright, especially considering how many other top end prospects are vying for the limited NHL roster opportunities this season.

Sabres Prospects Who Impressed

In the discussion for players that were either dominant or consistently good, there are some clear choices. Matt Savoie, despite being injured in the first minute of the final game, was one of the Sabres’ best players on the ice all weekend long. Ryan Johnson was a massive steady presence on the blue line and played the top defender role perfectly. From his calming defensive skills, to his skating and vision to make plays up ice, Johnson was one of the most interesting players to watch. Defenseman Nikita Novikov was another standout as he found a great balance between being an imposing physical defender and a smart offensive defender. He finished the tournament with five assists and was a driving force for both ends of the ice.

Matthew Savoie Buffalo Sabres
Matthew Savoie, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Savoie was something special to see in the two full games he played. He was out there every shift playing his heart out in games that do not mean much, and he did it with skill, speed, and finesse. The two goals he scored were both highlight-reel efforts and, assuming he will be ready for training camp, all eyes will be on him to break into the NHL. Johnson and Novikov both had moments of greatness, but they were determined by different circumstances. When Johnson made a great play, it appeared effortless, and he maintained his poise to turn the puck the other direction. Novikov was a little more flashy with his bigger plays. He would step up and make a brilliant pass, or fight off a defender in his own end to overpower them and take the puck away before dishing it up ice.

As both Johnson and Novikov are first-year defenders and will be key pieces of the Rochester lineup, it was refreshing to see just how far they are in their development compared to the other prospects in and out of Buffalo’s system. Savoie on the other hand needs to either make the NHL lineup out of training camp, or he will be sent down to his junior team as he currently does not have an exemption from the Western Hockey League (WHL) similar to how Shane Wright of the Seattle Kraken got one from the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). Of the three, Savoie is the most likely to make the opening night roster, but it will be completely up to him depending on his health and production in the preseason.

The Biggest Overall Standouts of the Sabres Group

Some might be expecting to see names like Jiri Kulich or Isak Rosen here, and even though both were fantastic in the two games they each played, there were two other players that stood out above the rest. The first was defenseman Zack Metsa. The 5-foot-9 defender was one of the most noticeable players on the ice every game. He made great defensive plays, contributed to most of the high-danger offensive chances, and functioned as an incredible complement to the other defensemen. He was quick at both ends of the ice and made some amazing decisions throughout each game. High hockey IQ was on full display as an older (24 years old) prospect, and now he will be given an opportunity to play in Rochester when the season starts.

Jiri Kulich Rochester Americans
Jiri Kulich, Rochester Americans (Photo by Micheline Veluvolu/ Rochester Americans)

The other huge standout to me was Tyson Kozak. I have talked about him before as being one of the best prospects currently in the Sabres’ system, and he really showed all the reasons why he is still an underrated prospect. The former seventh-round pick dominated the faceoff circle all weekend long and only lost a total of around 10-12 draws. On top of that, he had some great defensive moments, combined with a highlight-reel breakaway goal; not to mention his physicality was the most notable amongst all Sabres forwards. He did it all, and he did it all better than most of the other forwards. For a player that is being molded into a premier bottom-six player, he is showing that he will be ready sooner than later.

There Is No Reason To Rush Any Of These Prospects

The Sabres already have a full and deep lineup. On top of that, they have a very deep pool of prospects not including the ones that were showcased at the tournament. Each of these players will be given the proper time to grow their game slowly as the Sabres ultimately adjust their roster from training camp and send these prospects to their designated teams for the season. Many will play in college or junior hockey, and many more will be relegated to the minor leagues, but that does not mean they will not be given a chance if they show they are ready.

Related – Predicting the Sabres’ 2023-24 Season Roster

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The prospect tournament was more of a showcase and a warmup for some newly drafted players, and prospects trying to up their position on the depth chart. These games were a great way for them to get their legs moving for training camp, but they are not the “end all, be all” of how these players will eventually perform. Allowing them the needed time to develop will only help the players and the team. Now all Buffalo needs to do is sort through these young talents and choose a roster that they want to make a playoff push with in 2023-24.

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