Time sure flies, evidenced by the close of 2019 Buffalo Sabres’ Development Camp just a week after the NHL draft. Sabres’ management, including fixing the roster, prioritizes development of its prospects. The past 4 days were all about acquainting the youngsters with needed components to be able to play in the NHL.
As always, camp concludes with the French Connection 3-on-3 tournament. Despite officials and coaches being present, the scrimmage is a less structured means of observing the current prospect pool. Coming off a disappointing season, the organization hopes its fans regain confidence by viewing potential Sabres in the loose competition. Success in the scrimmage does not indicate NHL prowess but at least the team and community can see some of the raw talent.
Throughout the final event of development camp, eyes were on suspects that many hope will make the big club. At the same time, there were players that stood out that are not household names in Buffalo. Note: if a player was not mentioned does not mean they were a bust. They simply did not catch attention.
All Eyes On
Dylan Cozens C: 7th Overall Draft Pick 2019
It goes without saying that every fan, coach, player developer, and member of management present were closely watching their seventh-pick of the recent draft. Unfortunately, they did not expect him to get dropped by Brendan Hickey, which resulted in him not returning. And after taking a closer look, an abnormal lump appeared on his hand, signifying a break.
Just what everyone wanted to see, right? Despite a short viewing, the Yukon native showed signs of why the Sabres chose him. Cozens’ speed was clearly on display as well as his power. On his first shift, the first-rounder bulldozed his way through the middle of the ice in the offensive zone, creating a scoring chance for the white team. Not much later, Cozens circled on the left side of the net, throwing a backhand pass to Miska Kukkonen, who scored. Shortly after, the top draft pick left the scrimmage. Although it was brief, Dylan Cozens showed traits that back him being a top-ten draft selection. Everyone now hopes the injury is not long-term. In an interview, Cozens does not think it is as bad as it looked on video.
Victor Olofsson LW: 181th Overall Draft Pick 2014
The 23 year old has taken a long journey to get to this point and it appears he does not plan to look back. Unsurprisingly, Victor Olofsson’s shot was as explosive as ever and no matter what, he always seemed to get one off. Regardless of the space he had, the NHL hopeful ripped shots, with goals as a result. The most obvious observation of Olofsson’s scrimmage play was how easy he made it look. Whether it was dangling with the puck, passing, shooting, or battling, nothing seemed to phase him and he certainly showed confidence.
Despite being known as a goal scorer with a quick release, Victor Olofsson displayed strong hockey IQ, with or without the puck. His passes in the offensive zone were decisive with plenty resulting in dangerous chances for the opposing players. And after putting in the effort at the development camp, I would imagine that Olofsson hopes that this was his last. I would be shocked if his goal is not to make the NHL roster, especially after a string, six-game showing on the wing with Jack Eichel.
Tage Thompson RW: Traded to Buffalo (2018)
If there is anyone who should the most out of being at development camp, it is Tage Thompson. Fair or not, the 21-year old will ultimately be compared to the player who went the other way in the trade that brought him to Buffalo (Ryan O’Reilly). After struggles in the NHL last season, fans grew pessimistic of the deal that Thompson had no control over.
Despite the naysayers, the hulking winger took the right attitude to Rochester as well as rookie camp. Thompson’s speed and power in the scrimmage proved that he is working on his lower body strength. His hands were never a question as much as his decision making and ability to bump with the stronger players of the NHL. Throughout the scrimmage, it appeared that Thompson was finding the balance of decisiveness, with or without the puck, and when to carry it to make a play. Evidence of this is when he found Dawson DiPietro streaking up the ice on a breakaway, resulting in a goal early. Ultimately, his team won the tournament and he was a reason why. It does not mean this next season will be a success but at least Thompson is putting in the effort to make a difference.
And yes, it is his lower strength that he needs improvement on to gain leverage on opponents. Why do you think Sidney Crosby can out-battle anyone in the NHL as a shorter player? Have you seen his legs? Crosby would easily beat Tage Thompson along the boards even with the young winger’s six-inch height advantage. #87 has tree trunk legs.
Ryan Johnson D: 31st Overall Draft Pick 2019
Dylan Cozens’ counterpart as a Sabres’ first round pick also had the attention of many. And this is mostly because few fans, and media alike, were clear on who Ryan Johnson was. But I think that after reading up on the Minnesota-commit, people were open to seeing what the kid can do.
Early on, Johnson showed the skating that many draft observers noted. Unafraid to join the rush in deep, the young defender showed confidence and strong hockey IQ. Johnson’s shot from the point is a nice “change-up,” which he eventually scored with. Going into the scrimmage, I did not realized how quick his hands are with puck, evidenced by his shootout goal. Even though this moment displayed the puck skills Ryan Johnson possesses, I would be surprised if this is his game. Regardless, Johnson may have given spectators a reason to believe he was a good choice at pick 31.
Rasmus Asplund C: 33rd Overall Draft Pick 2016
Of the 3 Rasmii selected by the Buffalo Sabres, this is the only one that has not played in the NHL. Rasmus Asplund, who previous General Manager, Tim Murray, traded up for in the second round, has played plenty of professional hockey. But for fans, it only matters if he has an impact in the NHL. Especially since Alex Debrincat, drafted after Asplund (Chicago), put up 41 goals this past season.
Rasmus Asplund is name that Sabres’ fans are familiar with as he has stood out at every development camp. Once again, the 21 year old’s speed and playmaking ability showed well. At times, I thought he seemed hesitant but overall he was a driver of play during the scrimmage. Asplund could look to shoot more but he is a very smart hockey player at all ends of the ice. Most likely starting in Rochester, Rasmus Asplund must take the next step by being an impact player from the start in the AHL.
Dawson DiPietro LW: Camp Invitee
Of all the players to turn heads, I thought that the 23 year old, undrafted forward from Western Michigan drew the most attention. From the start, Dawson DiPietro showed high-end speed, clear off a breakaway goal assisted by Tage Thompson. And it did not stop.
Dawson DiPietro is clearly a player who likes hockey one way: fast. Adding to this speed was creativity and offensive instincts. The smallish winger seemed to time his way up the ice perfectly and tended to be in the right spot. He also did not back down from playing in the hard areas and was not afraid to make a move. DiPietro’s shot was certainly a tool on display as well. His play without the puck, which was hard to evaluate as he was always on the offensive, may be an area to focus. It will be curious to see if DiPietro is offered a contract. He clearly wanted to make an impact.
Brandon Hickey D: Traded to Buffalo (2018)
Brandon Hickey is certainly a name that not everyone knows. In his time in the AHL, he was not a known, or often talked about, name. Hickey’s struggles in his rookie season were the reason for his obscurity, sitting out for quite a few. The blueline was loaded in Rochester last season but there was often no reason to sit anyone else.
In today’s scrimmage, Hickey showed how he wants to change that persona. One thing does well on the ice is communicate. He can be heard calling out to his teammates, which is something the Sabres do not necessarily do well. And throughout the tournament, the former BU Terrier seemed to be in the right place at the right time for the winning blue team. Whether it was playing the body, protecting the net, or joining the offense, Hickey made few mistakes. Like Asplund, Hickey needs to make an impact this season, which likely begins in the minors. He got a long look in preseason last year but he will need to progress beyond that.
Arttu Ruotsalainen C: Signing (2019)
If there was a player who wanted everyone to forget that he is 5’8,” it was Arttu Ruotsalainen. What the Finnish free agent signee lacked in height was made up for with brawn and intensity.
As most expect with a “small” hockey player, he skates well and shows offensive creativity. After a breakout year for the Ilves (Liiga), the center carried over that skill in his early debut with an NHL club. But I think it is the intensity that Ruotsalainen has that can lead to a career in the top, North American league.
The Buffalo Sabres have had a poor net presence for quite some time. Their newest signing, however, is not afraid to get there. Despite his height, he is noted as weighing in at 181 lbs, which gives a strong center of gravity. Ruotsalainen was a regular presence in front of the net, which ended in a tying goal during the final game of today’s tournament. Continuing to show this persistence to go to hard areas during training camp a preseason could make it hard for the Sabres to not keep him. Of the new faces, Arttu Ruotsalainen is one to watch as he could be valuable to the bottom six.
Marcus Davidsson C: 37th Overall Draft Pick 2017
Since his draft year, the 20 year old center was most noticeable today than I can remember. I do not think that Marcus Davidsson was ever known for his offensive prowess but he certainly has a motor. Today, however, he made more of an impact on the score sheet. Overall, Davidsson was more effective moving up-ice and getting by defenders. Evidenced by his goal, he was able to get to soft spots for scoring chances. Davidsson’s offensive game is more about being simple and efficient that about skill but he showed minor creativity.
Barring significant change, Davidsson will return to the SHL to continue his development. There is no rush for him to be in the NHL at this time so it will be important for Davidsson to take a step forward in the upcoming season with Vaxjo Lakers HC.
Will Borgen D: 92nd Overall Draft Pick 2015
By looking at his face, you would think that Will Borgen is in his first camp, coming off being newly drafted. But at 22 years old, the former Husky wants to make an impact. Making his NHL debut this past season, Borgen got a taste and I imagine he liked the flavor. After showing growth in his rookie season with Rochester, the 2015 pick clearly wanted to show he can do better. In 3 on 3, there is plenty of open ice and Will Borgen had no problem getting back in position or joining the rush. His passing can be “sneaky” good, whether it is touch passes in the offensive zone or breakout passes to forwards on the go.
As always, if he you the puck, Borgen will not let you have it quietly. Expect to be hit when the 6’2″ defender is on the ice. It will just be a matter of ensuring that Borgen is not out of position when being physical though it does not appear to being a glaring problem. His tenacity could be a nice balance if, and when, he is ready for NHL duty. For now, Will Borgen can focus on being his best self and earning more looks while pushing forward in the minors.
As for the rest of the prospect group, there were only just glimpses. Jacob Bryson and Oskari Laaksonen certainly had moments where they showed creative offensive ability and solid sticks in the defensive zone. Brett Murray, a very vocal winger, spends plenty of time in the middle of the ice and by the ice, using his size while Mattias Samuelsson (D) was a steady influence though nothing flashy. Eric Cooley, a camp invitee, wanted to be known by using his speed and getting to soft spots but I think Dawson DiPietro was the best of the invitees. Filip Cederqvist (LW) has signs of offensive creativity though he tended to be indecisive at time. Other than that, there was nothing spectacular or jaw-dropping.
With the goaltenders, it was hard to get a great look as 3 on 3 does not bode well for even the best in the league. Darion Hanson, of Union College, was a solid presence for the winning team though he was not necessarily making highlight reel saves. And that is not a bad thing. I cannot say I noticed any “flopping” or “flailing” that you see with the Tim Thomas-types. I would imagine he is due to continue his collegiate career with intent to get more NHL looks after his junior season.
At the end of the scrimmage, I imagine the attendees would have loved to see more of Dylan Cozens but what can anyone do. People should not be upset that a prospect defender (Hickey) was trying to make a play. He wants to make an impact as much as the next one and probably will have a harder road than Cozens to making the NHL. And like for many of these prospects, it is if they make it.