The Buffalo Sabres conclude their 2023 Prospect Challenge on Monday afternoon against the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Harborcenter. The club is 2-0 with victories over Montreal and New Jersey, but more importantly, their top prospects have stood out in advance of the opening of training camp on Thursday. The Sabres do not have many roster spots up for grabs, as the goaltending duo seems to be settled with Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen backing up Devon Levi, and the additions of veteran free agents Connor Clifton and Erik Johnson to the blueline corps.
At forward, the return of team captain Kyle Okposo and veterans Zemgus Girgensons and Tyson Jost on one-year deals serves to give head coach Don Granato experience in the bottom six, and the failure to deal Victor Olofsson over the summer leaves one spot available, the vacancy created by Jack Quinn‘s Achilles injury in June.
The club has an embarrassment of riches in the form of forward prospects competing for Quinn’s spot, but the question yet to be answered is which of the five top candidates will win out and whether it will be based on who performs the best or roster considerations.
— Duane Steinel (@DuaneS39) September 16, 2023
The longest shot is 2023 first-rounder Zach Benson, who in spite of his impressive showing is just 18 and likely bound for WHL Wenatchee and an important spot on Team Canada’s roster at the World Juniors this December. Wingers Isak Rosen and Jiri Kulich wet their beaks in the AHL last season and both performed well in the Calder Cup Playoffs, but each has aspects of their game that are incomplete that they have to improve on to become full-time NHLers.
The dark horse may be 24-year-old Lukas Rousek, who led the Rochester Americans with 56 points last season. His main advantage is that he’s more experienced and mature than the other candidates, and showed he was not intimidated by the bright lights of the NHL in a brief two-game stint last season.
First NHL game, first NHL shift, first NHL goal for Lukas Rousek! ⭐️ pic.twitter.com/IJBCG2xwTg
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) March 27, 2023
The player with the inside track on the spot is 2022 top pick Matthew Savoie. The 19-year-old has shown his playmaking and offensive chops in wins over the Canadiens and Devils, and will likely see extensive action in the pre-season to see if he can slot in when the season begins next month. Savoie’s roster dilemma, because he is too young to play in the AHL, will likely not be waived by the CHL as the Sabres requested them to do last week. That limits him to playing and practicing in the NHL with an occasional conditioning stint in Rochester, or going back to junior.
If the Sabres follow the same playbook as Seattle did with Shane Wright last season, they will see if he is ready for the NHL by playing him occasionally until December. If he is over his head, they will likely allow him to go to the World Juniors and then decide his fate in January. Only then will one of the other candidates get their chance, but by then Quinn may be ready to return.