Well, the time has finally come. Sabres hockey will be back in the form of the 2021 Prospects Challenge at LECOM Harborcenter. This year’s edition will feature 3 teams (Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, and New Jersey Devils) playing in a single round robin event from Friday, September 17 to Sunday, September 19. The schedule and ticket information for the event can be found here.
This event is always a lot of fun as we get to see the new prospects for the first time and get to see how the older prospects have progressed over the offseason. We also get a look at some of the other top prospects across the league, as well as some camp invites who are fighting for that entry-level contract. I am going to give you all of the information you need as you get ready to watch the Sabres this weekend.
Before we do a dive into the Sabres’ roster for this event, let’s highlight some of the players to watch on the Devils’ and Bruins’ rosters:
The most notable thing about the Bruins roster for the 2021 Prospects Challenge is their lack of depth. This is largely due to the fact that they have only made 21 draft picks over the past 4 seasons and a good number of those picks are either NCAA or European players who won’t be featured in this event.
The pièce de résistance for this Bruins team is their 2021 1st round pick, Fabian Lysell. This electric Swedish winger was touted by many as a top-10, maybe even a top-5, talent in his draft class. The Bruins managed to snag the falling Lysell with 21st overall pick. He may very well be the most entertaining player to watch at this year’s event.
Their forward group will be rounded out by names like Brett Harrisson, Oskar Steen, Samuel Asselin, and Jakub Lauko. Certainly some fun players to watch in that group with players like Steen and Lauko pushing for a roster spot with the big club next season. Brady Lyle and Jack Ahcan will be the two names to watch out for on the Bruins’ blueline.
The Bruins will likely not be the best team in this tournament, but I do not expect them to be a pushover opponent. They have a nice mix of fun, skilled players mixed with “veteran” players that could equate to some wins at the Prospects Challenge.
New Jersey Devils
The Devils lead the 2021 Prospects Challenge in star power with two of their 2020 1st round picks, Alexander Holtz and Dawson Mercer, on the roster. Holtz is a pure goalscorer who is a threat to score from any area of the ice. He possesses a very technically skilled shot and has the IQ to find soft spots in the offensive zone. Mercer, on the other hand, is just the complete package forward. Deception, compete, IQ, skill, sandpaper. Great driver of offense and strong in transition.
The Devils’ forward group will have some added depth with names like Nolan Foote, Graeme Clarke, Fabian Zetterlund, Marian Studenic, Aarne Talvitie, Tyce Thompson, and Chase Stillman. Just a very solid, older forward group that is likely the strongest of any team in the Prospects Challenge.
Their blueline will be highlighted by former Harvard defenseman, Reilly Walsh, and mobile shutdown defenseman, Michael Vukojevic. The Devils goaltending duo will consist of Akira Schimd, who was the 2021 USHL Goaltender of the Year, and former Canada WJC goaltender, Nico Daws.
Overall, the New Jersey Devils look to be the team to beat in the 2021 Prospects Challenge. They have good overall depth at every position and have a very strong mix of “older” prospects. A good number of players on this team should see some NHL time in 2021-22.
Last, but not least, we will take a look at the Buffalo Sabres roster for the 2021 Prospects Challenge. Below, I will give a few sentences on each player featured on the roster. Before I do that, I just wanted to give some quick overall thoughts on the build of this year’s roster.
The Sabres’ forward group is looking like it will be the strongest feature on this team. Two “veteran” forwards in Arttu Ruotsalainen and Brandon Biro will be flanked by some of the top prospects in JJ Peterka and Jack Quinn. We will get our first look at a number of the 2021 Draft selections in blue and gold with guys like Oliver Nadeau, Josh Bloom, Viljami Marjala, and Tyson Kozak.
The defense group may be the weakest link on the team. It is strong at the top with players like Mattias Samuelsson and Oskari Laaksonen. There are some fun invites in Charlie Desroches and Clay Hanus. The rest of the group is filled out by older Rochester/Cincinnati signings. The goaltending should be solid if Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen is on his A game. He has experience in these types of settings and should thrive.
The Sabres could walk out of this event winning both of their games, but I do think a team like the Devils could be a challenging opponent. With all of that being said, let’s take a quick look at each player featured on the Buffalo Sabres’ 2021 Prospects Challenge roster:
Ruotsalainen will be the Sabres “veteran” presence at the Prospects Challenge at 23 years old. We have all seen what he is capable of offensively at the pro level and we finally got to see what he could do at the NHL level after an 18-month wait. Expect him to play a similar role as Victor Olofsson played in the 2019 version of this tournament: just have fun and score goals.
Jack Quinn’s 2020-21 campaign was a bit underwhelming relative to his 2020 NHL Draft class peers, but he was cast into an unusual situation as a 19 year old having to pre-maturely dive into professional hockey. He was also battling a lower body injury during the entirety of last season’s campaign and surgery would eventually end his season. Quinn just needs to slowly get his game back to the basics and show off his gifts on offense. All signs point to him having a much improved DY+2 campaign as a full-time pro hockey player. This tournament could be a good starting point and he’ll even see some time at center.
The JJ Peterka of today is a much different (and better) hockey player than the JJ Peterka the Sabres drafted back in October 2020. In 2020, he had a lot of projectable traits that made him, at bare minimum, an effective pro hockey player. He had an unrelenting motor, but was prone to playing with his head down. In 2020-21, he developed a newfound playmaking dimension to his game where he showed more patience and vision. Today, as a high motor player with playmaking abilities, Peterka is an intriguing prospect with top six potential. This will be his first time in Sabres colors and he will surely be a fan favorite.
At 23 years old, Biro is expected to be one of the leaders for this Sabres prospects team. After a strong 4-year career at Penn State, Biro signed with the Sabres as a UDFA. He struggled a bit in his 1st pro season, only recording 5 points in 15 games while fighting through an injury. I expect a bounce back season in 2021-22 for this speedy playmaker as the Amerks gained more scoring depth. Expect him to play in a top six role during the Prospects Challenge.
Brett Murray is one big boy at 6’5” and 215 pounds. He was drafted as a bit of a project out of the CCHL when Tim Murray was still the Sabres GM. After a very strange development path that saw him go to the USHL then NCAA then back to the USHL then to the AHL on a minor league contract, Murray finally earned his NHL contract. He has shown signs of being a legitimate NHL prospect with 20 points in 27 games down in Rochester which earned him a two-game trial in Buffalo. A big body bottom six depth role at the NHL level may not be out of the question.
After a 4-year career at the University of Wisconsin, we finally get to see Linus Weissbach in blue and gold. After being relegated to the Badgers’ 4th line in 2019-20, he had a renaissance season on a talented team, recording 41 points in 31 games. He’s an older rookie to pro hockey at 23 years old, but he should provide some fun (and needed) depth scoring to the Amerks this season. Definitely a player to keep an eye on during the Prospects Challenge. He’s small, quick, and dangerous.
The Sabres 4th round selection in 2021, Olivier Nadeau is a big-bodied playmaker. He’s a 6’2”, 205 pound winger who excels at drawing pressure and creating dangerous opportunities for his teammates. He got a lot of minutes alongside NHL 1st round picks, Mavrik Bourque and Xavier Bourgault, for Shawinigan in the QMJHL and managed to record an impressive 45 points in 34 games. His skating needs to be cleaned up a bit, but he possesses some NHL projectable traits.
Bloom was one of the many prospects who had a bit of a “lost season” due to the cancellation of the 2020-21 OHL campaign. He has not played in a junior game since March 2020 and used the time away from the ice to continue to work on his strength. The Sabres scouts obviously liked what they saw from Bloom, enough to take him in the 3rd round of the 2021 NHL Draft. He is probably the biggest “mystery” prospect heading into the Prospects Challenge and it will be interesting to see how much his game has developed over the past 18 months.
Marjala is a pure playmaker who is working on adding more dimension to his game. The Finnish prospect moved to North America last season to play for the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL where he went on to record 27 points (22 of those being assists) in 30 games. There’s certainly some interesting traits there and he will likely see an uptick in production on a deeper Remparts team in 2021-22. The question is if he can put it all together in an NHL-style package.
The Sabres 7th round pick may not have posted crazy numbers (18 points in 11 GP) in the WHL for his draft year. He did not have the best tracking stats either. However, there are a lot of good, projectable traits in his game that make him a prospect to watch in 2021-22. He has solid positional IQ in the offensive zone and has some nice deception to his game. The Sabres hope these traits will transform into more consistent play driving and point production in the WHL this season.
Pekař certainly struggled during his 1st season of AHL hockey, only posting 6 points (1G, 5A) across 26 games. It took him 18 games to record his 1st AHL point, but he did go on to score 6 points in his last 8 games. The Sabres’ 2018 4th round pick projects as more of a gritty, enforcer-type rather than a scorer at the professional level so far. We would have to see a major uptick in offensive creation and point production for that projection to change.
Thomas Casey is an invitee who straight up dominated the QMJHL as an overager in 2020-21, posting 74 points in 38 games. The offensive burst may have been largely due to his age as he was never a point-per-game player prior to last season, but it is still impressive nonetheless. He is set to play college hockey in Canada for the University of New Brunswick.
Fiddler-Schultz is a twice undrafted center prospect who plays for the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL. He only recorded 30 points in his 1st 98 WHL games, but had a stronger 2020-21 with 15 points in 20 games. He is a smaller forward who has shown good transition play at the WHL level.
Samuelsson’s decision to forgo his junior season at Western Michigan and enter the pro ranks was viewed as a questionable one. As a player who never “dominated” the college ranks, he has had a somewhat seamless transition to the pro game. He appeared in 12 games for the Sabres last season and did not look out of place despite some concerns about his pace. As a left-handed defenseman, he will certainly have an uphill battle with this Sabres group, but he should still develop into a nice depth defenseman with size.
Just a few seasons ago, Oskari Laaksonen was an obscure prospect the Sabres selected in the 3rd round of the NHL Draft. Today, he has a legitimate shot at an NHL role. Expect the right-handed defensemen to see a lot of minutes on a shallow Sabres defense corps during the Prospects Challenge. He is a puck moving defenseman who loves creating offense off of outlet passes and should rack up some secondary points during this tournament.
One of the more intriguing invites to the Sabres camp, Desroches is a defenseman who has shown the ability to create offense from the back end. He had an impressive QMJHL campaign for Saint John in 2020-21 that saw him register 26 points in 32 games. He has solid fundamentals in the defensive zone making him a responsible two-way player. There is definitely some nice upside with this twice undrafted player.
Hanus is a 20 year-old defenseman out of Minnetonka who saw time in both the WHL and USHL in 2020-21. He finally saw a bit of an uptick in offensive production, posting 27 points in 36 games on a weak Lincoln team in the USHL and 8 points in 6 games on Portland in the WHL. He is a small, agile defenseman with good transition abilities.
Boka was a part of the US NTDP group that had Auston Matthews, Matthew Tkachuk, and Charlie McAvoy. He went on two play 4 seasons at the University of Michigan and has been bouncing around the ECHL over the past 2 seasons. He signed a minor league deal with Rochester this offseason and should see time in both the AHL and ECHL.
Tischke was a 4-year player at the University of Wisconsin and even captained the Badgers for their 2018-19 campaign. He spent two seasons playing with Sabres’ prospect, Linus Weissbach. He has spent the last two seasons playing at both the AHL and ECHL levels.
Yet another Rochester signing that makes their appearance on the Sabres Prospects Challenge roster. Cairns was a 3rd round pick by the Edmonton Oilers in 2016. He played 3 seasons at Cornell University then played this past season at University of Minnesota-Duluth, where he made it to the Frozen Four.
This season is huge for UPL in terms of determining his potential with the Sabres. His career .886 SV% in the AHL across 24 games is somewhat concerning. He managed to look better in the NHL than the AHL in his 4-game stint with the Sabres, but not significantly better than a goalie like Dustin Tokarski. He has the physical gifts to develop into a full-time NHL goaltender. This season will be very important for his development with other prospects like Erik Portillo and Devon Levi breathing down his neck.
Camp-invite Mack Guzda has some pretty intriguing physical traits standing at 6’5”. After a slow start to his OHL career, Guzda really managed to settle into his game for Owen Sound in 2019-20. After a lost 2020-21 season, he is currently looking to return to Owen Sound as an overager in 2021-22. He participated in the PBHH Invitational this summer and put together some nice performances.
The final camp invite is ‘03 Czech goaltender Oliver Šatný. With an August birthday, Šatný was one of the younger players eligible for the 2021 NHL Draft. He did not see much action in 2020-21, playing 9 games in the Czech U20 league (.922 SV%) and 4 games in Czech2 (.914 SV%). He appeared in 3 games for the Czechs at the U18s where he posted an .843 SV% on a team that really struggled. Šatný is probably the highest upside invite on this Sabres Prospects Challenge roster. He’s capable of some very fun saves.