It’s about that time of year again. Buffalo Sabres hockey is back with the 2022 Prospects Challenge that will take place at the LECOM Harborcenter this week. Six NHL teams will participate in this year’s edition and the Sabres will participate in three games (Thursday, 9/15 vs. Montreal; Saturday, 9/17 vs. New Jersey; Monday, 9/20 vs. Ottawa).
So let’s go over five players you should keep an eye on for the Buffalo Sabres during the Prospects Challenge. We will also toss in two players on opposing teams to keep an eye on for good measure.
Matthew Savoie, C, Buffalo Sabres / Winnipeg (WHL)
Obviously, the first player on this list will be the Sabres’ top draft pick from the 2022 NHL Draft. This is going to be the first look at Savoie in team colors after he was sidelined through most of the summer with a shoulder injury. He looks to be healthy now and should play a prominent role for the Sabres in the Prospects Challenge.
Savoie is a smaller forward at only 5’9,” but he is very dynamic and is essentially built to produce offense. He has a lot of weapons in his arsenal: great passing ability, great shot, great mobility. He really adds a bit of a different flavor to the Sabres prospect pool that has lacked that truly dynamic offensive creator at the forward position. His tool box alone is worthy of a top 10 pick.
The key thing to keep an eye on with Savoie this season is the progression of his creativity. He can be too over reliant on his skills alone at times and needs to make that next step as a visionary when out on the ice. Improvements to his hockey sense, how he sees the game unfold in front of him on the ice, could make him a truly unstoppable force.
Savoie may need some time to shake off the rust from his shoulder injury, but look for him to be an unrelenting competitor with a great amount of skill during the Prospects Challenge. This event isn’t typically dominated by 18 years old, but maybe Savoie can be the exception.
Lukas Rousek, RW, Buffalo Sabres / Rochester (AHL)
The Sabres’ 2019 6th round pick finally made the jump to North America last season, unfortunately his 2021/22 debut would come very late after undergoing ACL surgery in the offseason. He put up 4 points in 19 games in the AHL regular season and went on to score 6 points in 10 games in the Calder Cup Playoffs. The production showed up again as some of the rust wore off, I mean he is a player who scored 45 points in 60 Czech Extraliga games as a 21 year old in 2020/21.
The coaching staff in Rochester have raved about Lukas Rousek’s ability as a hockey player. Head coach Seth Appert said, “Quinner and Peterka giggle in practice at some of the stuff that Rousek can do, how he sees plays that most people don’t see.” Assistant coach Michael Peca said, “He made guys’ jaws drop on a daily basis in practice with his passing ability and vision.”
In a Buffalo Sabres system that carries a lot of players who can rip the puck, a creative playmaker like Rousek can find a very comfortable home in the Sabres lineup someday. Look for his point production to make that next jump in the AHL this season after getting a full offseason under his belt and some more familiarity with the North American game. Dare I say that Lukas Rousek is a player who I foresee getting an NHL call-up at some point in the 2022/23 season?
The scoresheets in these prospects tournaments are typically filled with older prospects, so look for the 23-year-old Rousek to be a major impact player for the Sabres during the 2022 Prospects Challenge. I think his name will be talked about more within the Sabres community after this event.
Aleksandr Kisakov, LW, Buffalo Sabres / Rochester (AHL)
This watch list is not necessarily going to be filled with players who I think will be the best performers at the 2022 Prospects Challenge, but players who I believe will be the most fun and/or interesting to watch. Aleksandr Kisakov certainly fits that bill.
The Sabres avoided drafting Russian players in the top two rounds for nearly a decade. Things changed in 2021 when they drafted four Russian players, one of them being Kisakov with the 53rd overall pick. He is the first of the recent run of Russian draft picks to sign with the Sabres and all signs point to him playing the upcoming season with the Rochester Americans in the AHL.
Well what is so fun about Kisakov? He is a very fun, skilled offensive player who loves to play with pace and creativity. He will zig when defenders think he will zag, he can hit teammates with a no-look pass for a perfect goal-scoring opportunity, he can beat defenders in the neutral zone with his explosive crossovers. There are a lot of very fun elements to his game.The thing with Kisakov is that a lot of these skills only come in spurts and he has not shown the vision to be a consistent offensive threat.
The skill is there, but he is a very raw prospect who saw his offense plateau a bit at the Russian junior level last season. He also comes into camp at only 5’10” and 160 pounds, the lightest prospect on the Sabres’ roster. This event will give us our first look at where Kisakov is relative to his peers and will give the Rochester staff an idea of how they can develop his skillset into that of an effective NHLer. He is a project, but a fun project.
Josh Bloom, LW, Buffalo Sabres / Saginaw (OHL)
Buffalo loves a player who works hard and Josh Bloom is exactly that. It is one of the reasons why he generated so much offense on the penalty kill in the OHL last season, scoring a league-leading 7 goals when his team was down a man. Bloom got his first taste of the Prospects Challenge last September and will look to build off of last year’s showing with a year more of experience under his belt.
The 2021 NHL Draft provided a great challenge for NHL scouts: no OHL season in 2020/21 made it very difficult to judge the progress that prospects in that league made over a 16-month timeframe. Despite this, the Sabres were confident enough in Bloom’s abilities to take him with a 3rd round pick in 2021. It is a bet that looks like it has paid off so far as he was 2nd in points on his OHL club after seeing a jump in his underlying playmaking numbers.
Look for Bloom to be a ball of energy during this tournament as he takes on a bigger role for the Sabres’ prospects team. His tool box makes him a very interesting candidate to become a “pain-to-play-against NHLer with some skill” at some point down the road.
Atley Calvert, C, Buffalo Sabres / Moose Jaw (WHL)
I would be remiss if I did not mention any of the camp invites in this post, so I am going to go with one of the camp invites I find to be the most interesting. Atlee Calvert is an ‘03 birth year who went undrafted in 2022 after a season with the Moose Jaw Warriors that saw him record 40 points in 65 WHL games.
The camp invite list always gives us an idea of players who may have been on the Sabres’ draft radar, but they just never heard their name called. Calvert is a prospect who has a lot of manipulation baked into his game and makes some great offensive zone reads, but lacks the overall refinement to be a consistent offensive force.
As he continues to piece everything together, he could be a player who is poised for a breakout offensive season with the Moose Jaw Warriors in 2022/23. Maybe he will even hear his name called in the 2023 NHL Draft as an overager. Definitely an invite to keep an eye on.
Juraj Slafkovsky, LW, Montreal Canadiens
Our first non-Sabre to watch and it’s the 2022 1st overall pick. Pressure naturally comes with being a high draft pick in a major hockey market and the Montreal Canadiens have not had a 1st overall pick since 1980. This event means very little in the grand scheme of things, but that does not change the fact that a lot of eyes will be on Juraj Slafkovsky during the 2022 Prospects Challenge.
What to look out for with Slafkovsky? Well, he is just a tank of a player at 6’3” and 238 pounds. He possesses incredible offensive skills with an above average shot and fantastic puckhandling abilities. He has already looked the part against higher-level competition too. He has all of the makings to become a premier power forward in the NHL and we will see him in a Montreal Canadiens uniform for the first time at the 2022 Prospects Challenge.
Alexander Holtz, RW, New Jersey Devils / Utica (AHL)
Alexander Holtz finds himself in a situation very similar to Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka. They were all 2020 NHL Draft picks, they all put up very impressive AHL numbers (51 points in 52 games for Holtz), and they even got a taste of NHL hockey. Unlike Quinn and Peterka, who will not be participating in the 2022 Prospects Challenge, Holtz will be participating once again. So, expect him to be one of the premier offensive players at this event.
The 2020 7th overall pick has built his game around his elite shot, it’s arguably the best shot of any NHL prospect. He just has the ability to beat goalies from wherever and that is an extremely valuable skill to have. Scoring goals where the average player can’t is something that wins hockey games. The Sabres have two camp invite goalies in net for this tournament, so their players need to be very mindful of Holtz’ location at all times.