Prospects Challenge preview

September 6, 2017
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When Buffalo Sabres assistant general manager Randy Sexton addresses on Wednesday night the 25 players taking part in this weekend’s Prospects Challenge at HarborCenter, he’ll make one thing very clear:

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

And thus, the three games this weekend against the New Jersey Devils (7 p.m. Friday), Boston Bruins (7 p.m. Saturday) and Pittsburgh Penguins (7 p.m. Monday) could be very important for the players wearing a Buffalo Sabres sweater.

Whereas the old regime headed by former general manager Tim Murray and former coach Dan Bylsma already knew what their draft picks and depth players could — or could not do — the incoming hockey department led by new GM Jason Botterill and coaching staff headed by Phil Housley will be getting their first opportunity to make evaluations in game situations.

“It’s a clean slate,” Sexton said on Tuesday. “What you did in the past, whether it was good or whether you think you can do better, it’s behind you. We’re here to evaluate you. What you do from this point forward is all that matters.”

The Sabres roster for the Prospects Challenge features a handful of players who spent last season in the American Hockey League with the Rochester Americans (including wingers Justin Bailey, Nick Baptiste and Alex Nylander), a group of incoming draft picks (featuring slick-skating defenseman Brendan Guhle and goalie Jonas Johansson) and four players who received invitations to training camp.

No one is earning an NHL job based on their performance on the weekend, but they could enhance their standing on the depth chart.

“In certain cases, someone might earn an invitation to the main camp or the Rochester camp, or maybe we had someone penciled in for one (NHL preseason) game and they may show us they deserve another.”

What every player will be expected to realize is that under the new management team and coaching staff, the only thing given is opportunity.

“You have to earn your keep every day,” Sexton said. “We don’t want complacency or entitlement in this camp, the main camp or the Rochester camp. If someone comes in thinking, ‘This is what I did last year, I’m a lock,’ they’ll be sadly mistaken.”

“We believe we have the depth so guys will need to earn their jobs. And if you know you have to work every day to stay in the lineup, then you’ll be prepared to compete every night against the opponent.”

Two players who will be a focal point for fans:

Guhle will be looking to use the prospects games as a springboard into the main camp, where he’ll hope to show he’s NHL ready. A second-round pick (51st overall) in 2015, the 20-year-old from Edmonton played three games with the Sabres last season (no points) and six with the Amerks (1-1-2).

Nylander, Buffalo’s first-round pick (eighth overall) in 2016, didn’t take pro hockey by storm as an AHL rookie last season. Then again, he didn’t turn 19 until March, and still needed to get stronger in order to win battles for the puck, for space and on the wall. He produced 10-18-28 in 65 games with the Amerks, and had one assist in four games with the Sabres.

And while the Prospects Challenge provides a chance for analysis, scrutiny and critiquing of everyone on the ice, it really means just one thing:

Hockey is back.

“This is why we exist,” Sexton said. “You’re excited to hear the skates rip the ice and pucks hit the boards and posts. You spend a lot of time strategizing and we spent a lot of time putting together the staff we wanted. Now we have an opportunity to come together to see the players we’ve truly inherited and the players we brought in.”

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Kevin Oklobzija
About Kevin Oklobzija

Kevin Oklobzija is a contributor to The Buffalo Star, a veteran hockey writer and member of the Rochester Americans Hall of Fame. He still believes National Lampoon’s Vacation may be the best movie ever made.

Browse more articles by Kevin Oklobzija.

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