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Hamilton Take 2: Sabres' young players are still playing and still learning

WGRZ Sabres insider Paul Hamilton says the team’s young players are still playing and getting valuable postseason experience.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres season has been over for over a month, but for the second straight year, the team’s young players are still playing and getting valuable postseason experience. 

Last year, JJ Peterka, Peyton Krebs and Jack Quinn went three rounds in the Calder Cup Playoffs with the Rochester Americans. In just 10 games, Peterka had seven goals and five assists for 12 points, ranking him 11th in league scoring. Peterka played eight fewer games than most of the players ahead of him.

Krebs didn’t score a goal, but he was sixth in the playoffs with 11 assists. Every player ahead of him played eight more games. 

Quinn was a target for the teams Rochester played, but him having no goals and two assists in 10 games was a huge learning experience for him. He now knows that when you’re the team’s best goal scorer, the opponent is going to make it tough on you and Quinn had to play through frustration and learn from it.  

For me, it was very evident that he did because when many of the Sabres were cracking under the pressure of the playoff race, Quinn, Peterka, and Dylan Cozens were excelling. Between Feb. 15 and April 1, Quinn played 23 games, scoring six goals and 10 assists for 16 points. 

Cozens went to the World Championship for Canada and tied for the tournament lead in goals with seven. Cozens turned that experience into a career year this season scoring 31 goals and 37 assists for 68 points. That’s 18 more goals and 30 more points than he had ever scored in his young NHL career. 

Now, let’s fast-forward to now. Quinn, Krebs, and Devon Levi are at the World Championship with Canada, helping the team to a 4-0-0 record. Quinn has no goals and two assists, but he’s playing a lot and is on the power play. He also scored the game-winning shootout goal in a 2-1 victory over Slovakia. 

Krebs is also on the power play and has no goals and one assists in his four games playing left wing. 

Levi has only played one game as he’s the backup goalie behind Sam Montembeault of the Montreal Canadiens. Levi stopped 22 of 24 shots in a 5-2 win over Slovenia. I have to wonder if Levi would’ve accepted the invitation to play for Canada had he known he was the backup goalie. Montembeault has played two games and allowed one goal. 

Peterka has been Germany’s best player in this tournament with two goals and three points in four games. He's skating well, and when Germany gets a scoring chance, he's usually right in the middle of it. 

Alex Tuch is playing with Team USA and has three goals in four games. 

The Amerks are getting ready to play in the AHL Eastern Conference Final against the Hershey Bears, and just like last season, the Sabres' young players are front and center and producing. Head coach Seth Appert isn’t babying Jiri Kulich, Isak Rosen, or Tyson Kozak. They are playing regular shifts and are on the ice in key situations.

Kulich missed the first two games of the playoffs due to injury, but since he’s been back, he’s scored a goal in all six games that he’s played, helping Rochester to a six-game winning streak. Kulich just turned 19 and nine points in six games ranks him 10th in league scoring. Five players ahead of him have played twice as many games. His six goals are just one off the league lead. 

Rosen has been on fire with four goals and four assists for eight points in eight games. He has collected all eight of those points in his last six games. He too had to learn as he wasn’t very good in his first two playoff games in Syracuse, but he’s put the work in and has played very well since. 

Rosen and Kulich are first-round picks, but Kozak isn’t. He was taken in the seventh-round of the 2021 Draft, but his contributions in the defensive zone have been just as important to the Amerks as his the other two have been to the offense.

Kozak does have two goals and two assists, but he is always tossing his body in front of shots, especially late in games when his team is protecting a lead. He’s a top notch penalty killer and drives the best players on the other teams out of their minds. Within two or three years, I really think this kid will be a big part of the Sabres bottom six forwards. I remember thinking that when he was one of the best players in the Prospects Challenge. 

Another one that I think will be part of the Sabres bottom six, but next year is Lukas Rousek. In the Game 3 clinching game against the Toronto Marlies, Rousek had a goal and three assists for four points.  He has nine points in eight games, but is good in all three zones of the ice. 

The 24-year-old was a sixth-round pick in 2019 and led the Amerks in scoring this season with 16 goals and 40 assists for 56 points in 70 games. In his two games in Buffalo he was also impressive with a goal and an assist. In the NHL, he was also very good at both ends of the ice. If I were Kevyn Adams, I think I would let Zemgus Girgensons head to unrestricted free agency knowing that Rousek is better on the penalty kill and has a much better offensive upside. 

Brett Murray is big and produces on the AHL level. He too is 24 and was a fourth-round pick for the Sabres in 2016. In this year’s playoffs he’s been huge in front of the net scoring three goals and five assists for eight points in eight games. In the regular season, Murray had 23 goals and 26 assists for 49 points in 71 games, but I still have concerns about him in the NHL. Murray didn’t play with the Sabres this season, but overall he’s played 21 NHL games with two goals and four assists for six points. What I didn’t see was the toughness. I didn’t think he was hard on pucks and I thought he was conservative in his play. Murray is just what the Sabres need at 6’5 and over 230 pounds, but I’m not sure he’s fast enough for the NHL.

So yes, this is a spring where the Sabres made progress, but not enough to be in the playoffs. The team also isn’t wasting its time. Its bright, young players are getting valuable experiences that are going to make them better by the time they get to training camp in September.

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