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Hamilton Take 2: Sabres Prospects Challenge showcases future talent

WGRZ's Sabres/NHL insider Paul Hamilton discusses his biggest takeaways as the 2023 Sabres Prospects Challenge wrapped up on Monday night.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres didn’t win the Prospects Challenge thanks to Monday’s 3-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, but the organization was a winner as they got to see how deep they are with prospects and how much talent is on the horizon.

Unfortunately, it only took 26 seconds to put a hush on a near capacity crowd at Harborcenter because not only did the Penguins score, but 2022 first-round pick Matt Savoie ran into a defenseman hard then spun off into the end wall. Savoie went straight to the room hunched over holding his shoulder.

Seth Appert said he’ll be re-evaluated on Tuesday and will miss some of the Sabres main training camp. That’s a shame for the 19-year-old because he treated the fans to a couple of highlight reel goals on Friday and he was going to be given every opportunity to try to make this team and maybe even fill in for the injured Jack Quinn.

After last season, all the talk was about another 2022 first-round pick in Jiri Kulich. He started in Rochester as an 18-year-old and scored 24 goals in 62 games. He added seven more in 12 playoff games.

He had a pair of goals in the Prospects Challenge and was often dangerous, but it was 2021 first-round pick Isak Rosen that caught my eye. In two games the 20-year-old had two goals and three assists, but I was just as impressed with his defensive game as his offensive game. Seth Appert and his staff have really stressed to Rosen and Kulich that if they put the work in on defense, they’ll actually wind up with the puck more and have more offensive chances.

Kulich probably is better offensively, but Rosen is the better overall player by far at this point of their careers. Even watching him this weekend, I just don’t think Kulich is quite ready yet for the NHL. Rosen has worked to get bigger and stronger and has put on around 10 pounds while Kulich said he added 16. I don't think either is ready for the NHL, but they're close. 

On defense, 2019 first-round pick Ryan Johnson was very solid in every game. He skates well, he’s excellent at moving the puck out of the zone and he always plays his angles well to snuff out plays. He’s not the biggest guy out there, but he competes well on the wall. I think spending four years at the University of Minnesota may have been the best thing for his development.

I was really looking forward to seeing Russian 20-year-old defenseman Nikita Novikov. The 2021 sixth-round pick is already 6’3, 207 and he likes to use his size. What I liked was how well he skated and how cool he is under duress. Novikov is in North America for the first time and really doesn’t know the language, but Seth Appert said they find ways to communicate and he’s a fast learner.

The kid had four assists in the tournament. I really thought he showed some savvy joining a rush on the right wing side. He got the puck, entered the zone and feathered a perfect pass to Tyson Kozak to send him in alone for a goal.

Speaking of Kozak, I’m here to tell you that once Kyle Okposo and Zemgus Girgensons are gone, this kid will be the one to take over that role. He was 19 when his season started in Rochester last year and he does all the little things that need to be done to win hockey games. If you need a shot blocked in the last minute of a one-goal game, he’ll sacrifice everything to get in front of that shot. He is a ferocious penalty killer and seems to score meaningful goals. He had two big goals in the playoffs and Appert always had him out there in the most important situations.

Kozak is usually the first one in on the forecheck and his compete is over the top. He's very difficult to play against. 

People talk about how much of a waste sixth and seventh round picks are in the NHL. I will be surprised if Kozak and Novikov aren’t NHL players within the next few years.

Right after Quinnipiac won the NCAA National Championship, the Bobcats captain Zach Metsa signed with the Amerks. Once Appert put him into the playoff lineup, they couldn’t take him out. The 24-year-old spent five years with Quinnipiac, and he already looks pro ready.

During this weekend, Metsa was as solid as you could be. He was always in position and he’s not afraid to join the rush to put four men into the attack. He always seems to be in the right place and he wins most battles he's in. 

The knock against him is his size as he’s listed at 5’9, 180, but in 13 Calder Cup playoff games with the Amerks, size was never an issue. In my mind this kid has earned a NHL contract and I think the Sabres are making a huge mistake if they don’t offer him one. He would add solid depth for the defense. 

The Sabres report for testing on Wednesday and then will be on the ice for the first time on Thursday for training camp. 



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