The reason for the Sabres’ freefall to the bottom of the NHL was easy to pinpoint. Buffalo simply lacked the top-end talent that leads teams to victories and Stanley Cups.
Buffalo believes it has those game-changers in the organization now, which is why optimism is flowing in Sabreland. The opening game of the Sabres’ prospect challenge showed there are good reasons for the positive vibe.
Buffalo’s top youngsters were clearly the best players on the ice Saturday in First Niagara Center, as the Sabres toyed with the New Jersey Devils in a 6-2 victory.
“I know it’s a prospect tournament, but you’re suiting up against another team and you’re putting your game sweater on,” center Jack Eichel said. “It seems like a real game, and it’s nice to get off on the right foot. We’re a pretty confident bunch.”
The players who keyed the win were more important than the lopsided result. Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Nicholas Baptiste, Justin Bailey and Evan Rodrigues - five of the players Buffalo will rely on in the future - stood out against their peers from New Jersey. The quintet combined for five goals, eight points and took 23 of Buffalo’s 38 shots.
“When your top-end guys can be successful like we are, it’s easy to win games,” Baptiste said. “You want to have those goals in as much as you can, and then I think everyone feeds off it. You carry the momentum throughout the whole game.”
The Sabres are rebuilding through the NHL Draft, so having their top picks shine is important. Eichel and Reinhart were selected second overall. Bailey was taken in the second round, while Buffalo nabbed Baptiste early in the third. Rodrigues entered the organization as an undrafted free agent.
Baptiste opened the scoring just 25 seconds in, and he made it 2-0 with 3:36 gone. The quick start overwhelmed the Devils and energized the Sabres. Baptiste’s showing also made the other big names strive to catch up. It’s been awhile since the organization has had players push each other.
“We’ve got a lot of really talented guys in here,” Bailey said. “Around the organization there’s a lot of competition, like I’ve said before. When you see guys doing well - Bap’s first two goals, first two shifts, got the whole bench a lot of energy, and that just carried on throughout the game.”
It took just one shift by Eichel to get the 5,505 fans energized. After accepting a pass from Rodrigues, he blew past the Devils’ defenders to essentially create a two-on-zero. Baptiste simply needed to convert the tap-in.
“That’s a fun thing to watch,” coach Randy Cunneyworth said, “and the fans showed their appreciation for it on several occasions.”
Baptiste, who totaled 90 goals in his final 143 junior games, also showed what he does best. On his second goal, he collected a turnover deep in the Devils’ zone and put a laser into the top corner.
“What I notice is the power in his stride and the way he can come over and support from the off wing,” Cunneyworth said. “He’s a finisher. If he can get any pucks in the slot, he’s got a good shot and good release.”
Bailey and Rodrigues helped the Sabres build a 5-0 lead. The only thing left was a goal by Reinhart, and he created space and deposited a forehand midway through the third period.
“You see that poise and smart play,” Cunneyworth said. “He’s a guy that really thinks the game a couple seconds ahead. He sees things that others aren’t able to.”
The fans certainly saw why Sabres’ top prospects are the top prospects. Eichel was quick to point out it will take more than that for the team to win.
“That’s important to have those type of guys,” Eichel said, “but on a winning team you’ve got to have a lot of different pieces. There’s a lot of good players in this room, and I think some of them don’t get enough credit. You look at Josh Chapman, he’s a guy you like to have on your team. You know that he’s got your back every time he’s on the ice, and I think he’s a great guy to have in the organization.
“There’s a lot of guys like that. Obviously, it’s important to have guys to score goals, but a team’s a lot more than that.