The top of the draft has been great for the Buffalo Sabres. With Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen poised to be linchpins for years, the draft has lifted the organization from the basement to respectability.
If Buffalo wants be a longtime contender, however, it needs prospects selected after the first eight picks to eventually become key contributors. One of the main guys on that list is Eric Cornel.
Cornel, a second-round selection in 2014, kicked off his first year as a professional Saturday night during the Sabres’ prospect tournament. He’ll start this season in Rochester, and he recognizes the opportunity he has with the Amerks. The minor-league team has struggled the past few seasons, with only a handful of players proving they have what it takes to make it to the NHL.
Cornel wants to become one of them.
“I want to prove I belong at the pro level this year and that I can be a big part of it,” he said in HarborCenter. “I want to go in there and help win games. I think that’s one of the first things you can do as a young guy. You may not be on the score sheet every night, but if you’re helping out in wins then that goes a long way.
“If the team wins and the team has success, it looks good on everybody.”
Cornel entered the weekend feeling good about his spot in the organization. The left winger skated on a top line and got a power-play role during a 6-3 loss to the New Jersey Devils, so the team clearly thinks Cornel can be a player.
He learned during an up-and-down junior career there’s only one way to become one.
“You can’t take it easy,” Cornel said. “You have to always be looking to get better. If you take a little bit of a break, then other people are going to catch up and you might fall a little bit behind.”
The 20-year-old speaks from experience. He was a rising junior star when the Sabres drafted him, putting up 29 goals and 69 points for Peterborough of the Ontario Hockey League. He followed that by slumping to 14 goals and 53 points, plus he had a one-game suspension for an off-ice incident.
The adversity helped him grow. Peterborough named Cornel captain last season, and he responded with 28 goals and 88 points as the Petes made the playoffs again.
“That was great just being looked on by the rest of the team to be a leader,” he said. “As the year went on when I was captain, I got more comfortable using my voice, but I’m just more of a guy who goes out and works hard and lets my actions speak.
“If you just go back to your actions and do the right thing day in and day out, everybody’s going to follow.”
Cornel spent this summer in Buffalo working out with the NHL guys. He learned how important daily preparations can be. He noticed how the Sabres got upset if they made a mistake, and the attention to detail should serve him well during his third stint with Rochester.
Although Cornel is a first-year pro, he finished the previous two years with the Amerks on amateur tryouts. Both seasons, he recorded one assist in six games.
“It’s definitely a lot faster, and there’s some pretty big guys up there,” said the 6-foot-2, 192-pounder. “It can be more physical than the junior ranks. It’ll be an adjustment, but I’m looking forward to it.”
As someone who’s attended the Sabres’ development camps and prospect tournaments for three years, Cornel has watched his teammates grow while measuring his own progression. He sees the potential for good things if the development continues.
It will need to if the Sabres want to build a consistent winner.
“There’s a lot of good, young players,” Cornel said. “We’re going to push each other. Everybody wants to make it to the NHL.”
Cornel earned Saturday night's prettiest assist, putting a no-look backhand onto the stick of Nicholas Baptiste for one of Baptiste's three goals.
"Obviously, three goals is huge," Cornel said. "He was great. ... There's definitely some positives to draw on for the next game."