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Samuelsson, Luukkonen, Laaksonen, Pekar set to represent Sabres at WJC

While the Buffalo Sabres enjoy a brief holiday break, General Manager Jason Botterill and his staff will turn their attention to four prospects who could play pivotal roles in the organization's future.

Defenseman Mattias Samuelsson (United States), goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (Finland), defenseman Oskari Laaksonen (Finland) and center Matej Pekar (Czech Republic) will represent the Sabres in the World Junior Championship, which will take place Dec. 26 through Jan. 5 in Vancouver and Victoria, B.C.

Last year's tournament was held in Buffalo, which gave Botterill's staff an extensive look at Rasmus Dahlin, whom they would draft first overall less than six months later. Dahlin and Team Sweden lost the Gold Medal game to Canada, while Casey Mittelstadt and the United States won Bronze.

Though Samuelsson, Luukkonen, Laaksonen and Pekar won't help with a possible playoff push in Buffalo this season, they could become foundational players for an organization that is dotted with former high draft picks.

Samuelsson, an 18-year-old freshman at Western Michigan University, is one of 23 players to make the United States' final roster Sunday.

Samuelsson was drafted 32nd overall by the Sabres in June after playing for the US National Development Program, where he had 31 points in 58 games last year. The 6-4, 218-pound prospect is the son of longtime NHL defenseman Kjell Samuelsson, who now works as director of player development for the Philadelphia Flyers. Mattias has three goals among eight points with a plus-12 rating in 16 games this season for Western Michigan. He also served as captain for the United States at last year's World U18 Championships in Russia.

While Botterill expressed excitement about Samuelsson during a recent interview on WGR radio, the defenseman is unlikely to sign with the Sabres in 2019. Samuelsson and the United States open the tournament Wednesday against Slovakia at 6:30 p.m.

Luukkonen, a 19-year-old drafted in the second round in 2017, had a .879 save percentage in five games for Finland in last year's World Junior Championship. He signed his entry-level contract with the Sabres in June and opted to join Sudbury of the Ontario Hockey League this season.

Luukkonen, who spent most of last season with Leki of Finland’s second division, ranks second in the OHL with a .923 save percentage. He's the youngest goalie under contract with the Sabres, who also have former third-round draft pick Jonas Johansson in Cincinnati and Linus Ullmark.

Luukonen will be joined by Laaksonen, a third-round pick in the 2017 draft. The 19-year-old has 13 points and a plus-5 rating in 26 games for Ilves of the Finnish Elite League. He is not under contract with the Sabres and recently signed a two-year extension with Ilves, though Laaksonen can leave early when he does sign an entry-level NHL contract.

Laaksonen was playing on Finland's top defensive pairing during a recent pre-tournament game against Denmark, however, he will likely be bumped down with the arrival of Henri Jokiharju, a former first-round draft pick who was loaned to team by the Chicago Blackhawks.

Finland opens the tournament Wednesday with a 10:30 p.m. preliminary-round game against Sweden.

Pekar, an 18-year-old drafted in the fourth round in June, has 12 goals among 33 points in 30 games for the Barrie Colts of the OHL. He had 54 points in 56 games for Muskegon of the USHL last season and played for the Czech Republic during the World U18 Championships and the Hlinka Memorial Tournament.

Pekar also signed his entry-level contract with the Sabres in October after attending development camp. He will make his WJC debut Wednesday against Switzerland at 4 p.m.

In addition to the four prospects, Botterill's staff will be scouting talent for the upcoming NHL Draft. The Sabres could hold eight picks, including three in the first round.

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