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Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Jacob Bryson to watch, learn with Amerks

ROCHESTER – As the Rochester Americans skated through a special teams drill Wednesday morning in Blue Cross Arena, goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen sat on the bench and waited to be told when he should join the team on the ice.

Meanwhile, in a hallway adjacent to the Amerks' dressing room, Jacob Bryson, a 21-year-old defenseman, was having his headshot taken and did not arrive from Providence, R.I., in time to participate in the on-ice session.

Neither is likely to make a tangible impact in the Amerks' bid for their first Calder Cup since 1996 or to be in the lineup when the playoffs open Friday night against the Toronto Marlies in Rochester.

Instead, Luukkonen and Bryson, draft picks of Buffalo Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill who arrived this week on amateur tryouts, are receiving a formal introduction to professional hockey and the city in which they will play next season.

"At this point, we’re just seeing where they're at," Amerks coach Chris Taylor told reporters following practice. "Obviously, you always want three goalies in the playoffs and see what happens. With Bryson, same thing. He’s going to come in, get his feet wet, get used to the guys and get introduced to pro hockey."

Taylor already has a sense of where Luukkonen's game is. The 20-year-old joined the Amerks on an amateur tryout only two days after his junior team, the Sudbury Wolves, were eliminated from the Ontario Hockey League playoffs last Thursday.

Luukkonen made 60 saves in the 3-2, triple-overtime loss to the Ottawa 67s, and had little time to get acclimated to professional hockey before getting into his first game. Since the regular-season finale held no playoff implications, Taylor rested several players, including starting goalie Scott Wedgewood, and chose to start Luukkonen in Belleville on Sunday.

A second-round draft pick in 2017, Luukkonen made 32 saves in a 4-2 road win, though he acknowledged the transition was not as seamless as it may have looked from afar.

Sabres prospect Luukkonen eyeing pro career following gold medal win

"I think the start of the game was scrambling around for me and just getting used to the speed of the game, but after 10 minutes or so, I got used to the speed and how the two teams were playing," Luukkonen said. "It was a good first game for me."

No moment over the past year has been too big for Luukkonen. He led Finland to a gold medal with a .932 save percentage at this year's World Junior Championship and was among the OHL's best goalies, ranking first in the league in shutouts (six) and regular-season wins (38), the former a franchise record for Sudbury.

Luukkonen, who stands 6 feet, 5 inches, and his teammates swept Mississauga in the first round of the OHL playoffs before enduring the same fate against Ottawa. Despite this being his first year of North American hockey, Luukkonen's plan was to turn pro following his season in Sudbury, and he is ready to step into a starting role next season with Wedgewood and Adam Wilcox both unrestricted free agents this summer.

Luukkonen was ranked by TSN as the sport's 12th best NHL-affiliated prospect in January and did not participate in most of Wednesday's practice. He began to work with goalie development coach Seamus Kotyk when Wedgewood was about to come off the ice.

"It solidifies in his mind that he's ready to play professionally in North America and that's huge, particularly as he trains this summer," Sabres assistant general manager Randy Sexton told The Buffalo News in a phone interview Wednesday. "He's going to be training every day this summer with a very positive frame of mind versus he comes in, he gets shelled, he loses five games and his confidence could be shaken.

"He'll be putting in his work this summer from a very, very solid foundation and that's critical, I think. You need a belief in the back of your mind that, 'You know what, I can do this.' ... I know it's only one game, but I was there and he played great. It's going to be very helpful for him."

Bryson, drafted two rounds after Luukkonen in 2017, told reporters in KeyBank Center ahead of the Frozen Four last week that he was unsure if this would be his last season at Providence College because he hoped to complete his finance degree.

Bryson and the Friars lost to eventual national champion Minnesota Duluth in the semifinals, and said he took one day to begin contemplating his future. After conversations with Sabres management and Providence coach Nate Leaman, Bryson thought it was in his best interest to begin his development with the Amerks.

Standing 5-9 with a left-handed shot, Bryson will skate with the Amerks on Thursday and will need to earn a playoff opportunity in a deep group of defensemen that includes Lawrence Pilut, Will Borgen and Zach Redmond.

"It took a lot of time," Bryson said of his decision. "I had some good conversations with my coach, Leaman, who I give a lot of credit to for my three years I was there. ... I just think as far as development goes, I know Rochester is one of the best teams in the AHL. This is a place I want to play at. I think I can get better this year, at the end of this year, and next year as well."

Bryson, one of Providence's three captains this year, had 11 goals and 62 assists with a plus-30 rating over three seasons at the school, including three straight NCAA Tournament appearances. His three-year, entry-level contract will not start until next season, and he is on an amateur tryout for the duration of Rochester's playoff run.

The Amerks used a mixture of veterans and rookies such as Victor Olofsson to earn home-ice advantage, and the roster is equipped with remarkable depth after the Sabres' failure to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Though change is inevitable this offseason with the likely promotion of Olofsson, the Amerks are reloading early with two prospects whom Botterill selected to be part of the Sabres' ongoing rebuild.

"From juniors to pro, the step up is big," Luukkonen said. "The biggest difference was the 5-on-5 game and how the two teams can play. There is so much skill on the ice that you really see the difference."

Nylander still out

Winger Alexander Nylander did not practice again with the Amerks and remains day to day after suffering a cut on the back of his leg while playing with the Sabres, Taylor said.

Nylander, a 2016 first-round draft pick, has not played since April 2. He had two goals with two assists in 12 games with the Sabres. Prior to his promotion to the NHL in March, he had 12 goals and 19 assists in 49 games with the Amerks.

Defenseman Casey Fitzgerald, who had one goal with two assists in four games after signing an entry-level contract with the Sabres, has returned to Boston College to complete coursework, but is expected to return to the team during the postseason, Taylor said.

Eichel nominated

Center Jack Eichel was selected as the Sabres' nominee for the King Clancy Memorial Trophy, which is given annually to the NHL player who "best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution in his community."

Eichel donated a suite at KeyBank Center to local charitable organizations for all 41 home games, which included postgame meet and greets. He also autographed more than 300 jerseys to raise $48,000 for the Courage of Carly Fund at Roswell Park and Best Buddies of Western New York.

The three finalists for the trophy will be announced Tuesday and the winner will be revealed at the NHL Awards on June 19 in Las Vegas.

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