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How Trevor Zegras evolved into possible Sabres draft pick

This is part of a series of profiles on players who might be available for the Buffalo Sabres with the seventh overall pick in the NHL Draft on June 21.

When Seth Appert wanted to deliver a lesson to the Under-17 team at the USA Hockey National Development Team Program, he showed a series of video clips featuring center Trevor Zegras.

Not for the reason one might expect, though. Zegras, an 18-year-old center from the NTDP's Under-18 team, is best known for his remarkable highlight-reel, no-look, behind-the-back passes.

However, Appert, coach of the Under-17 team at the NTDP, used Zegras as an example of the tenacity needed to retrieve the puck in the offensive zone. The lesson: No matter how talented a player is, they won't be effective unless they play with that sort of effort.

However, Zegras would not have been the subject of such a talk a year earlier. His evolution from a skilled forward to a dynamic two-way player makes him a possible target of the Buffalo Sabres with the seventh overall pick at the draft June 21 in Vancouver.

"Trevor is a world-class talent," Appert told The Buffalo News in a recent phone interview. "I think he, in my opinion — being inside the program but looking at it a little bit from the side because he’s the other birth year —  you could make an argument he grew further than anyone in their two years. He was a young, talented, skilled player in the U-17 year. Really skilled. He has dynamic offensive ability.

"His competitiveness, his willingness and want to go get pucks for himself and to work and to hunt pucks grew so much in his two years at the program that it turned him into one of the most dangerous offensive players in the world at that birth year. It was really fun to watch his transformation from being the skill guy that didn’t always play the game with the tenacity it deserves and watch his game mature into the elite player he is."

Zegras is expected to be among the top 10 players selected, ranked the sixth-best North American skater by NHL Central Scouting. He met twice with the Sabres during the scouting combine, once in KeyBank Center and a follow-up over dinner, and might require only one season at Boston University before he is ready for the NHL.

Zegras scored 26 goals among 87 points in 60 games with the NTDP, adding nine assists in five games at the world championships despite playing through injury. He was the architect of many remarkable goals scored by a team that is expected to produce as many as five top-10 picks.

Zegras explained during the combine that he emulates Chicago winger Patrick Kane, a South Buffalo native, with his daring passes. Those plays might appear to be irresponsible at times, however, Zegras has proved to have the instincts to read how he's being defended and when such a play is possible.

"I think there’s a time and place for everything," Zegras said. "Maybe the behind-the-back passes or stuff like that. You feel it. Maybe below the dots I kind of have free rein to do whatever I want, but you also have to read the game. You’re in overtime and maybe the other team is kind of pouring down your throat it’s not the best time to go between the legs or behind the back. You kind of just feel it out."

There is much more to Zegras than the playmaking, though. During one-on-one interviews with teams, Zegras' elevator pitch included an emphasis on his improved defensive play. Even the most talented centers in the NHL must be sound defensively and those who struggle with that facet can struggle to make an impact offensively, particularly young players at the position.

Centers cannot be sound defensively unless they have the sort of effort Zegras showed during his second year with the program. His first Under-17 season was not a failure by any stretch. He still scored 20 goals among 59 points in 56 games.

However, his game took a remarkable step this season, a promising development considering he competed against older college players.

With the Sabres in need of help down the middle, Zegras could be atop their draft board if he's available when they are on the clock.

"He’s got personality to his game and he’s one of these high-character players on the ice where he can rise to the occasion," Dan Marr, the director of NHL Central Scouting, said at the combine. "He wants the puck. He wants to score. He wants to be in on the play. He goes out there and makes things happen. He’s a player that forces you to notice him. You don’t have to go up there and say, ‘Where is No. 9? I’m looking for him, I can’t find him.’ He jumps up and pops at you every game."

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