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Mattias Samuelsson inching closer to realizing NHL dream with Sabres

The competition began the moment Mattias and Lukas Samuelsson stepped foot off the school bus in Voorhees, N.J., and often continued through dusk on the family's driveway.

With one hockey net set up against the closed garage door, the two brothers strapped on roller skates, grabbed a stick and battled against one another to see who could score more. Neither responded well to losing, often leading to heated but short arguments.

"It would get pretty intense towards the end, especially when we got older," Mattias, now 19 and a 6-foot-4, 223-pound defenseman, recalled during his second Buffalo Sabres development camp this week in Harborcenter. "That's where I get my compete from."

The long spring nights on the family driveway did not mold Samuelsson into a future second-round draft pick. Skating until equipment broke — their father, Kjell, recalled coming home to wheels needing repair — did not turn him into one of the Sabres' top prospects.

However, those one-on-one matchups against Lukas equipped Mattias with a fierce competitive edge that has him on the cusp of an NHL career in Buffalo.

"That was probably the best thing for both of us," Lukas, now 22 and his brother's teammate at Western Michigan University, said in a phone interview.

Hockey childhood

Neither Mattias nor Luke had been born when Kjell was a shutdown defenseman in the NHL. Kjell, now 60 and 6-foot-7, played 936 games in the regular season and Stanley Cup playoffs during his 14-year career, winning a Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 1992.

Following his playing career, Kjell worked as an assistant coach for the Philadelphia Flyers' American Hockey League affiliate, and the Samuelsson brothers' passion for hockey first took root in the team's practice facility.

Their youth practices were held in the same rink as Kjell's, allowing their father to watch both boys before he was unable to attend most of their weekend games. Their mother, Vicki, drove them to tournaments along the east coast.

When Kjell watched video of previous games for work, Mattias and Lukas would gather around to ask questions and listen to their father's observations. Neither of the two brothers was of age to understand the sport's nuances.

Kjell never pushed his kids to follow in his footsteps. He preferred to not provide advice about their own hockey careers, much like his parents didn't during his childhood in Tingsryd, Sweden. His sons' love for the sport was evident at an early age, though.

"I don’t think I have ever told them to do it," said Kjell, who is the Flyers' director of player development. "I’d ask if they had fun and they’d say yes. Then when they got older I always said, don’t do it because I did it. 'You do it for the right reasons and you have to have the passion for it.' Have fun. That’s the whole purpose."

Mattias and Lukas gathered around Kjell to watch NHL games at home, and their curiosity led to more questions. They attended games in which their father coached — Kjell had a 13-year career behind the bench for the Flyers' AHL affiliate, including one season as head coach — and any time away from the rink was typically spent on roller skates.

Oftentimes their roller hockey games would include other neighborhood kids, however, their fondest memories are of those games against one another. Kjell recalled never having to break up any brotherly skirmishes, but he would often return home to the sight of the two boys in the driveway.

"There were arguments, 100 percent," Lukas said with a laugh. "It would get heated sometimes. It was a lot of fun, actually. It would be both ways. If he was beating me I’d give it to him and if I was beating him it was the same way. Big brother, little brother – David versus Goliath. Going after it. It really built a bond though. Whenever we argued about would be nonsense, but we knew that it was because someone was winning."

'Steal of the draft'

Lukas, who is 6 fee tall, wasn't Goliath for long. When he left home to play junior hockey, Mattias surpassed him and kept growing. The latter captivated scouts and earned himself a spot with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program in Plymouth, Mich.

Mattias was a lanky, raw defenseman when he first arrived at the NTDP, which also produced Jack Eichel, Dylan Larkin and Jack Hughes, among others. Samuelsson played in 37 games with the Under-17 team and received a mid-season promotion to the Under-18 team, where he competed against older players in the United States Hockey League and NCAA.

During his second year with the NTDP in 2017-18, Samuelsson scored 11 goals among 31 points in 58 games. He grew bigger and stronger to improve his skating and used his long reach to be a shutdown defender. Additionally, Samuelsson showed he could start an offensive rush with a crisp breakout pass.

However, Samuelsson lacked the dazzling play-making abilities of the 2018 draft classes' top prospects, which led NHL Central Scouting to rank him as the No. 21 North American skater.

"He’s a breakout machine, that’s what he is," said Seth Appert, Samuelsson's coach with the NTDP Under-18 team. "The scouts that year – and that’s probably why he went in the second round instead of the first round – they over-analyzed him. They watched him too much and they start nitpicking the fact that all he does is make a good first pass. He doesn’t do the so-called sexy things with the puck, and I’d laugh because that’s what they're yelling about that their NHL defensemen don’t do, make that great first pass."

That perception was potentially responsible for Samuelsson falling out of the first round of the NHL draft last June, and there wasn't a debate among Sabres brass when he was available at the end of Day 1. Buffalo drafted defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, the class' consensus top prospect, first overall and chose Samuelsson with the first pick of the second round.

That continued a whirlwind year for Samuelsson. Prior to the draft, he captained the United States at the IIHF Under-18 World Championship and had little time to prepare for the scouting combine in Buffalo. Samuelsson then attended the Sabres' development camp after the draft, where he caught a cold that kept him off the ice for up to two weeks, Western Michigan coach Andy Murray recalled.

Samuelsson then left for Western Michigan but wasn't able to stay long. In August, Samuelsson traveled to Kamloops, British Colombia, where he competed in the World Junior Summer Showcase. The weeklong tournament included seven games against international competition, and Samuelsson's performance earned him a spot on the national team for the IIHF World Junior Championship.

"In the first week I saw him, I knew the Sabres got the steal of the draft," said Murray, who had a 16-year NHL coaching career. "He’s mature beyond his years mentally. He was a freshman last year, yet he commanded the respect of our seniors. He’s a complete player, competes hard, plays hard.

"At Western, we don’t want to be difficult to play against, we want to be miserable to play against. ... He’s that kind of competitor."

Big man on campus

Samuelsson showed that fierce competitiveness in one of the world's most-watched hockey tournaments, the IIHF World Junior Championship. He was one of the most physically imposing players during the United States' run to the gold medal game this winter, delivering glass-wobbling hits and giving opponents very little room in his own zone.

Samuelsson delivered a punishing body check that knocked Kazakhstan's Ivan Vereshagin out of a game and blocked a slap shot during the United States' 3-2 overtime loss to Finland in the gold medal game.

The tournament was grueling, yet there were no signs of exhaustion when Samuelsson returned to Western Michigan to complete his freshman season. He played in 35 of the team's 37 games, scoring five goals among 12 points with a plus-3 rating. Samuelsson continued to be a shut-down defender, delivered punishing hits and proved he can contribute offensively.

"He plays hard and he uses his assets because he’s a big man," Kjell said of Mattias. "I think he has to be hard to play against, win battles and move the puck up. He’s pretty good at it, but he has to work on that. The offensive game, wherever he’s going to end up playing the offensive production will be a bonus for that team. I don’t think they're going to rely on him to score, but he can put up some points too. His purpose is be a good defender, win battles and move the puck."

Mattias wasn't alone in his first college season. Lukas is a junior forward for Western Michigan and was often tasked by the coaching staff to rile up his younger brother, much like he did on the family's driveway years ago. However, they could have a different locker room dynamic in their next, and possibly final, college season together.

Mattias was named one of Western Michigan's captains for his sophomore season, a prominent leadership role on a team that includes 17 juniors or seniors.

Mattias isn't in a rush to reach the NHL. Unlike most prospects at development camp, Samuelsson is physically ready to play professionally, but his focus is staying with the Sabres once he does receive an opportunity.

Samuelsson has yet to sign an entry-level contract and won't until Sabres management determines he is ready, though the decision could come as soon as next spring. After all, Samuelsson finally has an offseason to properly train. He was unable to do so last year because of the IIHF World Under-18 Championship, scouting combine and draft.

At the conclusion of development camp, Samuelsson will return to Western Michigan, where he will focus on improving his speed and agility, two attributes he thinks he must improve for him to make an impact in the NHL. He'll receive a push from Lukas until his call to Buffalo comes.

"I don’t think about it too much," Samuelsson said when asked of his timeline to reach Buffalo. "It’s not up to me. If I felt ready or not, it’s all up to Buffalo if they think I’m ready to turn pro and fit on one of the teams. I do what I can to develop, advance my game and the rest is up to them."

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