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Inside the Sabres

Prospects Challenge is first chance to showcase burgeoning youth

He hasn't seen players on the ice in a group setting since development camp in June but Randy Sexton's long summer is about to end.

The Buffalo Sabres start at least 32 straight weeks of hockey when their prospects convene this week in Harborcenter and the club's assistant general manager says it's a time that's circled on his calendar.

"Probably other than playoffs, this is my second favorite time of the whole season," said Sexton, who also is the GM of the Rochester Amerks. "You reconnect with the guys you have and really see the work they've put in over the summer to get better and be ready for the season."

The Sabres' hopefuls open the annual Prospects Challenge on Friday night against the New Jersey Devils and it's fitting that Buffalo's young guns get the first ice because the organization is built around youth. At the NHL level, of course, there's a young core of Jack Eichel, Rasmus Dahlin, Sam Reinhart and Casey Mittelstadt that's been augmented by still under-30 veterans such as Jeff Skinner, Brandon Montour, Jake McCabe and the newly acquired trio of Colin Miller, Marcus Johansson and Jimmy Vesey.

But the Sabres are still in the midst of building depth, both in the AHL and NHL. Lawrence Pilut, Victor Olofsson, Rasmus Asplund, Matej Pekar, Will Borgen, C.J. Smith, Tage Thompson and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen already are well known by the fan base. Henri Jokiharju, Arttu Ruotsalainen, Jacob Bryson and Casey Fitzgerald are just starting bids to be regulars in either the NHL or AHL.

And, of course, there's others still in college hockey or overseas thinking about cracking the lineups in Buffalo and Rochester someday.

It's a slow process. But the Sabres are getting there. And they need their youth, particularly the ones on entry-level contracts, to eventually become contributors in the NHL.

"This is the strongest year yet," said Sexton, who came with GM Jason Botterill from Pittsburgh in 2017. "When I look at the depth chart, I'm staring (at) it, it's the deepest group we've had in our three years here. Equally exciting is flowing some young players in. It will be really interesting to see how Lawrence Pilut does. Guys like Will Borgen and Casey Mittelstadt have made great strides over the summer. You get more and more players fitting the identity of the team we're working to create."

The internal competition is something the Sabres haven't had much of in recent years, but two straight playoff berths in Rochester, albeit ending in first-round disappointments, show that results are starting to come.

"Internal competition is the best for us, brings out the best in everyone," said Borgen, who was taken by former GM Tim Murray in the fourth round in 2015 and is among the logjam of players on the Buffalo defense. "It's good for us. We saw last year when we won the prospects tournament that there were a lot of good players coming and it's fun to see."

Botterill & Co. are following the model they used in Pittsburgh that produced Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017. The Penguins, of course, had marquee names like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin but had endured a seven-year drought of appearing in the Cup final from 2009-2016.

And while players like Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist were key trade acquisitions, the Penguins thrived because they had a deep roster that featured players Botterill shepherded through the AHL while general manager of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton franchise.

Matt Murray, Jake Guentzel, Brian Dumoulin, Tom Kuhnhackl, Bryan Rust and current Sabres Conor Sheary and Scott Wilson all came through the Penguins system in the AHL to play solid roles on Cup-winning teams. And just like in Pittsburgh, this front office spends an inordinate amount of time on outreach so the players know what to expect when they finally get to the NHL.

After players get their assignments following the prospect games and training camps, they're not merely sent back to their home teams and told to send postcards. Botterill, Sexton, fellow assistant GM Steve Greeley and other development coaches hit the road and the air all season to keep in touch.

"Every one of these young players is critical to our future and we're critical to theirs," Sexton said. "So we spend a lot of time, money and resources to make sure we're in constant contact with these players.

"We don't handhold them and baby them but we do provide lots of support both to the organization/team they're playing with and to them and their families because A) they need it, and B) we think it collapses the cycle time from drafting to arriving in Buffalo to be an everyday NHL player. Part of our culture is building and maintaining strong relationships with every player. It's really, really important to us."

Borgen, 22, was drafted out of high school and played college at St. Cloud State. He said Sexton was a constant presence last year in Rochester, when he became a regular with the Amerks and then made his NHL debut in four games with the Sabres.

"It's different at the top now but there's still a lot of familiar faces among the staff you see around the locker room," Borgen said. "It makes it good for all of us every day we come to the rink. Everyone respects Randy a lot. He does a great job and he's always there when you need him. We all know that."

•••

Borgen is among the group of Sabres prospects that will open the tournament Friday night against Devils No. 1 overall pick Jack Hughes.

"We are very interested to see that," Sexton said with a laugh. " 'Botts' and I and [coach] Chris Taylor have already had a lot of discussions about our lineup that night. All of the players in our rookie tournament are going to really want to play that game. They want to play with their guys against the No. 1 pick. It will be a great test for some of our younger players. Jack Hughes is obviously still young, not man-strong but a phenomenal player who's highly intelligent and incredibly gifted. It will be a nice benchmark for us."

The Sabres meet Boston Saturday night at 7 and close the tournament against Pittsburgh at 12:30 p.m. Sept. 9.

"I've never watched Hughes play, but being first overall you know he's going to be a really good player," Borgen said. "I was fortunate to be Rasmus Dahlin's partner in this tournament last year, so I know there's a ton of pros who are good players everywhere."

•••

The Sabres are still deciding the status of No. 1 draft pick Dylan Cozens, who had thumb surgery in July after an injury at development camp. Luukkonen, their goaltender of the future, is on the road back from double hip surgery in April and won't play in this tournament. His return timeline has him likely coming back in late October or early November.

"He was saying he's feeling great, really happy with the progress he's made," Sexton said after having breakfast with Luukkonen last week. "Perhaps a tad ahead of schedule at this point. Certainly not behind from the original delivery date of surgery.

"We're going to take our time with him. The most important thing is we manage his development appropriately. We'll see where he's at and where his game is at when he's ready to go. Whether that's Rochester or Cincinnati, we don't know yet. We don't have anything penciled in. We're taking one day at a time to make sure he meets or exceeds the date he can start to play."

Jokiharju on Sabres Prospects Challenge roster while Cozens' status remains uncertain

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