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Henri Jokiharju's first impression begins with Sabres Prospects Challenge

Henri Jokiharju darted toward the boards at the sound of the whistle in Harborcenter, corralled the puck and fired a quick pass to exit the defensive zone during a drill Thursday afternoon.

The sequence during the Buffalo Sabres' final practice prior to their Prospects Challenge did not result in a goal at the other end of the ice, and the right-shot defenseman wasn't being pressured by an opponent.

However, the drill displayed two traits that led General Manager Jason Botterill to trade Alexander Nylander to Chicago in exchange for Jokiharju in July: speed and an ability to make a crisp pass to exit the zone.

Now, Jokiharju must prove he can do both consistently in the National Hockey League, and his first chance in a Sabres uniform will come Friday night when the challenge begins with a 7 p.m. game against the New Jersey Devils.

"It brings me more motivation," Jokiharju said Thursday of his trade from the Blackhawks. "This is a young team that’s up and coming. It’s good. Lots of young guys who are very talented."

Aside from top draft pick Dylan Cozens, Jokiharju is likely the main attraction for Sabres fans at the Prospects Challenge. After all, Jokiharju is one of few prospects expected to to have a legitimate chance of earning a roster spot during the team's training camp this month, and he has the most NHL experience.

Jokiharju had 12 assists with a minus-7 rating in 38 games with the Blackhawks last season. He averaged 21:34 over Chicago's first 15 games and was a favorite of their then-coach, Joel Quenneville, who was fired last November. Jokiharju began to struggle following the coaching change and was loaned to Finland last December for the IIHF World Junior Championship, where he won his first of two gold medals.

If Jokiharju is to earn a roster spot among a talented group of right-shot defensemen, he must prove to new Sabres coach Ralph Krueger that his impressive debut with Chicago was not an anomaly. Jokiharju isn't concerned with training camp yet, though.

The 20-year-old told reporters Thursday that his focus is on performing well at the Prospects Challenge, which will also feature Pittsburgh and Boston. The Penguins and Bruins will open the event with a game Friday at 3:30 p.m.

Though Friday's morning skate should provide clarity, Jokiharju was paired at Thursday's practice with left-shot defenseman Jacob Bryson, an offensively-gifted former fourth round pick who has yet to play a professional game.

Jokiharju performed well during the fast-pace practice and was quick to pin an opposing forward against the boards during a drill. He caught Rochester coach Chris Taylor's attention when the team's defensemen shot pucks from the blue line following the 60-minute session.

"He looks a little dynamic at the blue line," Taylor, who will coach the Sabres' prospects team, said. "Even after practice, we did some D shots and you can see his footwork there and his quick release. You can tell he’s confident in what he’s doing."

Jokiharju brushed off the notion that he gained confidence by winning a gold medal for Finland at the IIHF World Championship in May, saying he knew all along he could play against the best players in the world.

His confidence was not shaken by the Blackhawks' decision to send him to the American Hockey League in January. Jokiharju averaged only 14:30 of ice time over his final five games with Chicago -- he led the team in 5-on-5 ice time during the first 15 games of the season -- and struggled to make much of an impact in a limited role under coach Jeremy Colliton, who replaced Quenneville.

"It was big," Jokiharju said of his rookie season. "Coming from juniors, playing in pro, that was the biggest thing for me. It was tough games throughout the year. … It was a good year."

Jokiharju scored two goals among 17 points with a plus-7 rating in 30 games with Rockford to finish the season, and he was viewed throughout the league as one of the top drafted defensemen prospects. However, the Blackhawks chose to trade him in an effort to acquire help at wing.

The Sabres' scouts had been tracking Jokiharju's progress since before he was drafted 29th overall in 2017 and were intrigued by his offensive ability.

“Being able to skate, being able to make that good first pass,” Botterill said of Jokiharju during Fan Fest at KeyBank Center last month. “With Henri, that’s what we see from him. I’ve always liked his speed, liked his ability to get out of his own zone."

During training camp, Jokiharju will be competing against right-handers Rasmus Ristolainen, Colin Miller, Brandon Montour, Casey Nelson and Zach Bogosian, who is expected to miss the start of the season after undergoing hip surgery.

Though Jokiharju previously expressed confidence he's ready for a full-time NHL role, the Sabres could opt to send him to Rochester, where he would likely have a prominent role at 5-on-5 and the power play. It's also possible that a trade could open a roster spot for Jokiharju.

Jokiharju hasn't been told what role he could have in Buffalo this season. He's hoping that a summer dedicated to adding strength will result in the full-time NHL opportunity he never received in Chicago.

"I’m going to work as hard as I can to make the team," Jokiharju said. "I’m not looking too far [ahead]. I’m just going day by day on that kind of stuff. … I’m looking forward to [Friday’s] game."

Cozens good to go

Cozens, the 18-year-old center whom the Sabres drafted seventh overall in June, was cleared to play Friday night against the New Jersey Devils after participating in Thursday's practice.

Cozens underwent thumb surgery in July after sustaining an  injury during the Sabres' prospect development camp. He wore a red non-contact jersey when participating in informal skates with prospects and NHL players at Harborcenter earlier this week.

Cozens will be in the lineup against the Devils, which means he will face Jack Hughes, who was drafted first overall by New Jersey in June. Cozens' addition to the Sabres' lineup bodes well for him being a full participant once NHL training camp opens next Friday.

“Right now I haven’t been thinking about it too much," Cozens said when asked about training camp. "I’m kind of just focused on getting back to 100 percent and the Prospects Challenge this weekend. But I’m just going to go in there and go in with confidence and just play my game, stick to my game. Don’t go out there trying too hard to impress, just do what I do and stick to my game.”

Luukkonen out

Goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen watched practice from the bench Thursday and will not participate in the Prospects Challenge. The 20-year-old has been skating while recovering from hip surgery. The Sabres have not indicated whether Luukkonen will be ready to face shots when training camp begins next week.

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