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Sabres notebook: Aleksandr Kisakov adjusting on, off the ice

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Sabres Prospects Challenge Practice

Left winger Alexander Kisakov prepares to catch a puck during a team practice for the Sabres Prospects Challenge at LECOM Harborcenter in Buffalo on Sept. 14, 2022. 

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Aleksandr Kisakov carried the puck through the neutral zone with ease, battled for possession when the Buffalo Sabres were stuck in their own end and defended against the top line of the Montreal Canadiens.

Yet, under the surface, Kisakov was admittedly dealing with some angst during his Sabres debut Thursday night in the opening game of the Prospects Challenge.

“It was quite difficult because I was emotionally involved, a bit nervous, different style of play,” he said through translator Frank Musil, the Sabres’ scout who covers Eastern Europe. “It’s important every practice, every day for me to get better and feel closer to the games and the players. I expect to be better because of it.”

Kisakov isn’t taking the opportunity for granted. A Russian winger, he waited approximately two months for his work visa to be approved. Kisakov attended the draft in Montreal in July while awaiting word on his immigration status. He soon learned that he wouldn’t be able to attend the Sabres’ development camp the following week, preventing the 2021 second-round draft choice from competing with his fellow prospects in front of coaches and management.

The Sabres, meanwhile, began to build a plan for Kisakov’s eventual arrival. Rochester coach Seth Appert watched video of the dynamic goal scorer to better understand strengths and weaknesses. Appert gathered as much information as possible because he and his staff will be tasked with helping Kisakov transition to the smaller ice surface in North America and the physical style of play in the American Hockey League.

Kisakov has the skating and skill to succeed like Sabres prospects did in Rochester last season, but at 5-foot-10, 160 pounds, he must learn how to generate offense and play sound defense against bigger, stronger, older competition.

“I coached against him, and I didn't like coaching against him,” said Appert, who was on the opposite bench when Kisakov represented Russia at multiple international tournaments. “I like coaching him. … He’s a little bit of a magician with the puck. He really is, his creativity. His edge control is really special. (Matt) Savoie has that explosiveness in his skating, but Kisakov's edge control, and his cutbacks and his ability to find secondary plays is really unique.”

Fans didn’t get to see Kisakov unleash his effective left-handed shot Thursday night. His line, centered by Sabres top draft pick Matt Savoie, had few high-quality scoring chances while matched up against soon-to-be NHLer Juraj Slafkovsky and Montreal’s top defense pair. The Sabres’ trio, which included Linus Weissbach, didn’t score for Buffalo in a 4-3 win, but each forward made some impressive plays with the puck. They're expected to be together again when the Sabres play the New Jersey Devils on Saturday night at 7.

Kisakov knew the adjustment was going to be difficult. Even life outside of hockey is a challenge. When Kisakov isn’t on the ice or in the gym, he’s in his hotel room communicating with family and friends back home. As the lone player in camp who only speaks Russian, Kisakov is working to build relationships with teammates despite the language barrier. Weissbach assisted Kisakov in practice Friday when the latter was confused about a drill. But this was the necessary next step for Kisakov after a season in which he played only four games in the Kontinental Hockey League.

He had some opportunities to practice against pro players, but Kisakov spent the bulk of his time with his club in Russia’s top junior league, MHK Dynamo Moskva. Across the past two seasons, he totaled 62 goals and 129 points in 112 junior games. Kisakov was ready to take his development to North America and, by signing an entry-level contract with the Sabres, he ensured that the organization’s development staff can have a much larger role in helping him achieve the NHL dream.

“It was quite difficult because we were talking throughout the season,” Kisakov said through Musil of the contract. “Once it was completed, it was a relief. I’m happy to be where I am.”

Another adjustment

Mats Lindgren was a standout at development camp in July, showcasing his exceptional skating and poise with the puck. However, the 18-year-old defenseman learned Thursday night that he’s going to have to acclimate to facing NHL-quality players like Slafkovsky.

Lindgren did a fine job escaping the initial pressure on the breakout, but you could see that he wasn’t used to his opponent continuing to hound the puck. Lindgren, a fourth-round draft pick in 2022, didn’t have that problem last season in the Western Hockey League, where, at 17 years old, he had 44 points in 68 games. He’ll play another year of junior hockey with the Red Deer Rebels and has yet to sign an entry-level contract with Buffalo.

“Special skater,” said Amerks assistant coach Mike Weber, a former NHL defenseman. “His edge work, I wish I had that for one of the games that I played in the national, but he's a special skater, his escape ability. … That time-and-space awareness, that on-ice awareness, I think it's going to continue to get better. But his skating and his hockey IQ are pretty special.”

Injury update

Winger Josh Bloom, a third-round draft pick in 2021, didn’t participate in practice Friday and his status for Saturday night is to be determined, the team announced. Bloom, 19, suffered what the team classified as an “upper-body injury” during the game Thursday night on a hit against the boards and did not return. Bloom had a breakout season in the Ontario Hockey League in 2021-22, totaling 30 goals and 61 points in 67 games for the Saginaw Spirit.

Defenseman Zach Berzolla (lower body) also is uncertain for the game Saturday. Forwards Matej Pekar, Olivier Nadeau and Jiri Kulich are unavailable this weekend because of injury.

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News Sports Reporter

I've covered the Sabres and National Hockey League for The Buffalo News since November 2018. My previous work included coverage of the Pittsburgh Pirates and University of Pittsburgh athletics for DKPittsburghSports.com.

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