ROCHESTER – Final preparations for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final were taking place on the ice Monday morning when Matt Savoie skated over to Amerks coach Seth Appert.
Savoie, the Buffalo Sabres’ top draft pick last summer, flashed a smile and chatted briefly with Appert about his first practice with the Rochester Americans. Savoie wasn’t familiar with every drill. Appert stopped one earlier in the session to explain. Mike Weber, an assistant coach, did the same as Savoie prepared to center Olivier Nadeau and Josh Passolt.
It has been a whirlwind few days for Savoie. There was no time for an extensive meeting with Appert or teammates before he joined the Amerks on the ice ahead of their series against the Hershey Bears, which begins Tuesday night in Giant Center. Games 1 and 2 in Hershey will be broadcast on MSG.
"Pretty hectic," Savoie said. "A lot of moving pieces ... but I couldn't be happier and more excited to be here."
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Savoie’s season with the Winnipeg Ice ended Friday night with a loss in the Western Hockey League championship. He arrived in Rochester late Sunday and prepared to board a bus to Hershey the following day. Michael Mersch, the Amerks’ captain, texted Savoie to introduce himself and explain the team’s dress code for the trip.
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The Sabres’ staff, including the coaches in Rochester, plan to give Savoie time to adjust to his new surroundings, but he didn’t join the Amerks to watch from the press box during the seven-game series that will determine which Eastern Conference team will reach the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup final.
“Matt Savoie is here to play,” Appert told reporters after practice. “And when we get him acclimated, we'll see him in the lineup.”
Appert and his staff aren’t eager to replace one of the forwards who helped the Amerks eliminate Syracuse and Toronto. Winger Linus Weissbach is also expected to return after missing the past two games with an upper-body injury.
Savoie will have to earn his ice time. But there’s confidence throughout the organization that it won’t take him long to do so. Savoie, after all, was drafted ninth overall by the Sabres last summer and amassed 73 goals with 185 points over the past two regular seasons in Winnipeg. He was an offensive dynamo in its run to the WHL championship series, totaling 11 goals and 29 points in 19 games.
Listed at 5-foot-9, Savoie has a tantalizing skill set with elite speed, an effective right-handed shot, a relentless drive to get the puck and the burning desire to be great. He can play center or wing and fits perfectly with how the Amerks attack offensively. He also has a mature game defensively that will ease the transition from junior to pro. And as devastating as it was to fall short of his goal with the Ice, he immediately pivoted to another: helping the Amerks win.
“You definitely see a little change in focus, but coming here, I think it's the same message,” Savoie, 19, explained. “This team is competing for a championship, and I'm just trying to do anything I can to help them in any way.”
It has been a whirlwind year for Savoie. He couldn’t compete in the scouting combine last May or the Sabres’ development camp in July because of a shoulder injury that required rest. He was a standout in Buffalo’s training camp in the fall but needed more time to prepare for the physical demands of an 82-game NHL season. The Sabres’ patience allowed Savoie to have another exceptional year in the WHL, but it included some difficult moments.
The body checks and long bus rides add up during the season. He noticed in November that he didn’t feel his best, an obvious side effect from not having the opportunity to train properly last summer. Savoie was determined to work his way through it. He spent more time in the gym to build strength and improve his foot speed.
Hockey Canada also gave Savoie another source of motivation when it didn’t select him to play in the IIHF World Junior Championship.
“You want to make that team and you want to be recognized as one of the top players and to not have that was definitely something that took me aback a little bit,” he admitted. “And that really just made me put my head down and work even harder.”
Savoie was one of the top players in the WHL the rest of the season, delivering 21 multi-point games after Christmas. His goal-scoring continued until the championship series when he couldn’t beat Seattle goalie Tomas Milic in any of the five games. Appert reminded Savoie on Monday morning that he won’t be asked to skate 20-25 minutes per game in Rochester.
A heavy workload like that prevents a forward with Savoie’s skills from going full-bore for three periods every night. It’s natural to pace yourself when you’re asked to play in every situation. Savoie won’t have to drive the Amerks’ offense in this series against Hershey.
Rochester has 10 skaters with at least two goals in the playoffs, led by fellow 2022 first-round draft pick Jiri Kulich, whose six-game goal streak is tied for the longest in the AHL postseason since Peter Holland in 2014.
“He plays the game the way the organization wants to play: attacking, aggressive, speed-based style of play in both Buffalo and Rochester,” Appert said of Savoie. “I think those are things that automatically stood out. I think he's going to acclimate pretty quickly because of those natural tendencies that he has.”
This is the scenario the Sabres envisioned when Kevyn Adams took over as general manager in 2020. The organization has several talented prospects making an impact during another long playoff run in Rochester, including 2021 first-round pick Isak Rosen and winger Lukas Rousek, who appeared in two games for Buffalo this season. It’s an opportunity for Savoie to learn, develop and prepare for what’s next.
The pair of Sabres prospects won't be in the lineup Tuesday night when the Amerks play the Hershey Bears in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final, but they were sent to Rochester to receive an introduction to life in the AHL.
No matter what happens in the series, Savoie will have additional valuable lessons to take into the summer. He’ll have months to prepare for training camp when he’s expected to compete for a spot on the Sabres’ roster. Ideally, Adams would assign Savoie to Rochester to experience an entire season with the Amerks, like Rosen and Kulich. However, the NHL’s development agreement with the Canadian Hockey League will prevent Savoie from playing in the regular season because he doesn’t turn 20 until January.
Savoie will be in the NHL or WHL unless the Sabres use the same plan the Seattle Kraken did with Shane Wright, who went to the AHL on a conditioning assignment in November before returning to junior hockey after world juniors. Wright re-joined the Kraken’s AHL affiliate for the playoffs last month. The progress made in Buffalo and Rochester didn’t go unnoticed as Savoie moved closer to his goal of being part of the Sabres.
“I think at camp you kind of felt there was a big shift in the culture there,” he said. “There was a lot of good people in the dressing room that were, pushing the bus in the right direction. And even Rochester, I got to know a lot of these guys at camp a little bit, so it was really good to see them have a lot of success this year and really find their stride.”