The Buffalo Sabres Prospect Development Camp began yesterday, but we got a chance to check out the first of two sessions this morning, featuring most of the team's promising defensemen, and a few stand out forward prospects. What follows is our quick thoughts on the players and the practice, which lasted just shy of 90 minutes.
Here were this morning's participants, courtesy of Sabres.com:
Eric Locke – Zemgus Girgensons – Jonathan Parker
Kevin Sundher – Phil Varone – Logan Nelson
Connor Hurley – Justin Kea – Nick Baptiste
Alex Iafallo – Andrew Black
Nikita Zadorov – Mark Pysyk
Jake McCabe – Rasmus Ristolainen
Brady Austin – Matt MacKenzie
Who stood out?
Zemgus Girgensons - The reports from yesterday regarding Girgensons' level of compete and leadership rang true today, as he was far and away the standout forward. He practices like a pot ready to boil over, one that you have to keep a tight lid on lest it explode. Nobody drove to the net or chased after loose pucks harder, and he clearly had the best wheels on the ice, often having to slow down for his teammates in 2-on-1 drills.
Girgs was also the most vocal player out there, but shouting instructions and calling for the puck during drills, and helping other guys while waiting for his turn. He got a bit chippy with Mark Pysyk after a good battle in the crease, whacking Pysyk's shin pads with his stick on the way out, but the two later shook hands and were joking around at the end of practice. I am very excited to see where he stands next September after a full summer of training.
Mark Pysyk - If Girgensons was the standout forward, the man they call Pisser was the best blueliner of the morning session. Nobody out there is as smooth, calm, and consistent as Pysyk. He was rarely beat in defensive drills, and never looked rushed or flustered, either while breaking up 2-on-1's or chasing around bouncing pucks. He showed off a good but not great shot, and his typical accurate passing and smooth skating. He'll be a big part of whichever team ends up with him next year, no matter if it's Buffalo or Rochester.
Rasmus Ristolainen - Rusty is looking very promising in his first action wearing the blue and gold. He's certainly a big body out there in his 6'4'', 207 lbs frame, but he skates as smooth as a smaller defender like Pysyk does. Ristolainen showed off two different sides of his defensive game - he used his stick very well to break up odd man rushes, but was also one of the only defensemen to consistently use his size to shove his opponents out of the crease.
The Sabres top 2013 draft pick also showed off the hardest shot of any defender this morning. Whether slapper or wrister, Risto stood out with a consistently booming, accurate blast from the point.
Nikita Zadorov - Zadorov showed well, but is clearly behind Ristolainen in the timeline of his development. He fell to the ice multiple times during drills and looked a bit hesitant in his own end at times, though I urge you not to read too much out of just one practice. Where he looked great was on the offensive end - he has a nice shot, and when it connects it really connects. He also showed off some nice moves on breakaway drills, and flashed a bit of his more physical side, though there wasn't much hitting in today's practice.
Connor Hurley - Hurley, the Sabres very young-but-talented 2013 second round center, was the top scorer in drills by my highly unofficial count. He impressed not only with his quick and accurate wrist shot, but also with his speed on the ice. He'll need a few years to mature before he'll sniff the NHL, but it's a promising sign that he can stick with the older players.
Cal Petersen - Drafted in the fifth round by Buffalo this year, Petersen flashed a quick glove and great lateral movement to make some very pretty saves in both breakaway and 2-on-1 drills. He outshined Knapp in my opinion, though to be fair I was sitting much closer to Petersen's side of the ice.
Brady Austin - Austin was a seventh round selection in 2012, but he's a very big left-handed defenseman standing at 6'4'', 220 lbs. He skated well for a big guy, and clearly plays his game with a physical edge, which showed today.
What was different this year?
Ron Rolston and his staff have brought a more fun, positive atmosphere to camp than Lindy Ruff had over the previous years (surprise). The morning session was split in to separate blue and golds squads, and with many of the drills being of the competitive variety, it gave the youngsters plenty to jaw at and cheer about. Tip of the hat to Eric from 3MI for pointing this out, but Rolston is also more vocal and positive in drills than Ruff, who would usually let his assistants run things while he watched.
The pace at this camp also seemed to be a bit higher than in years past. All the drills were run in a high-octane fashion, with many of them focusing on backchecking and breakaways. Little time was given to rest between them, and the on-ice coaching sessions around the whiteboard were kept to a minimum. Camp is a day shorter this year than it was last year, which may account for the high pace, or it may be Rolston's way of figuring out everyone's condition. Either way, there weren't any players who couldn't keep up this morning.
We'll be back later this afternoon session with another update on the second group of players, featuring a loaded group of forwards including Mikhail Grigorenko, Daniel Catenacci and Justin Bailey.