As the Buffalo Sabres prospects hit the ice this weekend, it quickly became clear which players were simply at another level. There were a few players who rose above and felt like true NHLers — and for good reason.
Arttu Ruotsalainen. Brett Murray. J-J Peterka. Mattias Samuelsson. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.
It was only two games, but these five players looked NHL ready. To use a cliche, they looked like men among boys. They easily stood out on the ice, but there’s still something to be gained for each of them in participating in a prospects tournament, especially after the odd season last year due to COVID-19.
For all five, taking part in the prospects challenge allows them to hit the ice ahead of full training camp and start to get back into the swing of things. It also gives them another opportunity to skate in front of Sabres brass and show what they’ve got, and how hard they’re willing to fight to get a spot in the NHL. It also affords them the opportunity to step into leadership roles and provide mentorship to some of the younger players.
Ruotsalainen, 23, hasn’t had a full regular season playing pro hockey in North America. He split last season between Buffalo and Rochester but also spent some time playing with Ilves Tampere. Peterka looked fantastic, but since he was drafted in the midst of the pandemic in 2020, this is his first chance to hit the ice in Buffalo.
Murray, as I wrote a few days ago, had his first crack at the NHL last season, but it was only a pair of games. His size makes him stand out regardless, but even moreso among a group of younger players. The same is true for Samuelsson and his skill. Both certainly capitalized on the opportunity to shine at the Prospects Challenge, which puts them in a good position heading into main camp.
And then there’s Luukkonen. He only played in Friday’s game and got a well-deserved rest on Saturday, but it was undoubtedly good to get back on the ice, particularly after injury. When he spoke after Friday’s game, he said as much:
“It’s the same like any summer, when you come back here, you never know how the first game is going to feel like. I think the pace helps... it’s easier to adapt to it,” he said.
He also noted that the team put some structure in the game, which made it easier for him to get back into the rhythm of things.
“I’m happy that the first one is out of the way for the season,” he added.
For all five players, hitting the ice ahead of main training camp gives them a leg up after an odd year and a half. It also gives them the opportunity to shake off the doldrums and have some fun - remember fun? - before things get more serious.
Now, with the Prospects Challenge behind them, they can shift their focus to the upcoming main training camp, where they’ll fight for NHL roster spots.