The Buffalo Sabres opted to follow a defense-heavy/Swede-heavy 2018 NHL Draft by jumping into development camp earlier than normal. Sabres D-Camp was usually scheduled after the Fourth of July but this year it was moved up to the last weekend in June, which happened to butt up against the start of free agency. That, along with the trade of Ryan O'Reilly made for a very busy week.
Some things may have been missed in the process so what better time to play a little ketchup today as we munch on our All-American burgers and enjoy fireworks.
A quick recap of the draft had the Sabres and GM Jason Botterill taking five defensemen out of six picks, three of them being from Sweden and one with Swedish heritage. The parade of Swedes was lead by first overall pick D, Rasmus Dahlin followed later by the picks of defensemen Linus Lindstrand Cronholm (4th round) and William Worge Kreu (7th.) Hulking defenseman Mattias Samuelsson (2nd) played in the USHL for the National Development Program and is the son of former NHL d-man Kjell Samuelsson who was born in Sweden.
The Sabres selected Czech-native Matej Pekar, a center who played in the USHL, with the first pick of the fourth round and with their first pick in the seventh round they took defenseman Miska Kukkonen out of Finland.
Interesting to note that for the second year in a row under Botterill, the Sabres did not select a player from the Canadian Hockey League. Botterill's reasoning was that for later round picks, players attending college or playing overseas allows for more development time. "In a scenario where you have an extended period of four years (as opposed to two years for CHL players,)" he said at the draft, "in most situations for Europeans or college players it allows you more opportunity to develop."
All six of those draft picks were on the ice last week for D-camp.
One thing we were able to see at camp right off the bat was just how great a skater Dahlin is. For those of us who couldn't make it out to HarborCenter, there were tweets galore showing Dahlin almost effortlessly gliding through drills. We also had the opportunity to see Dahlin level Pekar with a check after the feisty Czech was said to have delivered a cheap shot to the franchise defenseman.
Here's a quick shot of that hit thanks to Highlight Haven:
Sabres development camp is what the name says it is as it's mainly about teaching young players how to be professionals and getting them acclimated to the work involved at the professional level. Players from five different draft classes were represented with Eric Cornel being the farthest reaching (2014, 44th-overall.) But it isn't all about drills as the camp closes with the annual French Connection 3-on-3 Tournament.
Four teams with nine players each played a round-robin to determine seeding for the semi-finals with the winner of the semi-final rounds playing for the championship.
The tournament was streamed live via sabres.com.
For the second year in a row, Casey Mittelstadt (2017, 8th) and his Team Martin (White) won the tournament. Mittelstadt must have learned something from the previous year as his team didn't hit the win column until the final round robin game. They dismissed of Team Robert (Gray) in the semi-finals and Team Perreault (Navy) in the finals.
Mittelstadt was the star of the show but it wasn't without some peril as Pekar hounded the hell out of him in their round-robin match. It got to the point where sticks were raised between the two and with a lot of in your face intensity. Pekar's focus on Mittelstadt frustrated the talented center but come the semi finals, Pekar laid off (perhaps at the insistence of management) and Mittelstadt was allowed to show off his immense skills.
Pekar drew comparisons to Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand who's known as "The little ball of hate" as he's got a gadfly-like intensity that annoys the hell out of people. In addition to that, Pekar did have his moment of revenge against Dahlin in the tournament's first game as he smoked the defenseman with a nifty deek at the right dot and proceeded to send a wicked wrister far-side.
Defenseman Brendan Guhle (2015, 51st) was drafted for his skating and athleticism and was a man amongst boys as he breezed across the ice in a display of skating that was awe-inspiring. His finish wasn't quite there but he showed the type of talents that have him on the cusp of full-time NHL duty.
--Goalie Hunter Shepard was a camp invite and wowed the crowd with a spectacular display of goaltending in Team Robert's second game. Although the 6'0' 205 lb. Minnesota-Duluth junior is a bit small by today's goalie standards he impressed to the point where an eye should be kept on him once he finishes his college career.
--Rasmus Asplund was the object of former GM Tim Murray's desire in the second round of the 2016 NHL Draft held in Buffalo. Since selecting him 33rd overall fans in Sabreland have been getting reports about a strong two-way player who's got a great feel for what's happening around him and that's what we saw 3-on-3.
--Winger Victor Olofsson (2014, 181st) was off the radar in Sabreland for three years until his breakout season in Sweden last year. His 29 goals lead the league and we had the opportunity to see his wicked shot during the 3-on-3. It's impressive.
--When the name Max Afinogenov is invoked, one thinks of a fast, dart-like skater who make a lot happen on the ice and that's what we saw with Vasily Glotov (2016, 190th.) Glotov was a wizard with his skating and had some finish but like Max on most occasions, did a lot of chopping with not a lot of chips flying.
--Undrafted left-winger Pascal Aquin was signed by the Rochester Americans in early May. The 6'1" 185 lb. native of Le Gardeur, Quebec was consistently in the mix throughout as he displayed plenty of speed and moves while also scoring the lone shootout goal in the Championship Game.
There were others who made a strong impression from goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (2017, 54th) to free agent signee Andrew Oglevie (2018, Notre Dame) to fellow free agent Lawrence Pilut (2018, SHL) to, of course Dahlin who simply wowed even without scoring much.
French Connection Tournament Highlights via sabres.com
Botterill and the Sabres have had a busy off season dating back to early June when they relinquished the rights 2016 draft picks Vojtech Budik (130th,) Brandon Hagel (159th) and Buffalo native Austin Osmanski (189th.)
Buffalo signed three players from that 2016 draft class--Alexander Nylander (8th,) Asplund and Cliff Pu (69th)--to their entry-level deals while Casey Fitzgerald (86th) and Brett Murray (99th) are still in college with Philip Nyberg (129th) continuing his development playing in Sweden.
Also signed to his entry-level deal was Luukkonen.
Botterill and company also qualified six restricted free agents: Justin Bailey (2013, 52nd,) Nicholas Baptiste (2013, 69th,) Sean Malone (2013, 159th,) Sam Reinhart (2014, 2nd,) C.J. Smith (2017, FA) and Danny O'Regan (2012, 138th, SJS) who came over from the San Jose Sharks in the Evander Kane deal.
The Sabres did not qualify a trio lead by last year's starting goaltender. Robin Lehner was arbitration-eligible and was allowed to walk and singed with the NY Islanders yesterday. Russian free agent Victor Antipin was not qualified and after searching for a home in the NHL, will head back to the KHL. Scott Wilson wasn't qualified either but the Sabres signed him to a two-year deal on July 1, the start of free agency.
Speaking of free agency, Botterill went to work filling a few holes in the organization when he signed UFA goalie Carter Hutton to a team friendly three-year deal. Hutton was a starter for the St. Louis Blues last season. They also landed another goalie to take the reigns in Rochester as Scott Wedgewood signed a one-year, two-way deal with Buffalo.
Defenseman Brandon Hickey was signed to his entry-level deal on July 1 as well. Hickey was drafted by the Calgary Flames in the 3rd round (64th) of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft and came to Buffalo in a trade with the Arizona Coyotes that saw Hudson Fasching head to the desert. The 6'2" 204 lb. puck-mover spent a full four years at Boston University which included playing with present Sabres Jack Eichel, Evan Rodrigues and O'Regan. During that time his rights were traded to Arizona as part of the Mike Smith deal.
The acquisition and signing of Hickey adds more depth to the prospect pool and a quality defenseman for the Rochester Americans.
Botterill did some wheelin' and dealin' in addition to the Fasching/Hickey deal as he continued to mold the Sabres to his liking. Between the draft and the start of free agency, Botterill hooked up with his former team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, to land LW Conor Sheary along with journeyman D, Matt Hunwick.
Sheary was traded for to help fill a gaping hole at left wing for the Sabres while Hunwick may end up in Rochester.
But those trades and moves (outside of drafting Dahlin) were small change compared to the blockbuster O'Reilly trade. Botterill moved O'Reilly, a player that just didn't seem to fit with where he wanted the team to go, to the St. Louis Blues for a lottery-protected first rounder, a second rounder, prospect Tage Thompson and veterans Patrick Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka.
The trade, which was consummated on July 1, firmly put Botterill's stamp on his club.