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Olofsson, Jokiharju among prospects seeking spots in Sabres lineup

Forward, defenseman each eye role in Buffalo after making debut last season

by Heather Engel / NHL.com Independent Correspondent

BUFFALO -- Victor Olofsson and Henri Jokiharju are leading a group of young players making strong first impressions with the Buffalo Sabres at the Prospect Challenge at Harborcenter.

Olofsson, a 24-year-old forward, leads the Sabres with four points (two goals, two assists) in two games. Jokiharju, a 20-year-old defenseman acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks on July 9, has two assists in one game.

Also standing out are forward Rasmus Asplund, who is second on the Sabres with three points (goal, two assists), and defenseman William Borgen, who has played with a punishing physical style.

 

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"Sometimes the young players, they hear you, but they don't listen to you. These guys heard us and listened to us. They put in a lot of work and that's showing not only in their test scores, but also in their on-ice and off-ice performance," assistant general manager Randy Sexton said.

"We talked to each of them a few days ago and said, 'You guys have made great progress. Use this tournament as a springboard to set yourself up for a chance to crack the lineup.'"

Jokiharju was selected in the first round (No. 29) of the 2017 NHL Draft by the Blackhawks. He played 38 games with Chicago last season and had 12 assists.

"This is the NHL so you can't just walk into it as a young guy. On every team there's lots of good players," he said. "It's hard to make the NHL."

Olofsson, picked No. 181 in the 2014 NHL Draft, led Rochester of the American Hockey League with 30 goals and 63 points last season. He also had two goals and two assists in six games with the Sabres and looked ready for full-time NHL duty, which would be welcome for a team in need of offense. 

"It helped me a lot to get those games last year heading into this year, but I feel like I've got to fight for my spot," Olofsson said. "There's tough competition and we're a lot of bodies here so I've just got to do my best."

Video: OTT@BUF: Olofsson rips one-timer past Daccord for PPG

The Sabres are deep at left wing, adding Jimmy Vesey and Marcus Johansson to a group that includes Jeff Skinner, Conor Sheary and Olofsson. On the right side, however, the team has a hole in its top six.

"We don't like to slot players because we think that limits what players are capable of achieving," Sexton said. "Rather what we say is, two years ago we finished 31st. Last year, we're a lottery team. Nobody should feel safe. So, you show us that you can play, and we'll put you in a spot to succeed."

On defense, the right side features Jokiharju, Rasmus Ristolainen, Brandon Montour and Colin Miller. There's also Zach Bogosian, who's recovering from offseason hip surgery.

"Same message for [the defense]. There's no locks or very few locks in our lineup. We have to get better, we're going to get better, we're focused on getting better," Sexton said. "And really, for the first time in our management regime's short time here, we have true competition everywhere. I know the veterans in Buffalo have recognized it. They've translated that to their preparation. I know the young kids in Rochester and others recognize it."

Asplund, selected No. 33 by the Sabres in the 2016 NHL Draft, had 41 points (10 goals, 31 assists) in 75 games with Rochester last season. The 21-year-old started slowly but came on in the second half, with 25 points (eight goals, 17 assists) in his final 29 games.

Sexton said he "worked his tail off" and made "great strides" over the past year.

"I just want to improve my game every day and get better every day. My goal is to play in the NHL, so I think it's been good for me," Asplund said. "I've been here for a week now and I've been on the ice with (Sabres center) Jack [Eichel] and all those NHL guys. It's been good for me to just feel the tempo and everything with how they play."

There's been an added emphasis on development since Jason Botterill became general manager on May 11, 2017, and the Sabres are hopeful they will reap the rewards and being an end to their eight-year Stanley Cup Playoff drought this season.

"Honest to goodness, there are no disappointments on the development side. None," Sexton said. "And the other thing, I think it's important to remember a couple things. No two players develop at exactly the same rate … So, we don't worry about day to day or even week to week; we just want to make sure that the trend is continuing up. Because we've been in this a long time, we know it's not a straight line to start."

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