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Camp Preview: Which players might make the jump to the NHL?

Jokiharju, Olofsson, Smith among candidates at training camp

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

Jason Botterill has made it clear that there will be opportunities for young players to earn NHL roster spots in training camp, regardless of the veteran depth in front of them.

"I think you just have to look at our track record," Botterill told The Instigators last month. "It's not just words that we're saying, 'Oh there's jobs available.' We'll do whatever it takes if our young guys step up."

There is no shortage of candidates. Here are seven players who can make the jump to the NHL with strong performances in training camp.

Camp Storylines: What's next for the top line? | Where will new additions fit? |  Previewing the Prospects Challenge

 

Rasmus Asplund, C  

Video: Americans Made: Rasmus Asplund

Asplund (second round, 2016) saw growth during his first North American campaign in Rochester, and the proof was in the production. He tallied 18 points in his first 53 games as he adapted to a new league and a new ice surface, then tallied a team-best 23 points over his final 22 games in the regular season.

We've already seen Asplund stand out among his peers, be it at development camps or past Prospects Challenges. The slick-passing centerman - still just 21 years old - will have his sights set on taking the next step in 2019-20.

 

William Borgen, D

Video: Americans Made: Will Borgen

Borgen (fourth round, 2015) made the jump from collegiate to pro hockey last season and impressed during a 14-point, 71-game campaign in Rochester. He was rewarded with a four-game stint in Buffalo to end the season, where he averaged 16:33 of ice time and posted a 54.33 shot attempt percentage.

The right side of Buffalo's defense corps is crowded, with Colin Miller and Henri Jokiharju joining a group that already included Rasmus Ristolainen, Zach Bogosian, and Brandon Montour. Borgen can throw himself in that mix by continuing to bring a steady, puck-moving presence in exhibition play.

 

Dylan Cozens, C

Even before he was drafted by the Sabres, Cozens (first round, 2019) has had his sights set on the possibility of playing in the NHL as an 18-year-old.

"I believe I do have a shot at making the team," he told NHL.com last month. "Obviously not too many 18-year-olds make it, but I feel I have the size, I have the skating, I have the strength to be a guy who can step in at a young age.

"Obviously, I want to play when I'm ready and if they think I need another year to develop then I'll be happy with that, I'll be happy to go back to Lethbridge (Western Hockey League) and play there. But my goal now is to make the (NHL) roster."

How rare is it? In the past five years, only four players drafted outside the top five have gone on to play more than nine NHL games that season: Matthew Tkachuk (sixth overall; 76 GP), Jakob Chychrun (16th overall; 68 GP), Daniel Sprong (46th overall; 18 GP), and David Pastrnak (25th overall; 46 GP).   

Far more often - even in the cases of stars like Mitch Marner and Mikko Rantanen - it takes another year of development before a player cracks the NHL full-time. Botterill has maintained that fact throughout the offseason while also leaving the door open on Cozens' chances.

"You always want your players to come in and have that belief [that they can make the team]," Botterill said at the draft. "We're certainly going to give him an opportunity. But the realistic factor, and I've been on the record saying it, is I think there's probably one or two, maybe three players who will step in and play in the National Hockey League this upcoming year.

"Probably the best thing for any player is to go back to junior and have that other year of development. But we'll see how the summer goes. As we've talked about before, Dylan is a very good athlete. He has great size and a great frame. But he does certainly need to get stronger."

 

Henri Jokiharju

Jokiharju comes to Buffalo with 38 games of NHL experience already under his belt, having split last season between the Chicago Blackhawks and their AHL affiliate in Rockford. He tallied 12 assists during his time in the NHL and led the Blackhawks with a 54.10 shot attempt percentage.

Like Borgen, Jokiharju will have to force his way up a depth chart that includes fellow right shots in Ristolainen, Montour, Bogosian, and Miller. But Botterill lauded the 20-year-old's experience at the time of the trade, and Jokiharju has made his goal clear.

"I hope that I can play a whole season next year in Buffalo," he said in July. "Just put in lots of work right now during the summer so that I show up in good shape and just be ready to show everyone - coaching staff, players - that I'm ready to play in the NHL all year long."

 

Victor Olofsson

The Sabres stayed patient with Olofsson (seventh round, 2014), allowing him to spend the majority of his first North American season in the AHL even as he paced Rochester in goals (30) and points (63). His deadly shot had always been apparent, but the time spent with the Amerks allowed him to develop his 200-foot game as he adjusted to a new ice surface.

It paid off. Olofsson joined the Sabres for a six-game stint alongside Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart to end the season and fit in seamlessly, tallying four points (2+2) in six games. The trio of Olofsson, Eichel, and Reinhart posted a 59.48 shot attempt percentage (91-62) in 82:34 at five-on-five, according to NaturalStatTrick.

Video: BUF@NYI: Olofsson goes top shelf for first NHL goal

That success has Olofsson in the driver's seat to claim a roster spot with a strong camp. He already caught Krueger's eye with a standout performance at development camp in July.

"Of course, Victor is somebody who is on the radar, he had an excellent season in Rochester last year and he also is impressing me with the way he's committed when he doesn't have the puck," Krueger said.

"He works hard in both directions with equal speed and a scoring player who's young like that has to first of all be able to play without the puck to be able to break into this roster. He's definitely an exciting player for the future."  

 

Arttu Ruotsalainen

Ruotsalainen, 21, signed with the Sabres in May after leading his Liiga team with 21 goals and 42 points in 59 games last season. The 5-foot-8, 179-pound centerman led Finland's top league in average ice time (21:05) and faceoffs (1,216).

"He was almost one of the best centers in the whole league," Karri Kivi, his coach in Finland, said. "We didn't know in August how he was going to play. We put him on the first line and he was excellent there. He played a lot. He was first power play, first penalty kill, first line, everything."

Like Asplund and Olofsson a year ago, Ruotsalainen will be tasked with adjusting to the North American before ascending to the NHL. If he doesn't join the Sabres right away, he has the option to go to Rochester or return to Finland.

 

C.J. Smith

Smith, 24, signed a two-year contract in July after tallying a career-high 28 goals and 58 points for the Amerks last season. He also appeared in 11 games with the Sabres, tallying his first two NHL goals in the process.

Video: NJD@BUF: Smith beats Kinkaid for first NHL goal

With two pro seasons under his belt, Smith has been mentioned by Botterill along with Olofsson and Tage Thompson as candidates to not only make the team on the wing, but potentially play up in the lineup and benefit from skating alongside Eichel.

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