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Laaksonen enters camp confident following strong season in Finland

Defenseman won gold at World Juniors

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

Oskari Laaksonen was surprised by the amount of media awaiting him inside the Canisius dressing room at Harborcenter on Wednesday afternoon, but he was ready for it. 

The Finnish defenseman is a long way removed from when he stepped into that same room at his first development camp two years ago, not long after the Sabres selected him in the third round of the NHL Draft. He said that day he had been expecting to be selected between the fifth and seventh rounds, if at all. 

"It feels like yesterday when I came here," Laaksonen said following the first session of camp. "I was so nervous. Just stepping in this room brings back a lot of memories. I was just talking about it … When I first got here, I was so nervous with everything. Now, everything feels normal."

"Confidence" was the word of the day for Laaksonen. He's more confident at camp, having been a member of the organization for three years. His on-ice accomplishments have made him a more confident player, too. 

Laaksonen was unranked by NHL Central Scouting Services at the time of his draft in 2017. He won gold playing for Finland at World Juniors this past January, playing against many of those same players who were drafted and ranked ahead of him. 

"I've never won anything, so that was unbelievable," he said. "I was so proud to be a part of that team."

Video: Chris Taylor mic'd up at development camp

Of course, playing within your age group can seem less daunting once you've played pro hockey in one of Europe's top leagues. Laaksonen was a workhorse for his Liiga team last season, averaging a team-high 21:16 of ice time and tallying 24 points in the process. 

Laaksonen enters this year's camp listed at 6-foot-1, 165 pounds - two inches taller and 13 pounds heaver than he was two years ago. He attributed his success this season to that increase in size and his experience in Liiga. 

"Hitting the gym in the summer and getting stronger and bigger, that helps," he said. "Playing with the men, that helps a lot. It's a strong and fast game, so I think I took big steps on the physical side. That was probably the main thing."

Video: DEVELOPMENT CAMP: Laaksonen

Laaksonen will return to Liiga for at least one more season before making the jump to North America. His goal is to be "dominant" as he continues to add size and prepare for what awaits him next, be it the AHL or NHL.

In the meantime, he's focused on helping the newcomers at this year's camp - although he couldn't help but laugh at the idea of being a mentor.

"Not mentor, but just give them boost and give them a tap on the back," he said. "They're probably pretty nervous. I was nervous when I first got here. Give them a tap to the back. You know, 'You're all right, you're doing great.'"

Now, more notes from Day 1 of development camp. 

 

Ruotsalainen arrives

Video: DEVELOPMENT CAMP: Ruotsalainen

Laaksonen was teammates in Liiga with center Arttu Ruotsalainen, who signed an entry-level contract with the Sabres after scoring 21 goals and 42 points last season. He spoke highly of Ruotsalainen after the two skated together in the first session. 

"I think he's a great player," Laaksonen said. "I played with him all year on the PP. Good skater, really good shot, sees the ice well. Nowadays, modern center, you don't have to be that big anymore. I think he's a great player and I was lucky to play with him last year."

Ruotsalainen is listed as just 5-foot-8, but he said he compensates for his lack of size in other areas. He led Liiga forwards in ice time (21:05) and faceoffs (1,216) last season and was used on the power play and penalty kill in addition to playing on his team's first line.

"I have to be smart on the ice and faster with the puck and do the little things really faster and smarter than the other guys," he said.

He'll have a good teammate to lean on in Lawrence Pilut, his roommate for the week. Pilut made a similar jump last season when he signed as an undrafted free agent out of the SHL.

"I think the transition over is a little easier if you've played pro before, especially with the leagues over in Finland and Sweden right now," Pilut said. "They're getting better and better. You have all the advantage with you if you come over from a pro season."

 

Cozens' first day

Video: Development Camp Day 1 Recap (6/26/19)

The day marked Dylan Cozens' first on-ice appearance in a Sabres uniform. Although it had been some time since he skated - there is no ice available in the Yukon from May to July - he still managed to showcase the ability that made him worthy of the seventh overall selection in last week's draft.

"First impression? Unbelievable skater," Tage Thompson said. "He's got wheels and he's got a pretty good shot. … He's someone you definitely notice every time the puck's on his stick. I'm excited to continue to play with him and watch him."

Up next 

The first practice session on Thursday is set to run from 10:15 to 11:15 a.m. Session 2 begins at 11:45. Both practices at Harborcenter are free and open to the public.
 

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