20231222 Prospect Pipeline Web

The Buffalo Sabres will be well represented at the 2024 IIHF World Junior Championship, which annually pits the top under-20 players in the world against one another beginning on Boxing Day.

This year’s tournament will be held in Gothenburg, Sweden from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5. The Sabres have seven prospects slated to participate: forward Matt Savoie and goaltender Scott Ratzlaff for Canada, defenseman Norwin Panocha for Germany, forwards Noah Ostlund and Anton Wahlberg for Sweden, defenseman Maxim Strbak for Slovakia, and forward Jiri Kulich for Czechia.

Sabres director of player development Adam Mair offered insight into each of the seven players’ seasons so far and what they can gain from the World Juniors experience.

Matt Savoie, F – Canada

Savoie (first round, 2022) has had a wealth of experience in the past year alone. He made his AHL debut during Rochester’s postseason run last season, then parlayed that experience into a productive summer.

An injury in the Prospects Challenge forced Savoie to miss training camp with the Sabres, but he was still able to play a two-week conditioning assignment with Rochester and make his NHL debut with Buffalo before returning to his junior team with Wenatchee of the Western Hockey League.

Mair acknowledged that Savoie – like any young player – would have loved to stick around in the NHL, but the 19-year-old has channeled what he’s learned in a productive way since returning to junior hockey. He has 24 points (11+11) in just 11 games, a WHL-best average of 2.18 points per game.

“What we’ve talked about is just continuing to play with pace and continuing to dig for the speed of pro practices, the mentality off the ice of taking care of his body and getting extra lifts in, all sort of the pro approach," Mair said. "I think he’s focused on doing that at that level.

“I’ve challenged him with trying to keep his skating and his play-fast attitude at a really high level. He’s done that so far and it’s been great.”

For all Savoie’s experience, playing World Juniors represents a new opportunity. It will be his first time representing Canada on a national stage at the U-18 or U-20 levels. He’s spent pre-tournament games on a line with Boston second-round pick Matthew Poitras and Arizona first-round pick Conor Geekie, the latter of whom is his linemate in Wenatchee.

“He’s a competitive kid,” Mair said. “He’s very excited to go and represent his country. His parents are heading over. I just think it’s a great opportunity for him against some of the top players in his age group to see how he stacks up but just to also represent his country, be a key piece on that Team Canada.”

Scott Ratzlaff, G – Canada

Ratzlaff (fifth round, 2023) went 25-8-0 with a .918 save percentage while sharing the net for WHL Seattle last season, positioning himself to return this year as the full-time starter.

Ratzlaff has indeed taken on that role – he’s played 20 of Seattle’s 29 games – but had an up-and-down start to the season, posting eight wins with an .889 save percentage. His steady approach, Mair said, allowed him to capitalize and make the most of his opportunity at Canada’s evaluation camp.

“He’s done a really good job working with our staff, trying to find any edge that he can – working with our mental skills coach, working with our dietitian, our strength and conditioning liaison for our prospects,” Mair said.

“… He played really well in the camp and earned a spot on the team. For an 18-year-old to go out there and do that says a lot.”

Ratzlaff, 18, is the youngest of Canada’s three goalies. He has a chance to either earn the net as an underaged player or, should he back up, use the experience as a springboard for the rest of his junior season and an opportunity to start for Canada in 2024.

Jiri Kulich, F – Czechia

Kulich (first round, 2022) is playing in his third World Junior Championship. His silver-medal run with Czechia last year – when he scored seven goals and nine points in nine games – proved to be a pivotal moment in what would end as one of the most prolific scoring seasons by an 18-year-old player in AHL history.

Kulich had six goals with Rochester last season before leaving for World Juniors. He returned and scored 18 goals during the final three months, and has only improved upon that production as a sophomore. Despite a short stint with the Sabres, he leads the AHL with 16 goals in 23 games.

The opportunity for Kulich this time around will be to take that pro success and have it translate amongst his peers while embracing the expectations of a leadership role on and off the ice.

“Jiri, this was something he wanted to do and felt compelled to do and obviously something that we supported,” Mair said. “It’s a great opportunity for him again to go to a tournament and really thrive in what I would call a leadership role. He’s going to be looked at to generate, to create, to lead that team. He’s capable of doing that.”

Norwin Panocha, LHD – Germany

Panocha (seventh round, 2023) made quite a splash for a seventh-round pick at Sabres camp thanks in part to an infectious personality that translated to his play in practice. He was rewarded with a preseason game before returning to Chicoutimi of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

The interim has been an adjustment as the defenseman has navigated his first North American season while acclimating to a step up in competition from junior hockey in Germany. He has 11 assists in 30 games, a testament to his offensive instincts, and is working to grow on the defensive end.

“He’s a skater, he’s good with the puck, he understands how to get up ice and break pucks out,” Mair said. “Something that they’re looking for a little bit with him (in Chicoutimi) is just bringing a little bit more bite to his game and increasing his reliability on the back end. … He’s adjusting well.”

Maxim Strbak, RHD – Slovakia

Strbak (second round, 2023) is playing in his third World Junior Championship and is expected to shoulder an all-situations, top-pair role on the back end for Slovakia. Mair expects the role to serve as a preview of what the 6-foot-2 defenseman – currently a freshman at Michigan State – will take on as he advances through his NCAA career.

“Getting on the power play; playing big, heavy minutes; playing all situations,” Mair said. “This is a chance for him to get with his age cohort and really do the things that he’s capable of and will do eventually at Michigan State.

“He’s a big, strong kid. He’s competitive. He can really shoot the puck. So, I think physically you’re going to see a player that is dominant at times against other teams just from a strength standpoint, and that’s exciting to have a robust defender who can also contribute from the blue line.”

Anton Wahlberg, F – Sweden

Wahlberg (second round, 2023) not only cracked Sweden’s roster as an 18-year-old, he has spent pre-tournament play on the team’s top line alongside Ostlund and Vancouver first-round pick Jonathan Lekkerimaki.

Mair, through offseason conversations with Sweden’s coaching staff, credits the opportunity to Wahlberg’s maturity (he’s already playing full-time in the Swedish Hockey League) as well as his unique package of size and skill at 6-foot-3.

“I think they feel that with his qualities and his size and his ability to get around the net, he brings a dimension to the team that they don’t have a lot of,” Mair said. “He’s also able to move around the lineup a lot.

“Their plan is to start him in that top-six role, but he’s also a player who will thrive if he were down the lineup in a role where he needs to be more physical, hang onto pucks in the offensive zone to change momentum.”

Mair pointed to one of Ostlund’s pre-tournament goals in which Wahlberg’s presence in front prevented the opposing goalie from tracking a rebound.

“I think they probably see a really good balance of a playmaking center in Noah, a shooter in Jonathan Lekkerimaki, and then with Anton a player who can get pucks back and create havoc,” Mair said.

Noah Ostlund, F – Sweden

Ostlund (first round, 2022), after spending last season playing professionally in Sweden’s second-tier Allsvenskan league, changed organizations during the offseason for a chance to continue his development in the SHL. He has seven points (4+3) in 17 games with Vaxjo, but an injury sidelined him up until pre-tournament play with Sweden.

He – like his fellow 2022 first-round picks Savoie and Kulich – is expected to be a leader and a play driver for his team.

“Something that for me is not talked a lot about is just how competitive he is and how hard he works and how much he cares about the defensive side of the game and how reliable he is there,” Mair said. “So, he’s a player that’s really trustworthy that coaches like because you can rely on him on both ends of the ice, but he also has a sense and a skill when he has the puck on his stick to create offense.”