For young players looking to make an impression at training camp with the Buffalo Sabres, the Prospects Challenge serves as a springboard. It's a chance to shake off the rust against top prospects from three organizations, an advantage their veteran counterparts won't have when camp opens next week.
Nobody knows the importance of this weekend better than Alex Nylander. Nylander arrived in Buffalo at this time last year bigger and stronger than he had been in the spring, his sights set on securing an NHL roster spot as a second-year pro. His development stood out during a practice with his fellow prospects.
Things changed quickly when it was announced that Nylander would miss the entirety of the Prospects Challenge with a lower-body injury. The severity of the injury snowballed, first forcing him to miss the entirety of training camp and then the first month and a half of his season in Rochester.
Needless to say, Nylander is grateful that he'll be in the lineup for the Sabres when they open the Prospects Challenge against the New Jersey Devils on Friday night.
"Last year was really unfortunate what happened," Nylander said. "I'm just very fortunate that I'm here now and I can show what kind of player I am in this camp and get ready for the season."
Nylander once again enters camp stronger than he was a year ago, listed at 6-foot-1, 196 pounds (he was listed at 192 pounds last fall). Rochester Americans general manager Randy Sexton said in June that this summer would be the most important of Nylander's career, and he's treated it as such.
"Yeah, of course," he said. "Every summer's huge for me. I try to get as better as possible every summer and I think this summer has been really good for me."
With two pro seasons under his belt, Nylander has also begun to take on more of a leadership role among his fellow prospects. It's something Chris Taylor first pointed out at development camp, where Nylander did not participate in on-ice activities, and again following practice on Thursday.
"He's the biggest guy, the maturity level, just passing the puck and how he skates," Taylor said. "I thought he did a great job today. He's leading, he's going to the front of the lines now. Before he'd go second, third, maybe last in the lines because he wasn't sure of himself.
"Now I think that maturity level, he wants to be here as well. He's another that wants to stick (in) the NHL. I really like how big and strong he's gotten in his maturity level."
Nylander said he's made it a point to be there for the younger players.
"This is going to be my third rookie camp so of course I feel like I've done it before and I'm trying to be a leader for the other guys like Dahlin and other guys who are young here," he said. "Just show everything on the ice and try to work as hard as possible."
Puck drop between the Sabres and Devils at Harborcenter is scheduled for 7 p.m. The game will be streamed live in-market on Sabres.com, with highlights and written coverage to follow.
41 Victor Olofsson - 37 Casey Mittelstadt - 72 Tage Thompson
92 Alex Nylander - 74 Rasmus Asplund - 52 Andrew Oglevie
73 Matej Pekar - 86 Kevin Hancock - 79 Cole Coskey
76 Pascal Aquin - 78 Myles Powell - 46 Eric Cornel
26 Rasmus Dahlin - 33 William Borgen
44 Brandon Hickey - 58 Oskari Laaksonen
24 Lawrence Pilut - 84 Nicholas Welsh
34 Jonas Johansson
1 Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen