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Looking back on the 7 rookies who debuted for the Sabres in 2020-21

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

Dylan Cozens cracked the opening night lineup as 19-year-old and kicked off what became a year of debuts in Buffalo. 

Cozens was the first of seven Sabres who played their first NHL games in 2020-21, a list that would go on to include Jacob Bryson, Arttu Ruotsalainen, Mattias Samuelsson, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Michael Houser, and Brett Murray.

Here is a look at where each of the seven stand following their first NHL experiences. 

 

Dylan Cozens, C - Debuted on Jan. 14 vs. Washington

Season in review: Cozens had his first taste of the NHL during the 2019 preseason, experience that guided him through the following season in WHL Lethbridge and then through the elongated offseason. His newfound strength showed at the World Junior Championship in January, where Cozens captained Canada to a silver medal and scored a tournament-high eight goals. 

Cozens carried the momentum into his second NHL camp and earned his spot on the opening night roster. He was eased into the league on the wing and prioritized defense early but was challenged with top-line minutes at center late in the season, including one stretch that saw him tally seven points in eight games during April. 

Outlook: Cozens, who will be 20 when camp opens next season, said his offseason will be geared toward taking the next step offensively. 

"It's going to be a big summer for me," he said. "I have high expectations for myself. I want to come back next year way better and I'm going to work as hard as I can this summer to come back and be a difference maker and be a guy who can produce. I'm going to expect myself to be a guy who can produce next year."

Video: LOCKER CLEANOUT: Cozens

 

Jacob Bryson, D - Debuted on Feb. 23 at New Jersey

Season in review: The Sabres called on Bryson to step in at a time when Jake McCabe, William Borgen, and Rasmus Ristolainen were absent on the back end. He held onto his spot for remainder of the season, skating more than 20 minutes in 13 of his 38 games. 

Outlook: The Sabres ended their season with three left-shot defensemen under the age of 24 in the lineup: Bryson, Samuelsson, and Rasmus Dahlin. Bryson and Samuelsson both figure to come to training camp looking to solidify those spots in the fall.

 

Arttu Ruotsalainen, RW/C - Debuted on April 9 vs. Washington

Season in review: Ruotsalainen began the year dominating the Finnish Elite League before opening his first North American campaign in Rochester. He led the Amerks with 13 points in 13 games at the time of his recall to Buffalo. 

The offense translated to the next level. The 23-year-old found chemistry on a line with Dylan Cozens and Anders Bjork and ranked third on the Sabres with five goals in 17 games after making his debut. 

Outlook: Ruotsalainen is one of several young forwards who will begin next season looking to build upon career-best stretches to end 2020-21, a group that also includes Rasmus Asplund, Cozens, Casey Mittelstadt, and Tage Thompson. 

Interim coach Don Granato spoke highly of Ruotsalainen's offensive outlook.

"He has a knack for scoring, Granato said. "… Great goalies put themselves in spots where pucks can hit them. Great shooters make the goalie have to move and make the save. That's what Arty has a real good knack for. He makes the goalies make saves."

Video: 2020-21: Memorable Debuts

 

Mattias Samuelsson, D - Debuted on April 18 vs. Pittsburgh

Season in review: Samuelsson, a second-round pick by the Sabres in 2018, made good on his reputation during his rookie season with Rochester. He had been touted as a leader and a quick learner at each of his previous stops, captaining Team USA at multiple tournaments and wearing a letter as a sophomore during his final season at Western Michigan University. 

Rochester Americans coach Seth Appert said his coaching staff ranked players every day based on their habits at practice and Samuelsson always stood near the top. He earned a 12-game stint with the Sabres as a result, much of which was spent on a pair with Rasmus Ristolainen.

Outlook: Appert feels Samuelsson, who turned 21 in March, is knocking on the door of becoming a full-time NHL player. 

"He's got a big summer ahead and there's still more to prove," Appert said. "I think, in my opinion, he's very close to that. I have a high opinion of him and I have history with him, so I know what's inside that young man. But this summer's huge for him. He needs to make a statement in training camp that he has to be on the team. With the age he's at and all that, he needs to make that statement."

 

Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, G - Debuted on April 23 vs. Boston 

Season in review: Luukkonen took on starting duties in Rochester after spending his first pro season primarily with ECHL Cincinnati. He had an .888 save percentage in 14 games with the Amerks, though Appert felt a COVID pause in March interrupted what had been a strong start for the goaltender.

"I don't look at his numbers as an indication of a non-strong year here," Appert said. "I think that his year was trending really strongly before our COVID pause."

Luukkonen was recalled to Buffalo following injuries to Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark and made 36 saves to earn the victory in his debut against Boston. He posted a .906 save percentage in four games before sustaining a season-ending injury.

Outlook: Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams said Wednesday that Luukkonen is doing well following the injury and is close to returning home to Finland. He could compete for one of the two vacant goaltending spots in Buffalo next season or spend another year starting Rochester.

Video: 1-on-1: Kevyn Adams on picking 1st overall

 

Michael Houser, G - Debuted on May 3 vs. New York Islanders

Season in review: Few debuts are as memorable as Houser's, the culmination of a nine-year pro career spent entirely in the minor leagues. The 28-year-old had not played a game of any sort in 14 months when he was called upon to make his first NHL start for the Sabres. 

Houser beat the Islanders on back-to-back nights, including a 45-save shootout victory in the latter game, before starting two more games in front of family and friends in his hometown Pittsburgh. 

Outlook: Houser is set to become an unrestricted free agent this offseason. He had not played above the ECHL level since the 2017-18 season prior to his debut with Buffalo but may have positioned himself well with his play during the four-game stint.

"I guess all you can hope for is an opportunity again," he said. "I love the Buffalo organization and they're the team that's given me my chance, my first opportunity. Whatever happens this summer, I'm really grateful for that."

 

Brett Murray, LW - Debuted on May 6 at Pittsburgh

Season in review: Murray, a fourth-round pick in 2016, had his own unique path to the NHL. He showed up to training camp in 2019 without a contract but played well enough to earn an AHL deal. His rookie season in Rochester showed enough promise to warrant an NHL contract last offseason. 

Murray continued his progression during his second season with the Amerks, tallying 20 points (9+11) in 27 games. He was rewarded with a two-game showing with the Sabres to end the season, using the stage to show his willingness to battle down low and create havoc around opposing nets.

Outlook: The 6-foot-4 left wing will look to prove himself as a viable power forward for the Sabres, a role he has spent the past two seasons crafting with the Amerks. 

"[He] is starting to evolve from being a skilled forward that had size to being a power forward that plays mean and physical and is also skilled," Appert said. "It sounds similar but it's quite different. He made a massive transformation in his physical approach this year and that's not easy to do."

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