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by Brian Duff / Buffalo Sabres
(Photo Credit: Bill Wippert)

The reasons why Sam Reinhart was drafted second overall in 2014 were so much more apparent during the 2015 Prospects Challenge than one year ago in Traverse City.

Yes, his team collectively was much more in tune around him. But the areas of his game that the team needed to see him improve – and that he dedicated himself to improving, were clear for all to see.

More strength, which allowed him to win more battles, along with a quicker pace, which had him in better position to win said battles. And those improvements then help bring to life the natural gifts of hockey sense, skill, etc.

An example of how Sam can influence the Sabres from a puck possession standpoint: nearing the midway point of the third period, and with his line in the middle of a change, Reinhart heads towards the center red line for what 8.5 times out of ten would be a dump and change. Instead, he circles back towards his blueline, passes to Jake McCabe, who now has other fresh forwards to feed, and the breakout begins successfully while Reinhart completes the change.

Simple yet beautiful.

Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel on the ice together didn’t happen until period two of game two at this event, but it was worth the wait. A near miss of what looked like a tap in for Reinhart off the feed from Eichel could have had the game tied at the end of the second.

Their chemistry was obvious the rest of the way and the pair combined for 13 of the team’s 38 shots on goal against Boston.

Given that when projecting the Sabres opening night roster, many people can’t see both rookies playing center to start, it was terrific to see how adaptable they were to whatever situations they were put in, including 3-on-3 in the final minute of overtime against Boston.

Eichel alone, it’s obvious to see, is so much more than just the points.

So many times he would defy the situation – outmanned, seemingly off balance, and yet more often than not, able to make not only a play, but incredibly positive ones.

And he literally did so from his first minute of this tournament to his last.

That’s not to say there weren’t moments of failure along the way. That happens to everyone. But just because it didn’t work once or twice, he didn’t shy away from his instincts, which ended up leading to assists like the one he had on the Brycen Martin game-tying goal Monday night.

The beauty of his game versus Boston was that he was targeted physically more so than in game one against the Devils, and his response was excellent, as was that of his teammates.

And if there were possession numbers to be had from these games, I would guarantee that with Eichel on the ice, the Sabres were in a place statistically that we haven’t seen them in for years.

Nick Baptiste, Evan Rodrigues, Justin Bailey and Jean Dupuy sure looked like a foursome that is ready to turn pro.

For Baptiste, improved speed helping what he said was his “200-foot game” and of course his excellent shot.

Rodrigues has a lot to offer from a skill and tenacity standpoint. He’s dangerous and determined in all areas of the ice.

Bailey started with a bang offensively against New Jersey, and then, like many, took a while to get going in the second game of the showcase. But I liked some little things as he adjusted to new linemates.

And in one instance, just the right hesitation coming out of his own zone, where he didn’t jam it into trouble along the boards, but rather slowed up, looked to his left, and fed Jake McCabe, who had an easy exit from the middle of the zone.

Jean Dupuy continues to ride the wave from his final season in junior. I can honestly say I didn’t know what to expect from the 6-foot-2, 207-pounder. But he looks bigger than he’s listed and may catch more than a few goalies off guard with his shot.

All in all, a much better effort from the group – albeit in a smaller sample size – than what we saw from the Traverse City tournament one year ago.

But the key word in that statement may well be group. The camaraderie was evident from the start and the wins only enhanced that environment.

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