We're still one week from the beginning of training camp for the Buffalo Sabres, but there is good news for those who can't even wait that long: the 2016 Prospects Challenge is a mere one day. Let the games begin.
Like the inaugural event last year, the Prospects Challenge will feature young players from the Sabres, Boston Bruins and New Jersey Devils organizations. Each team will hold a practice on Friday, with games to follow the next three nights. Tickets for the games can be purchased here for $10 each.
The storylines are plentiful at this year's event, many of which will carry into training camp and beyond. To make sure you're up to speed, we've broken them down with five reasons to get excited about the upcoming weekend.
Reason No. 1: The table will be set for training camp roster battles.
When Tim Murray was asked about his plan for free agency at the end of last season, he made it clear that he believed in the team's organizational depth on the offensive side. The Sabres ended up signing Kyle Okposo to add a proven name to their forward stock, but that shouldn't close the door on at least one of Buffalo's prospects – namely Justin Bailey or Hudson Fasching – from fighting for a chance to make the NHL roster out of camp this season.
Bailey looked like a man amongst boys at times during development camp over the summer, and both he and Fasching showed flashes of what makes them exciting prospects – the size and speed for Bailey and the power-forward skill for Fasching – during cups of coffee for the Sabres last season. They'll have a chance to build on those performances at camp, and you shouldn't be surprised to see both in blue and gold at some point in 2016-17 even if they don't make the initial roster.
But the competition isn't limited to just those two players. Defenseman Brendan Guhle is back in the mix after playing his way into the final roster conversation at last year's camp, and forward Evan Rodrigues clearly impressed Murray in two games for Buffalo after gradually improving during his first pro season in Rochester.
Then there's also Alexander Nylander, who is sure to drum up some excitement all on his own.
Reason No. 2: More Nylander.
For those who weren't in attendance to watch Nylander turn the Blue & Gold Scrimmage into a skills competition in July, the Prospects Challenge offers two more chances to see Buffalo's first-round pick up close and personal at HarborCenter.
Nylander's performance this fall is particularly important providing the wealth of options the Sabres have for him this season. Nylander was on loan from Sweden to his OHL team in Mississauga, meaning that – unlike most junior players – he's already eligible to play in the AHL.
Murray wouldn't rule out any of the potential options for Nylander, including the scenario where he becomes a first-year pro at age 18. He'll see a mix of young pros and junior players this weekend, which could provide some insight as to what we can expect to see over the following month.
Reason No. 3: Checking in with our goalies.
Much to the dismay of people who enjoy fun things, Linus Ullmark – the fist-pumping, Minion-loving, moon-walking goaltender who emerged to play 20 games as a rookie for the Sabres last season – was forced to miss this summer's development camp due to an illness. Jason Kasdorf was absent as well after signing a pro deal as a restricted free agent, meaning this year's Prospects Challenge will mark the first time we'll see either goalie since the end of last season.
With Anders Nilsson acquired from Edmonton this summer to presumably backup Robin Lehner, Ullmark and Kasdorf figure to begin the season as Rochester's goaltending tandem. It remains to be seen, however, which goalie sits at No. 3 on the organizational depth chart. They'll begin to answer that question at the Prospects Challenge and in training camp.
Reason No. 4: An Amerks Preview
Speaking of Rochester, this year's Sabres roster for the Prospects Challenge is loaded with players who could be spending the majority of their seasons playing for the Amerks. That group begins at the top with guys like Bailey, Rodrigues, William Carrier, Nicolas Baptiste, Jean Dupuy and Brady Austin, all of whom were regulars for Rochester last season. But beyond those players, you have first-year pros in Fasching, Vaclav Karabacek, Eric Cornel and Brycen Martin, as well as players signed to AHL deals like Daniel Muzito-Bagenda, Matthew Lane and Paul Geiger.
It should provide new Amerks head coach Dan Lambert, who will be behind the bench for the Prospects Challenge, a great opportunity to evaluate the talent he'll be working closely with throughout the year.
As we previously mentioned, some of these players are candidates to compete for spots on the Sabres roster out of camp while others will serve as call-ups throughout the season. But overall, the core of this year's Prospects Challenge team will also be instrumental to the Amerks' success in 2016-17.
Reason No. 5: The Opponents
As interesting as the Sabres prospects are, the matchups with future stars from the Bruins and Devils are equally intriguing. Jack Eichel was the big story for the Sabres at last year's event, while undrafted UMass product Frank Vatrano stole the show with three goals in two games for the Bruins. Vatrano continued to have success in the pros, as he went on to record 55 points (36+19) in 36 AHL games for Providence. Three months later, those two squared off in an NHL game.
While such immediate success is far from a guarantee for any prospect, it's safe to say at that the games this weekend will provide glimpses of future NHL matchups. The Devils are bringing their past three first-round picks in forwards John Quenneville (No. 30, 2014), Pavel Zacha (No. 6, 2015) and Michael McLeod (No. 12, 2016).
Since participating in last year's Prospects Challenge, Quenneville scored a career-high 73 points (31+42) for Brandon of the WHL while Zacha posted 64 points (28+36) for Sarnia of the OHL. Zacha also had three points in three games for Albany (1+2) and tallied two assists in his lone NHL game for New Jersey.
McLeod, meanwhile, picked up 61 points (21+40) as a teammate of Nylander's on Mississauga last season. That matchup is particularly interesting given their proximity in this year's draft – Nylander was taken four spots ahead of McLeod – and the possibility of them returning to the Steelheads as teammates this season.
Defenseman Charlie McAvoy, Boston's first-round selection in this year's draft, is returning for another collegiate season at Boston University and thus will be absent from the Prospects Challenge, but Boston does return two of of its first-round picks from 2015 in Jakub Zboril and Jake DeBrusk. Zboril, DeBrusk and Zachary Senyshyn were selected by the Bruins with consecutive picks in last year's draft, and the three provided one of the highlights of last year's Prospects Challenge when they connected for a goal against New Jersey.
Perhaps this weekend will be a sign of things to come as it was for Eichel and Vatrano a year ago. In any event, sit back and enjoy watching these young players put it on the line for three days at HarborCenter. Hockey is back, and it's only going to get better from here.