Even in the wake of a 5-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the leadership on the Buffalo Sabres couldn't help but be pleased with what they had seen from their young players upon the conclusion of the Prospects Challenge on Monday night.
With new systems, new players and only one practice to prepare, Jason Botterill and Chris Taylor weren't expecting perfection from their players when it came to the details. The challenge they issued to the prospects was to win battles, show enthusiasm and compete hard.
"I'm very happy with the guys," Taylor said. "They committed to do what we asked them to do. They made an impression on everybody. It was the right step for the organization."
Video: POSTGAME: Taylor
Buffalo was outshot by Pittsburgh 50-26, but stayed in the game on the strength of their goaltender and the efficiency of their power play. Jonas Johansson made 44 saves, while all three Sabres goals came with the extra man.
The Sabres saw production come from their veteran core for the second straight game. All three of their goal scorers - Brendan Guhle, Justin Bailey and C. J. Smith - also scored in a win over Boston on Saturday, and Guhle added two assists for his second consecutive three-point effort.
Bailey said going into the tournament that he and the other players in his position - that is, players with NHL experience looking to crack the Buffalo roster out of training camp - would look to use the three games this weekend as a springboard to gain momentum heading into camp. Based on Botterill's comments on Monday, they managed to make strong impressions at the same time.
"I thought our leadership group here did an outstanding job this weekend," Botterill said. "I think this is sometimes a difficult tournament for players who've been through pro and played NHL games. Expectations are high, they try to do almost too much with the puck.
"But I thought you saw guys like Bailey, [Nicholas] Baptiste, [Hudson] Fasching play hard throughout the entire time. They really tried to implement what we were trying to do from a system standpoint."
While Botterill has preached the importance of development and success in Rochester since being hired as general manager, he also reiterated on Monday both his and Sabres coach Phil Housley's intention to provide young players with the opportunity to earn roster spots in camp. Bailey, Fasching, Baptiste and Smith all could be in that conversation among forwards.
Guhle, meanwhile, has made a tradition out of wowing at this time of year, and a strong camp might open the door to play for the Sabres sooner rather than later even in spite of the many additions that Botterill made to his defense. Guhle was dynamic throughout this weekend, quarterbacking a power play that scored eight goals and scoring in a multitude of ways.
Guhle's goal against the Penguins came on a shot from the blue line in the first period. He assisted on Bailey's and Smith's goals in the second, the former with a breakout pass and the latter with a perfect shot-pass to set Smith up for a wide-open one-time shot.
"You're always going to give young players opportunities," Botterill said. "We're ecstatic to have him in our organization. You look at just what he can bring to a game and the way the game is being played right now, the success of some teams - Chicago, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Nashville - speed is a huge attribute out there.
"The way Phil wants to play I think meshes really well with how Brendan plays. I think you see the shot, you see the speed that he can play with joining the rush, creating offense out of that. Young player, certainly a lot to work on, but that's what were excited about."
Video: INTERVIEW: BOTTERILL
Some of the lesser-known names were able to make strong impressions as well, including a handful of camp invites. Colin Blackwell scored twice in the opener against New Jersey, but earned positive reviews for all three of his performances. Jake McGrath had a solid outing in net, while Arvin Atwal's physicality was an asset.
Whether or not these players get invites to camp with the Sabres or Amerks, Botterill said at the very least they've improved their reputations moving forward.
"We'll make some decisions here this evening," he said. "I think it's always difficult to make that jump from, say, an invite right to the National Hockey League camp. But they've certainly presented themselves to where we want to try and keep them in the organization."
Bailey feels mentally stronger
Video: POSTGAME: BAILEY
Bailey's goal on Monday exemplified the physical tools he's displayed throughout his time as a prospect for the Sabres. The forward split two defenders as he burst over the blue line and toward the slot, from where he went five-hole with a quick wrist shot.
His goal on Saturday, while also an impressive feat of skill, may have had more to do with a newfound mentality. Bailey had been held off the scoresheet in the first game of the weekend and had missed on a breakaway earlier in the contest before scoring shorthanded against the Bruins.
In the past, he said, that first miss might have stuck with him. Bailey saw a sports psychologist during the offseason to overcome that mindset.
"In my head I kind of noticed that it was something that was a weak spot in my game," he said. "You look at some guys in the NHL, they might not be the most physically gifted, they might not be the most skilled guy on the ice, but they have that mental game pat down and that's how they play for so many years. I noticed that when I was up for those games in Buffalo, that I felt like I was in my head a lot, and just tried to clear my head and play to the best of my ability."
Sabres are optimistic on Nylander
Alexander Nylander missed the last two games of the Prospects Challenge with a lower-body injury, but Botterill said the team remains hopeful that he'll be ready when the on-ice portion of training camp opens on Friday.
"We'll reassess that throughout the week, but we're very hopeful," he said. "There's no need to push anything here in a prospects camp. Getting in you can tell that he's worked very hard in the offseason back in Sweden, we saw it at development camp … Hopefully it's a scenario where we take care of it now so it's not a nagging thing throughout the year. I can't tell you 100 percent that he'll be ready for main camp, but we're very optimistic."