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by Jourdon LaBarber / Buffalo Sabres

Being a veteran in the Sabres’ system at the Prospects Challenge presented by Tops, Post Foods and Honey Bunches of Oats has its advantages – from being a presence for the younger players to being more comfortable on the ice during practices and in games.

But for players like Justin Kea and Brady Austin, both in their fourth years in the system, it also means sitting for Buffalo’s first game against New Jersey in order to provide coaches an opportunity to evaluate some of their newer prospects.

Needless to say, both players are itching to hit the First Niagara Center ice Monday night against Boston. In less than a week, they’ll be the young guys at Sabres training camp – and they’re looking for every advantage they can gain in the meantime.

“All the older guys, they’re not playing any games and it kind of gives us a little bit of an advantage,” Austin said after Monday’s morning skate. “And obviously there are a lot of new people that you want to impress.”

While Austin had hopes to play against the Devils, he’s embraced the role of mentor at the Prospects Challenge and, while he’s been working on his own skills – namely his foot speed – he’s enjoyed being a presence for those who are new to the organization.

“I’m just trying to help out the young guys where I can,” he said. “Being on time, just the little things even on the ice, but also just making sure everyone’s paying attention to what the coaches have to say. It’s good to be a presence around here.”

Against the Bruins, both Austin and Kea are taking veteran approaches into the game: work hard and keep it simple.

“I’m just gonna work hard and play my role,” Kea said. “I’m a fourth-line guy tonight. Just try to finish my checks, play the system and as long as I work hard and compete out there I think good things will happen for me.”

Kea has already established himself as a physical force and a strong fighter in past years; his goal now, he says, is to improve in other facets of the game while still maintaining that physical presence. He’s spent the summer working on his hands and his skating in addition to his strength.

His work hasn’t gone unnoticed by members of the Sabres coaching staff, including Amerks coach Randy Cunneyworth, who’s been leading the Buffalo prospects throughout the Prospects Challenge. In fact, the young forward reminds Cunneyworth of another former Sabre he once coached coming through the system.

“He reminds me of Paul Gaustad to some degree,” Cunneyworth said. “I think we know the way he’s built, and where he’ll fit in the best at the NHL level. We’re trying to groom him to be that guy and there’s no reason why he can’t be.

Paul Gaustad, I don’t think you looked at him back in the early days and could kind of envision him to have the success he’s had over his career in the NHL and I think that a good example for him to follow and emulate.”

(Photo Credit: Bill Wippert)

Former Sabre and current Amerks assistant coach Chris Taylor has been responsible for drawing up the Sabres’ power-play strategy during the Prospects Challenge. Against the Devils on Saturday night, his approach was successful – two of Buffalo’s six goals came with the man advantage.

Taylor’s approach has been to develop a shooting power play with the main objective being to get the puck to the net as much as possible.

Once it’s there, other opportunities – tip-ins and rebounds – will open up. But it all starts, he says, by shooting the puck. That philosophy played a part in his decision to include four forwards and only one defenseman on one of the team’s two power play units, a strategy he plans to employ again on Monday against Boston.

“Yeah, you can expect that again,” Taylor said Monday. “It’s nice having that fourth forward in there just because he’s got that attack mentality, getting by the net. Defensemen, they’re a little hesitant to get to the net as much.

“We really want guys to get to the front of the net, get to the sides of the net for those rebounds and score some dirty goals on the power play.”

Another strategy you can expect to see again on Monday night is the separation of top prospects Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart onto separate power play units.

During special teams work in Monday’s practice, Eichel led a group consisting of forwards Nicholas Baptiste and Evan Rodrigues and defensemen Jake McCabe and Brandon Guhle while Reinhart again joined other forwards in a unit consisting of Giorgio Estephan, Justin Bailey, William Carrier and defenseman Brycen Martin.

By separating Eichel and Reinhart, Taylor believes the Sabres are maximizing each of their talents to build the most complete power play possible.

“I think, for a power play to be really good, I think you need two good power plays. To have them both on there when they both want the puck is pretty tough, I think that if you switch them up for these two games it’s very good just because Jack can have the puck and Sam can have it too,” Taylor said.

“And that’s what we want, we want those guys to have the puck but we also want them to dictate where the puck goes. If Jack has it and Sam doesn’t touch the puck that much on a power play, then Sam’s not utilized very much so that’s why we’re trying to switch those guys up to have two good power plays.”

71 Evan Rodrigues – 41 Jack Eichel – 73 Nicholas Baptiste
48 William Carrier – 23 Sam Reinhart – 56 Justin Bailey
74 Vaclav Karabacek – 58 Giorgio Estephan – 72 Jean Dupuy
51 Jack Nevins – 75 Colin Jacobs – 42 Justin Kea

Defensemen: 29 Jake McCabe, 67 Brady Austin, 85 Josh Chapman, 62 David Henley, 45 Brendan Guhle, 54Brycen Martin, 78 Matt Prapavessis, 81 Spiro Goulakos, 53 Devante Stephens

60 C.J. Motte
1 Andrey Makarov
33 Keegan Asmundson

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