It may not be enough of a platform on its own to earn a player an NHL roster spot, but coaches for the Buffalo Sabres have made it clear to the young players who were on hand for practice on Thursday that this weekend's Prospects Challenge puts them in an advantageous position.
Particularly for the veterans at camp looking to challenge for a spot in Buffalo this month, the three games they'll be playing against the top prospects from the Boston Bruins, New Jersey Devils and Pittsburgh Penguins can serve as a launching pad into the main training camp.
"The biggest thing I think about this tournament is these guys get a head start on everybody else," Rochester Americans coach Chris Taylor said. "You're going into camp playing three games, one practice, you've got some structure going, you're getting into a routine.
"The other guys, they're scrimmaging but it's not the same. So I think these guys got a head start and they have to realize they've got a head start and take advantage of it."
Video: TAYLOR: After Practice
After meeting with the players on Wednesday and practicing on Thursday, Taylor already developed the sense that his players were excited to get into game action, especially with first impressions to be made on new management and a brand new coaching staff.
Falling in line with what Jason Botterill has said the organization will be looking for in its players - character and work ethic will be valued as much as skill - Taylor said their focus this weekend will be seeing how the prospects compete on the ice.
"Their compete is what we're looking for," he said. "Are they willing to go in front of the net to take the goalie's eyes away? Are they willing to box out in front of the net? Are they willing to get pucks off the walls? How hard are they going to battle? This is a tournament that they're lucky to be a part of … They should be very excited. They should be ready to battle."
Justin Bailey and Nicholas Baptiste are two players who will relish that opportunity, both having seen extended stints in the NHL last season as they enter their fifth camp. With their experience comes high expectations to dominate this sort of tournament, both internal and external.
"That's the plan," Bailey said. "I think that's one thing I have to do. My goal is to play in the National Hockey League and there's not many times when you have the chance to play with guys who are around the same age as you if not younger.
"You want to really show yourself every single shift as a dominant player, and that's not just scoring goals. For me, I think its asserting myself in the corner, being stronger than guys and strong enough to play with the extra weight that I put on this summer."
Video: BAILEY: After Practice
The Sabres will open their Prospects Challenge schedule against New Jersey on Friday at 7 p.m. The Devils roster includes this year's No. 1 overall pick, Nico Hischier, and reigning Hobey Baker Award winner Will Butcher. Tickets for the game are still available and can be found here.
Now, some other notes and takeaways from practice on Thursday.
Nylander has grown in size and in confidence
Video: NYLANDER: After Practice
Taylor raved about Alexander Nylander's day at practice, praising both his work ethic in 5-on-5 battles and the confidence he's showed over the past two days.
"He just looks a little bit more mature, he looks bigger," Taylor said. "Everything about him, he looks confident in what he's doing and how he's handling himself. Just talking to him, I said to him, 'Just be ready.' He goes, 'I'm ready' … He really wants to make an impression on everybody and he really wants to be a Buffalo Sabre."
Bailey, who played with Nylander for the majority of last season in Rochester, said he's seen the young forward come in and try to assume more of a leadership position among the prospects, while also noting his growth physically.
Nylander, whose offseason goal was to add strength, agreed on both accounts.
"Of course I have more experience now, coming in from the OHL last year and now I have one year pro," he said. "I feel a lot better and more experienced and I know what I need to do to get to the next level … I just feel very prepared for the season."
Lines on Thursday
Nylander, who typically plays on the left wing, centered a line with Bailey and Baptiste. Taylor didn't say for sure whether we'd see him as a centerman in game action, although he did play one game at center in last year's Prospects Challenge.
While the lines did switch around a bit, here are some of the combinations we saw:
56 Justin Bailey - 92 Alexander Nylander - 13 Nicholas Baptiste
49 C.J. Smith - 83 Vasily Glotov - 24 Hudson Fasching
62 Brandon Hagel - 59 Cliff Pu - 46 Eric Cornel
83 Vasily Glotov - 65 Colin Blackwell - 64 Vaclav Karabacek
85 Daniel Muzito-Bagenda - 70 Justin Danforth - 81 Alex Kile
45 Brendan Guhle - 54 Brycen Martin
58 Austin Osmanski - 72 Anthony Florentino
53 Devante Stephens - 76 Arvin Atwal
79 Vojtech Budik - 73 Carl Neill
Malone unlikely to play this weekend
Sean Malone did not practice, and while Taylor did not entirely rule him out, he did say it was unlikely that we'd see him play in any of these three games. Taylor did not say if it was an injury that caused Malone's absence.
Malone appeared in one game for the Sabres at the tail end of last season after completing his collegiate career at Harvard with a 42-points campaign (18+24).
Goalies to split games
Jonas Johansson, who is entering his first pro season with the organization, will get the nod in net on Friday while camp invite Jake McGrath will start on Saturday. After those two games, Taylor said, the team will decide who gets the start in the finale against Pittsburgh on Monday.