Each fall, in 27 cities scattered around North America, NHL veterans and hopefuls gather to compete for roster spots in NHL training camps. There is always a feeling of optimism surrounding training camp, which is seen as a new beginning by fans of the respective teams. Every team is a Stanley Cup contender, at least until real bullets are fired in early October, and reality sets in.
In the case of the Buffalo Sabres, a team coming off a final four appearance, there will be precious few roster spots available to young prospects looking to make a good impression. The majority of the prospects will have to ply their trade in the minors, juniors or Europe with an eye toward next year’s training camp.
Still, it is worth recapping the progress of the Sabres prospects, and pointing out some of the strong (and weak) performances displayed thus far in the ’98 training camp. Rookie Camp
Prior to training camp proper, the Sabres first and second-year players took part in a rookie tournament in Kitchener, ON with rookies from the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes. The Sabres compiled a 1-2 record in the tourney, defeating the Maple Leafs 2-1, but losing to the Habs 2-1 and the Hurricanes 4-2.
Jeremy Adduono was the offensive star for the Sabres, netting 5 of the 8 goals scored by Buffalo. A line of Jaroslav Kristek, Andrew Peters and Edo Terglav also played well at times, particularly in the Montreal game. On defense, Cory Sarich, Alexi Tezikov and ’98 first pick Dimitri Kalinin impressed the coaches with their heady play. Kalinin, in particular, was especially impressive, displaying maturity not usually seen in an 18 year-old defenseman. Finally, the goaltending of Martin Biron was solid, which would hopefully mean that Martin is picking up where he left off last season.
The main battle in training camp has been for the 7th defensive slot vacated by Jay McKee. McKee appears to have settled comfortably into the 6th defensive slot held by the departed Bob Boughner, so the 7th spot is up for grabs amongst 3 or 4 defensemen. As for the forwards, no player has displayed the kind of offensive ability that the Sabres are seeking, but there have been a couple players whose physical play has caught the eye of the coaches and scouts.
Defense Defense is clearly the deepest position for the Sabres, at least in terms of NHL prospects. The Sabres have 6-7 bona fide defensive prospects in the system, which might open up some trade possibilities in the near future. The majority of these prospects will play in Rochester or junior hockey, but one or two might make the big club.
The competition for the 7th defensive has come down to Jason Holland, Rumun Ndur, and Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre, with Holland having a slight edge over the other two. Holland played a solid, if unspectacular, game against the Leafs on 9/20, while Ndur and Grand-Pierre were less-than-spectacular in that game. What type of player the Sabres would like to fill that slot will likely determine the winner of this battle. If they are looking for a steady player with finesse, then Holland will get the nod, but if the need is for a more physical player, then Ndur or Grand-Pierre will prevail. My feeling is that Jason Holland will be the 7th defenseman.
Sarich, Tezikov and possibly Kalinin will play in Rochester this season. Kalinin was one of the players sent to the Americans training camp, so he has clearly impressed the coaches with his play thus far. A more likely destination for Dimitri could ultimately be Moncton in the QMJHL. Sarich is a big hitter who sometimes misses on his attempted hits, thereby taking himself out of position. He’ll have to learn to play more in control, as does Tezikov, who has to concentrate more on his defensive play. Both these players should get a good bit of playing time in Rochester.
Luc Theoret is a player with some promise, but who also has been labeled as injury-prone and somewhat lazy. Still, someone thought enough of his ability to invite him to the Team Canada junior tryout camp, so it will be interesting to see if he makes the team. Regardless, Luc will play the majority of his season for the Lethbridge Hurricanes. Henrik Tallinder is a steady defenseman who is currently playing for AIK in Sweden. In 8 games he has picked up 2 assists, which is 2 more points than he had all of last season. Still, Henrik is valued more for being a player that will make few mistakes, and will make the safe breakout pass.
Forwards I get the feeling that the forward prospects have been a disappointment in training camp thus far. No forward has displayed above-average offensive ability, which is an area the Sabres need to improve if they are to become a true Stanley Cup contender. In watching a couple practices and two exhibition games, I can’t think of any forward prospect that has caught my eye, other than maybe Erik Rassmussen.
Erik has played physically in camp, which is something he must do to play in the NHL. As a high first round pick, however, he will also be expected to supply some offensive firepower, and that offensive ability has not been evident since his great performance in the ’96 WJC. Another player that showed a physical presence in camp was Denis Hamel, but his skating ability is still questionable. In the 9/20 game against Toronto, Denis had a couple good scoring chances, but wasn’t able to bury them. He also played in the 9/22 game vs. Ottawa, but was one of many players that turned in a lackluster performance. Hamel will play in Rochester again this year.
All junior-eligible forwards have been returned to their teams. Also, Maxim Afinogenov will be playing in Russia for Moscow Dynamo, and Ales Kotalik and Kamil Piros will play in the Czech Republic for Budojovice and Petrochem, respectively. Afinigenov and Piros are players that could play in the WJC this year, as are Tallinder and Mika Noronen.
Goal Martin Biron continues to show promise, and should benefit from being the #1 goalie in Rochester. He has played in 2 exhibition games so far, giving up 3 goals total in two periods of play. Of particular interest is the play of Mika Noronen, who has played very well in 4 games for Tappara in the Finnish league. He has compiled stats thus far of a .929 Save %, and a 1.99 GAA. Keep in mind that he is playing against older, more experienced players in the Finnish Elite league. Mika may very well be the heir apparent to Dominik Hasek, but regardless, the Sabres appear to be solid at this position for the future.
Scott Buhler and Fred Brathwaite are two young goalies that will compete for the backup spot in Rochester.
Notes The following players were sent to the Rochester Americans training camp- Jeremy Adduono (RW), Daniel Bienvenue (LW), Matt Davidson (RW), Torrey Diroberto (C), Mark Dutiaume (LW), Craig Fisher (C), Denis Hamel (LW), Mike Harder (C), Dimitri Kalinin (D), Shane Kenney (D), Francois Methot (C), Domenic Pittis (C), Dean Sylvester (LW), Alexi Tezikov (D), Darren Van Oene (LW), Stephon Walby (W), Mike Zanutto (C), Fred Brathwaite (G), and Scott Buhler (G). Some of these players may eventually be moved on to the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL. The players to watch are Adduono, Davidson, Hamel, Kalinin, Methot, Sylvester, Tezikov, and Van Oene. Dutiaume is intriguing in that he was a 2nd round pick who has been beset by injuries over the past couple seasons. Still, he has not shown much when given the opportunity, and is likely a longshot to ever play for the Sabres…The Sabres have, up to this point, had a very lackluster camp, and have lost 4 “official” exhibition games. Coach Lindy Ruff is said to have been particularly disappointed with the lack of emotion displayed by the younger players, so it is a pretty safe bet that, barring a trade, there will be few changes in the Sabres lineup from last season.
In addition to personal observations, as well as news from other hockey fans, I used the following stories as background material for my article:
“Renovated Amerks open training camp at new arena”, Kevin Oklobzija, Rochester D&C, 9/14/98
“Rookie camp gives Ruff good look at prospects”, Budd Bailey, Buffalo News, 9/13/98
“McKee gets the message: It’s time to toughen up”, Bucky Gleason, Buffalo News, 9/25/98