You can’t say the Sabres haven’t won anything. They enter this year’s Traverse City Prospect Tournament as the defending champions after their triumph in 2011.
Buffalo’s title defense was delayed after last season’s lockout and they may benefit from the delay as they are prepared to ice a scary talented roster for the 2013 tourney. Mikhail Grigorenko will lead Buffalo’s other top prospects including; Joel Armia, Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson, Rasmus Ristolainen, Nikita Zadorov and others in search of another tournament championship.
Sending stacked rosters isn’t necessarily something that only the Sabres participate in. Each team manages to send a combination of pro ready prospects, new draft picks and players who have seen pro ice time to the tourney. It just so happens that Buffalo makes sure to construct a roster of their best prospects.
In 2011 the top line of Luke Adam, Marcus Foligno and Zack Kassian bullied their way through the rest of the tournament and claimed the first championship the franchise has ever seen.* Considering that Armia, Girgensons, Grigorenko and Larsson are amongst those participating, I think the Sabres are betting on bringing back another championship.
In addition to Girgensons, Grigorenko and Larsson – all who played professionally last year – Buffalo has a pair of NHL defensemen (Chad Ruhwedel and Mark Pysyk) to skate along with another NHL-ready player in Ristolainen.
Traverse City Tournament provides in live action for an organization’s prospects prior to the start of preseason action. For those players who aren’t expected to see time in the preseason – mostly newly drafted junior players – it serves as a way for coaches and scouts to see their new players live.
Even though the tournament serves more as an evaluation tool, it is still a nice point of pride for the winning club. It almost serves as verification that one team owns a better prospect pool than the others in some ways. For Sabres fans, this should offer a nice barometer for seeing how Darcy Regier’s recent investments are developing.
One benefit from the tournament is putting brand new prospects in a team setting with some of the older members of the group. This not only allows players like Nick Baptiste to see how Pysyk carries himself, it gives Pysyk a leadership opportunity that would otherwise be missed in the regular season.
That type of locker room and off-ice growth is a valuable fringe benefit that goes along with the on-ice play each of the prospects get over the course of the tournament. Although it didn’t seem to do too much for guys like Adam or Kassian in 2011, perhaps the inclusion of an established talent like Pysyk indicates the Sabres are hoping for him to take the reins.
Like the Sabres, the other participating clubs don’t shy away from using their big guns. The Stars will have Jack Campbell, Radek Faksa and Valeri Nichushkin among others on their roster, proving that each team is indeed out to impress during the event.
Buffalo’s participants include a handful of very intriguing names who will be very interesting to watch. Seeing Johan Larsson in a Sabres jersey for the first time will be cool and having the chance to see him skate with someone like Girgensons will be particularly exciting.
Fans are likely hoping to see Armia and Grigorenko skate on a line together – Kris Baker from Sabres prospects points to Dan Catenacci as their linemate, which I fully endorse – and having the chance to see Ristolainen playing in North America is also encouraging. Obviously those five are the marquee names wearing blue and gold but they’re not the player’s I’m most interested in seeing during that weekend.
Catenacci is one of my favorite Sabres prospects and I’m very hopeful that the 2013-14 season serves as a major stepping stone for him moving forward. An NHL callup isn’t what I’m hoping for, so much as a great growth year that prepares him for a solid NHL career. Colin Jacobs found his footing as a shootout specialist in his Rochester debut and I’m hopeful that he can evolve his game now that the Sabres invested a contract in him. Logan Nelson could also push for a professional deal if he has a strong showing, and the Coon Rapids, MN native has an offensive side that would be great to see flourish.
In addition to Jacobs and Nelson, I’m waiting to see if Brady Austin grows into a late-round sleeper and I’m also hoping to see Justin Kea explore the physical side of his game.
A few of those names are boring, long-term prospects who don’t carry the pedigree of the big names who will likely grace Traverse City and First Niagara Center during this season. But they’re also prospects who appear to have solid value given their draft status.
Depth in the prospect pool is something each and every team at the Traverse City Tournament shares. I’ll be keeping my eye on the depth players while waiting to see if Buffalo’s big guns earn another title.