D-camp Notebook

The Sabres concluded their annual development camp Friday with a scrimmage and fireworks and
music...quite an event. Below are some quick thoughts on a few players before officially welcoming the class of 2013 to town with a spot in the upcoming (and highly competitive) re-rank.

It's worth noting that Development Camp is just that - a chance for players to get a feel for the elevated pace of the pro game while getting familiar with the style that the Sabres brand will represent under Ron Rolston. It's not uncommon to watch players at their first camp adjust to the quicker decisions required when taking on guys who've already been to the dance. With that in mind, we need to be careful to not over-judge players based on practices and a single scrimmage.

If the Blue/Gold scrimmage was any indication, the Sabres future defensive core looks as sturdy as it's ever been. Camp vets Mark Pysyk and Jake McCabe continued to look the part of smart, mobile two-way defenders with bright futures ahead of them, but let's face it, all eyes were focused on 2013 first-rounders Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov.

When Ristolainen was selected, the immediate thought that popped into my head was "can't miss prospect". The Finn is simply a smooth operator on the sheet, making crisp passes and being very calculated when jumping into the play. Any advance deep into the zone was not wasted, with one instance sticking out of him chasing the play beneath the goal line while the forwards changed lines. Ristolainen applied some pressure with a hit on the forecheck before smartly retreating back for a line change. It's a little play, but it showed good awareness and mobility as the fresh legs set up, and no doubt gave the Sabres comfort in locking him up to his entry-level deal.

For Zadorov, his first development camp proved him to be as good as advertised. The big kid can move and he sees the ice very well, but the hallmark of his game is his physical play. Evidence of his game changing hits was displayed in the second period of Friday's scrimmage when he stepped in Brad Navin with a big hit that sent the Wisconsin Badger to the ice with his stick flying in the air. Coincidentally, the collision came at the same spot of the rink where Zadorov popped Tom Wilson in the OHL playoffs. Zadorov added two assists in the game to round his all-around camp performance. Rangy beast with two way upside? He's on the right track.

Up front, Zemgus Girgensons showed his competitiveness and toughness on the puck. The Latvian was the popular target of the post-game chatter, but we'll need to see him on the ice versus NHL talent in camp before determining where he best fits at the start of 2013-14. There is no doubt that his game is rapidly maturing, but I'm leaning towards getting him a few more spins through the cycle at the center position in Rochester before seeing what he can do to help the top club. The effort is already there and the confidence is emerging. Let's wait and see what fall brings.

At the opposite end of the spectrum was Mikhail Grigorenko, who already has his spot on the top roster locked up. Grigorenko's scrimmage was best described as average. Patience is a requirement as the Russian playmaker continues to navigate his way to NHL minutes. Expectations are rightfully high, but if you're not expecting highs and lows with these young players (he just turned 19), you're probably not being reasonable. I focused on his feet, which he is picking up more, and defensive zone play, which to me is still a work in progress. I thought Grigorenko put in a few good shifts despite Team Blue running away in the third.

Many of the new faces at forward provided a breath of fresh air with their energy and effort. Guys like J.T. Compher and Sean Malone showed zero quit in drills and game conditions. Nick Baptiste scored a pair of goals in the Blue/Gold game thanks in part to his footwork and skill along the walls (and work of Girgensons). Young gun Connor Hurley showed excellent promise as a worker who can fire the puck, while Gustav Possler (who started camp without his own gear) showed a knack for hitting the open spots on Friday while certainly learning how to absorb hits.

The best of the bunch, though, may have been local product Justin Bailey, whose combination of hands, speed, and size created some nice plays around the net. If Bailey's work and energy can be harnessed for every shift as his frame fills out, the Sabres could have found themselves a very valuable commodity. He and Compher will get another high-level experience in early August when they travel to Lake Placid for USA Hockey's National Junior Evaluation Camp.

It's going to be an interesting goaltending conversation when Amerks camp convenes. We can chat about Connor Knapp *maybe* having a leg up for the backup role behind Matt Hackett, or how Nathan Lieuwen showed improved body control over the three days of work, but front and center for me was the guy who won't be in Rochester any time soon -- Cal Petersen. Quick reflexes, aggressive challenging, nice rebound control, a sharp glove hand. The Notre Dame commit showed all the things you want to see in a young goaltender. Linus Ullmark and Andrey Makarov have nice foundations to build from, but you get the feeling that Petersen made the Sabres staff happy with the decision to snag him in the fifth round.
Other random notes:
  • I'll never apologize for being a fan of Dan Catenacci. He's explosive out of the blocks and his tenacity breeds versatility. A polished offensive catalyst, Catenacci showed continued growth with some wise decisions without the puck. Expect good things from him this season in the AHL.
  • I'm still not counting Matt MacKenzie out as a dark horse NHL prospect. MacKenzie can do a little bit of everything. He can play tough and smartly move the puck out of trouble. Keeping his mistakes to a minimum in the final year of his ELC should earn him a second contract as the Sabres usher in other promising studs around him.
  • How about that second period goal that Logan Nelson scored on Friday? The Victoria Royals forward took the puck off the right wing, dangled his way into the slot, and roofed a gorgeous backhand over Ullmark. I can see Nelson returning to the WHL this season, but either way that play showed his ability to be a factor when given a bit of room to work with.  
  • Save of the scrimmage? Cal Petersen came out to edge of his paint to snare point-blank opportunity from the slot in the second period. Petersen's leather beat out Nathan Lieuwen kicking out his left leg to direct a quick-moving tip in the opening period.
    • Justin Kea's projection as a hard-working 4C remains in tact. I don't need him to carry the puck as long he can chip it deep, pressure the D, and win some key draws (and a few scraps) along the way.
    • It was refreshing to see Brayden McNabb going hard following his March knee injury. Tim Schaller, signed out of Providence late in the year, did not take part in Friday's action presumably due to his continued recovery from shoulder surgery.
    • Jerome Gauthier-Leduc looks stronger and more comfortable entering year two of his ELC. Leduc will need to do what he does best and find his offensive range while balancing a simple defensive game in order to give Chadd Cassidy a well-rounded D corps.
    • No one is sure what year three of Jonathan Parker's contract will bring, but the kid sure can fire the puck. He's only scored 10 goals professionally but could find more mesh if he can consistently work his way into spots to use that quick release. 
    • Andrey Makarov's first look at higher-end shooters was met with mixed results. The Russian goalie has shown up in big situations in the past, so don't be surprised if he quickly adjusts with a strong showing in Rochester's camp come fall. As stated earlier, it's going to be an interesting battle.
    • Newly-minted Amerk Alex Lepkowski put his physical tools to work on Friday. He'll bring stay-at-home depth and sandpaper to the backend as he finds his way around the farm.
    • Scrimmage results: Blue defeated Gold 6-3. Blue scorers: Nelson (2), Baptiste (2), Varone, Girgensons. Gold Scorers: Catenacci, Compher, Lepkowski (PS).

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