By John Giustino
The Buffalo Sabres fell to the PIttsburgh Penguins by a score of 5-3, unable to secure the status of champions for the 2017 Prospects Challenge. Goals by Brendan Guhle, Justin Bailey and C.J. Smith were not enough to overcome a strong Penguins team. While they did not win, there are positives to take away from the short round-robin tournament, which include players who were barely on any radar before playing these games.
Brendan Guhle has been one of the hottest names in the Sabres’ prospect pool. After playing in the Prospects Challenge, his stock in the organization only went up. Guhle displayed admirable skating and speed every game to close gaps, pester attackers and to facilitate Sabres rushes alike. Using his skills, skating and knowledge of the game, he had two multi-point games and finished with six points in the three games, and threatened for more against the Penguins, including a shot that rang off the crossbar late in the third period. In addition to great shot selection, his passing game is not to be ignored; the puck movement showcased led to a plethora of scoring chances as well. A candidate for the best Sabre of the tournament, Guhle has deserved looks from coaching and upper management.
Justin Bailey was also one of the more outstanding players there. His speed was mostly unmatched by opposing skaters and used his size to dominate along the wall and the middle of the ice. In addition to his size and speed, he displayed impressive puck control and movement against defenses a few times as well. Bailey has surely increased his worth within the Sabres organization and in front of general manager Jason Botterill and head coach Phil Housley. Bailey’s development track has been good, but this display was especially crucial when taking into account the new staff members evaluating the pool of players at hand. After two full seasons in the American Hockey League, he will have a chance to earn a roster spot on the Sabres now.
Hudson Fasching started slow, but picked up the pace and was dominant in the offensive zone and around the crease especially, creating high danger situations and converting rebound chances into goals and causing havoc for the Bruins and Penguins defenders specifically. Having been called up in the past with mixed results, this tournament was something Fasching used to put his development on display.
C.J. Smith was also a surprising player during the Prospects Challenge. His performances improved with every passing game, putting up multiple points. While still young and an NCAA player who may be a distance from making National Hockey League waves, there could be interest regarding him in training camp for either the Americans or Sabres.
Colin Blackwell and Cliff Pu were two more players who turned heads upon playing in these games. Pu showed improvement between the development camp scrimmages in July and these three games. There is still work to do and improvement to be seen for the young forward, but perhaps a few looks in training camp or a cup of coffee in the preseason could provide extra motivation to hone his skills. Blackwell was a training camp invitee who looked better and better as every match progressed. Displaying a sound two-way performance, management could be convinced to offer him a contract after a strong showing here.
While three games is a very small sample size, this gave looks to the new staff that will be charged with evaluating players and building a competitive team for the near future. The players who stood out undoubtedly gained the attention of Botterill, Housley and Taylor over the course of the weekend. Training camp and preseason hockey are around the corner, meaning that the young players who will be participating will have to step their games up against Sabres and National Hockey League veterans who are significantly bigger, stronger and more punishing competition. Some players may prove to be revelations and may yet earn their place as a Buffalo Sabre at least for some time during the 2017-2018 Season.