The Sabres’ time at yet another edition of the Prospects Challenge has come to a conclusion. They kicked off the event on Friday night with a 3-0 win over the New Jersey Devils and ended it with a 5-2 loss to the Boston Bruins on Saturday afternoon. All in all, it was a fun event that gave us a good look at some of the top prospects in the game. So let’s do a quick dive into some of the takeaways I have from Saturday’s match:
The Arrival of JJ Peterka
Is it crazy to call JJ Peterka the best forward in the Sabres prospect pool? I don’t think so, especially not after the player he has transformed into over the past 18 months. He looked especially confident on the power play during Saturday’s game, acting as a “rover” who would rotate between the point, half-wall, and behind-the-net. Peterka flashed some of his playmaking abilities on the man advantage, finding teammates with pinpoint passes.
He also had a nice bit of a sandpaper to his game, a useful type of sandpaper. Shoulder checks and speed to beat opponents to pucks. Standing up for teammates after the whistle. He even got to show off his shot as he found space in the slot to score off a nice feed from Arttu Ruotsalainen:
It’s hard to believe that Peterka is still only 19 years old with the way he plays the game. I do not think it is that crazy to expect him to see a few games with the big club this season. He’s shown some nice NHL-caliber traits already and it will be interesting to see how much further he can grow his game. I think he could be a very solid complimentary top six forward someday.
Brett “Big Boy” Murray
Brett Murray had a fantastic 1st game of the Prospects Challenge and followed it up with another great performance on Saturday. He’s a giant forward out there at 6’5″ and 228 pounds. Murray pretty much transformed the Sabres’ power play strategy into “get a shot on net and just let him get a rebound or deflection” because he was just too big to be stopped in the crease. Boston was just straight up leaving him wide open at times.
Most of his dominance during this tournament may have stemmed from simply being a 23 year-old, huge forward in a tournament that is typically won by older players. However, Murray showed some flashes of skill and displayed some pretty nice hockey IQ outside of a few mishaps. I think there could be a depth NHL player here. Maybe not a 10-year NHL career type of player, but a player who can be called up and play effective hockey when needed. His feet are not the greatest and he may struggle to keep up with play, but he could fill in as a big-bodied 4th liner.
Murray’s path to get to this spot is also pretty amazing. Drafted out of the CCHL by the Sabres in 2016 and played some games in the USHL before heading to Penn State in 2017. Spent a season and a half with Penn State before transferring to Miami. He played another USHL season before he transferred, leading the league in goals as a 20 year old. His transfer to Miami fell through and he was no longer eligible for junior hockey, so the Rochester Americans gave him a contract in 2019-20. Murray impressed enough to be given an ELC, saw 2 games with the Sabres, and here he is today. Pretty remarkable.
The Kids Are Alright
The majority of the Sabres 2021 draft selections did not participate in this tournament, but we still got our first look at Josh Bloom, Oliver Nadeau, Viljami Marjala, and Tyson Kozak. Friday’s game did not see much creativity out of the youngsters as they were simply trying to keep up with the pace of play and win puck battles. Saturday’s game saw a bit more creativity out of the group. Marjala pulled off a nice move to get through a defenseman for a near scoring chance.
Then, Josh Bloom went on to have about four great chances of his own, but was unfortunately unable to capitalize on any of them. Below is the sequence that saw Bloom (#62) get a ton of looks against a disheveled Bruins defense:
Yesterday gave us a glimpse of Nadeau’s eagerness to play inside, Bloom’s pace, and Marjala’s offensive mind. As a whole, their games may have been a bit imperfect (neutral zone turnovers, puck battle losses, etc.), but these events are always dominated by older prospects. Give these guys some time and watch them develop in the CHL. They will certainly be fun to track over the next few seasons.