Sabres development camp takeaways: Thoughts on Konsta Helenius, Brodie Ziemer and more

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres’ annual development camp didn’t have the same sizzle as it has in past years. This summer, the focus in Buffalo has been on the NHL roster. General manager Kevyn Adams said the team is in a “win now” window, so fans have been more fixated on the free agent and trade market than they are on the draft and prospects. That was evident at the end of the three-on-three tournament on Thursday as Adams addressed roughly 1,200 fans at Harborcenter. One fan screamed out, “Make a trade, Kevyn!”

That sums up the state of the fan base 13 years into a playoff drought. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t some notable nuggets from the few days at development camp. Here is what we learned about some of Buffalo’s prospects this week.

Why weren’t the top players there?: The most notable thing about Sabres’ development camp this summer was the absence of the organization’s best prospects. Matt Savoie, Jiri Kulich, Isak Rosen, Anton Wahlberg, Noah Ostlund, Vsevolod Komarov, Aleksandr Kisakov, Viljami Marjala and Sean Keohane all weren’t at the development camp. Keohane is dealing with an injury. For the rest of the players, Adams said the Sabres decided it would be best not to interrupt their summer training. Savoie and Komarov both played in the Memorial Cup, so they’re coming off long seasons. Savoie bounced all around North America playing in three different leagues, so he deserves a breather. Kulich, Rosen and Kisakov played in Rochester, but the Amerks were eliminated early in the playoffs. Wahlberg and Ostlund ended up coming over at the end of the AHL season after spending the season in Sweden.

Not including players like Zach Benson and Devon Levi, who will factor into the NHL roster plans next season, makes sense. But it seems like a missed opportunity to not have a week in person with some of the best prospects in your system. It’s a chance to check in on their summer training and have them be the ones leading the other prospects through drills and raising the level of play on the ice. Matt Poitras, who got significant NHL time for the Bruins last season, is at Bruins development camp. Two years ago, Jack Quinn, JJ Peterka, Mattias Samuelsson and Owen Power were all at development camp before their rookie seasons in the NHL. I’m not sure why the approach has changed, particularly when the prospects and their development are such a vital component of Buffalo’s roster-building strategy under Adams. The hope is those players will show up healthy and refreshed for training camp in the fall.

Konsta Helenius looks the part: The lack of top prospects at camp made Konsta Helenius stand out even more. The No. 14 overall pick in the 2024 NHL Draft showed off a mature game and some noticeable strength compared to other players on the ice. His team skated to a win in the three-on-three tournament in part because of his ability to fill the net. If the Sabres bring him to training camp, that will be a better gauge of how close he is to the NHL. But it’s clear his game is more pro ready than a lot of prospects because of his hockey sense and competitiveness. He wins puck battles and causes turnovers all over the ice. Everyone in the organization that has talked about him calls him a “natural center,” and it’s easy to see why when you watch him play.

Stiven Sardarian flashes potential: Helenius and 2021 third-round pick Stiven Sardarian had some noticeable chemistry on the ice. Sardarian had two goals in the championship game of the tournament. He’s gotten noticeably bigger over the last couple of seasons. He’s currently searching for a new college to play at next season in what will be a critical year as the Sabres figure out whether he factors into their organizational plans.

Brodie Ziemer gets off to a good start: When the Sabres drafted Brodie Ziemer, the first quality that stood out was that he captained Team USA at the under-18 tournament. His leadership and hard-nosed, direct playing style give him a high floor as a prospect. But he also has some offensive ability to his game. Throughout the week, Ziemer’s shot was one of the best on the ice. That translated to goals in the three-on-three tournament. More than just the power of his shot, Ziemer showed a quick release to get quality looks from different angles and body positions. He’s one to watch as he heads off to the University of Minnesota this season.

“What a competitive player and what a shot,” said Sabres development coach Adam Mair. “The detail in his game, he’s quick, just very likable from my first impression.”

Jake Richard continues to intrigue: For the third summer in a row, Jake Richard caught my eye at development camp. His shot has always been his best attribute and that continues to be the case. But the way he’s added size and taken steps as a skater has made him a more well-rounded player. He’s confident with the puck on his stick and as willing to set up a teammate as he is to use his excellent shot. He had 18 points as a freshman at UConn last year and did a lot of good work around the net.

“His skating has taken a step, too,” Amerks coach Michael Leone said. “You see the puck skills and the deception. He’s really good around the net. I think he’s taken a big step.”

Viktor Neuchev’s improved work ethic: Considering how many top prospects weren’t at this camp, Viktor Neuchev’s attendance was notable. The Russian spent the season in Rochester like some of the other top prospects who were absent, so it was a nice sign to see him there. Clearly his work ethic and competitiveness are two areas the organization has emphasized with him and they’ve liked the way he responded.

“The growth in him is how he went from I don’t want to say a spoiled little rat who didn’t want to work to a guy who was competing his nuts off in a practice and away from the ice, in the gym, in the shooting area,” Amerks assistant Vinny Prospal said. “He made tremendous strides throughout the season and it showed in his play and his ice time. He looks great out there. You can clearly see he’s above some of the players on the ice right now and I fully expect him to play a larger role with us in his second season.”

Neuchev had 11 goals and 17 assists as a 20-year-old rookie in the AHL this season. That’s an encouraging start for the 2023 second-round pick. And if those work habits carry over into next season, he could take another jump.

Updates on the defensemen in the system: Defensemen aren’t the easiest to evaluate at development camp because there isn’t much live hitting that happens and the tournament is three-on-three. Rookie camp will be a better gauge. But recent second-rounders Adam Kleber (Minnesota Duluth) and Maxim Strbak (Michigan State), who will both play in college this season, certainly look the part in terms of skating ability. That playmaking can stand out in the three-on-three setting. Kleber is the bigger of the two at 6-foot-6 and over 200 pounds and that should help him translate quickly to college hockey this season. To have two right-shot defensemen like that in the pipeline is a nice bet to make.

Novikov and Komarov were among the players who weren’t in attendance, but Amerks assistant coach Nathan Paetsch was raving about both. Paetsch worked with Komarov when he was on the player development staff and raved about his character, the way he absorbs coaching and how he’s adjusted to North America. He’s excited to get him in Rochester, where the Amerks already have another Russian in Novikov, who is fresh off a strong debut season. Paetsch’s favorite trait of Novikov’s is his competitiveness. He’s still growing into his frame, too.

“He just has this swagger that things get done when he’s on the ice, and he wants to win,” Paetsch said.

Will Kulich have a shot at the roster?: One of the biggest organizational winners in free agency was Jiri Kulich, because the Sabres did not add a ton of competition at center. Management has optimism about Peyton Krebs, but there’s a chance for Kulich to come in and steal a roster spot if he has a strong summer. Prospal doesn’t think more time in the AHL would hurt Kulich, but he also seemed excited to see how the 2022 first-rounder would show up to camp.

“He has to learn how to be more consistent,” Prospal said. “He’s a great kid and a great player at that level. But he needs to remain and be consistent. He needs to tear up the league a little bit down there and show that he’s an NHL hockey player. He has great skating ability. He has a great shot. There can not be dips in his play. Kulich made tremendous strides in his two-way game. When he was not scoring he was doing all the things on the D-side. That’s a credit to him. He can also improve the faceoffs and maybe become a penalty killer and stuff like that and be a more well-rounded player. He’s definitely on the right path. Is he an NHL player right now? I don’t know. Maybe he will come in here and tear it apart and he will grab a spot. I don’t know.”

(Photo of Konsta Helenius: Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

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