Lowdown: Smith’s rise has been as remarkable as his height. The forward was draft eligible last year, but teams passed him over after he missed half of the season with sliced tendons in his hand. NHL Central Scouting had him just 140th in its midterm rankings, but he skyrocketed more than 100 spots in the final evaluations.
A sudden nose for the net, featuring the ability to get close to it, lifted Smith’s stock. Though he totaled just 16 goals this season – low for top prospects – he had only one in his first 45 games over two seasons. The winger had an excellent playoff showing, too, recording eight assists and 11 points in 12 games.
As his size would suggest, Smith is quick to stick up for teammates. Like many fast-growing kids, he lacks coordination. He’ll need to improve his speed and agility to make it to the NHL. He was a baseball prospect but gave up the sport to concentrate on hockey.
He said it: “I have more to give. The coordination started to come along. I started to become a man as I played with men. I think just getting my weight up and being able to skate and compete at the level that OHL guys compete at is what has helped me the most." – Smith, to Yahoo.ca.
The Buffalo News is profiling 30 prospects in 30 days leading up to the NHL draft, which begins June 27.
MISSISSAUGA, Ont. -- Aaron Ekblad tried to keep things simple when talking to reporters Saturday at the NHL Scouting Combine. The Barrie Colts defenseman is the top-rated blueliner in the draft and considered a building block on the back end. He says he's 100 percent ready to play in the NHL but just focused on trying to make a team.
"I watched some NHL games this year and realized this is a hard league to get into," Ekblad said. "The NHL Draft is just a foot in the door. It means nothing until you prove you're ready to do it."
Forget that. Ekblad is going to be a 20-minute a game defenseman next year and there's a good chance he'll be the first defenseman taken No. 1 overall since St. Louis took Erik Johnson in 2006
Ekblad is a physical specimen, listed at 6-3 1/2 and 216 pounds. He pushed his heart rate over 200 during the VO2 max test in the International Centre as scores of scouts and media watched from a few feet away. That was impressive. So is the 18-year-old's demeanor. It's like talking to a 32-year-old who has played 12 years in the NHL. Eklbad interviewed with 16 teams here this week and the Sabres, of course, were one of them.
Ekblad said he hasn't closely studied rosters of the top teams in the draft. I asked if it would be better for him to come to a team like Buffalo that already has a cachet of young defensemen rather than a club like Edmonton or Florida that has huge holes on its blueline and would rely on him to be its top young prospect. Here's his answer:
"I look at it as I want to make a team. It doesn't matter who's there. It's going to be tough to beat out a guy that's fighting for their lives. This guy could have kids and a wife. That's how you have to look at it. These guys are going to fight for their careers and their well-being. Everyone has been doing this their whole life, not just myself.
"Expectations are other people's thoughts, not mine. I simply hold high standards for myself, high goals. If I reach those goals, I'm still not happy or satisfied with what I do."
Ekblad earned Exceptional Status into the OHL as a 15-year-old and posted career bests this season in goals (23), assists (30), points (53) and penalty minutes (91). But with the Sabres so desperate for offense, what do they do if Ekblad is available? Remember, GM Tim Murray told me point-blank during the season's wrapup news conference the team will take the best player available regardless of position and said by name he was referring to Ekblad if the label applies. Hmmm.
Be sure to check out my thoughts on the Sabres' Ekblad Dilemma in Sunday's editions of The News.
MISSISSAUGUA, Ont. -- Sam Bennett, the top-ranked draft prospect according to NHL Central Scouting, had meeting after meeting with team scouts and general managers this week. More often than not, they asked if he was ready to jump into the NHL.
His answer never wavered.
"I do feel like I’ll be ready come training camp," Bennett said today at the NHL Scouting Combine. "I’m going to work really hard in the gym this summer and on the ice to be ready for the NHL this year. I was asked by a whole bunch of teams if I thought I was ready, and my answer every time was I think I’m ready to play next year."
The 17-year-old center has the size and talent to at least make a strong case. He had 36 goals and 91 points in 57 games with Kingston of the Ontario Hockey League. At 6-foot and 178 pounds, he could probably handle the physical challenges.
He could not, however, handle a new fitness test at the Combine. The league add pull-ups this year, and Bennett's total was ... zero.
"No, I wasn’t able to do that," he said with a pained laugh. "My upper body really isn’t my strong suit, but that’s something I’ll be working on in the gym this year.
"I was definitely disappointed with myself. I always want to do the best I can in every test, but I guess ultimately games aren’t won or lost if you can do a pullup in the gym. I guess I’m not too, too worried about it."
MISSISSAUGUA, Ont. -- The screams of "faster, keep it going, you've got to go!" are echoing through the International Centre today as the fitness portion of the NHL Scouting Combine is underway. As usual, the two bike tests are taking the biggest toll.
Dylan Larkin, the 17th-ranked prospect according to NHL Central Scouting, nearly collapsed off his bike this morning while taking part in the VO2 max. Players’ noses are blocked and a long plastic tube that measures oxygen intake is sealed over their mouths. Workers adjust the wheel tension, and the rider must maintain their RPM in a ride that can last 14 minutes.
Larkin was tended to by a half-dozen personnel before finally putting his head down on the handlbars for a few moments. He slowly walked off on his own minutes later.
"I’ve never been through anything like that," he said, still winded.
The Wingate bike test features players pedaling as fast as possible for 30 seconds with workers shouting encouragement. It can measure skating explosiveness, though it nearly made top-ranked European skater Kasperi Kapanen lose his mind.
"You’ve got that guy screaming at you and you just want to smack him at the same time," said the son of longtime NHLer Sami Kapanen. "It’s hard. The second one you just kind of get exhausted. You get really lightheaded, and I think I puked a little after that, so it’s not fun."
Lowdown: Two-way centers are in high demand thanks to coaches who think defense first. McCann could be special because of that. He eagerly and legitimately plays a 200-foot game, the kind that helps players reach the NHL.
McCann is one of the quicker skaters in the draft, and his ability to change speeds is impressive. His passing skills are elite. Despite suffering a concussion during his first junior season, he’s not afraid to chase the puck into the corners or go to the tough areas. He strengthened his neck in hopes of avoiding future head injuries.
While he is dependable in his own end, McCann can be inconsistent on the score sheet. He can let the slumps go to his head and creates routines to try to snap out of them, like jumping into a cold tub before games. He is a solid penalty killer who regularly faces the opposition’s top line.
They said it: “Jared is a highly skilled and creative playmaker. He has excellent hands and puckhandling ability. He sees the ice very well and can get the puck through traffic with great saucer passes. He is not a guy who will always bring you out of your seat but is dangerous every shift.” – Chris Edwards of NHL Central Scouting to NHL.com.
The Buffalo News is profiling 30 prospects in 30 days leading up to the NHL draft, which begins June 27.
The Sabres have spent the week getting to know how the draft hopefuls talk and interact. Buffalo will find out how Saturday much the prospects’ bodies can take.
The NHL Scouting Combine will wrap up in Toronto with the much anticipated and highly dreaded fitness test. Onlookers will cringe and photographers will zoom in as the teenage prospects lift weights, sprint and ride bikes to the point of exhaustion.
The NHL invited 119 players to this year’s Combine, including top-pick possibilities Sam Bennett, Aaron Ekblad, Sam Reinhart and Leon Draisaitl. The prospects will compete against the clock and each other to show who is physically prepared for the rigors of NHL life.
The league’s general managers and scouting heads have been in Toronto all week conducting personal interviews with the players. It was one more chance for the kids to impress the people who have been watching them on the ice this season.
“What I look for in an interview is the maturity level and how far along they are in that area," Sabres Assistant General Manager Kevin Devine told NHL.com. "That usually determines how far away they are from playing in the NHL. But I don't think the interviews are going to jump anyone five or six draft spots, either. They could jump a spot or two if guys are professionals in the interviews, but there won't be any big jump at the top, especially with the top five in this draft class."
The Sabres are set to select second overall when the draft begins June 27 in Philadelphia. Florida holds the first pick after winning the draft lottery, but Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon is shopping the No. 1 choice in hopes of landing a defenseman or two already playing in the NHL.
It should be noted the Sabres’ best depth organizationally is at defense.
The New York Rangers are heading back to the Stanley Cup final. Henrik Lundqvist is going for the first time.
Lundqvist filled one of the few holes on his resume Thursday night, making 18 saves to lift the Rangers to a 1-0 victory and 4-2 series win over Montreal. Former Sabres forward Dominic Moore scored the only goal late in the second period.
"It makes it even more special when you have four lines stepping up in different times and just doing it together," Lundqvist said. "That's what it's all about. Everybody feels like they're playing a big part. I think that's a big thing when you're playing in the playoffs and you go through ups and downs, to make sure everybody feels like they're bringing something to the table here.
"That's been the case, and that's why we're playing in the final."
Lundqvist made the play of the game with five minutes left in the second, when the game was still scoreless, by robbing Thomas Vanek.
"It's one of those kind of things that stand out from the game and stand out from the series," Moore said.
The Rangers will play for the Cup against either Los Angeles or Chicago. The Kings have a 3-2 series lead with Game Six tonight in L.A.
2014 STANLEY CUP FINAL SCHEDULE
Game One Rangers at Blackhawks/Kings Wednesday Game Two Rangers at Blackhawks/Kings Saturday, June 7 Game Three Blackhawks/Kings at Rangers Monday, June 9 Game Four Blackhawks/Kings at Rangers Wednesday, June 11 *Game Five Rangers at Blackhawks/Kings Friday, June 13 *Game Six Blackhawks/Kings at Rangers Monday, June 16 *Game Seven Rangers at Blackhawks/Kings Wednesday, June 18 * if necessary
The Rangers can reach that "one more hill to climb, baby" again tonight with a win over Montreal in Game Six at Madison Square Garden. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist got pulled in the Blueshirts' 7-4 loss in Game Five but former backup and longtime ex-Sabre Martin Biron says Lundqvist has already put Game Five away.
The Canadiens, of course, are desperate to force Game Seven Saturday night in Bell Centre. But they would play that one without beloved anthem singer Ginette Reno, who has a concert at the same time and will be singing "O, Canada!" by video.
---If Chicago makes the final, it will open as the home team. ---If the Rangers make the final, they will open as the road team. ---If the final pits Montreal and Los Angeles, the Canadiens will be the home team (both clubs went 46-28-8 in the regular season but Montreal had more regulation/overtime wins, 40-38). The Habs had home ice in 1993 when they beat the Wayne Gretzky-led Kings in five games to win their most recent championship.
The Sabres have brought another 2012 draft pick into the organization, signing seventh-round selection Brady Austin to a three-year, entry-level deal. The 6-foot-3, 234-pound defenseman played for Erie, Belleville and London in the Ontario Hockey League.
Austin set career highs with nine goals, 24 assists and 33 points in 67 games this season. His plus-51 rating was sixth in the OHL. Contract terms were not disclosed.
The Sabres have until June 1 to sign their 2012 picks who played junior hockey. Fifth-round pick Logan Nelson is the only one who remains.
Lowdown: Just a freshman, Demko has already put himself alongside Jimmy Howard, the Detroit and U.S. Olympic goalie. Demko recorded a goals-against average of 1.35 versus Hockey East competition this season, the lowest total since Howard’s record of 1.15 in 2003-04.
The California native helped the Eagles advance to the Frozen Four, his second major tournament of the year. Demko was also a member of the U.S. world junior team but didn’t see any action. He spent one season with the U.S. national development program and picked up 15 of the under-18 team’s 22 victories.
Demko’s size and strength set him apart. He reads plays well and has the frame to overcome positional mistakes. His rebound control could use work. Only two goalies have been taken in the first round during the last three drafts.
They said it: “He was so far ahead of the underage players last year that if he was draft-eligible in 2013 he would have probably been drafted high. He's a huge, strong goalie with excellent net coverage. He has that NHL presence in the net.” – Al Jensen, NHL Central Scouting to NHL.com.
Lowdown: The Quenneville name is recognizable to fans, and John is second cousin to Chicago coach Joel Quenneville. While the connection draws initial looks, it was John Quenneville’s rapid improvement that turned him into a potential first-round pick.
Quenneville had eight goals and 19 points during 47 games last season, but the Western Hockey League sophomore tripled those numbers this year with 25 goals, 33 assists and 58 points in 61 outings. The Wheat Kings relied on him in the playoffs, too, as Quenneville led the team with five goals and 13 points in nine games.
The power-play specialist is strong with the puck, but he needs to work on his speed. He is not afraid to mix it up, finishing second on Brandon with 71 penalty minutes, including five fighting majors.
They said it: “He has the pro makeup and is a hard worker. He makes good plays very quickly and is good at moving the puck. I'd like to see more consistency from him, but I like the way he finds open spaces and his ability to make any kind of pass.” – David Gregory, NHL Central Scouting to NHL.com.
The Buffalo News is profiling 30 prospects in 30 days leading up to the NHL draft June 27.
Buffalo acquired Hackett from Minnesota at the 2013 trade deadline in the deal that sent Jason Pominville to the Wild. Hackett struggled in Rochester this season, going 13-17-2 with an .898 save percentage and 3.07 goals-against average. He came to Buffalo after injuries decimated the organization's goalie depth and went 1-6-1 with a .908 save percentage and 3.10 goals-against average.
HarborCenter, designed to be a magnet for hockey tournaments and tourists, is already doing its job despite being months away from completion.
The Buffalo Sabres’ two-rink complex will host a pair of world championships in 2015, USA Hockey announced today. The women’s under-18 world championship will be held Jan. 4-12, and the sled hockey world championship will follow April 24 to May 2. Both tournaments will feature eight teams from around the globe.
“We’re going to christen our first year of operations at HarborCenter with not one but two world championships,” John Koelmel, president of HarborCenter, said during a news conference in First Niagara Center. “We’re creating a unique destination for the game of hockey. To shine the world’s spotlight on Buffalo and Western New York twice in four months in such a high-impact fashion is what we’re all about.”
Koelmel said the organization has not yet conducted economic impact studies, but he expects the influx of money into the area to be “meaningful.”
“You’re looking at three-plus weeks of activity, 16 teams in total – players, coaches, entourage, their fans,” Koelmel said. “We’re excited about the impact it’s going to provide.”
The women’s tournament, conducted by the International Ice Hockey Federation, will be contested for the eighth time. The annual tournament was held this year in Budapest, Hungary. The United States, Canada, Czech Republic, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Japan and Switzerland will compete for gold.
“We had nine players on our Olympic roster this time around who have played in the under-18 world championships, so it makes a big impact,” said Reagan Carey, USA Hockey’s director of women’s hockey. “It gives exposure not only to our U.S. athletes, but internationally it grows the game significantly.”
The sled hockey tournament, run by the International Paralympic Committee, will also be held for the eighth time. It’s coming to Buffalo and the United States because the original host country recently withdrew.
“Given what we expected would be a warm reception from the Sabres and the HarborCenter and this city, and the fact that we were coming off the exhilaration of a second consecutive Paralympic Games gold medal, we said, ‘Let’s do it in America,’” said Dave Ogrean, executive director of USA Hockey. “It’s fun being back in Buffalo with greater and greater frequency, and the reason we do that is because of the faith and trust we have with the people involved with the Buffalo Sabres and the HarborCenter. This is a great, great hockey market.”
Western New York natives Adam Page and Paul Schaus earned gold medals this year at the Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia. The other nations competing at the worlds will be Canada, Russia, Czech Republic, Norway, Italy, Germany and Japan. USA Hockey will hold a tryout camp in July in Northtown Center at Amherst.
“We’re overwhelmed with the number of people that want to try this sport now,” said U.S. coach Jeff Sauer. “It’s just blossomed into an amazing selling point for us in terms of the disabled community and getting an opportunity to play.”
The dual announcement strengthened the bond between the Sabres and USA Hockey. The sides came together in 2011 with the world junior championship, and Buffalo will host the All-American Prospects Game during the next two years. USA Hockey will begin accepting bids for the 2018 world juniors early next year.
“We’re champing at the bit to have conversations about that,” Sabres President Ted Black said.
The U.S. entourage took a tour of HarborCenter prior to the news conference. The group was impressed by the construction progress at the facility, including the arched wooden ceiling that is being built over the feature rink. HarborCenter is expected to open in October.
“Buffalo is a world-class city, and we thank USA Hockey for bringing two world championships to HaborCenter and the city of Buffalo,” Mayor Byron W. Brown said. “When these world championships are in our community, we will certainly roll out that legendary Buffalo and Western New York hospitality to the athletes, their families, their fans and the many who will be in Buffalo from all across the world.”
The Sabres want HarborCenter to be home to as many tournaments as it can host, and at least one will be announced this morning.
USA Hockey will hold an 11 a.m. news conference in First Niagara Center, and the organization will unveil Buffalo as the host city for the 2015 women's under-18 world championship, according to a source. Budapest, Hungary, hosted this year's event in March.
The international sledge hockey federation has announced that it, too, will be part of the news conference. Its role has yet to be determined. The organization is soliciting bids for its 2015 "B Pool" world championships, so it's possible the "A Pool" will come to Buffalo.
The Sabres ended the season hoping they'd have three first-round draft picks in June. As of now they'll have only one.
The New York Islanders announced this afternoon that they will keep the No. 5 overall selection and instead give Buffalo their first-round pick in 2015 as part of the Thomas Vanek trade. The Isles had until June 1 to decide which option to choose.
Buffalo, which finished last overall this season, will select second after losing the draft lottery to Florida. General Manager Tim Murray said after the season he would proceed as if the Sabres were getting the Islanders' pick, but the dream of two top-five selections is gone.
The Sabres, who remain in the early stages of rebuilding, possess three first-round picks in 2015 -- their own and those belonging to New York and St. Louis.
The Sabres also had a chance to earn St. Louis' first-round pick this year as part of the Ryan Miller trade. However, none of the three conditions that would send the Blues' top selection to Buffalo -- an appearance in the Western Conference final, the re-signing of Miller or a trade of the goaltender -- came to fruition.
However, the 2015 draft features two franchise-changing talents in Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. If the Islanders, who have a history of futility, finish near the bottom again and end up giving Buffalo a top-two selection, the decision to keep the 2014 pick would look foolish.
Miroslav Satan, who said this would be his final season, stayed true to his word and retired today following Slovakia's exit at the world championship. The 39-year-old leaves as a legend in his country and a regular on the Sabres' all-time scoring lists.
Satan, who played in Buffalo from 1997 to 2004, was a four-time Olympian. He served as Slovakia's captain at the world championship and departs as his country's all-time leader scorer in the tournament with 37 goals and 75 points.
He found the net regularly in Buffalo, too. He was the Sabres' top point-producer in four of his seasons, including a 40-goal outing in 1998-99 and a 75-point season in 2002-03.
Satan arrived in Buffalo in one of the team's most lopsided trades. Edmonton shipped him out in exchange for Craig Millar and Barrie Moore. Satan totaled 1,050 NHL games with the Oilers, Buffalo, the Islanders, Pittsburgh and Boston, putting up 363 goals and 735 points.
Satan didn't fit with Buffalo late in his career, with teammates like Chris Drury exasperated at the talented right winger's lapses in effort. Satan left the NHL in 2010 and spent the last two seasons playing for Bratislava of Russia's Kontinental Hockey League.
The Latvians, coached by the Sabres' Ted Nolan and featuring forward Zemgus Girgensons, were eliminated at the world championships today with a 3-2 loss to Switzerland. Latvia fell to 3-4 in the preliminary round and failed to advance to the quarterfinals
Latvia captured the hockey world's imagination at the Olympics by being tied with Canada in the final minutes of their quarterfinal matchup before losing, 2-1.
I've spent all day seeing blogs and Twitter absolutely blow up over whatever happened between Milan Lucic and the Canadiens in the handshake line after Game Seven Wednesday night in Boston. It was chronicled here earlier today by John Vogl -- complete with the key video evidence.
For Lucic to carp that "It’s said on the ice, so it’ll stay on the ice" is ridiculous. His league obviously doesn't agree. NHL.com has been putting microphones on players in the handshake line this postseason!
Here's Daniel Briere last night, with a quick tap from Lucic but a big hug for former Sabres teammate Daniel Paille:
Here's Patrick Kane after scoring the series-winning overtime goal Tuesday in Minnesota. Obviously, he's happy and has nice things to say to his opponents. But look at how the Wild players, including Jason Pominville and Cody McCormick, respond in kind.
That is how it's supposed to go. That's how it goes for virtually every player on virtually every team. Milan Lucic is not bigger than the game. You win, you shake hands. You lose, you shake hands. You don't like it? Too bad. Respect your sport. But I guess that's a lot to ask for a guy who specializes in sticks to the groin when the stripes aren't paying attention.
The final say on Lucic? For old times' sake, let's let Ryan Miller have at it:
The standout NHL team at the World Championships today in Minsk? None other than your Buffalo Sabres.
With Ted Nolan behind the bench and Zemgus Girgensons getting the go-ahead goal with 5:25 left in the third period, upstart Latvia upset Team USA, 6-5. Girgensons' goal was simply spectacular -- and he burned Sabres/Team USA prospect Jake McCabe (No. 29 in white). Take a look at the play and the celebration on the Latvian broadcast, from both the announcers and the fans:
Keeping their momentum going from their strong showing at the Sochi Olympics, the Latvians have three wins in this tournament -- after not posting one since 2001. Latvia plays Russia on Saturday.
Canada leads Group A with 10 points while Latvia is second in Group B with nine and Team USA is fourth with six. The U.S. meets Kazakhstan on Friday and Finland on Sunday. You can see all the standings here.
John Vogl has been covering the Sabres since 2002-03, an era that has included playoff runs, last-place finishes and three ownership changes. The award-winning writer is the Buffalo chapter chairman for the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association.
Mike Harrington, a Canisius College graduate who began his career as a News reporter in 1987, has been covering the Buffalo Sabres since 2007. He is a member of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association and can vouch that exposed flesh freezes instantly when walking in downtown Winnipeg in January.
Amy Moritz, a native of Lockport, has a bachelor’s degree in journalism/mass communication from St. Bonaventure University and a master’s degree in humanities from the University at Buffalo. An endurance athlete, she has completed several triathlons, half marathons and marathons.