What’s going on inside the minds of Ryan Johnson, Erik Portillo and Devon Levi? There’s plenty at work but one thing that isn’t a factor is any major disdain for the Sabres.
The team’s three top college prospects all have distinct reasons why they haven’t come out of school yet and signed a contract. Each is studying his situation, and there have been plenty of changes since they were drafted.
On balance, a kid out of college should be eager to come to the Sabres now. As an organization, they’re going young. Coach Don Granato is great with prospects and he and his staff have nailed individual skill development. Young players get better and look at how veterans like Kyle Okposo and Jeff Skinner have had career rebirths, too. The upbeat attitude is the same in Rochester, where the Amerks are coming out of a season long spell of injuries and Covid and thriving at the perfect time.
General Manager Kevyn Adams came up through college hockey (Miami of Ohio) and the AHL and won a Stanley Cup, so he knows their feeling as well. Assistant GM Jason Karmanos has three Cup rings and did an excellent job in building the Americas this season. The restocked development and coaching staffs at both levels earn raves, and what young player wouldn’t want to learn every day from NHL veterans Michael Peca, Dan Girardi, Mike Weber, Matt Ellis and Adam Mair?
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But start with the draft. Johnson (first round, No. 32) and Portillo (third round, No. 67) were both taken in 2019 in Jason Botterill’s final year as the GM and could go the free agent route next year. There was a different GM and completely different development team in place than there is now. And when the pandemic hit and ownership shed employees throughout the hockey department, the connection to the Sabres wasn’t nearly as strong as it probably should have been when Adams first took over.
In Portillo’s case, he looks at the goaltending hierarchy and wonders where he fits. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen is going to get the first shot at a job in Buffalo, although his run of injuries continues to dim his long-term prospects. And since Adams acquired Levi in the Sam Reinhart trade, the Canadian has rocketed up prospect charts as perhaps the best goalie in college hockey. Plus Portillo is heavily involved in Michigan’s business school and wanted to stay there. He is a unique kind of student-athlete. More power to him.
The collaboration between Portillo and three Michigan students led to their creation of Dualetea platform that allows youth athletes to register for one-on-one video sessions in which college athletes detail how they excel in a specific sport.
Adams said last week he was told Johnson was leaning on a return to Minnesota for his senior year. Frankly, there may not be a fit in Buffalo for him. First off, he hasn’t played in college like a first-round pick. Botterill & Co. probably picked him too high but that label sticks. A first-round draft choice probably should be able to make either first- or second-team All-Big Ten playing on a good team but Johnson did not in his junior year, tallying three goals and 16 assists in 39 games.
And since Johnson was drafted, the Sabres cratered and won the Owen Power lottery, 2018 pick Mattias Samuelsson came from college (Western Michigan) and carved his spot in the lineup and Henri Jokiharju was acquired in a trade with Chicago.
The defense is full and it seems like Johnson is the one who probably should play out his eligibility. The Sabres might be best advised to trade his rights and get something for him now.
Levi seems like he’s the most committed to the Sabres as he returns to Northeastern. His public statements all rave about the organization. He was a guest in the Sabres’ suite at the Frozen Four and attended the morning skate and game a couple weeks ago in Boston. Levi could have been in the goalie conversation for real this fall had he signed his deal but, working in concert with Adams and the development staff, he wanted to get another NCAA Tournament shot at Northeastern – and play a season with the pressure of expectations of Being the nation’s top goalie and a Hobey Baker candidate.
That’s all Power was doing when fans foolishly bemoaned that he was going to play out his four years and not sign with the Sabres. Power simply wanted to get a chance to play at the World Juniors and be able to play in front of fans at Michigan and make a Frozen Four run. He knew he was signing with the Sabers last fall as soon as his college season ended.
It’s fair to expect the same scenario from Levi next spring. Portillo is much more of a wild card. His play might have been to sign when he heard Levi was staying in school and share the net in Rochester next year with someone (Malcolm Subban?). But the pull of the Michigan business school is strong and that point can’t be emphasized enough.
Seemingly every Sabres player on the roster, no matter their experience, improved under Granato and his staff.
The hand-wringing of fans dates to goalie Cal Petersen shunning the Sabres out of Notre Dame and signing as a free agent with Los Angeles in 2018. Petersen was drafted by Darcy Regier, came to development camp in the Tim Murray era and didn’t sign with Butterill. He saw an organization spinning its wheels, far from what it is now. And he’s the only college player to do that to the Sabres.
Not many players in general refuse to sign with the team that has drafted them but it does happen from time to time. Blake Wheeler, Adam Fox, Justin Schultz, Alex Kerfoot, Will Butcher and Jimmy Vesey are well known to fans as college players who didn’t sign with the team that drafted them and opted for free agency. It doesn’t mean anything was wrong with the teams that picked them. Sometimes, they’re just studying depth charts, too.
For the record, Jack Eichel finished his first season in Vegas with 14 goals and 25 points in 34 games and posted a plus-3 rating. He had his first three-point night in 14 months in the season finale at St. Louis, a bittersweet moment for what it means coming back from his neck surgery when compared to the previous six games, when he had just one measly assist and a minus-5 rating while the team was still in playoff contention.
“I’d be lying if I said we weren’t all feeling it, myself included,” Eichel said of the pressure of the postseason push during his exit interview with reporters last week. “When you have expectations like we did and you don’t meet them, it’s frustrating. But I think we all understand the team we can be.”
On the plus side, Eichel said he felt the transition to a new organization went well and he had no issues with his surgically repaired neck.
“I feel good. I feel healthy. The neck was a non-issue for me this year,” he said. “(The surgery) obviously worked and was successful. … I think an offseason is going to do a lot for me. I came back about as quick as you could have come back from the injury.”
And Eichel said he’s looking forward to a regular summer, after last year’s physical pain from the injury and mental pain from waiting for a trade to happen.
“It was like a full offseason of just being in limbo,” he said. “I look forward to having a plan in terms of what I want to accomplish in the offseason, having great resources to accomplish it and having the opportunity to come back next season feeling as healthy as ever and ready to put my best foot forward.”
Of course, it remains to be seen what kind of team Eichel will be playing for next year. His acquisition created a cap crush that Vegas has to figure out before next season, one that the Knights were able to circumvent this year with use of long-term injured reserve. Now it will be time to pay the piper. A couple somebodies will have to go off that roster.
When it looked like the Amerks were going to fall short of the Calder Cup playoffs, the Sabres said all the right things about the affiliate’s playoff run being a positive no matter the result. And while there was truth to that, the organization was desperate to get into the playoffs in Rochester this year. It happened on the season’s last day and turned into a huge benefit with the Americas’ two-game sweep of Belleville.
The first series win in Rochester since 2005 has the Amerks with a huge task this week against first-place Utica but the experience should be invaluable for Jack Quinn, JJ Peterka, Peyton Krebs, Casey Fitzgerald and others. We’ll see if Samuelsson can get in the lineup, too. It’s a shame that it appears Luukkonen will not. Major missed opportunity for him.
A big social media buzz from the Americas’ stunning Game 1 overtime victory Wednesday in Blue Cross Arena was a picture from Buffalo News photographer Harry Scull Jr. taken of the occupants of a suite intently watching the first period of the game.
In the booth at the moment Scull shot? Granato, assistants Jason Christie and Mike Bales, video coach Justin White and players Subban, Dylan Cozens and Jacob Bryson. And they weren’t the only ones in the house. You want a picture to say a thousand words and there you have it. This organization is fully engaged from the top down with the Americas’ run.