Story by Francis Boeck and Tony Fiorello
Photos Courtesy Jessica Helen Brant
The official Taste of Buffalo may be next month, but 104 NHL prospects got their own a taste of Buffalo last week.
For some, it was a second helping after participating in the World Juniors that took place in the Queen City this past winter.
Most importantly, the 31 NHL teams all had a chance to take samples from this year’s draft class as prospects went through both physical and mental tests at the 2018 NHL Scouting Combine.
Rasmus Dahlin’s taste of the city was a little more literal others.
The presumptive No. 1 overall pick decided to get a feel for the local cuisine of his likely future home.
“I actually ate chicken wings like two days ago,” Dahlin said. “They were good, but they were a little too spicy. I gotta go with the mild next time.”
Buffalo Sabres fans will be happy give Dahlin some extra blue cheese if he lives up to the expectations that experts across the hockey world have for the Swedish defenseman.
Quinn Hughes was also making his second trip to western New York in the past five months, but unlike Dahlin, he is unsure of where his new home might be.
Hughes, who helped Team USA to bronze in the WJC, finished his first season at Michigan with 29 points in 39 games. The former USNDT player is considered to be a Top 10 prospect in the draft.
One possible landing spot wouldn’t require the forward to move very far.
The Detroit Red Wings hold the No. 6 overall pick. Hughes didn’t mind the idea of making NHL memories just an hour away from where he has made college ones.
“I actually roomed with Dylan Larkin (Red Wings forward and former Michigan player) at the Worlds,” Hughes said. “I love (Red Wings) coach Blashill. It would be a great fit.”
Another Michigan Wolverine, three-time Stanley Cup champion John Madden was a great fit for New Jersey, Chicago, Minnesota and Florida during his 14-year NHL career.
His son, Tyler was invited to this year’s combine.
Unlike his father who went undrafted, Tyler is the #39 ranked North American skater by NHL Central Scouting and will likely go in the second round.
It’s Tyler starking resemblance to his father on the ice that earned him that ranking.
“I learned most of my defensive game and faceoffs from (John),” Tyler said. “It’s the way I play and he’s definitely contributed to that.”
“I didn’t realize back then that I was passing around the puck with Patrick Kane but now it’s surreal to me,” Tyler said.
Many players arrived in Buffalo during the week with something to prove. For Spokane defenseman Ty Smith, it was to prove that his lack of size – his height being 5’10” and weighing 170 pounds – wouldn’t hinder his testing, nor his playing career.
“When you’re a 5’10” defenseman, they always say you’re small, but I don’t think size is an obstacle for me,” Smith said. “Being smaller has actually been an advantage. You’re quicker and have a lower center of gravity, and it’s easier to work on things in tight areas against guys who are taller. I’ve talked to bigger guys who always say it’s harder to hit smaller players, so it’s nice to prove people wrong.”
When asked if the NHL is trending towards being a league where size doesn’t matter as much, Smith acknowledged as much.
“I do think size is less of a factor now than it used to be in the game,” Smith said. “There still aren’t a whole lot of defensemen who are 5’10” and under in the NHL, but the game’s starting to trend towards smaller players in general.”
Jacob Pivonka was one of the few prospects who admitted to having a rooting interest in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Jacob said his dad was his first teacher of the game.
“He was a really big influence on me,” Jacob said. “He taught me the little things. Everything I know I learned from him.”
As a thank you to his parents, Pivonka will attend and play for Norte Dame next year.
“I made the decision to attend college early in the process,” said Pivonka, who played for the National Development team this past season. “It’s a chance for me to play close to home and a way to give back to my parents for driving me all around during my youth hockey days.”
Jack Drury certainly got to know what Buffalo and professional hockey was all about growing up.
Drury, whose uncle, Chris, was Sabres captain and his father, Ted, a former NHL player as well, conceded that his family members were major influences on him too.
“I think they helped me a lot,” Drury said. “Getting to be around rinks, getting to go into pro locker rooms and meeting great players when I was younger was really cool, and they really helped me with my mental game and understanding the work ethic it takes to make the NHL.”
Whether they’re a top pick or going in the later rounds every player who arrived in Buffalo knew that they had areas of their game that needed to be worked on and that they weren’t perfect by any means.
“I think in two or three years, I hope I can play in the NHL,” said Swedish defenseman Adam Boqvist, who is a top-10 prospect. “I think I need to improve my defensive play, win more battles than I lose and be harder in front of the net. My skating and puck handling, my play on the power play – that’s where I think I’m best.”