The Buffalo Sabres contingent truly impressed many at this year’s IIHF World Junior Championships held in Toronto and Montreal.
Alexander Nylander, Rasmus Asplund, the Sabres’ first and second-round picks in the 2016 draft, represented Team Sweden, while Casey Fitzgerald, the Sabres’ 2016 third-round pick, won the gold medal with the United States.
Nylander had the most Buffalo eyes on him during the tournament and he did not disappoint. The talented Swede, who is playing for Rochester in the AHL, tied for the tournament lead in scoring with five goals and seven assists in his seven appearances. At times he looked flat out dominant, controlling the play and Sweden’s offensive pressure. In one of the more memorable plays of the tournament, Nylander showed his skill, speed and vision when he picked a puck out of the air, turned it up ice and found his streaking teammate for a goal in Sweden’s 5-2 loss to Team Canada in the semifinals.
Awesome play by Nylander to make this Sweden goal possible pic.twitter.com/CPGQGvmNBQ
— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) January 5, 2017
Following his strong tournament, many are hoping that Nylander will get the same push Rasmus Ristolainen got by being able to play for his country in the first year he was drafted. There will certainly be calls for Nylander to join the Sabres sooner rather than later, but with Justin Bailey playing well in his top-six role since his recall and Nick Baptiste waiting for his next recall, a few more months in the AHL will probably be the best thing for Nylander and his development. However, his performance in Canada the last 10 days has shown that he has the top-end skill the Sabres wanted when they drafted him at eighth overall last June.
Nylander’s Team Sweden teammate Rasmus Asplund also logged a strong tournament, posting seven points in seven games, including a four assist effort against Slovakia in the quarterfinals. Asplund, who plays for Farjestad BK in the Swedish Hockey League, also deservedly won the player of the game award for Sweden in their 5-2 loss to Canada due to his 200ft. effort every shift he was on the ice. While he may never be the offensive dynamo the Sabres hope Nylander will develop into, Asplund has top-six talent and he will most certainly be a contributor at the NHL level sooner rather than later.
Casey Fitzgerald had the “quietest” tournament of the three Sabres representatives, but it was an excellent introduction to most Sabres fans. Fitzgerald had three assists in his seven games, but played an extremely important role in the United States’ gold medal effort. The Boston College defenseman rotated defensive partners most of the tournament, but mostly stayed in a top-four role, and he logged a ton of ice time in the both the third and overtime periods last night against Canada in the gold medal game. Fitzgerald showed himself to be a quality, puck-moving defenseman, something the Sabres are starved for at the NHL level.
Overall, the Sabres prospects combined for six goals, 16 assists and 22 points in the tournament, which put them tied for third in the entire NHL, behind only the Minnesota Wild and Ottawa Senators‘ pipelines who each sent four and five prospects, respectively. Nylander also made the all-tournament team, joining Sam Reinhart, Jake McCabe and Rasmus Ristolainen as the current Sabres to earn that honor.
So, with the Sabres struggling to find consistency game in and game out, the kids showed Sabres fans that there is a ton of talent on the way soon.