ROCHESTER – Before the Americans can think about utilizing slick Buffalo Sabres prospect Matt Savoie in the Calder Cup Playoffs, coach Seth Appert joked he needs to learn his new teammates’ names.
Savoie, 19, has experienced a whirlwind few days, traveling from Seattle, where his junior team lost in the Western Hockey League final, back to Winnipeg. Following some emotional goodbyes with his Ice teammates, he arrived in Western New York on Sunday.
After practicing Monday at Blue Cross Arena, the center hopped on a bus bound for Hershey, Pa., where the Amerks begin the best-of-seven AHL Eastern Conference final tonight against the Bears.
Savoie, the ninth overall pick in 2022, needs some time to adjust. But make no mistake, Appert said “Savoie is here to play.”
“There’s a lot that he’s been going through,” he said. “I think right now, we want to get him acclimated to our organization, to our culture, get him comfortable with the guys, get him comfortable with our team play. When those things start to happen, and also probably get a little rest, because of how much he’s playing, travel, I think we anticipate him being available for us at some point in the series. When that is, it’s hard to predict.”
Having left one team competing for a championship for another fresh off two series victories, Savoie has entered a unique situation.
Of course, the Amerks, a tight-knit group, have welcomed Savoie and tried to make him feel comfortable. Appert said captain Michael Mersch reached out to the newcomer and added him to the team’s group text chat.
“It was awesome,” Savoie said of his first impressions of the team. “I came in really with a smile on my face looking to just meet everyone and get acclimated as well as I can.”
The 5-foot-9, 179-pound Savoie certainly possesses the talent to make a quick impact in pro hockey. He just enjoyed a dynamic junior campaign, compiling 38 goals, 95 points and a plus-57 rating in 62 regular-season games. He maintained his torrid production in the postseason, scoring 11 goals and 29 points in 19 contests.
He made a strong impression on the Sabres during the Prospects Challenge rookie tournament and training camp. They awarded him a long look into early October and dressed him for NHL preseason games between veterans, a sign of his talent and maturity.
Appert said Savoie showcases “natural competitiveness” and “pace.”
“He plays the game the way that the organization wants to play: attacking, aggressive, speed-based style of play in both Buffalo and Rochester,” he said. “I think those are things that automatically stood out. I think he’s going to acclimate pretty quickly because of those natural tendencies that he has.”
In Buffalo, Savoie said he felt “a big shift in the culture.”
“There was a lot of good people in the dressing room that were pushing the bus in the right direction,” he said.
Naturally, he generated confidence from his time with the Sabres, and he said he returned to Winnipeg believing he “could be one of the top guys in junior” and elevate his game to the next level.
“Which I thought I did in the second half of the year really well,” he said. “I think just getting experience with NHL guys, NHL coaches, seeing a little bit of a different voice on your game is always a good thing.”
Savoie, having undergone offseason shoulder surgery, said he needed time to find a groove in Winnipeg. While he produced virtually all season – he had a couple of brief offensive lulls in the fall – he did not quite feel like himself early.
“I kind of felt the effects of not having that full summer of training and getting stronger and getting faster,” he said.
In the WHL, Savoie regularly played more than 20 minutes a game, meaning he had to pace himself. Whenever he debuts with the Amerks, those minutes will be shorter, offering him a chance to “get back to his natural strengths,” Appert said.
“Playing faster, attacking the game, puck hunter,” he said. “All of the things that made him such a standout in the Western League but are hard to always do if you’re playing as a forward 23-24 minutes a night.”
Savoie has AHL eligibility because his season in Winnipeg ended. Teenagers who play for Canadian Hockey League team can’t play in the AHL if their junior season is active.
He can’t join the Amerks as a regular next season, so he must return to junior if he doesn’t crack the NHL.
Appert said Sabres center prospect Noah Ostlund, 19, has returned home to finish rehabbing a foot injury that forced him to miss playoff games with his Swedish team, Djurgardens.
Ostlund, the 16th pick last year, joined the Amerks earlier in the postseason to practice and get a feel for the organization. He did not play any games.
“We wanted to bring him over here just to keep getting him acclimated to our organization, to how we operate, to seeing how playoff hockey in the American league felt like,” Appert said. “It was a great experience for him.”
Notes: Appert said Amerks winger Linus Weissbach, out the last two games recovering from an upper-body injury, “should be able to play” tonight. “Everything looks and points toward,” he said. … Appert said center Mason Jobst, the Amerks’ leading scorer with 11 points this postseason, had a maintenance day from practice Monday. … MSG will be televising tonight’s series opener and Game 2 on Thursday.