Matt Savoie played one game for Buffalo. ©2023, Micheline Veluvolu, Rochester Americans

Sabres hope brief NHL experience will help prospect Matt Savoie in junior

BUFFALO – In the heat of a close game, with two precious points at stake, Sabres coach Don Granato did not feel comfortable putting prospect Matt Savoie on the ice.

So in his NHL debut, Friday’s 3-2 win over the Minnesota Wild, Savoie, 19, skated just 3 minutes, 55 seconds over five shifts. He did not play in the third period.

On Saturday, the Sabres sent Savoie, who missed all of training camp, back to his junior team, the Wenatchee Wild, to create a roster spot for defenseman Mattias Samuelsson.

“That game was a very tight game that started with trading power plays and penalty kills and as that game went along, I did not feel comfortable as a coach putting him in a spot where it was a tight game and him being on the ice for a mistake against,” Granato said following Monday’s practice in KeyBank Center. “I didn’t think he had enough practice time, unfortunate because of the injuries and I didn’t want that to happen to him. So that was a personal decision for me.”

The Sabres’ decision to assign Savoie, the ninth overall pick in 2022, to junior after skating short minutes in one game raised some eyebrows. Granato said they gave “lots of thought to” awarding the forward a longer look.

But the Sabres have entered a win-now phase this season, meaning on-the-job training can work against their best interests.

“Can you imagine if you play a young guy out there in a 1-0 game or a 1-1 game and he makes a mistake?” said Granato, who has been shortening his bench more often this season. “And there are some things and you don’t want to put the guy in that situation. And we’re much different than we were one year ago, and I’ve said that a lot. We have to play with greater emphasis.

“A year ago or two years ago, we had to look in the mirror and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to try to win every night but we have to get better.’ And now it’s, ‘Now we have to find ways to win every night.’ It’s not about as much of a future.”

When Savoie suffered elbow and shoulder injuries Sept. 18 in the Prospects Challenge rookie tournament finale, Granato said the Sabres began “brainstorming” ways to keep him around.

“We were faced with a daunting reality that we were going to have to send this guy back to junior when training camp ended,” Granato said.

A longer taste of the NHL could help make up for missing camp.

“Training camp is a huge growth experience for the player,” he said. “We have a guy that we love as a prospective player.”

As a teenager whose rights are owned by a Canadian Hockey League team, Savoie can’t play regularly in the AHL until his junior season ends. The Sabres tried to get him an exemption from the Western Hockey League because he played parts of four seasons with the Winnipeg Ice. His first year, however, he was loaned to the Ice.

The Sabres bought time and gave Savoie a taste of regular-season pro hockey by sending him on a 14-day AHL conditioning loan with the Rochester Americans in which he compiled two goals and five points in six games.

“He had to take one of the 23 roster spots (in the NHL),” Granato said. “We were able to get him to Rochester for six games instead of, as mandated, sending him back to junior. And from that point we said, ‘If there’s injuries on the 23-man roster, we’re going to try to get him a game, maybe more, to get some feel that he missed at training camp where he would have played five or six preseason games.’”

That brief opportunity materialized Friday.

Savoie, of course, has developed into a dominant junior player. Last season, before the Ice moved to Washington State, he enjoyed a dynamic year, scoring 38 goals and 95 points in 62 games.

“We wanted him here longer so that he can learn and see things that he needs to work on down there,” Granato said. “So if he would have went back with no experience skating in practice with the speed of our NHL players and goaltenders and then just a little bit of feel in a game, he’d go back to junior and he’d have no vision of what the NHL is. …

“Now he has that hindsight, that insight. So he goes back to junior, and he can focus and say, ‘OK, I know I have to protect the puck here. I know I have to read the situation this way because I’ve seen it.’ And that was really, really important.”

Sabres defenseman Erik Johnson grew up with captain Kyle Okposo in Minnesota and shared a special memory of a tournament they played together prior to Okposo’s 1,000th NHL game Tuesday against the Boston Bruins.

“We were at the Brick Tournament (in Edmonton) and maybe it was 1998,” he said. “… He was new to our team and he had a full shield and he had his black glasses on underneath his bubbles. This huge kid just with full shield and then a big black glasses. It was pretty funny. And we’re like, who is this guy? But pretty funny to see and, yeah, it’s a cool memory.”

Sabres center Peyton Krebs played Tuesday after missing Saturday’s 4-0 road loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins because of a family matter.

Defenseman Henri Jokiharju missed Tuesday’s game. Granato said prior to the game one player was sick. The Sabres, who used seven defensemen Saturday, went back to the usual six. Former Bruins defenseman Connor Clifton moved into Jokiharju’s usual spot alongside Owen Power.

Johnson played with rookie Ryan Johnson.

Winger Alex Tuch missed his third straight game with an upper-body injury.

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