BUFFALO – Sabres prospect Matt Savoie paused for a moment and collected his thoughts before he answered the question.
Savoie, 19, has established himself as a dominant junior star over the past two seasons, scoring 92 goals and a whopping 226 points in 156 total games, including the playoffs.
Clearly, the center’s ready for pro hockey. But the Canadian Hockey League’s agreement with the NHL prohibits him from playing in the AHL this season. He doesn’t turn 20 until Jan. 1, one day after the deadline. He also hasn’t hasn’t played four years in the Western Hockey League.
So if he can’t earn a spot in Buffalo, he must be sent to the Wenatchee Wild instead of going to the minors.
If that happens, Savoie, the ninth overall pick in 2022, plans to make the most of it.
“You can always find ways to improve and work on your game and add elements to your game that weren’t there in previous years,” he said Wednesday when asked if he had anything left to prove in junior hockey. “If that’s the situation (returning to the WHL), I’m going to go back and put my head down and work as hard as I can to just round out my game, continue to work on areas that maybe I wouldn’t have worked on in the past and just become more of an all-around player.”
While Savoie wouldn’t acknowledge it, spending another season in the WHL wouldn’t be ideal for his development. The Sabres know that. They’ve petitioned the CHL for an exemption that would allow Savoie to play with the AHL Rochester Americans if he doesn’t make their roster, according to The Buffalo News. They haven’t received a ruling, per the report.
Seattle Kraken general manager Ron Francis told the Seattle Times this week the CHL has awarded center Shane Wright, who’s four days younger than Savoie, an exemption to play in the AHL if he doesn’t make the NHL roster.
Wright, the fourth selection in 2022, spent three seasons in the Ontario Hockey League and lost another one to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Savoie played for the Winnipeg Ice in 2019-20, but those games don’t count toward a season because he was on an emergency recall, according The News.
Of course, the 5-foot-9, 170-pound Savoie controls his own fate. If he impresses the Sabres enough, he can simply stay put. The Achilles injury winger Jack Quinn suffered during the offseason opened up another spot.
Following Wednesday’s 90-minute practice in LECOM Harborcenter to prepare for the Prospects Challenge rookie tournament, he spoke confidently about his chances.
“It’s my goal … to make it right out of training camp,” he said of the NHL. “I feel like I’ve trained and prepared really well this summer to put myself in a position to stick around, and that’s my goal.”
Savoie enjoyed a much more productive summer than last year, when he was recovering from shoulder surgery.
“You’re not worried about re-injuring your shoulder, any limitations with workouts or even skates and nursing some of your shooting,” he said. “But it was good to get back in the gym five days a week, on the ice a few times a week. Just back in a normal routine, being able to push myself as much as I wanted to. I thought it was really big for the way I wanted to develop this summer.”
Savoie’s two-game stint with the Amerks during the Calder Cup Playoffs helped him enter the summer with some perspective on pro hockey. Having finished his WHL season with the Winnipeg Ice – the franchise moved to Wenatchee during the offseason – he was eligible to play in the AHL.
He recorded zero points in limited ice time against the Hershey Bears, the Amerks’ rugged opponent. Still, he called his experience “a great learning lesson.”
“One thing he noticed is how little time and space there is in pro hockey, whether that is in the American League or the NHL,” Rochester coach Seth Appert said. “… He’s going to adjust to it because he’s extremely talented, competitive and intelligent.”
Savoie’s talents will likely be displayed with winger Zach Benson in Friday’s tournament opener against the Montreal Canadiens. Savoie and Benson, the 13th pick this year, formed a dynamic duo with Winnipeg last season, combining for 74 goals and 187 points during the regular season. They practiced with Filip Cederqvist on Wednesday.
When Adam Mair, the Sabres’ director of player development, texted Savoie to tell him the Sabres had chosen Benson, he said he “was ecstatic.”
“I absolutely loved it,” he said. “I mean, we got a lot of chemistry last year, obviously, playing on a line in Winnipeg. He’s a tremendous player. He’s got a lot of skill. He’s real dynamic, so I’m looking forward to playing with him a little bit in the prospects tournament as well.”