ROCHESTER – Seven minutes into his season debut, Buffalo Sabres forward prospect Matt Savoie grabbed the puck down low during a power play and deftly fed Americans captain Michael Mersch a pass in his wheelhouse.
Mersch one-timed it past Charlotte Checkers goalie Spencer Knight, tying Wednesday’s game at 1 and giving Savoie, 19, his first professional point.
The play, which Amerks assistant coach Vinny Prospal drew up when he noticed the Checkers defended high, illustrated Savoie’s talent and maturity in the first game of his 14-day AHL conditioning assignment.
“You like the offense he showed on the pass and a great finish by Merschy, but also the ability to take in information and be able to apply it and go execute it, which is an underrated skill of a young player,” coach Seth Appert said following the Amerks’ 4-3 come-from-behind victory in Blue Cross Arena.
Savoie, the ninth overall pick in 2022, hadn’t played since injuring his elbow and shoulder Sept. 18 in the Prospects Challenge rookie tournament. Despite the long layoff, he looked comfortable in his first regular-season action as a pro (he played two games for the Amerks in the Calder Cup Playoffs last season).
While the assist will stand out, Appert trusted Savoie and his linemates, prospects Jiri Kulich and Isak Rosen, so much he put them out with Knight pulled late and the Checkers battling to tie the game.
The Sabres drafted all three youngsters in the first round. Rosen, who scored the winner 16:45 into the third period, is the oldest at just 20.
“Real credit to the three of them,” Appert said. “They’re very young to be trusted with a defensive assignment like that, and that’s not free ice time. That was because they played the right away.”
Savoie said the belief Appert showed in utilizing him so late is “huge.”
“It’s a big thing to be a good two-way player, be good defensively at the pro level,” said Savoie, who skated at right wing. “I think that’s one of my biggest adjustments I’m going to have to make coming from junior. In junior, I was always out there with the lead or protecting the lead so I feel pretty comfortable out there.”
The 5-foot-10, 170-pound Savoie was also on the ice for Charlotte’s first goal, took a slashing penalty and pumped two shots on goal.
The Amerks play five more games during Savoie’s assignment. Then the Sabres must decide whether to keep him or send him to junior hockey. So these games are critical to his immediate future.
Savoie has performed dynamically in junior over the last two seasons, compiling 73 goals and 185 points in 127 games with the Winnipeg Ice. He has possibly outgrown that level.
As a teenager whose rights are owned by a Canadian Hockey League team, the Western Hockey League’s Wenatchee Wild, he cannot play unless he’s on a conditioning assignment or his junior season is over.
“It’s an opportunity to get six really high-level competitive games in before he has to go back to Buffalo or go back to junior hockey,” Appert said prior to the game.
Expect Appert to keep awarding Savoie ice time in different situations.
“He’s a guy that you feel good when you call his name and put him out for a shift, because whether the shift is great or it’s just OK, he’s going to play the right way,” he said. “He’s going to play fast, he’s going to be competitive, he’s going to hunt pucks and try to be an honest, winning hockey player. He just drips of a hockey player, he really does. I was saying that to (Sabres general manager) Kevyn Adams today.”
On Wednesday, the Amerks scratched defenseman Jeremy Davies, a regular last season who has already scored two goals and four points this year, and inserted rookie Nikita Novikov following a one-game absence.
With eight healthy defensemen at his disposal, Appert has been moving one in and out each game. Meanwhile, Zach Metsa, a regular during Rochester’s playoff run last season, has been scratched all five games this season.
Appert said a defense rotation has been laid out for about the first 10 games. Of course, the Amerks will inevitably deal with injuries and recalls.
“Usually these problems resolve themselves,” he said.
In addition to Novikov, defensemen Joseph Cecconi, Kale Clague and Riley Stillman have also sat out. Clague and Stillman played a combined 83 NHL games last season.
“It’s a good situation with how many good D we have,” Appert said. “But it’s not a good situation for them individually. And I think the best thing I can do is be straightforward and honest so they know what’s going on, so they’re not coming to the rink on game day wondering am I out tonight or am I back in tonight?”
Appert said Metsa will play his first game soon.
“He rates out as one of our better players in practice on a consistent basis,” he said. “So that is going to make the competition even higher.”