Nikita Novikov signed his entry-level contract in May. ©2023, Micheline Veluvolu, Rochester Americans

Sabres prospect Nikita Novikov turns heads in first games in Buffalo

BUFFALO – The Sabres’ leading scorer in the Prospects Challenge wasn’t Zach Benson, Jiri Kulich, Isak Rosen, Matt Savoie or another talented young forward.

No, try defenseman Nikita Novikov, who registered five assists, including three in Friday’s 6-3 win over the Montreal Canadiens in LECOM Harborcenter.

The Russian, 20, compiled three assists and five points in 62 games with the Kontinental Hockey League’s Moscow Dynamo all of last season.

The 6-foot-4, 211-pound Novikov quickly emerged as the Sabres’ biggest surprise in the rookie tournament, showcasing an aggressive style all over the ice and adroit passing.

Early in Friday’s third period, he created the go-ahead goal by carrying the puck over the blue line and feeding center Tyson Kozak a saucer pass in the right circle.

“He’s definitely a big body,” Kozak said. “He’s good defensively. He’s also a really smart player. His passing is also really, really special.”

Still, Novikov lasted until the sixth round in 2021, when the Sabres drafted him 188th overall. He was the last of four Russians they drafted that year. He signed his entry-level contract in May.

Of course, the Sabres, who open training camp today when players report for physicals, hope they’ve snagged a late-round gem in Novikov. He’s expected to be one of three Russians on the Rochester Americans this season, joining wingers Aleksandr Kisakov and Viktor Neuchev in the AHL.

When Amerks coach Seth Appert first watched Novikov up close during development camp in July, he learned he possesses a competitive streak.

“You can see the natural instincts and the compete,” he said. “He’s got such a long stick, he breaks up lots of plays. Then he’s got good offensive touch.”

Novikov added two assists in Saturday’s 4-2 win over the New Jersey Devils. While he was held pointless in the Monday’s 3-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, he played aggressively, grabbing the puck and circling the offensive zone multiple times.

Appert said sometimes Novikov’s competitiveness hurts him. At times during the tournament, he looked raw defensively.

“There is some young sloppiness at times with young defensemen, and that’s part of it,” he said. “But when it was time, when the puck was in between him and the other man, it was on.”

Novikov’s ability to quickly implement new information has impressed Appert. A language barrier can make communication difficult.

“(Assistant coach Nathan Paetsch) and I grabbed him on a couple of things today, and you could see him trying to do it already with just a little video, with trying to use Google Translate to communicate,” Appert said. “You could see him applying some of the things throughout this little tournament that we were talking about, which is a great sign.”

Appert said Sabres defense prospect Ryan Johnson, 22, possesses the talent to run a power play in a rookie tournament or even the AHL. But he kept the youngster off the units during the Prospects Challenge and doesn’t sound keen on giving him power-play duty as a rookie this season in Rochester.

“That isn’t his path to the NHL,” he said. “We have (Rasmus) Dahlin and (Owen) Power, and they’re going to be running it for a long time. It’s not most defensemen’s path to the NHL. So it’s going to be being an elite defender, being a transitional, puck-moving defenseman and getting us on offense five-on-five, being a strong penalty killer. …

“(He) has had a great attitude about not playing on the power play, which also says a lot about him.”

The Sabres drafted Johnson 31st in 2019. He spent the last four seasons at Minnesota.

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