BUFFALO – Victor Olofsson’s ability to quickly adapt and evolve has helped him morph from an unheralded Sabres prospect into one of the NHL’s top rookies.
Just weeks after beginning his North American career last season, Olofsson established himself as one of the AHL’s top scorers with the Rochester Americans.
Following his terrific 30-goal, 63-point campaign, the Swedish winger graduated to Buffalo, scoring six times in the first seven games this year.
But Olofsson, who possesses a lethal shot he often utilizes from the circle, was too one-dimensional earlier in his rookie season.
Olofsson, 24, registered his first eight goals – he scored twice during a six-game recall late in 2018-19 – on the power play, an NHL record.
“I feel like it took me a little time before I felt like I belong here, like I’m a full-time NHL player,” Olofsson said prior to Saturday’s 2-1 overtime loss in Toronto. “I feel like I’m starting to find myself like I usually do if you look back at my career.”
In the past six weeks, Olofsson has started producing at even strength and become one of Sabres coach Ralph Krueger’s most trusted forwards.
Olofsson has compiled 10 goals and 20 points in 27 games entering tonight’s contest against the New Jersey Devils, numbers that trail only Sabres captain Jack Eichel, his center most of the season.
Right now, Olofsson is a legitimate Calder Trophy candidate. He leads all rookies in goals and ranks third in points. His 68 shots are also tied for first. At his current pace, he would score 30 goals and 60 points over an 82-game slate.
The former seventh-round pick could enjoy one of the greatest rookie seasons in franchise history.
How rare are 30-goal rookie campaigns? The Sabres have had four in their 50-year history: Gilbert Perreault (38 goals in 1970-71), Rick Martin (44 in 1971-72), Ray Sheppard (38 in 1987-88) and Donald Audette (31 in 1991-92).
A Sabres rookie hasn’t hit the 60-point mark since Sheppard recorded 65.
While Olofsson’s six-game point streak ended Saturday, he was one of the best players on the ice, skating just over 22 minutes, his second-highest total this season.
In overtime, he nearly converted two prime scoring chances.
“I feel better and better every game and feel more and more confident with the puck just in every situation out there, and I think that helps a lot when you do get that scoring chance, to be a little bit calmer maybe,” Olofsson said of his five-on-five play. “In the beginning, I felt like I was maybe sometimes holding my stick a little bit too tight. I wasn’t as relaxed as I usually am.
“It’s the best league in the world, right? So I think it takes time to kind of get used to everything and get settled in.”
The biggest change in Olofsson’s five-on-five play, Krueger said, has been the confidence he displays at left wing beside Eichel and Sam Reinhart on the No. 1 line.
“The power-play goals early, they came quite easily, actually, and then the challenge was to find the spaces,” Krueger said. “He’s just such a smart player, and what I like about Victor is no matter what we get the defensive consistency from him. His patience has allowed him to find those spaces and holes.”
“It’s an exciting thing to watch how that line in general has developed their five-on-five game, which was not that strong early in the season, but they’re a threat against anybody.”
As Olofsson’s even-strength play improved, the Sabres’ power play imploded. They converted one of their 37 chances over 14 games in November. Olofsson hasn’t scored a power-play goal since Oct. 16.
“The thing that made us so, so successful in the beginning,” Olofsson said, “I felt like we moved the puck really quick, and I feel like every guy on the power play was a threat, they couldn’t really just cover one guy, defend us that way.”
The Sabres will celebrate “Founders Night” tonight at KeyBank Center on the 50th anniversary – Dec. 2, 1969 – of the NHL awarding Seymour and Northrup Knox an expansion team.
Members of the Knox family will be on the ice for a pregame ceremony and video presentation. The Sabres will also recognize the members of the team’s original board of directors of their families during the game.
Popular former Sabres defenseman and analyst Mike Robitaille will be on tonight’s MSG pregame show and join play-by-play man Rick Jeanneret in the broadcast booth for the second period.
A lower-body injury will keep New Jersey center Jack Hughes, the first overall pick in June, out of Monday’s game.