Prospect tournaments, a number of which will appear across the NHL landscape this week, mark the unofficial start of hockey season.
They are held in the days leading up to the opening of training camps, and play out in such diverse locales as Traverse City, Mich., Nashville, Tenn., Belleville, Ontario and Anaheim, Calif.
And, of course, Buffalo, where young players wearing the colors of the Penguins, Sabres, Bruins and Devils will compete in a round-robin event that runs from Friday through Monday. (No games Sunday.)
For some, it will be the only time in their careers that they wear the team's sweater. For others, it will be another step toward establishing themselves as an NHL-caliber talent.
And for the Sabres, who have played host to the tournament for several years, it is an opportunity to introduce their fans to some of the players in the organizational pipeline by staging the event at their practice facility, HarborCenter.
Buffalo doesn't figure to make much of a profit, if any, off the tournament -- tickets to individual games are just $10, and the primary rink at HarborCenter only holds about 1,800 -- but there are a number of benefits to running it.
"There's a little more (work, as the home team), from an organizational standpoint," said Jason Botterill, who took over as GM of the Sabres in 2017 after a stint in the Penguins' front office. "The fact that we've done it a few years in a row now, there's a familiarity to it. Less travel. It's certainly very convenient, from our franchise's standpoint. This is something that was set up before I got here. There's a familiarity to it. It's worked out extremely well. We believe our practice facility, HarborCenter, is the right site to stage an event."
Jim Rutherford said recently that the Penguins feel the same about their practice site in Cranberry, but acknowledged that attracting teams already accustomed to competing in tournaments elsewhere could be difficult, and likely would mitigate against staging such an event there anytime soon.
Regardless of where this year's tournament is held, though, it should be great interest to Penguins personnel staffers. In some previous years, the tournament roster was loaded with players on tryouts because so there were so few eligible prospects in the organization.
This time, only four tryout candidates will be on the 24-man roster. They will join promising young players like wingers Samuel Poulin and Nathan Legare, both drafted in June, and forwards such as Sam Lafferty and Sam Miletic, who have a little experience in the American Hockey League and could be in line for some NHL games this winter.
"It's great for your younger players to get in, get a feel for the systems, get a head start on training camp," Botterill said. "It gives your young players an opportunity to showcase themselves."
The weekend's brightest spotlight might be on New Jersey center Jack Hughes, who was the first player selected in the June draft and is widely expected to step directly into the NHL.
"This will be the third year we've had the No. 1 overall pick participating in the rookie tournament," Botterill said. "It's been a good draw."
And maybe, just maybe, it will be in Cranberry someday, too.
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