ROCHESTER – Josh Bloom didn’t look out of place as he stood among the Rochester Americans on the ice at Blue Cross Arena hours before their memorable playoff run ended with a loss in the third overtime.
Bloom’s skating and left-handed shot appear ready for pro hockey. The 6-foot-2 forward needs to get stronger, but he will have ample time to do so. At only 18 years old, he couldn’t appear in a game with the Amerks after signing a three-year, entry-level contract with the Buffalo Sabers in April.
The NHL’s development agreement with the Canadian Hockey League, which governs the top three junior leagues in Canada, will prevent Bloom from giving an Amerks jersey in a game until he’s 20, which won’t occur until June 2023. He joined the club on an amateur tryout for the duration of its season, practicing alongside fellow Sabers prospects Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka during the playoff push and ensuing run to the third round of the Calder Cup Playoffs.
“It’s been crazy, honestly,” he told The Buffalo News. “It’s just a great learning experience for me.”
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Bloom described the development opportunity as “unbelievable,” one he couldn’t imagine a year ago when he wasn’t sure if or when he’d be selected in the NHL draft. He, like so many others, didn’t have a 2020-21 season because the Ontario Hockey League couldn’t operate under the provincial government’s Covid-19 restrictions.
NHL teams only had video from Bloom’s rookie season with Saginaw when he was a 16-year-old receiving limited ice time. There was no scouting combine to learn more about him, either. Through research and a fact-finding trip to watch Bloom skate on his own, the Sabers decided to draft him in the third round, No. 95 overall.
He quickly emerged as a prospect to watch in the organization, delivering 30 goals with Saginaw in the OHL to earn his first pro contract and a stall in the Amerks’ dressing room during their playoff run.
“It felt really good that somebody would take a chance on me because realistically, it was a chance,” Bloom added. “They hadn’t seen me play since I was 16, and you’re drafting an 18-year-old. It’s a pretty hard job to do, but I think Buffalo did an unbelievable job doing their homework on me and felt comfortable making the pick. It was a very, very comfortable spot for me.”
Bloom was in the office of Saginaw Spirit General Manager Dave Drinkill when he noticed a photo of the 2019-20 team that was first in the OHL’s West Division when its season was suspended in March 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The roster included five forwards who were drafted by NHL teams, including two in the first round, or have gone on to play pro hockey at some level.
“’How was I supposed to play that year? he said to Drinkill, who called that realization an eye-opening moment for Bloom.
It’s common for first-year players to struggle upon entering the OHL, particularly forwards. It’s difficult to create time and space to score goals because the competition is often older, bigger and stronger. Ice time can be scarce on a team with over-agers. At the time, Saginaw had high-end prospects Cole Perfetti and Ryan Suzuki. There were 11 forwards age 18 or older.
“They’re minor league superstars, they’re high-end picks into our league,” Drinkill said of OHL rookies. “They’re playing 25 minutes a night on a minor hockey team that only dresses nine or 10 forwards, so they’re playing every power play and penalty kill. Then, they come into our league and, a guy like Josh, we had a powerhouse team, one of the best in the Canadian Hockey League, and he found himself fighting to get into the lineup, which is normal on a really good team.
“Fourth-line role, some nights playing nine, 10 minutes, seven, eight minutes. Sometimes playing 12-13, depending on our team and how our coach is utilizing him.”
Slowly, Bloom’s found ways to use his skill to make a difference. He totaled three goals and eight points in Saginaw’s final seven games before the season shut down. Scouts took notice, but his hockey career was put on pause during a vital time in his development. Sixteen months passed between that final game with the Spirit and the 2021 NHL Draft.
As the world waited for normalcy to return, Bloom gained strength by working out at his family’s home in Oakville, Ont. When possible, he skated with a skills coach in nearby Hamilton. Those sessions became more frequent as restrictions were eased or lifted. NHL teams wondered what to make of Bloom and whether he projects as a future difference-making pro.
Graham Beamish, an amateur scout for the Sabres, contacted Drinkill and others to learn more about Bloom as a person and to ask about his character. Every review was glowing. Drinkill and his staff sent video of Bloom’s previous season with the Spirit to NHL teams, including those final games in which he seemed to solve what was holding him back.
Beamish then made the trip across the border to watch Bloom on the ice with his skill coach, a necessary step to see how he developed physically since he was 16.
Bloom’s family gathered for the draft last July not knowing if they would have a reason to celebrate. Projections were wide-ranging. He could be drafted as high as the second round or not at all. Then, the call came. He took video of his family when his selection by Buffalo was announced on television and received so many text messages that he thought his outdated iPhone was going to break.
“It was absolutely unbelievable how it went down,” Bloom recalled. “I went into the day with a complete open mind. Had no idea whether I was going to be picked, where I was going to be picked. I think that’s what made the day so special with no expectations. It was a really special day and just unbelievable.”
The Sabres’ decision doesn’t look like much of a risk now. Bigger, stronger and wiser at the start of this season, Bloom delivered 30 goals and 61 points in 67 games. His seven shorthanded goals ranked second in the OHL, and he had 20 power-play points for Saginaw. This occurred after Bloom was a standout performer at the Sabres’ Prospect Challenge last September, showcasing his speed and skill against his peers.
The Spirit missed the OHL playoffs this season, but Bloom’s third year in Saginaw will be spent alongside Michael Minsa, a 15-year-old forward who received exceptional status to join the league a year early. Minsa will have an older forward there to teach him that offense won’t come easy as a first-year player in the OHL.
“Now Josh is an 18-year-old in our league, he’s put on a lot of size and credit to him, he worked out hard during Covid,” said Drinkill. “He put on the weight to be able to do that and he kept his speed. He’s just a dangerous player. He’s dangerous off the rush, he’s learned how to get into tight areas in traffic to score. He was deadly shorthanded because he figured out when to pick and choose his spots when to go and beat the D.”
Bloom will likely be back in Buffalo next month for development camp and again in September for the Prospects Challenge. He plans to spend his summer in the gym building more strength and, on the ice, preparing for his final season of junior hockey. And he’ll have the lessons learned from competing against top prospects and hardened veterans in Rochester, where he got to see how Quinn, Peterka, Peyton Krebs and others readied for games and competed against each other in practice.
“It was a giant step in my career and kind of missing that second year may have affected me here and there, still having rookie tendencies in a third-year game,” Bloom said of his season. “I think having my third year and stepping into my fourth, it’s going to be big and I’m going to take huge strides this coming summer. Just excited to show what I can do with another year.”