Buffalo Sabres possess deep and talented group at junior level

By Jason Chen

Brady Austin - Buffalo Sabres

Photo: Defenseman Brady Austin has provided a steadying presence along the London Knights blue line. Austin started the 2013-14 season with the Belleville Bulls, but was traded to the Knights on October 9th. (courtesy of Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

Saying the Buffalo Sabres are off to a tumultuous start would be an understatement. With just six wins in 30 games, their point percentage of .233 projects to be the worst in franchise history. The Sabres have recently put together better performances under interim head coach Ted Nolan, but remain dead last in the NHL.

The Sabres had as many as four teenagers in the lineup on some nights earlier in the 2013-14 season, when Darcy Regier and Ron Rolston were with the team. However, new team president Pat LaFontaine decided the team's young players were better off fine-tuning their game at lower levels rather than toughing it out in the big league with limited minutes.

The re-build took a step backwards this year, with the team performing well below expectations. On the bright side, their junior prospects have been playing very, very well.

OHL

Justin Bailey, RW, Kitchener Rangers
Acquired: 2nd round (52nd overall) in 2013

When observers describe Bailey, two words often come to mind: "raw" and "potential." The burgeoning power forward performed well in his first season of elite level hockey with Kitchener, scoring 36 points in 57 games. Scouts praised his size, strong skating stride, willingness to battle in the corners and deft hands, but also noted his inability to put everything together on a nightly basis. His game has been more consistent this season, and his minus-eight rating should be attributed to the Rangers' poor goaltending rather than his defensive deficiencies.

Bailey grew up a Sabres fan, was mentored by former members of the team including Matthew Barnaby, and established ties with the franchise even before they drafted him. He also played under LaFontaine for the Long Island Royals prior to joining the Rangers. The 18-year-old will play a few more seasons in the OHL to further polish his game before turning pro, but on a team that lacks size and toughness, he is an intriguing prospect to keep an eye on.

Nick Baptiste, RW, Sudbury Wolves
Acquired: 3rd round (69th overall) in 2013

Baptiste has been on fire since the beginning of the season and has scored 19 goals in 30 games, compared to last year when he managed only 21 in 66 games. The big boost in production is not surprising, since his stock has been steadily rising since last spring. He was named to Team OHL for the Subway Series and had a good showing, playing with his usual gumption on the top line with Scott Laughton (PHI) and Max Domi (PHX). The feisty winger is not afraid of physical play and models his game after Wayne Simmonds and Ryan Kesler.

The key for Baptiste is to keep the momentum going. He has five multi-goal games this year and his 17 points in 10 October games earned him the team's three star award winner. November proved a little less fruitful with 12 points in 13 games, but the third round pick seems to be getting better and better. Down the road, Baptiste could be a second line, do-it-all winger for the Sabres.

Eric Locke, LW, Saginaw Spirit
Acquired: 7th round (189th overall) in 2013

The first thing scouts and teammates will notice about Locke is the superb release on his shot. Saginaw head coach Greg Gilbert was reaching when he likened it to Brett Hull's, but there is no doubt Locke is one of the better shooters in the OHL, and he scored 44 goals in 68 games last year to prove it. The Saginaw captain has made improvements in virtually all aspects of his game and the coaches love it, comparing his fiery competitiveness to players such as Cory Conacher (OTT) and Brendan Gallagher (MTL). Locke's performance at the Traverse City Tournament over the summer was impressive, but he did not earn a contract from the Sabres.

Locke scored eight goals in 15 games before sustaining a shoulder injury that will force him to miss an extended amount of time. The Spirit are chasing the Greyhounds for the division lead in a tough Western Conference and certainly miss having him in the lineup. Prior to his injury, like Baptiste, Locke was considered an up-and-comer despite his status as a seventh round pick. The Sabres have a history of unearthing late round gems in the past (Brian Campbell and Ryan Miller among the most notable) and Locke could be one of them.

Justin Kea, C, Saginaw Spirit
Acquired: 3rd round (73rd overall) in 2012

The 6'4, 200-pound center is affectionately nicknamed "Jumbo" and he has certainly lived up to it with 28 points in 31 games while playing in all situations for the Spirit. He had a slow start to the season, failing to score in his first six games and posted a minus-six rating, but quickly followed it up with 12 points in October and 13 points in November. He has taken on a bigger role with captain Eric Locke sidelined and the extra responsibility has pushed his game to a higher level.

After being named an assistant captain last year, Kea's confidence is growing and that is the key to his success. Few players in the OHL can compete with his size, and with the added strength and conditioning gained over the summer, he has been a force all over the ice. Kea is a few years away from the NHL as he continues to work on his conditioning, skating, and the finer details. He has a tendency to over-handle the puck and do too much by himself, but that is a relatively easy problem to fix. Kea has the makings of an imposing third line two-way center, such as a Michal Handzus or Dainius Zubrus.

Brady Austin, D, London Knights
Acquired: 7th round (193rd overall) in 2012

Austin enters his final season of OHL eligibility and has one final chance to earn a contract with the Sabres. After spending two years and the first seven games of the 2013-14 season with Belleville, Austin was traded for Remi Elie (DAL) to a vaunted London Knights team, where he is expected to provide some veteran leadership in the locker room and on the ice. The hulking 6'4, 225-pound defenseman is on pace for a career season with 14 points in 30 games. His previous career high was 26 set during the 2011-12 season.

The Knights are one of the best teams in the OHL and Austin is also quietly playing some of his best hockey. The spike in his scoring is most likely a product of both and he has an uphill climb to make the Sabres, who already have a number of talented young defensemen.

Nikita Zadorov, D, London Knights
Acquired: 1st round (16th overall) in 2013

Zadorov was used sparingly under former head coach Ron Rolston in Buffalo, leaving some to scratch their heads over the team's plan for the big Russian defenseman. At first, Zadorov was praised for his physical play and ability to handle forwards in the NHL, but with more showings it became apparent he needed to work on his defensive positioning and awareness. After Rolston was fired, Zadorov was sent back to the OHL and promptly named to Team Russia for the Subway Super Series and, without missing a beat, collected three assists in a 5-2 win. As an added bonus, Zadorov flattened 2014 draft eligible Aaron Ekblad with a heavy hit to assert his physical dominance on the ice.

In London, Zadorov will be relied on heavily at both ends of the ice and play 25-plus minutes a night. The Knights have an excellent goalie in Anthony Stolarz (PHI), but the 6'5, 225-pound defenseman will still be tasked with clearing the crease. The Sabres' first round pick has untapped offensive potential and, so far, moving back to London seems to be the right move for his development. Zadorov will make another run at making the Sabres lineup next season with Henrik Tallinder and Alexander Sulzer set to become UFAs.

WHL

Logan Nelson, C, Victoria Royals
Acquired: 5th round (133rd overall) in 2012

The Sabres rarely venture into the WHL to make their picks, which makes Nelson an even more intriguing prospect. A scoring center with good playmaking ability, Nelson enters his final season of junior eligibility. He suffered a broken ankle that limited him to just 49 games last year, but since moving from the USHL in 2011, Nelson has scored 137 points in 153 WHL games. The Royals have been on of late, winning seven of their last 10, and Nelson is leading the team in scoring with 32 points in 33 games. As further evidence to how important Nelson is to the Royals, five of his 12 goals have been game winners.

Nelson was not expected to turn pro this past summer and was one of the first few cuts in training camp, along with Bailey, Baptiste, and Kea, players who needed a little more seasoning and polish to their games. The Sabres pipeline is stocked with talent but still may give Nelson a look at the end of the season. He has accomplished quite a bit on the stats sheet without a lot of help in Victoria and perhaps giving him a chance to prove himself at the AHL level could push his game to another level.  

USHL

Cal Petersen, G, Waterloo Black Hawks
Acquired: 5th round (129th overall) in 2013

The Waterloo-native returned to his hometown for his second full season as a Black Hawk. Through 14 starts, Petersen has a 2.61 goals against average and an 11-2-1-1 record, including a perfect 5-0 record in October with wins over conference leaders Omaha and Sioux Falls.

Petersen's strong play has caught the attention of scouts and he was tabbed as Team USA's starter for the World Junior A Challenge in early November. The 19-year-old did not disappoint, making 16 saves and leading USA to a 4-1 win over Russia in the final to capture gold. He finished the tournament with three wins and a 2.67 goals against average.

Petersen is committed to Notre Dame next year, where he will stay for at least a couple of seasons before turning pro.

Connor Hurley, C, Muskegon Lumberjacks
Acquired: 2nd round (38th overall) in 2013

A teammate of Petersen's at the World Junior A Challenge, Hurley was one of USA's top players, playing alongside Kyle Connor and highly regarded 2014 draft eligible Nick Schmaltz. Hurley had a fantastic tournament, scoring 10 points in five games and earned all-tournament honors. The 18-year-old elected to play another year in the USHL, alongside older brother Cullen, in order to pack on more muscle and has 14 points in 19 games this year.

The highest drafted high school player in the 2013 draft, Hurley is a talented playmaker, often using his long reach to get behind defenders. He will join Petersen as part of Notre Dame's strong 2014-15 freshmen class.

Judd Peterson, RW, Cedar Rapids RoughRiders
Acquired: 7th round (204th overall) in 2012

After scoring 11 goals in 46 games last year, Peterson is on pace to easily double that total with nine goals in his first 20 games. He got off to a good start this season, scoring a pair of goals in a 6-3 win over Lincoln and finished with four goals in five games in October. His production could however be more consistent. The 20-year-old already has two three-game pointless streaks and is currently riding a five-game scoring drought.

Peterson is prone to losing his composure, which resulted in a one-game suspension after being handed a major for slashing against Youngstown, and maintaining a level head is something he will have to work on. The Duluth Marshall High School (Minn.) product is committed to St. Cloud State next year, where he is expected to contribute as a scorer.

Other Notes

Freshman center JT Compher has been a standout for the Michigan Wolverines this season. It was a disappointing season for the Michigan last year, as they finished below .500 for the first time since the 1986-87 season, Red Berenson's third season with the team.

Berenson's 30th season behind the bench has been a much more positive experience, and part of that is because due the play of Compher, who currently leads the team in scoring with 14 points in 13 games. The competitive, speedy, two-way center was recently named to Team USA's preliminary roster for the World Juniors, along with teammates Tyler Motte (CHI) and Andrew Copp (WIN), and most observers believe Compher will be a key player for that team.  

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