Even though the Rochester Americans have struggled, the Sabres have both hits and misses among their AHL prospects.
Considering the very young Americans have the third-worst winning percentage in the American Hockey League, Buffalo Sabre goaltending prospect Adam Dennis‘ 9-8-0-1 record is surprisingly solid. Florida Panthers‘ prospects David Shantz and Tyler Plante have combined for a record of 2-13-0-1. The Sabres and Panthers are the only NHL teams that share an AHL franchise, making it necessary to share goaltending and a host of other playing duties.
Dennis’ game is unconventional and frequently not pretty. His skating needs work and he gets overly adventurous with the puck, but he is as competitive as goalies come. He never gives up on the puck and has earned every bit of his .895 save percentage. Dennis has seen an average of 32 shots a game, and because of the young defense in front of him many of those shots are legitimate scoring chances. He’s much better than his statistics indicate. If Dennis continues to develop at his current pace, he could reach his projected upside as a quality NHL backup.
Starting 2007-08 with five of Buffalo’s young defensive prospects in the team’s top six has not made life easy for the Americans. With three second-year and two first-year defenders, the Amerks have the youngest and likely the weakest defense in the AHL.
Marc-Andre Gragnani, 20, while still an elite prospect, has struggled with a -26 in 36 games. Gragnani was a purely offensive defenseman coming out of the QMJHL and it shows. At times Gragnani doesn’t even pretend to be interested in playing defense and looks like he’s playing rover. But it’s his first year as a pro and he has been a valuable offensive contributor with 16 points so far this season.
Gragnani played a key role in Rochester’s most important victory this season. Down 4-0 with just over two minutes remaining in the second period, the Amerks started an incredible 5-4 comeback victory on the strength of a Gragnani point shot high in the top corner against a seemingly unbeatable Jaroslav Halak. The Nov. 9 road victory against the Calder Cup Champion Bulldogs has been one of the few highlights in a season of disappointments for the Amerks.
Another highlight has been the play of first-year pro Mike Weber. Weber, 20, was called up to Buffalo in late October and played an average of 12 minutes in four games for the Sabres. Weber has been by far the most polished defender for the Amerks this season, scoring eight points and +1 in 31 games. Weber has rocketed up the Sabres defensive depth chart this season and sits behind only Andrej Sekera.
Sekera, 21, promoted twice to the Sabres this season, was a -5 in 21 games playing top six minutes for the struggling Buffalo squad. Currently back in Rochester where he has more of an offensive role, Sekera has nine points in 17 games but is a disappointing -8. Sekera’s -8 in only 17 games emphasizes just how good Weber’s +1 has been this season. Weber, who turned 20 on Dec. 16, is the youngest of the Sabres pro defensive prospects and is already the best in his own zone.
Michael Funk and Mike Card have both missed significant time due to injury this season. Both have also been disappointing, especially Funk who came to camp in great shape but has not been able to translate his superb conditioning into improved play. In 26 games this season, Funk has three points and is second among Amerks’ defenders at -6. Card has similar numbers but has less responsibility than Funk. Card’s -7 and 5 points in 21 games need to improve soon otherwise he’ll be the odd man out when the Sabres bring in their next wave of defensemen from Europe, Junior and the NCAA.
Clarke MacArthur is far and away the best offensive prospect in the Sabres organization right now. MacArthur played for the Sabres all through November and again in late December. He was first star and scored the game winner against Boston on Nov. 7 and scored twice and was again the first star in a 4-1 win over Montreal on Nov. 16. With three goals in 12 games already, MacArthur is likely to exceed his NHL game total (19) from last year. MacArthur, 22, has also produced for the Americans, scoring 11 goals and 29 points in 25 games.
Mark Mancari‘s numbers this year really emphasize his playing inclinations. Mancari, 22, a 6’4, 225-pound playmaker, has 19 assists and 26 points in 36 games. Not a fast skater, nor overly aggressive, Mancari has the reach and a gift for playmaking that belie his size and skating speed. A true hockey enigma, Mancari has an odd mix of skills. The one skill that Mancari must improve on is his skating speed. Although his quickness is not an issue, Mancari is a half-step too slow.
Marek Zagrapan put on some weight over the summer and decided he’d become a goal scorer. He’s been relatively successful potting 12 goals and 21 points in 35 games, but his woeful -16 has to improve before he’ll see any time with the Sabres. Although only 21, time is running out for the former mid first-round draft pick to make his mark. Fellow 2005 first -round picks Bobby Ryan, Jack Johnson, Carey Price, Anze Kopitar, Marc Staal, Luc Bourdon, Martin Hanzal, Andrew Cogliano and Matt Niskanen have all made their mark at the minor pro level and have moved on to regular or semi-regular NHL duty. Zagrapan continues to wallow away in AHL mediocrity, rarely standing out on this Rochester team. There is still time but it’s slowly slipping away.
Dylan Hunter and Patrick Kaleta are both checkers but for entirely different reasons. Hunter has nice hands and good hockey sense but needs to improve his skating. Kaleta can skate and really likes to hit but needs to improve his puck skills. Hunter is focusing more on his offensive game this season, scoring seven goals and 17 points in 30 games. Unfortunately his defensive game has taken a hit, dropping to -9. Kaleta meanwhile has stuck to his defensive game earning an excellent -2 in 23 games. Kaleta is more of a sure thing and look for him to be the first of the two checkers to stick with the Sabres. Hunter’s offensive game gives him a greater upside but his poor skating makes him an NHL wildcard.