Buffalo Sabres remain in state of transition at NHL and minor league levels

By Jason Chen

Phil Varone - Buffalo Sabres

Photo: Forward Phil Varone currently leads the Rochester Americans with 29 points through 32 games. Varone is in his third year at the AHL level. (courtesy of Abelimages/Getty Images)

The Rochester Americans, the AHL affiliate of the Buffalo Sabres, made their return to the Spengler Cup this winter after placing third in 1996. However, the Amerks were outmatched in the prestigious tournament this time around, allowing 15 goals and losing all three of their games. Participating in the tournament meant taking a 12-day break from AHL play, but three extra games' worth of experience can be beneficial to a young team.

The Sabres have a number of prospects who will start appearing in the NHL in a few seasons' time. Playoff memories from 2011 seem like eons ago, and Sabres fans have showered the team with sarcastic cheers a few times this season. But, when it comes to player development, patience can go a long way. Zemgus Girgensons spent the previous season in the AHL before becoming a regular for the Sabres, even though some felt he was ready for the NHL as an 18-year-old. There is a good chance Girgensons will be the only rookie who will play the full season between the four teenagers who started with the team in October.

With so many prospects, it has been tough to find playing time and roster spots. The Sabres are shuttling players to and from Rochester, seemingly on a weekly basis, and loaning several players to the ECHL. It has been a long season for the lottery-bound Sabres, but the team will continue to swallow the losses if it means making the right moves for the future.

NHL

Zemgus Girgensons, RW, 20

Just four years ago, Girgensons played Tier III hockey for the Green Mountain Glades in the Eastern Junior Hockey League, two tiers below the USHL. Now 20 years old, the Latvian center is the Sabres' youngest player on most nights, missing just one game this season. Interim head coach Ted Nolan, who also coaches the Latvian national team, was familiar with Girgensons prior to joining the Sabres and often praises his versatility and strong two-way play.

Girgensons is projected to be an NHL center in the future, but has not gained Nolan's trust to play the middle of the ice yet. Instead, he found a temporary home on the Sabres' top line as a winger, where his skating and size is helping generate some offense. Spending a year in the AHL really helped in preparing Girgensons for the NHL, and his 14 points ranks fifth on the team.

Mikhail Grigorenko, C, 19

Grigorenko was not getting any ice time with the Sabres and appeared in just 18 games, often criticized for being inconsistent on offense and barely visible on defense. The Sabres tried assigning him to Rochester, but were vetoed since teenagers drafted from the CHL are ineligible to play in the AHL. To give the talented forward a chance to play more regularly and build his confidence, the Sabres elected to loan him out for the World Junior Championships. He did not disappoint, leading Russia with eight points in seven games en route to a bronze medal finish.

Though Grigorenko was criticized yet again in the team's final game against Canada, the Sabres have to be pleased with his play in the tournament. (Nikita Zadorov, who started the season with the Sabres, also had a good showing and was named to the tournament all-star team.) However, the Sabres still feel Grigorenko is not ready for a regular NHL role and could send him back to the Quebec Remparts for the season.

Brian Flynn, C, 25

On a team that seems to be in a constant state of flux, the former Maine Black Bear captain has quietly carved out a role as one of the Sabres' most reliable, hard-working players in the bottom six. A center in college, Flynn is a better fit as a right winger in the NHL, but his versatility gives Nolan a chance to move him around the lineup. On a team that lacks natural centers, Flynn has been an anchor as the pivot on the fourth line. The 25-year-old forward is older than his rookie peers, and the maturity in his game is obvious, with just one minor penalty in 66 NHL games. He has the makings of a depth winger with the ability to score 15 goals a season.

Mark Pysyk, D, 21

Drafted in the first round in 2010, the lack of physical strength has not impeded Pysyk's journey to the NHL, who uses his smooth skating ability to move the puck up and down the ice efficiently. He is often in good position, and is tied for fourth on the team in blocked shots as one of the team's regular penalty killers. In the rare occasions where Pysyk is a healthy scratch, Nolan insists it is because he wants to give other players a chance to play.

The young defenseman was assigned to Rochester for the Spengler Cup, and collected an assist in three games. In 37 NHL games this season, Pysyk has five points. He lacks the dynamic offensive ability to quarterback a power play or the physical toughness to be a top-notch penalty killer, but has the makings of a solid second-pairing defenseman.

AHL

Matt Hackett, G, 23

After joining the Amerks at the trade deadline last year, Hackett closed out the season with a 1.62 goals against average and a .955 save percentage in three appearances. With 132 games of experience over three full seasons with the Houston Aeros, he was seen as a logical replacement for 29-year-old David Leggio, who had no future with a rebuilding franchise. This season, Hackett has just nine wins in 22 starts his numbers, a .904 save percentage and 2.92 goals against average, are also disappointing.

Hackett made four appearances in the Spengler Cup, two as the Amerks' starter and one in relief for Nathan Lieuwen, and then another for Team Canada as their emergency backup in the semifinal. None of his appearances were memorable as he allowed 14 goals in the tournament. The 2009 third round pick will be a restricted free agent this summer. He has the potential to be a starter in the NHL, but the hotheaded goalie's play this year has cast some doubt.

Nathan Lieuwen, G, 22

The lanky WHL product spent most of last season in the ECHL with Greenville, appearing in 27 games and winning 14, both of which were team-highs. He was called up to the AHL for four games in early February and played well, stopping 102 of 111 shots. He won the backup job this year and has been the recipient of starts conceded by Hackett's poor play, and may even have an opportunity to leapfrog him on the depth chart. Lieuwen has a 2.78 goals against average and .913 save percentage this season. He started the quarterfinal against Team Canada at the Spengler Cup after the Amerks lost two straight games, but lasted just one period after allowing three goals.

Joel Armia, RW, 20

The Finnish sniper has four goals in 20 games with the Amerks, which is a disappointing total for a player who scored 55 goals over three years as a teenager in Finland's top league. However, Armia suffered a broken hand late in camp and could still be feeling its effects. This is his first season playing North America as well, and adjustments have to be made. Armia has not shown much offense this year despite some hype, but perhaps next year, when he feels more comfortable, his goal-scoring prowess will be more visible. He has the makings of a top-six winger, but will need some time to get there.

Colin Jacobs, RW, 20

Jacobs' prospects of playing pro after his third year with the Seattle Thunderbirds looked pretty bleak, until a trade brought him to Prince George. A player who benefitted from a change in scenery, Jacobs posted career highs in his final season of major junior hockey, with 25 goals and 28 assists through 66 games. He joined the Amerks on an amateur tryout and scored three points in 11 games, and was rewarded for his hard work with an entry-level contract.

This season, Jacobs spent some time in the ECHL, but will stay with Rochester for most of the season. In 17 AHL games, he has one assist. The 2011 fourth round pick has limited potential and figures to spent a lot more time in the minors.

Daniel Catenacci, RW, 20

A center in the OHL, Catenacci plays almost exclusively on the wing in the pros. A move back to center is possible, but the added responsibility of playing center is not something Catenacci is ready for. He is quick and aggressive along the boards, but gets stood up by the AHL's bigger defensemen. His output so far, just three goals in 32 games, leaves a lot to be desired and he is finding it difficult to create space and shooting lanes in the pros.

He did have a good showing at the Spengler Cup, collecting two points in three games while playing on the top line with Phil Varone and Luke Adam. Catenacci needs more experience in the minors, but has the makings of an NHL player, potentially in a second or third line scoring role.

Johan Larsson, C, 21

Interim head coach Ted Nolan did not think Larsson's 41-point rookie season in the AHL last year was enough seasoning, and assigned the Swedish forward to Rochester just before Christmas. He was recalled to the NHL shortly after the New Year and has appeared in two NHL games since then. He has one assist in 20 NHL games and nine points in 14 AHL games on the season.

Larsson is considered to be an above average offensive talent, but is known more for his strong two-way play, versatility, and work ethic. He will likely continue to split the remainder of the 2013-14 season between the AHL and NHL.

Phil Varone, C, 23

Varone is one of Rochester's smallest players, but arguably their best. The feisty, fearless playmaker leads the Amerks with 29 points in 32 games, bouncing back nicely from a disappointing sophomore season. The former San Jose draft pick is on pace to produce nearly 60 points in the second year of his entry-level contract, which bodes well for his development. Varone led the team in scoring at the Spengler Cup with four points in three games.

His future is difficult to project. His scoring ability limits his effectiveness to a top-six role, but whether or not he can do that in the NHL remains to be seen.

Kevin Sundher, LW, 21

It has taken a little time for Sundher to adjust to the speed and physicality of play in the pros, despite four years in the WHL. He scored four goals in 38 games last year and three goals in 32 games this year, despite recently playing in a top six role. It is an improvement from being a healthy scratch last year, but Sundher still has a long road before making the NHL.

With a year left on his entry-level deal, Sundher will remain the Sabres' property until next summer, giving him another year to improve.

Tim Schaller, RW, 23

Schaller was signed as a free agent after winning Hockey East's Best Defensive Forward award in his senior year while playing with a torn labrum. In 131 career games in the NCAA, the 6'2 forward has 29 goals, which shows his limited offensive ability.

A player who loves the physical side of the game, Schaller is playing on the wing at the moment, though a switch back to his natural center position is possible. His first season will be a year of adjustments, but he should improve as the season goes on.

Rasmus Ristolainen, D, 19

Ristolainen made the NHL club out of training camp, but did not play or perform consistently. Upon taking over the coaching duties, Nolan gave Ristolainen a look, but assigned the 19-year-old to the minors shortly thereafter. Despite being a two-year veteran of the Finnish pro leagues, playing on a smaller surface against bigger players is taking time to adjust. In Rochester, Ristolainen played much better but has a tendency to try and do too much, making the game harder for himself.

The Sabres felt Ristolainen's development would get a boost from playing in the World Junior Championships and the young Finn was outstanding. He scored the overtime winner to clinch gold for Finland, their first since 1998, and was named the tournament's best defenseman.

Ristolainen will likely spend the rest of the season with Rochester, and then make another run for a spot on Buffalo's blue line next year.

Brayden McNabb, D, 22

The hard-shooting Kootenay Ice graduate is leading Amerks defensemen in scoring yet again, with 15 points in 19 games. McNabb has been shuffled to and from Buffalo this season as the Sabres continue their mid-season makeover, and finds himself in the midst of a logjam on the blue line. Even when McNabb, who appeared in six games with the Sabres, plays well, Nolan is rotating several players on the third pairing to keep everyone fresh.

McNabb is in the final year of his entry-level contract but his strong play warrants an extension and a chance to become an NHL regular. He will get a long look for the rest of the season with Buffalo after playing with Rochester at the Spengler Cup. Often seen as a lesser and left-shooting version of Shea Weber, McNabb's mix of size and power is hard to find.

Chad Ruhwedel, D, 23

The Sabres' prized signing out of UMass-Lowell, Ruhwedel's strong two-way play has propelled him to the top of the depth charts and currently plays on the Amerks' top pairing with McNabb. A right-hand shot with 15 career goals in the NCAA over three seasons, Ruhwedel is not having any problems adjusting to the pros. He was fighting for one of the last spots in Buffalo in camp, but will be brought along more slowly in the minors. He currently has 15 points in 28 AHL games.

Jerome Gauthier-Leduc, D, 21

Gauthier-Leduc was an offensive specialist with 130 points in 123 games in his two years with the Rimouski Oceanic. He struggled in his first season with the speed and size of AHL players, scoring just seven points in 48 games. Working with former NHL defensemen Philippe Boucher over the summer, Gauthier-Leduc is faring much better in his second season with nine points in 31 games. He is still a long shot to make the Sabres, considering the number of players ahead of him, but his play is trending upwards. He is in the second year of his entry-level contract.

Nick Crawford, D, 23

A sixth round pick from 2008, Crawford received a one-year extension last year after his entry-level contract expired. Though his scoring totals have dipped every year, Crawford was a staple on the Amerks' blue line for three seasons, appearing in 199 AHL games, and was given another one-year audition. With nine points in 28 games, he has not shown any significant improvements. He has spent most of his AHL career as a third-pairing defenseman and will likely be replaced next year if his development continues to remain stagnant.

Matt MacKenzie, D, 22

The four-year WHL veteran saw limited action last year with 30 appearances for Rochester and another two with Greenville in the ECHL. He is playing a regular role this season on the team's second pairing and appeared in all three Spengler Cup games playing alongside journeyman Drew Bagnall.

MacKenzie's improvement is encouraging, especially this being the final year of his entry-level contract. The Sabres have plenty of depth on the blue line and a treasure chest full of picks in upcoming NHL Drafts, so MacKenzie's future with the team is still unclear. However, like Crawford and ECHL forward Jonathan Parker, he could earn a one-year extension.

ECHL

Andrey Makarov, G, 20

After sustaining a lower body injury late October, Makarov was assigned to the Fort Wayne Komets in the ECHL. He has stayed there all season, and not because his play does not warrant a promotion. Makarov's 2.77 goals against average is 10th in the league among goalies with at least 15 appearances. The Komets are toiling near the bottom of the Eastern Conference yet again, but the former Saskatoon Blade is playing a lot, appearing in 19 of 30 games. He possesses arguably the most potential of Buffalo's four minor league goalies and will gain invaluable experience as he is climbs up the minors.

Connor Knapp, G, 23

Knapp is a little older than Lieuwen, even though both goalies turned pro at the same time last year, and almost by default had a higher slot on the depth chart. As a result, Knapp spent more time in Rochester than Lieuwen, even though Lieuwen seemed to be the stronger goalie. This season, Knapp lost the AHL backup job to Lieuwen, but has excelled in the ECHL with a .933 save percentage, one of the best in the league. It is very encouraging that the Sabres have found places for all of their minor league goalies to get consistent playing time. Like Hackett, Knapp is in the final year of his entry-level contract.

Jonathan Parker, RW, 22

A former 45-goal scorer with the Prince Albert Raiders, Parker appeared in just 67 AHL games since turning pro in 2011. The California native split his rookie season between the AHL and ECHL, and appeared in 28 games last year while tending to his father, who died of cancer in July 2013. He started the 2013-14 season with the Amerks but was later assigned to the Colorado Eagles in the ECHL early November, where he managed 20 points in 21 games. He was recently recalled to the AHL, where he has played four games this season.

Parker is a skilled player, but has not gained a lot of experience the past three years. If he continues to play well and improve, the Sabres could opt to give the hard-working player another one-year audition.

Shawn Szydlowski, RW, 23

The Michigan-native signed as an undrafted free agent after four years with the Erie Otters, where he improved his point totals every year. He was a strong winger in the OHL, but at 6' he cannot play a similar type of game in the pros. Szydlowski is still looking for his first career AHL goal, three years and 62 appearances after signing in 2011. He spent the majority of last year in the Central Hockey League and finished 10th in team scoring. He has only two assists in 21 games with Fort Wayne this season. More changes are coming in Buffalo, and Szydlowski, in the final year of his entry-level contract, is unlikely to earn an extension.

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