While 2008-09 had several of Buffalo’s promising prospects make the move from college to the pros, the majority were not able to make the permanent jump to the big league. The crop of talent in the Buffalo organization in their early 20′s, which includes Chris Butler, Nathan Gerbe, Mike Weber, Marc-Andre Gragnani, and Tim Kennedy, all had an important year developmentally in Portland, and each player saw time in the NHL. Whether it was Butler playing in 47 games and growing into a fixture on the Sabres defense, or Tim Kennedy getting a one-game homecoming in late December, this group of players saw where the bar is set in order to play at the highest level. It will be incumbent upon them to make the necessary improvements if they are going to be serious contributors for the Sabres next season.
Jhonas Enroth is a notable exception to this list, as the 20-year-old is a big part of Buffalo’s core group of prospects. While he was called up during the Ryan Miller injury to serve as backup to Patrick Lalime, he did not see any ice time.
“Arial”>Chris Butler, D
Drafted: 4th round, 96th overall, 2005
One of the bright spots in the Sabres season was the 22-year-old Butler. The St. Louis native stepped right in to the Buffalo defensive corps, and impressed with his smart play and well-rounded game. As a rookie, he had a +11, which was best on the blueline and second on the team. He finished out the season with two goals, four assists, and 18 penalty minutes in 47 games.
When Butler was called up in mid-December, it was unclear what his role with the team would be. He was called in due to injury, and it was also presumed that he was behind Weber on the depth chart. However, due to his performance in the NHL and Weber’s injury concerns this year, the Sabres were not able to keep Butler off the ice. He did have a rough patch during a Western swing in late January, but rebounded well, particularly when paired with team captain Craig Rivet. Based on his reliable, effective style of play, it would not be a surprise to see Butler on Buffalo’s top pairing next season.
Mark Mancari, RW
Drafted: 7th round, 207th overall, 2004
Mancari, turning 24 in July, is slightly older than the rest of the players coming through Buffalo’s pipeline, and could not quite seize the opportunity to be the effort and toughness contributor that the Sabres wanted. THey ultimately turned to undistinguished veteran Matt Ellis to provide this.
At 6’4, 225 lbs., Mancari has the size that Buffalo needs, but did not show a consistent willingness to bang and go to the net in his seven games with the Sabres early in the season. He was able to score one goal and one assist, with four penalty minutes and a -4 rating during that span. Although he got off to a quick start in AHL Portland, and has been able to exert his will at that level with his size, he will need to reshape his game in order to stick in the NHL. If he can add that consistent grit and energy to his game, he can be a contributor as a third or fourth-liner at the next level.
Nathan Gerbe, LW
Drafted: 5th round, 142nd overall, 2005
Gerbe had a tremendous regular season in Portland, scoring 30 goals and 26 assists in 57 games, and earning AHL Rookie of the Year honors for his efforts. During his 10 games in Buffalo, he did not show the same type of confidence in his scoring ability that he exhibited at the AHL level. He contributed one assist, with a +3 rating and four penalty minutes during his stay with the Sabres. Players of his size (listed at 5’6, 160 lbs.) have to be blessed with a unique ability to create space in order to get their shot off, and Gerbe has not yet shown that skill at the NHL level thus far.
Based on his standout performances in the NCAA and the AHL, and marked improvement at each previous level, the 21-year-old should be able to ultimately adjust to the speed and size differences in the National Hockey League. The Sabres have played him at left wing, a switch from his previous center position, and he should be a respectable second-line player there once he gains confidence playing among the world’s best.
Mike Weber, D
Drafted: 2nd round, 57th overall, 2006
This was a bit of a lost season for Weber. After showing a great deal of promise in Buffalo towards the end of the 2007-08, season, it was expected that he would join Andrej Sekera as one of the young defensemen on the Sabres roster. Due to nagging injuries, he was not able to fulfill that promise this season, and had surgery for a separated shoulder. The 21-year-old had a -3 rating and 19 penalty minutes in seven games with the Sabres.
Marc-Andre Gragnani, D
Drafted: 3rd round, 87th overall, 2005
For a Buffalo defensive corps that lacks grit and consistency, Gragnani may be a round peg in a square hole. He is a smooth-skating converted forward who is at his best when stickhandling and creating from the point. One could argue that the Sabres never properly replaced Brian Campbell’s unique contributions as a mail-carrying defenseman, and that Gragnani may help fill that void. He was called up due to injuries with the Sabres, and did not look out of place in four games. The 22-year-old had two penalty minutes and a +2 rating in that time.
Tim Kennedy, LW
Drafted: 6th round, 181st overall, 2005 (Washington)
Kennedy spent one game with his hometown Sabres in a late-December contest at the HSBC Arena. Although he did not get on the stat sheet, the game was a precursor of things to come. Having just turned 23, and with an AHL season under his belt (73 games, 18 goals, 49 assists, All-Rookie Team), he should be able to contribute for Buffalo next season as a third-line forward with some opportunistic scoring, particularly if he can improve his defensive play.