Rebuilding Buffalo Sabres boast deep, talented group of prospects

By Jason Chen
Jake McCabe - Buffalo Sabres

Photo: Defenseman Jake McCabe is one of several Buffalo Sabres defensive prospects who are pushing for spots in the NHL. McCabe was a second round pick from 2012. (courtesy of Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon Sportswire)

 

Once the Buffalo Sabres are done collecting their puzzle pieces, it will be a matter of figuring out how they will all fit together. The Sabres have the cornerstones in place with Sam Reinhart at center and Rasmus Ristolainen on defense, but the short-term focus is to make sure that every prospect in the organization takes a step forward.

The team is well represented at nearly every level, though many players are going through growing pains. With so many prospects, the Sabres are elevating the standard of competition, ensuring that only the cream of the crop rise to the top. It is a work in progress that will require a lot of patience.

Left Wing

On the left wing, 2014 second-round pick Brendan Lemieux leads a high-flying and abrasive group. A player who relishes being the villain on the ice, Lemieux is also expected to be a key offensive player for the Barrie Colts, but he can get carried away with the physical play and lose focus. Lemieux can be a very well rounded player and be equal parts scorer and pest. The Colts are without Aaron Ekblad (FLA), so Lemieux is expected to be a leader as well.

In the pros, defenseman-turned-winger Nicolas Deslauriers made the Sabres roster out of training camp while Daniel Catenacci, William Carrier, and Jordan Samuels-Thomas continue to develop in the AHL with the Rochester Americans. All three players bring an element of speed and physical play to the lineup. Deslauriers skates well and hits anything that moves, but is still adjusting to a new position. He can still play defense, though, so the Sabres can find other ways to deploy him.

In Catenacci, the Amerks have an undersized player who can play a loud game but lacks confidence and experience. Over his final three OHL seasons Catenacci performed well above the competition, but the fear is that he may have stayed one year too long, switched on autopilot, and got a little shell shock playing against pros.

On the other hand, after battling a series of injuries, Carrier is finally back on track. Carrier plays with an edge as well, but has a bigger frame, higher ceiling, and is more comfortable playing either wing. Similar can be said for Samuels-Thomas, 24, a power forward who does a good job of creating space with his 6’3 frame. He is physically mature but needs work in other areas of the game.

In SwedenGustav Possler continues to mold himself into a sniper with game-breaking speed. Possler scored eight goals in 22 games last year, including a streak of seven straight games with a goal, tying a SHL record. MODO is off to a poor start and Possler has only two goals in 14 games, but he is coming off a significant knee injury that cut his season short last year. Consistency is key for the opportunistic scorer, who either scores in bunches or not at all.

At the amateur level, former Massachusetts high school standout Max Willman will be suiting up for Brown University and should be one of their better offensive players. While Willman enters a new stage in his career, Brad Navin is winding his down as a senior with Wisconsin. A seventh-round pick from 2011, Navin is a checking forward who has scored just nine times in 110 games.

Center

The NHL can be a copycat league, and once when acquiring elite goalies were the craze, the focus has now shifted to depth at center. The Sabres may not have much down the middle right now, but the prospect pool is so deep some players might eventually have to shift to wing.

Reinhart, the second overall pick from 2014, will undoubtedly remain a center. He has the high hockey IQ, all-round offensive ability and desire to play defense to be a strong two-way player. However, he seemed overwhelmed by the NHL competition and saw his role reduce drastically just a few games into the season. Reinhart admitted that he is not physically strong enough yet, and the Sabres will probably re-assign him to the WHL. The hope is that once Reinhart gets a taste of the pros, he will be able to use that experience and make another run for a roster spot next year.

In Rochester, Mikhail Grigorenko is poised for a huge breakout. It was not long ago some were ready to label the dynamic Russian scorer as a “bust,” but Grigorenko had an excellent camp and was one the Sabres’ last cuts, presumably to make room for Reinhart. The Sabres could not find a proper home for Grigorenko due to contract and eligibility restrictions over the past two seasons, but he is ready to put all of that behind him. He also showed a scrappy side to his game after being assessed his first fighting major in the pros in the Amerks’ opener.

While Grigorenko gets lauded for his elite abilities with the puck, utility forward Johan Larsson continues flirt with the NHL as a tweener. Larsson leads the team in scoring through the first week, but his future in the NHL is not as a scorer. Nicknamed “Bull” for his aggressive forecheck, Larsson has not scored a goal in 29 NHL games and is more likely to become a checking winger at the NHL level.

Phil Varone, Justin Kea, Tim Schaller, and Kevin Sundher are the other centers at the pro level. Varone, the Amerks’ reigning MVP, is undersized but feisty, and showed enough ability late last year to warrant another NHL audition. If Grigorenko gets the call after Reinhart is re-assigned, Varone will take over playmaking duties. Schaller is an excellent defensive player who can provide some scoring but is projected to top out as a fourth-line checking center or left winger.

Kea and Sundher are victims of a roster squeeze and both were assigned to the Elmira Jackals in the ECHL to begin the season. Kea spent four years with the Sagniaw Spirit but remains a project, a future checking center at 6’4 and 210 pounds. Sundher, who is in the final year of his entry-level contract, has developed incrementally at best. Offensively, he has not blossomed into the scoring forward he was in the WHL and still has trouble matching the physical strength of his opponents.

In the NCAA, Michigan’s JT Compher is expected to be one of the nation’s best players, Sean Malone is looking to build on a really good freshman season with Harvard while Connor Hurley makes his debut with Notre Dame. Compher is a speedy, aggressive and versatile forward who will serve as an alternate captain. He missed the 2014 WJC with a foot injury but should be a key player for Team USA this year.

Malone scored 20 points in 31 games on a team that struggled offensively, and entering his sophomore year is expected to be one of the team’s leaders. Hurley, a lanky forward with good playmaking ability and vision, suffered a minor injury to begin the season. The highest drafted high school player in the 2013 draft (38th overall), Hurley is slated to be one of the NCAA‘s top freshmen.

Christopher Brown will join the NCAA next year at Boston College, following the footsteps of father Doug, uncle Greg and older brother Patrick (CAR). Brown, who spent most of his minor career on the Michigan high school circuit, will play for the Green Bay Gamblers in the USHL this season. He is a scoring forward who has more upside than his brother.

Eric Cornel is Buffalo’s prized center in the OHL though he has looked far more comfortable on the right wing, which may become his permanent position. Cornel exploded from four to 25 goals in his second year, and could post over a point per game in his third year.

Right Wing

The crown jewel on the Sabres’ right wing is Joel Armia, a Finnish sniper who suffered a hand injury early last season that affected his play throughout the year. In training camp it was clear that Armia was not ready for the NHL, citing his strength, defense, and skating as obvious weaknesses. However, Armia has top-six potential and though it has been three years since his draft, a little more patience could pay huge dividends.

Colin Jacobs, whose career seemed all but over in his third year with the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds, earned a contract with his strong work ethic, but has not made an impact in the pros. He split the season between the ECHL and AHL last year and will do the same this year after being assigned to Elmira.

The Sabres will keep a keen eye on Justin Bailey and Nick Baptiste in the OHL and Vaclav Karabacek in the QMJHL. Bailey has improved every year and scored 25 goals in 54 games for the Kitchener Rangers, but was cut from camp without a contract offer or a preseason game appearance. Whether it was a reflection of his play or a motivational tool is uncertain, but he is off to a fantastic start and the reigning MVP for the Rangers is in line for a big season.

On the other hand, after a fantastic year with 89 points in 65 games for Baptiste, the newly minted co-captain of the Sudbury Wolves has yet to appear in a game. Baptiste suffered an upper body injury during the offseason, forcing him to miss camp and the beginning of the season, and his absence has resulted in a 1-11-0 start for the Wolves.

Karabacek is a scoring winger who plays a simple north-south game. He does not shy from the corners and high traffic areas, but can afford to be a little fancier with his hands. His skating and defensive play needs work, but he is off to a good start with the Gatineau Olympiques with nine points in 12 games.

The Sabres have another three prospects in the NCAA, highlighted by Hudson Fasching. He is blossoming as a power forward who thrives on scoring goals from in-close and also brings intangibles to the table. Teammate Christian Isackson will wrap up his four-year career with Minnesota this season and has five career goals over the past three seasons. Isackson tantalizes with his hands, but does not make the most of his opportunities. Sniper Judd Peterson, a seventh-round pick from 2012, will make his NCAA debut this year with St. Cloud State, and the key to his success will be to put the puck on net more often and more consistently.

In Sweden, Victor Olofsson is another young winger from MODO who will share the scoring burden with Possler. A late bloomer who grew four inches in his draft year, Olofsson is off to a solid start with four goals in 14 games. Like Possler, Olofsson can play either wing and will likely stay in Sweden for a few more years.

Defensemen

After throwing blue chip prospect Ristolainen into the fire, the Sabres are being more prudent with his development this year, playing him fewer minutes to ease him into the league while giving him looks on the second power play unit. The question going forward is if Ristolainen benefits more from playing 20-plus minutes a night in the AHL or playing 15 minutes a night in the NHL.

Jake McCabe was excellent during the Sabres camp and would be in the lineup if not for an injury. The 21-year-old is an aggressive hitter and risk-taker on offense but picks his spots well and projects to be a top-four defenseman. Mark Pysyk missed part of camp and the beginning of the season with a shoulder injury, but should get a fair shake at a roster spot. Observers are often divided about Pysyk; naysayers say he is too small and does not have a standout skill, while supporters believe he can be an excellent transition defenseman with power play potential.

Nikita Zadorov, taken eight picks after Ristolainen, has only recently played his first game of the 2014-15 season. An aggressive hitter with a powerful slap shot, the big Russian defenseman lacks experience and tends to run around a little in his own zone. Zadorov’s status to start the season was in limbo, as CSKA Moscow, the KHL that owns Zadorov’s rights, will not release him to the OHL. He is too young to play in the AHL, so he will likely play the season in the NHL or the KHL.

Chad Ruhwedel is currently one of the Amerks’ top defenseman and may find himself in Buffalo before too long. A victim of a roster squeeze, the 24-year-old is more mature and steady than the team’s other young defensemen, but also possesses the least amount of upside.

Brady Austin, who enters his first pro season, is also a steady defenseman, but plays a more stay-at-home style with his 6’4 frame. The former seventh-round pick will serve as depth, and likewise with Jerome Gauthier-Leduc, a point-per-game defenseman with the Rimouski Oceanic who has struggled to score in the pros.

Brycen Martin, the only defenseman the Sabres drafted in 2014, will spend the next couple of years in the WHL. A defenseman who many believe has more to offer offensively, the hope is that not having to cover for the flashier Julius Honka (DAL) will allow Martin to blossom in other areas of the game.

At the NCAA level, Anthony Florentino is steadily creeping up the charts. A right-shooting, two-way defenseman at Providence College who loves to hit, Florentino’s stock has trended upwards since the draft. He was invited to the U.S. National Junior Evaluation Camp, and along with Compher and Fasching, should be in the mix for the WJC for Team USA.

On the other end of the spectrum is fellow teammate Mark Adams, a 6’3, 210 lbs. stay-at-home defenseman who has battled injuries throughout his college career. This will be Adams’ fifth season with the Friars after playing just 14 games from 2012-14. Given Adams’ injury history and the Sabres’ glut of young defensemen, Adams is unlikely to get a contract offer.

Goaltending

Matt Hackett is still recovering from an ACL injury, so the Amerks are rolling with Nathan Lieuwen, a sixth-round pick, and Andrey Makarov, an undrafted free agent. The Amekrs are expected to make the playoffs despite having such a young tandem, but that is a testament to Buffalo’s ability to unearth talent. Lieuwen is the starter for the Amerks at the moment, but could end up splitting time with Makarov, who has quicker reflexes and more upside.

Former USHL standout Cal Petersen will head to Notre Dame and join Hurley as part of the Irish’s top recruiting class. The team is dedicated to Petersen long-term, but will split time with sophomore Chad Katunar to start. The Sabres can afford to be patient with Petersen, who will stay in the NCAA for at least a couple seasons.

The Sabres goalie with the most upside is Sweden’s Linus Ullmark. The reigning Goalie of the Year, Ullmark was the driving force behind an offensively challenged MODO team. The team is banking on Ullmark to backstop them to the playoffs again, but thus far he has struggled, ceding time to Adam Reideborn.

After Ullmark is Jonas Johansson of Brynas IF, Buffalo’s third-round pick in 2014, who has yet to appear in any games this year due to illness. The Sabres like big goalies and Johansson fits the bill at 6’4. With Lieuwen, Makarov, and Ullmark already under contract, there is no hurry with Johansson. Ullmark will join the Sabres for the 2015-16 season and Johansson should follow shortly after.

The Sabres have a number of excellent prospects at each position that sets them up in a position to compete with the best teams for years down the road. The key is to be patient and hope that all of the prospects take a step forward.

Follow Jason Chen on Twitter via @jasonchen16