Sabres Top 20 prospects, Fall 2009

By James Schwegler

Top 20 at a glance

1. Tyler Myers, D 8.0C
2. Jhonas Enroth, G 7.5B
3. Tyler Ennis, C 7.5C
4. Chris Butler, D 7.0B
5. Zack Kassian, RW 7.5C
6. Mike Weber, D 7.0B
7. Nathan Gerbe, LW 7.0B
8. Tim Kennedy, LW 7.0B
9. T.J. Brennan, D 7.0C
10. Marc-Andre Gragnani, D 7.0C
11. Luke Adam, C 7.0C
12. Philippe Gogulla, LW 7.0C
13. Paul Byron, C 7.0C
14. Drew Schiestel, D 7.0C
15. Dennis Persson, D 6.5C
16. Brayden McNabb, D 6.5C
17. Corey Fienhage, D 6.5C
18. Jacob Lagace, LW 6.5C
19. Bradley Eidsness, G 7.0D
20. Alex Biega, D 7.0D

After two consecutive seasons without a playoff berth and no free agent acquisitions to speak of, the Sabres must look to a group of players in their late teens and early-20’s to give them that next push.

1. Tyler Myers, D 8.0C

Height/Weight: 6’8”/213 lbs.
Date of Birth: February 1, 1990

It is a commentary on public perception of the franchise when a 19-year-old defenseman for the Kelowna Rockets is as well known as most of Buffalo’s regular NHL players. This 6’8” blue chipper has been a force in junior and international competition over the past year, as a member of Team Canada’s gold medal effort at the 2009 World Juniors and as Playoff MVP en route to the WHL Championship.

In 58 regular season games with Kelowna, he contributed nine goals and 33 assists, with 105 penalty minutes, and a +31 rating. On the Rockets’ championship run, he had five goals and 15 assists, with 29 penalty minutes and a +13 rating in 22 games. 

Myers is ready for the NHL, and should be in Buffalo’s top six this season. 

2. Jhonas Enroth, G 7.5B
5’10”, 174 lbs. 
June 25, 1988

Enroth is in sports purgatory right now. Despite being a highly-touted prospect and putting together a solid first season in the AHL, he is stuck behind Ryan Miller, along with Buffalo’s rather large financial commitment to the veteran. 

In his first full season stateside, Enroth put together a 26-23-6 record with Portland, with a .914 save percentage, 2.75 goals against average, and three shutouts. Initially slated to split time, due to injury Enroth ended up carrying the water for the Pirates. He got off to a fast start, but the rigors of playing nearly every game wore him down mid-season, most notably during a brutal February in which he went winless (0-5-3), with 3.85 goals against and a .888 save percentage. He did rebound to finish the season respectably. The talent and tools are there, it is now a matter of continuing to improve on the mental side of the game. 

3. Tyler Ennis, C 7.5C
5’8”, 165 lbs.
October 6, 1989

Ennis is one of the top playmaking prospects in the game. He has excellent quickness and agility, along with both vision to set up teammates and a scoring touch to finish on his own. With the Medicine Hat Tigers of the WHL, he scored 85 points (43 goals, 42 assists) in 61 regular season games last season. His torrid pace continued in the playoffs, where he had eight goals and 11 assists in 11 games. He was also a member of Team Canada at this year’s World Junior Championships, contributing three goals and four assists with a +1 rating in six games. 

Given Buffalo’s depth at offensive-minded forwards, it is likely that Ennis will spend another full season in juniors. He is closer to being NHL-ready than the vast majority of players his age (soon-to-be 20), and will rise quickly once he makes the jump to the pros. 

4. Chris Butler, D 7.0B

6’1”, 178 lbs.
October 27, 1986

Heading into the 2008-09 season, Butler was not a household name in Buffalo. He was overshadowed by fellow college prospects Gerbe and Kennedy, and did not draw attention with his style of play. But when the season was completed, Butler was rightfully considered one of Buffalo’s top promising young defensemen.

Last season, after 27 games in Portland (2 goals, 10 assists, -3), he was called up to Buffalo. In the midst of a playoff push down the stretch, Butler’s quick adjustment to the NHL game forced the Sabres to keep him on the ice for their remaining 47 games. While with the Sabres, he had two goals and four assists, along with 18 penalty minutes. Butler’s +11 rating was good for second-best on the team. 

The heady defenseman has found a home in Buffalo’s defensive corps, and will continue to contribute with his steady play while learning the technical elements of playing defense at the highest level. 


5. Zack Kassian, RW 7.5C

6’3”, 210 lbs.
January 24, 1991

Prior to the draft, HF wrote: “The Sabres need to add size and toughness, particularly to their stable of forwards…”

Straight out of central casting came Zack Kassian, a 6’3” 210 lbs. right winger with a mean streak to go along with a nice offensive game. He names Todd Bertuzzi as his favorite player, and their draft-eligible season OHL stats do stack up similarly in terms of points and penalty minutes.

Although the signing of Mike Grier will be a stopgap solution, the Sabres’ need for toughness at forward may force Kassian into the fire quicker than some would expect. While he is penciled in for another season in the OHL, it is a strong possibility that he could be called up in 2010 to fill that void for Buffalo. 

6. Mike Weber, D 7.0B

6’2”, 199 lbs.
December 16, 1987

At the end of the 2007-08 season, Weber and Andrej Sekera seemed joined at the hip as the future of the Sabres defense. In 2008-09, while Sekera became firmly entrenched as a top-six NHL defenseman, Weber bounced back and forth, spending most of his time in the AHL before shutting down the season due to injury. In 42 games with Portland, he had one goal and seven assists, with a 94 penalty minutes and a +5 rating. 

Weber remains a part of Buffalo’s defensive future. However, with the emergence of Butler and Myers, he does appear more expendable, and may serve as a nice bargaining chip if the Sabres need to make a trade. The Pittsburgh native should spend the bulk of the season with the Sabres, and will bring a physical element that has been lacking on their blueline. 

7. Nathan Gerbe, LW 7.0B
5’6”, 160 lbs.
July 24, 1987

Gerbe had an excellent rookie season in Portland, earning honors as the AHL Rookie of the Year. In 57 games with the Pirates, he had 30 goals and 26 assists, with 62 penalty minutes and a +2 rating. He was held scoreless in five playoff games. The winger was not able to translate the same overall success to the NHL. In 10 games with the Sabres, he was only able to put one assist and four penalty minutes on the board. 

The forward did show improved awareness as he spent more time in the NHL, and showed that his quickness and agility can translate to the next level. Once he plays with the confidence and competitive zeal that he displays at lower levels, Gerbe can provide a spark on offense for Buffalo. 

8. Tim Kennedy, LW 7.0B
5’10”, 170 lbs.
April 30, 1986

Kennedy had an impressive rookie season in Portland, and was able to make his NHL debut in hometown Buffalo. In 57 games, he scored 18 goals with 49 assists, with 51 penalty minutes and a -2 rating. He also had one assist in five playoff games. 

Given his build and style of play, Kennedy does not project to be a top-line forward for the Sabres, but can be an effective defensive forward with an opportunistic scoring touch. If the consistent effort is there, he can be a contributing role player over the course of the next two seasons. 

9. T.J. Brennan, D 7.0C
6’0”, 204 lbs.
April 3, 1989

Brennan is one of the top overall athletes in the Buffalo system, and was a top blueliner for the Montreal Juniors last season. In 59 games with the QMJHL team, Brennan had five goals and 29 assists, to go along with 63 penalty minutes and a -1 rating. He possesses an interesting skill set that combines a desire to play the body with the skating ability and hard shot to contribute on offense. 

At 20, the 2007 second-rounder is slightly younger than most of the players in front of him in the pipeline, and given the Sabres’ depth of defensive prospects, Brennan has the luxury of time to develop. 

10. Marc-Andre Gragnani, D 7.0C
6’1”, 180 lbs.
March 11, 1987

Gragnani had an effective season with Portland, acting as a power-play quarterback and playmaker from the blue line. In 76 regular season games, he had nine goals and 42 assists, with 59 penalty minutes and a -1 rating. He had two assists in five playoff games. Gragnani was also called up as to provide depth during an injury-riddled period on the Buffalo blueline, spending four games with the parent club.  

He is the only pure offensive defenseman in the Sabres’ system, and through his excellent skating and vision, provides an element that is lacking in Buffalo’s stable of defensemen. He has proven that he can toy with the opposition on the power play at the AHL level, and now needs to show the ability to do it against the savvy penalty killers of the National Hockey League. 

11. Luke Adam, C 7.0C
6’2”, 203 lbs.
June 18, 1990

Adam had a strong season in the QMJHL, scoring 22 goals and 27 assists in 47 games. He also had 59 penalty minutes, and a -8 rating for the Montreal Juniors. He is precocious in his ability to create space and score in front of the net, and has the frame to do it at the next level. He also displays the nasty edge that physical centermen need to have. 

While the Sabres do have a need for a big forward with his skill set, Adam is at least a year away, and needs another season in the QMJHL. He could be one of the top forwards in the league. 

12. Philippe Gogulla, LW 7.0C
6’2”, 176 lbs.
July 31, 1987

Initially considered somewhat of a project worth taking a flyer on based on his size, he has steadily improved on offense and has shown strong skating ability.  2007-08 was his breakthrough season, with 44 points (11 goals, 33 assists) in 51 games for the Cologne Sharks of the German Elite League. The rangy winger had another quality campaign last season, contributing 17 goals and 21 assists, with 58 penalty minutes and a -2 rating in 48 games.

Gogulla’s performance in camp this fall will go a long way in determining his path this season. His size and skill set give him a fair chance to make the team, as he has much higher upside than nearly all of the players currently slated for Buffalo’s third and fourth lines. 

13. Paul Byron, C 7.0C

5’8”, 135 lbs.
April 27, 1989

Byron attracted a great deal of attention this season, contributing 99 points (33 goals, 66 assists) in 64 games for Gatineau of the QMJHL. Despite his prolific scoring and playoff exploits, he has not received the type of national attention that a player of his ilk typically would because of his height. In Byron’s case, he slipped to the sixth round in 2007.

There’s not much left for Byron to accomplish at the junior hockey level, and his step up to the AHL will be a key test to determine whether his offensive skills can translate to the next level. 

14. Drew Schiestel, D 7.0C
6’1”, 180 lbs.
March 9, 1989

The second-round selection has enjoyed a steady progression since being picked in 2007. His 48 points (10 goals, 38 assists) was good for 11th among OHL defensemen this past season. He had a jarring -29 rating to go along with 75 penalty minutes. In 12 playoff games, Schiestel had two goals and six assists. 

The defenseman will continue to learn in the competitive OHL. He and Brennan constitute the “second-wave” of defensive prospects behind the Myers-Butler-Weber group that stand to contribute this season. Along with Brennan, he will have an opportunity to impress in camp, and is ready to compete against AHL competition. 

15. Dennis Persson, D 6.5C

6’1”, 181 lbs.
June 2, 1988

The Sabres 2006 first-rounder spent last season with Timra of the Swedish Elite League before coming over to join the Portland Pirates for the last 11 games of their season. In 46 games with Timra, he had one goal and five assists, with 24 penalty minutes and a -9 rating. He was scoreless in seven playoff games. After coming to Portland, he had two assists in eight regular season contests, and was scoreless in three AHL playoff games. 

A full season in the AHL will go a long way in helping the Sabres evaluate Persson’s overall potential. After being selected in the first round in 2006, he has had a very up-and-down career playing in Sweden, and needs to take a big step forward this year.

16. Brayden McNabb, D 6.5C
6’4”, 200 lbs.
January 21, 1991   

In 67 regular season games with the Kootenay Ice of the WHL, McNabb contributed 10 goals and 26 assists, with 140 penalty minutes and a -4 rating. He also had five assists in four playoff games. McNabb was a member of Team Canada at the U18 World Championships. 

With prototype size, he should be a force on the blueline, but has not yet shown the consistent ability to impose his will on the opposition. While not lacking in toughness, McNabb needs to show a commitment to physical play and continue to refine the craft of playing technically sound defense. 

17. Corey Fienhage, D 6.5C
6’2”, 190 lbs.
May 4, 1990

The tough blueliner didn’t see much ice time on a talented University of North Dakota defensive corps. In nine games with the Fighting Sioux as a freshman, he had one assist and 29 penalty minutes. 

Fienhage still stands as a promising young defenseman, as his size and mean streak would be welcome additions to any team’s blueline. He should see more playing time with UND this year, and will have a chance to showcase his talents. 

18. Jacob Lagace, LW 6.5C

5’11”, 190 lbs.
January 9, 1990

In 64 games with Chicoutimi of the QMJHL, Lagace contributed 32 goals and 37 assists, with 52 penalty minutes and a +2 rating. He has a full complement of skills offensively, with a willingness to drive to the net combined with a notable scoring touch. 

Lagace has a chance to make a name for himself in camp, but the 2008 fifth-rounder will be spending more time in juniors. 

19. Bradley Eidsness, G 7.0D

6’0”, 190 lbs.
June 2, 1989

Eidsness is the No. 1 goalie for the powerhouse North Dakota program. He earned a 24-12-4 record with the team, including one shutout, a .906 save percentage, and 2.56 goals against average. Technically speaking, he plays the butterfly style, and showcases an ability to swallow up the puck, preventing a slew of rebounds.

Buffalo is thin in goaltender prospects, and there is a big gap between Enroth and Eidsness. Still, it is promising to have the starting netminder on a top college program like UND. 

20. Alex Biega, D 7.0D
5’10”, 191 lbs. 
April 4, 1988

Playing for Harvard last season, Biega showed improvement on his decision-making and offensive game. He scored four goals with 16 assists and 46 penalty minutes in 31 games. The 2006 fifth-rounder shows a penchant for playing the body, and is a strong skater. 

With the depth of defensemen in front of him, Biega has a long way to go before competing for a spot in Buffalo. He will have one more year to showcase his skills in the NCAA before moving up in competition. 

Missed the Cut

Justin Jokinen, RW 7.0D – All the tools are there, now he needs to show something in his sophomore season at Minnesota State-Mankato. 

Marcus Foligno, LW 6.5D – Has the size, needs to round out his game. 

Jordon Southorn, D 6.5D – Big defender who can score a bit.