Sabres organizational depth analysis, Fall 2009

By Kevin Forbes

In the past 10 years, the Buffalo Sabres have only had one first-round draft pick in the top 10. With the team regularly making their selections in the middle of the rounds, Buffalo has had their work cut out for them. Not known for being a team to ever make a splash on the free agency front, the Sabres roster is overwhelmingly home-grown. The team depends on their ability to identify and develop talent for their NHL squad, perhaps more than most other NHL organizations. And while Buffalo has depended more heavily on video scouting than other teams, they do benefit from being located in the heart of OHL country.

By and large, the Sabres pipeline always seems to boast a handful of players on the cusp of filling a regular role in the NHL, but in the same breath, it often seems to lack the top-quality talent that would push a team like the Sabres from being a consistent middle-of-the-pack squad to higher echelons.

Left Wing

Although significant focus in recent drafts has been on selecting defensemen, there is good depth among the Sabres forward prospect corps and left wing is no exception. Tim Kennedy is already contributing at the NHL level. A former Michigan State Spartan, Kennedy left the program after his junior year to sign a contract with the Sabres in 2008. Tying for the team scoring lead with the Portland Pirates in his first professional year, Kennedy also saw a single game of NHL action. As the 2009-10 season started, Kennedy won a roster spot and has seen a regular shift on Buffalo’s third line.

Like Ennis, Nathan Gerbe seems to be close to stepping into the limelight with the Sabres. In fact, the former Boston College star has already played 10 games with Buffalo last season, during his rookie pro year. However, like Ennis, he’s also hampered by a small frame, measuring just 5’6. One of the most dangerous players during his time in college and already one of the top players in the AHL, Gerbe, 22, is waiting for his opportunity to shine on the NHL stage. He has 10 points in 11 games for Portland this year.

Others on the left side include Philippe Gogulla, 22, Jacob Lagace, 19, and newly drafted 18-year-old Marcus Foligno. Gogulla, drafted in 2005, is currently playing in his first North American pro season with the Pirates after spending the past five years with the Cologne Sharks in Germany‘s top league. His future will depend on if his playmaking ability has also made the trip to North America.

Meanwhile, Lagace, a 2008 selection, is spending his third season in the QMJHL as a member of the Chicoutimi Sagueneens. An offensively-talented but undersized winger, Lagace is due to turn pro after this year.

Foligno is a name already popular in Buffalo — his father Mike once served as the Sabres team captain. Like his father, Foligno plays an in-your-face style, embracing the physical side of the game with enthusiasm. Currently playing the OHL for the Sudbury Wolves, it will be some time before the name Foligno returns to the back of a jersey in Buffalo.

Center

Looking at the prospects down the middle for the Sabres, there is talent but not size. Buffalo is team with a history of succeeding with talented but smaller pivots like the departed Daniel Briere and current player Derek Roy.

Tyler Ennis may stand only 5’9, but his offensive potential is huge. A standout scorer in the WHL for the Medicine Hat Tigers, the 20-year-old Ennis has made the jump to Portland for the 2009-10 season. Already posting impressive numbers in his pro debut (six goals, four assists in 12 games) it is just a matter of time before the 2008 first rounder sees time in Buffalo.

At first glance, Luke Adam stands out among his fellow Sabre prospects at center, simply because he’s physically head and shoulders above them at 6’2. But the 19-year-old is a standout for his play. The Cape Breton Screaming Eagle makes the lives of opposing goaltenders uncomfortable by standing in front of the net and chipping at rebounds, while also causes headaches for defenders for his tough play in the corners. A valuable asset for any organization, Adam’s particular attributes are all the more important for Buffalo, considering how unique they are among the Sabres prospects. Adam has 27 points in 19 games to start the season.

Paul Byron continues the trend of talented, but under-sized pivots. A scoring star in the QMJHL, Byron posted over a point-per-game average during his three-year junior career with the Gatineau Olympiques and made it all the way to the Memorial Cup. Now starting his pro career, Byron will once again have to prove the doubters wrong and start posting the points despite his 5’9 frame. So far he has five points in 10 games.

Like Byron, Felix Schutz is another QMJHL player who now plays for Portland. Schutz’s path was a little convoluted though, with the German playing two seasons in the QMJHL before returning to his home country for a season in the DEL as a member of Ingolstadt ERC. Lured back to North America to sign a contract with the Sabres, Schutz is in his second year as a member of the Pirates after a solid rookie campaign. He has four assists in 12 games so far.

Rounding out the trio of former QMJHL stars, Marek Zagrapan has already spent time in the Sabres minor-league system. The former first rounder played three years in the AHL from 2006 until 2009, but at the expiration of his entry-level deal, the talented Slovak chose to sign with Cherepovets Severstal in the KHL instead of re-signing with the Sabres. The Sabres still hold his rights as an unsigned restricted free agent, but his long-term future with the organization is in question.

Right Wing

As is the case in the rest of the forward corps, the Sabres prospects on the right side are far from numerous. But what they lack in numbers, they make up for in effort.

This scrappiness is best exemplified by Zack Kassian, the Sabres first-round draft choice in 2009. At 18, Kassian pairs plenty of spirit with plenty of skill and is currently making the opposition’s life difficult in the OHL. A power forward in the making, Kassian plays for Peterborough Petes and while he may never be a scoring star at the NHL level, his energetic play will make him a valuable addition to the Sabres lineup in a few years time.

Entering into his junior year with Michigan State University, Corey Tropp is known more for his energetic style of play than his scoring ability. Used primarily in a checking role during his first two seasons, his sophomore campaign was marred with a suspension that ended his season at the halfway point. Returning to the Spartans with new focus, Tropp has embraced a new role as a power forward in his third year, already surpassing his totals from the previous year.

Signed after completing the full four years at Bowling Green, Derek Whitmore is entering his second full season in the AHL. A character player thus far for the Pirates, Whitmore served as a captain for Bowling Green. Signing a two-year deal in 2008, Whitmore will look to leave an impression this season in hopes of continuing his pro career.

The last player selected by the Sabres in the 2009 draft, Maxime Legault was taken as a 20-year-old after a strong season with the Shawinigan Cataractes. Returning to the QMJHL as an over-ager, Legault is a physical leader for the Cataractes, not afraid to take punishment in front of the net or fight through traffic to make a play. A character player, he’ll make the jump to pro next season.

A promising player in the Minnesota high school ranks when the Sabres drafted him in the fourth round, Justin Jokinen so far has been unable to get it done in the NCAA. Entering his sophomore year with Minnesota State-Mankato, the 19-year-old has all the tools to succeed, but has yet to put it together.

Defense

By far the deepest position in the Sabres system, the prospect list for Buffalo defensemen actually features two players who are playing a regular shift for the Sabres this season in Tyler Myers and Chris Butler. Myers is the gem of the organization, a 19-year-old selected 12th overall in 2008. Despite having an additional year of junior eligibility and Buffalo’s tendency to bring their prospects along slowly, Myers forced his way onto the team with a strong training camp and hasn’t looked out of place. The towering blue liner with offensive instincts has a promising future in Buffalo.

Butler, 24, split last season between the Pirates and the Buffalo Sabres after three years with the University of Denver. The two-way blueliner presently leads all Sabres defensemen in average time on ice per game. 

Twenty-one-year-old Mike Weber is next in line on the Sabres depth chart. A former Windsor Spitfire, Weber has spent time between the AHL and the NHL in each of the past two seasons. After a promising 2007-08 season where it appeared he was on the cusp of joining the Sabres lineup on a full-time basis, the stay-at-home blue liner was hampered with injury in 2008-09 and is now trying to get back on track with the Pirates.

Unlike the previous three defenders, T.J. Brennan is far from stepping into the lineup for the Sabres. In fact, the 20-year-old has just made the jump to the pro ranks this season. But that is not to say that the 2007 second rounder isn’t a promising prospect for the future. A standout power-play quarterback in the QMJHL, Brennan is now adapting to challenges of the AHL, while also filling out the rest of his game. He has four assists in 11 games so far this year, and 22 penalty minutes.

In the final year of his three-year entry-level contract, Marc-Andre Gragnani is still trying to solidify his role and his future in the Sabres organization. His offensive abilities are unquestioned, with the Montreal native scoring more than 50 points in each of his AHL seasons. But the 22-year-old has struggled at times with play in his own end, and despite seeing six games with the Sabres over the past two seasons, he’s been unable to stick and has watched other defensemen pass him on the team’s depth chart. The team has even experimented with using him as a forward, a position he played when he was younger.

An offensive blue liner who loves to join the rush, Drew Schiestel is a rookie in Portland after an impressive OHL career. Though he needs to continue to round out his game, the Sabres can afford to be patient with the 20-year-old.

A former first round draft pick, Dennis Persson spent the past four years bouncing from team to team in Sweden before joining the Pirates to end the 2008-09 season. Although originally billed as an offensive-minded defenseman, Persson’s totals don’t support that label thus far. Now 21, Persson is in his first full season in the AHL and in North America. He will need to show that he still has the promise that Buffalo drafted 24th overall in 2006 or risk being passed over.

Brayden McNabb is new to the organization, as the Sabres third round pick in 2009. A big and burly blue liner from the WHL, McNabb is a long-term project for the Sabres. He has shown promise at both ends of the ice and although his skating needs work, he could eventually become a hard-nosed two-way defender. With their depth in defensive prospects, they can certainly afford to wait.

With the University of North Dakota, Corey Fienhage found it hard to get playing time in his freshman year due to the team’s depth. That echoes the crowded Sabres defensive pipeline. Fienhage’s college career will not only allow him more time to develop, but it also allows Buffalo more time to judge his abilities. A promising young defender who never backs down from a challenge, the 19-year-old’s first battle will be earning a regular role with the Fighting Sioux.

While the Sabres have the benefit of time with Fienhage, they aren’t as lucky with Alex Biega. A senior this season, Biega will need to be signed next summer to retain his rights. Playing for Harvard University, the Montreal native has done everything asked of him by the Crimson and is a valuable member of their blue line. But whether Buffalo can fit him into their crowded blueline remains to be seen. Though the 21-year-old is a good bet to receive a contract offer, a strong senior year will go a long way toward helping his case.

Currently in the QMJHL, Jordon Southorn is scheduled to make the jump to the pro ranks next season, but the 19-year-old has had issues with his attitude and maturity with his current team, the PEI Rocket. 

A defensive defenseman, Matt Generous is a rookie with the Pirates. With good size and great work ethic, the 24-year-old graduated from St. Lawrence University in the spring.

Playing in his sophomore year with the University of Vermont, Drew Mackenzie was the Sabres last draft pick in 2007, in the seventh round. The 20-year-old plays a no-nonsense game in his own zone and moves the puck well.

A scoring blue liner during his time with UMass-Amherst, Mike Kostka is currently playing for the Pirates in his second full season of pro hockey. Adapting slowly but surely to the new demands of the AHL, Kostka has a long way to go before Buffalo comes calling.

A stay-at-home blueliner, Nick Crawford was drafted in 2008. Though only average sized, Crawford plays a positional game in his own zone for the Saginaw Spirit. Developing some offensive abilities since being drafted, the 19-year-old will need to be signed prior to June of 2010.

Out of all of Buffalo’s blue liners, Mark Adams time table may be the longest. Drafted out of the Massachusetts high school ranks in 2009, Adams is playing for the Chicago Steel in the USHL this season. The 18-year-old is also expected to join Providence College the following year. All told, it could be five years from now before the Sabres even offer this offensive defenseman a contract.

Draft by the Sabres in 2005, it is hard to say where Vyateslav Buravchikov fits in their plans. Though the Russian blue liner is undoubtedly talented, specifically in offensive situations, the lack of transfer agreement with Russia likely means the 22-year-old will continue his career in the KHL with Kazan Ak-Bars for the foreseeable future.

Goaltenders

With star netminder Ryan Miller locked up until 2014, the Sabres seem to have their immediate goaltending needs more than adequately filled. Buffalo has several goaltenders in the system, but none are elite level. Jhonas Enroth, drafted in 2006 and currently playing in his second season in North America for the Pirates, was one of the top rookie goaltenders in the Swedish Elite League prior to making the jump. In his rookie season in the AHL last year, Enroth’s level of play and responsibility rose dramatically as the season went along. His sophomore effort has not started well thus far, however, with a .872 save percentage and 3.90 GAA in 10 games.

After Enroth, the organization has a trio of college netminders in Bradley Eidsness and Nick Eno, both drafted in 2007 as well as newly-drafted Connor Knapp. Eidsness tends goal for the University of North Dakota, one of the top college programs in the nation. He’s looking to build on a strong freshman effort. He has a .906 save percentage so far in five games.

Eno also had a promising start to his college career with Bowling Green, joining the program in 2007. But the 2008-09 season saw him sidelined for most of the year with an ankle injury and to start his junior season, he’s lost his starting job to freshman Andrew Hammond. In the two games that Eno has played, he has a .877 save percentage.

A long-term project, Knapp’s 6’5 frame is striking. After splitting the duties with Cody Reichard in his freshman year of college, Knapp has played three games to Reichard’s six this year. He has posted just a .873 save percentage.

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