Dynamic group of forwards represent Buffalo Sabres at CHL level

By Jason Chen
Vaclav Karabacek - Buffalo Sabres

Photo: Vaclav Karabacek is one of seven prospects representing the Buffalo Sabres in the Canadian major junior hockey ranks. Karabacek was picked in the second round of the 2014 NHL Draft. (courtesy of Francois Laplante/FreestylePhoto/Getty Images)

 

Many of the Buffalo Sabres‘ top prospects are already earning their stripes in the pros, but the organization’s war chest of young players runs deep, with several other key prospects currently playing in the CHL and USHL.

The Sabres have seven players in the CHL and one in the USHL for the 2014-15 season, and this does not include 19-year-old defenseman Nikita Zadorov, who is still eligible to play in the OHL but will stay with the Sabres for the foreseeable future.

Of the eight prospects, four of them were second-round picks while Sam Reinhart, who was recently returned to the WHL after his nine-game stint, is a second overall pick. Both quantity and quality come to mind when assessing the Sabres’ prospect pool.

WHL

Sam Reinhart, C, Kootenay Ice
Acquired: 1st round (2nd overall), 2014

Reinhart was disappointed when he was told he would be returning to major junior, but it was apparent that the 19-year-old center just was not physically strong enough to be a full-time NHL player. In nine games with the Sabres he notched just one assist and was dropped from the second line to the fourth line by the end of his stint. He struggled with faceoffs, winning just 24.4 percent, and had trouble generating offensive opportunities with just three shots on goal.

Reinhart has seemingly channeled his disappointment and kicked his play into a higher gear after returning to Kootenay. The 2013-14 WHL Player of the Year has not missed a beat and earned Player of the Week honors in just his second week back. The Ice have rattled off four straight wins since Reinhart’s return after going 4-13-0 to start the season. Reinhart will do his best to ensure a playoff berth for the Ice and will undoubtedly be a key player for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships. Reinhart also wore the “C” for Team WHL in the Super Series though the team lost both games by one goal. Make no mistake; the 2014-15 season will be Reinhart’s last in junior hockey.

Brycen Martin, D, Swift Current Broncos
Acquired: 3rd round (74th overall), 2014

The Broncos have allowed 82 goals through 28 games, making them the fifth stingiest team in the Eastern Conference, a minor improvement over the previous season. Part of the reason the Broncos have remained so steady is due to the play of Brycen Martin, who has taken on more responsibility since the departure of Julius Honka (DAL). Forming a three-headed monster with Dillon Heatherington (CLB) and Brett Lernout (MTL), the Broncos are considered to have one of the best defenses in the league.

Through 27 games Martin only has 10 assists, but his ability to move the puck is evident and can afford to take a few more risks offensively, though it seems like it is not in his nature to do so. Martin is on track for a good season even if his offensive production has dipped a little.

OHL

Justin Bailey, RW, Kitchener Rangers
Acquired: 2nd round (52nd overall), 2013

Bailey was assigned to Kitchener without an appearance during the preseason or a contract offer, which raised some eyebrows for the talented but raw second-round pick. Whether it was a fair assessment of his play at the time or simply a motivational tool to kick-start his development is now a moot point, since the 6’3 power forward inked an entry-level contract in early November. In 22 games for the Rangers, Bailey has 14 goals and 29 points, tied for 15th in the OHL, and will easily shatter his previous high of 25 goals and 43 points which he set last year. He already has two hat tricks on the season and was recently named the Player of the Week in the same week as Reinhart.

Bailey has come a long way when it comes to consistency though it is still an area he can certainly improve on. While in previous years he sometimes deferred to other players to share the offensive burden, he has been much more aggressive this season. As the team’s best power forward and leading scorer, this is a good trait to have.

Nick Baptiste, RW, Erie Otters
Acquired: 3rd round (69th overall), 2013

After a breakout season with 89 points in 65 games last year, Baptiste came into the season with high expectations, but suffered setbacks with shoulder and lower-body injuries. Still, he had impressed enough last year to be named co-captain of the Wolves and to the Team OHL roster in the Super Series. He was recently traded to the Erie Otters on November 25th.

Through 13 games this season, Baptiste has 11 points, and his scoring pace could increase as he continues to get into game shape. He also has a very good chance to represent Canada at the WJC, given his strong play over the past year and his experience with the U18 team.

Brendan Lemieux, LW, Barrie Colts
Acquired: 2nd round (31st overall), 2014

Lemieux has not set the world on fire with his offense yet, but he continues to come as advertised, collecting 45 penalty minutes through 19 games to go with his 22 points. Nine of his 14 goals have come on the power play, but it is frustrating to know that he can be produce much more on offense if he was more consistent in even strength play and played a more disciplined game. On more than one occasion Lemieux has taken some bad penalties and was handed a two-game suspension in late October.

He relishes being the villain on the ice and intends to play the same style as his father Claude in the NHL, but sometimes his penchant for playing on the edge distracts him from his underrated offensive abilities. His rough-and-tumble style earned him a spot for the Super Series, but Lemieux was limited to a fourth-line role.

Eric Cornel, C/RW, Peterborough Petes
Acquired: 2nd round (44th overall), 2014

Even with its top two scorers returning this year, the Petes are having trouble keeping the puck out of their net and as a result have performed below expectations. A big, talented player who scored 62 points in 68 games the previous season, Cornel is scoring at about the same pace with 21 points in 22 games, but should be able to score even more.

He is still figuring out whether he will be a playmaking forward with size or a power forward with scoring ability, and it would be a big help if he could be more consistent. Cornel has six multi-point games this season but has played 10 games without registering a point. He is showing some great speed on a nightly basis at both ends of the ice and continues to mesh quite well with Nick Ritchie (ANA) and Hunter Garlent. The Petes’ top line should be able to crank up the offense a little more as the season goes along.

QMJHL

Vaclav Karabacek, LW/RW, Gatineau Olympiques
Acquired: 2nd round (49th overall), 2014

The Olympiques are managing to stay in playoff contention in the QMJHL’s West Division despite losing its top four scorers from the previous season when the team won 41 of 68 games. For the most part, Karabacek, who ranked fifth in team scoring last year, is still scoring at a good pace with 18 points in 23 games, but has not really embraced his role as one of the team’s go-to scorers. Instead, it is 2015 draft eligible forward Alex Dostie and defenseman Alexandre Carrier who have taken the bigger steps.

Karabacek should be scoring on a more consistent basis in order to improve on last year’s totals. He has five multi-point games this season but tends to go for small stretches without registering any points on the score sheet. He is still firing the puck a lot, averaging close to three per game, but is having trouble staying out of the penalty box this season with 34 penalty minutes after recording just 40 last year.

USHL

Christopher Brown, F, Green Bay Gamblers
Acquired: 6th round (151st overall), 2014

A scoring center with deep hockey bloodlines, Brown currently leads the Gamblers in scoring with 16 points in 17 games. Scoring has not been the Gamblers’ strength this season, who graduated a few of their key players to the NCAA, including fellow Sabres prospect Connor Hurley. Consistency and strength are areas to work on for Brown, but that is exactly what he will be doing all season before moving to Boston College next season.

Buffalo Sabres Top Performing Non-Junior Prospects: October

Sitting third in a tight scoring race in the AHL with 18 points in 19 games, Phil Varone has been the Sabres’ best top prospect outside the junior leagues. Generally speaking, all of the Amerks’ young forwards have performed well, including Johan Larsson, Joel Armia, and Mikhail Grigorenko, but Varone has been the most consistent over the past few seasons and currently leads the team in scoring. He is often overlooked due to his size, but he continues to play an aggressive, up-tempo style and show that he can score on a consistent basis.

In SwedenVictor Olofsson (eight in 25 games) and Gustav Possler (six in 23 games) sit second and third in goals scored for MODO, a team that has no problem scoring goals but is having trouble preventing them.

Buffalo Sabres Prospect of the Month: October

Rasmus Ristolainen - Buffalo Sabres Prospect of the Month, October, 2014In Buffalo, it was clear that head coach Ted Nolan was planning on leaning on the team’s veteran defensemen, but after a slew of sub-par performances and an injury to Josh Gorges, Rasmus Ristolainen has made the most of the opportunities and really stepped up his play. Ristolainen is now averaging around 20 minutes a game on most nights, putting the puck on net much more consistently, and has a goal and an assist in his last five games. The improvement in the 20-year-old’s game since last year has been quite evident and he has been Buffalo’s top prospect so far this year.

Follow Jason Chen on Twitter via @jasonchen16