Buffalo Sabres experiencing growing pains at all levels of organization

By Jason Chen
Montreal Canadiens v Buffalo Sabres

Photo: Buffalo Sabres forward prospect Johan Larsson has split time between the Sabres and the AHL’s Rochester Americans this season (courtesy of Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

 

Despite the return of their top scorers, an influx of new talent, and the continuing development of their top players, the Rochester Americans are having a disappointing season. After making the AHL playoffs in three consecutive years, the Amerks sit last in the North Division and 14th in the Western Conference. The team has just two wins in their past 10 games.

For the Buffalo Sabres, the good news is that many of the organization’s top prospects are delivering good performances, but the bad news is that many of them still suffer from bouts of inconsistency.

AHL

Jordan Samuels-Thomas, LW/RW, 24

In 20 games with the Amerks, Samuels-Thomas has just three goals to go with 25 penalty minutes. He has played mostly on the fourth line or otherwise spent time as a healthy scratch, held back by his lumbering skating, though he does protect the puck well. His future on a team stacked with prospects is unclear but he does add some much-needed size.

Tim Schaller, C/LW, 23

Schaller has elevated his offensive game in his second season as a pro with 18 points in 29 games after scoring 18 points in 72 games the previous season. A strong two-way player who consistently gets pucks deep, he has been one of head coach Chadd Cassidy’s most outstanding performers this season and earned two games with the Sabres.

Schaller has been used mostly in a third-line role with the Amerks and will likely do the same in the NHL. He shows good instincts on the ice and plays a positional, conservative style, which brings something different to the table in a system stocked with scorers.

Phil Varone, C/RW, 23

The diminutive center continues to dazzle on offense and will probably lead the Amerks in scoring for the second straight season. His strong offensive play earned him a nine-game stint with the Sabres the previous season but so far has made little headway in making the jump full-time.

Varone has shown more eagerness to engage in the physical part of the game without sacrificing too much of his offensive production. Though undersized, he has shown a consistent ability to play center, but recently moved to the right wing, giving Cassidy a chance to stack his top line.

Johan Larsson, C/LW, 22

A second-round pick from 2010, Larsson’s future prospects in the NHL remain a mystery. He failed to impress in 28 games with the Sabres last year and has a goal and an assist this year. He is getting the opportunities but not always making the most of them, which casts doubts on his future with the club. This does not mean that Larsson has topped out, but the Sabres have not been able to get much out of him in the NHL.

Kevin Sundher, LW/RW, 22

The scoring prowess that made Sundher a four-time 20-goal scorer in the WHL has not yet translated to the pros, and entering his third season he has yet to show any significant improvement. Sundher plays passively, so when he does not provide offense he does not bring much to the table. He has been a regular healthy scratch and even played one game in the ECHL to keep him fresh. Sundher will not improve if he does not dress, and consequently, he will be hard-pressed to get a contract extension.

Joel Armia, RW, 21

A talented goal scorer playing in the pros as a teenager in Finland, Armia’s rookie AHL season was spoiled by a hand injury that bothered him all season. He finished the season with just seven goals in 54 games, but found his groove in the playoffs with six points in five games.

Armia’s playoff performance was just a taste, and he started the season where he left off, but again, the tantalizing forward was beset by injury, one that kept him out of the lineup until late December. On the season he has seven goals and nine assists through 21 games.

Daniel Catenacci, LW, 21

Catenacci recently appeared in his 100th AHL game, a mark recently matched by Schaller and Chad Ruhwedel, but unlike them, Catenacci has relatively little show for it. He has just 14 goals in his AHL career, a far cry from the consecutive 30-goal campaigns in his last two years in the OHL. Inconsistency has been Catenacci’s biggest problem, whose energy and aggressiveness often varies shift to shift.

On the bright side, Schaller and Ruhwedel are a couple of years older and have more experience playing against more mature competition in the NCAA, so there is still hope for Catenacci, who has just three goals in 25 games this year. He is still drawing into the lineup regularly and has been moved around the lineup in an effort to get him going, which means the Sabres still believe he can be valuable contributor.

Mikhail Grigorenko, C, 20

Pegged by Hockey’s Future to have a breakout season, Grigorenko is the Amerks’ top center with 19 points in 29 games. The 20-year-old had a tough time the past two seasons, jumping from league to league, but once it was established that the highly skilled playmaker would stick with the Amerks for the season, his performances have been much better. Grigorenko was recently recalled to the NHL, where he has played in three games this year.

William Carrier, LW/RW, 19

Playing mostly on the team’s bottom two lines, what has been most impressive about the 19-year-old’s game is how responsible he is on defense. He currently leads the team with a plus-six rating, which is even more impressive since he has scored just five points in 24 games. At various times, Cassidy has put Carrier on the top line with Grigorenko and Armia produced good results, trusting his youngest player to serve as the line’s defensive conscience.

The most important thing for Carrier is to stay healthy. He suffered a few setbacks during his QMJHL career with various ailments and was held out of the lineup a few times this year already. He is a promising two-way player and his aggressive style and strong skating ability should make him an effective NHL player.

Chad Ruhwedel, D, 24

The NHL should not be too far away for Ruhwedel, who has proven that he is a capable AHL player, en route to another successful campaign with 17 points in 30 games. The scoring has cooled off after a hot start and he will never quarterback a power play in the NHL, but he has the ability to be a solid two-way defenseman on the second or third pairing.

Despite being undrafted, it is clear that playing big minutes during his three years with UMass-Lowell has helped Ruhwedel prepare for the rigors of the AHL. He is physically mature and reads the game better, which puts him in a favorable position to get a call-up from the Sabres.

Jake McCabe, D, 20

Like defensive partner Ruhwedel, McCabe has adapted quickly to the AHL after spending three years in the NCAA. One of the last cuts in training camp, McCabe has 10 points in 27 games this season in his first pro season. The transition has been seamless in part because of his familiarity with Cassidy, who coached McCabe during their time with the NTDP.

Cassidy is very aware that McCabe is an aggressive player who plays hard every night, and pairing him with the more conservative Ruhwedel gives the Amerks a solid pairing that can be used in all situations.

Mark Pysyk, D, 22

If Larsson is the enigma on forward, Pysyk is the one on defense. A smooth skater with an excellent first pass, Pysyk’s NHL potential and future role with the Sabres remains cloudy. His play with the Amerks has been inconsistent and existing concerns about his strength and what sort of unique talents he brings to the table continue to persist. He suffers from lapses in defensive positioning and still has trouble containing stronger and bigger forwards.

Scoring points, as Pysyk has done with nine in 25 games, will not be enough to impress the brass and his offensive skills are not considered elite. His minus-nine rating is a red flag, though the entire team has struggled at times this season.

Jerome Leduc, D, 22

He has been much more consistent this season, but the former offensive whiz from the QMJHL is still finding it tough to score points in the pros. Often paired with Pysyk to form a mobile puck-moving pair, Leduc has three points in 30 games and a minus-11 rating, the worst among the team’s defensemen.

The Amerks have tried Leduc on the right wing and Cassidy likes what he sees. Even if Leduc is not entirely comfortable yet, it adds versatility to his game and offers a chance to draw into the lineup more often and make use of his offensive abilities. Long-term, however, Leduc will likely remain on defense, but his lack of strength and explosiveness prevents him from being a point producer.

Brady Austin, D, 21

A big, tough stay-at-home defenseman at 6’4 and 225 pounds, Austin has played exactly that role for the Amerks on the team’s third pairing. Coming into his rookie pro season, he has neither exceeded nor fell below expectations, though there were not many expectations to begin with for the seventh-round pick.

In 23 games this year, including a one-game stint with the ECHL’s Elmira Jackals, Brady has one assist, 12 penalty minutes and a minus-eight rating. He serves as a depth defenseman at this point and is a long shot to make the NHL.

Nathan Lieuwen, G, 23

After snagging the starting job from Matt Hackett last year and appearing in seven games with the Sabres to reward his efforts, Lieuwen has taken a step back this season. His 3.29 goals-against average and .883 save percentage are career-lows.

Granted, the defense in front of Lieuwen has not been particularly good, but he has not shown the ability to keep his team in games. Lieuwen’s performances have been good, but not outstanding, and he needs to be outstanding for the Sabres to keep him around.

Andrey Makarov, G, 21

Spending most of the season in the ECHL the previous season, Makarov is doing what Lieuwen did to Hackett last year – stealing the starting job. In 18 appearances Makarov has a 2.83 goals-against average and .909 save percentage, both significantly superior numbers to Lieuwen’s. He is continuing where he left off after starting all five of the Amerks’ playoff games last year.

Even though Lieuwen was drafted and Makarov was passed over, Makarov possesses far more potential with his quick, natural reflexes. Goalies are tough to develop but when done correctly it can pay huge dividends. If Makarov does not have a future with the Sabres, he can still be a very valuable trade piece.

ECHL

Justin Kea, C, 20

A big center who was one of the OHL’s better power forwards in his last two years with the Saginaw Spirit, Kea has played 24 games with Elmira. His obvious strengths are his size and strength but that alone will not propel him to the NHL. With eight points and a minus-11 rating, Kea has a ways to go before he gets that chance. To progress further in the pros Kea may have to fashion himself into a physical, fighting force, but demand for such players are declining.

Colin Jacobs, RW, 21

A hard-working player who earned a contract after turning around his major junior career in his final year of eligibility, Jacobs’ strong work ethic has allowed him to improve every year, but only in increments and he has yet to take that giant leap. He has four points in 16 games with the Jackals this season but is under contract for another season, giving him one final chance to prove himself.

Non-Minor League Prospect Update

Returning after 10-game absence due to injury, Sean Malone collected two goals and two assists in back-to-back wins against Princeton and Quinnipiac. He was named the first star for his three-point effort against Princeton in his first game back. Harvard leads the ECAC with a 5-1-2 record and should be able to extend that lead with Malone’s return.

Sam Reinhart - Buffalo Sabres Prospect of the MonthBuffalo Sabres Prospect of the Month

After being re-assigned to the WHL at the end of October, Sam Reinhart has been on a tear, scoring 23 points in 11 games in November. In 15 games thus far, he has eight goals and 19 assists and has been held off the scoresheet only once. The versatile pivot is expected to be a key player for Canada in the upcoming World Junior Championship.

Follow Jason Chen on Twitter via @jasonchen16