Many young players seeing ice time for rebuilding Buffalo Sabres team

By Jason Chen
Nikita Zadorov - Buffalo Sabres

Photo: Defenseman Nikita Zadorov is one of several young players to suit up for the Buffalo Sabres this season. Zadorov is a first round pick from the 2013 NHL Draft. (courtesy of Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)

 

The Buffalo Sabres have not won a game in the 2015 calendar year, but all eyes are on the future, as the rebuild continues. A string of injuries and poor performances by the Sabres’ veterans opened up opportunities for some of the organization’s top AHL players to showcase their skill in the big leagues, and although the results have been mixed, generally speaking the franchise is in good shape for the future.

General manager Tim Murray continues to add picks and prospects to the system. Most recently, in mid-December he added Jerry D’Amigo from Columbus for Luke Adam, who graduated from the Sabres’ prospect list the previous season. D’Amigo has yet to make his Sabres debut.

Mikhail Grigorenko, C, 20

After playing for three different teams in each of his past two seasons, Grigorenko has been with the Rochester Americans for most of the season, allowing him to get comfortable and play a more defined role. Currently the Amerks’ leading scorer with 30 points in 36 games, the talented Russian has certainly matured a lot physically. His strong performance under head coach Chadd Cassidy led to 12 appearances in the NHL, during which he collected a goal, an assist, and a minus-five rating.

The Sabres have struggled for much of the season, save for one stretch in December when the team won four straight games, and at 1.77 goals per game, are headed for the franchise’s worst offensive output in history. Grigorenko has been called up in three separate occasions to provide some offense and produced mixed results, though he is still trending up. A late cut from training camp, Grigorenko should be ready to make a much more significant impact in the NHL next season.

Joel Armia, RW, 21

The biggest obstacle Armia has to overcome is the rash of injuries he has suffered since moving from Finland. His rookie season was marred by a hand injury that affected his play, and he finished seven goals in 54 games. He has already established a new career-high with 10 goals so far this season, but that total would be higher if not for injuries that have forced him to sit out 13 games. He is the Amerks’ most efficient goal scorer on a per game basis.

Armia made his NHL debut just before Christmas, logging 14:47 against Detroit but did not register a shot on goal. It was a rather forgettable debut, though one game alone is not enough to gauge his long-term future. When healthy, he is usually one of the Amerks’ best players and there should be little doubt about his ability to score in the NHL. He may get another call-up later this season, but his immediate goal is to stay healthy. At this juncture, he has an outside shot to claim a roster spot on the Sabres next year.

Johan Larsson, C/W, 22

The Sabres’ patience with Larsson may be starting to wear thin. A proven scorer in the AHL, the Swedish utility forward cannot seem to find a role with the big club. With 68 points in his past 83 AHL games, his production in the NHL pales in comparison with six points in 41 games. In 12 games with the Sabres this season, he has recorded two points and a minus-one rating.

On his part, Larsson has expressed his frustration with the organization, unsure of what head coach Ted Nolan expects from him. After scoring points in consecutive games in late December, his ice time dipped over the next two games. He has been used primarily in a checking role despite playing a scoring role for the Amerks, which is a factor in his current identity crisis. For Larsson and the Sabres, perhaps a mutual parting of ways would be a benefit for both sides. The Sabres have a plethora of other homegrown draft picks that they may be more interested in.

Nicolas Deslauriers, LW/RW, 23

A relentlessly physical winger, Deslauriers will always have a spot in Nolan’s lineup, who preaches an aggressive style of play. Despite being a defenseman turned forward, there is still a lot to be desired on the defensive side of the puck, though he is scoring on a fairly regular basis with 12 points in 47 games playing primarily on the team’s bottom two lines. After three full seasons in the AHL with the Kings organization, Deslauriers is considered a regular player for the Sabres and will soon graduate from the prospects list.

Long-term, Deslauriers does not possess the talent to become a top-six scorer, but should be able to fashion himself into a valuable third-line player who can skate, hit, fight, and score on occasion.

Tim Schaller, C/W, 24

An undrafted free agent out of Providence College who was a strong defensive player, Schaller has been a pleasant surprise on offense this season, leading the Amerks with 13 goals and later earning a six-game call-up with the Sabres. With his ability to play left wing or center, Schaller is a very versatile player. The Sabres have been quite pleased with Schaller’s limited showing, and at this rate, he could carve out a future on the team, especially at the center position where the team lacks considerable depth.

To ask Schaller to be a consistent scorer while playing a solid two-way game in the NHL may be too much, but he should turn into a dependable third- or fourth-line player who can pitch in on the penalty kill. Of all the AHL call-ups made this season, Schaller has fared the best.

Phil Varone, C, 24

Like Larsson, Varone has cut his teeth in the AHL and remains one of the Amerks’ top offensive players, but is having trouble sticking in the NHL. Also like Larsson, Varone is not sure what is expected from him. After scoring two goals in his second NHL game this season, Varone’s ice time kept getting cut, including a season-low 6:19 against Philadelphia when his entire line was benched for much of the first period.

Size will always work against Varone, no matter how much stronger he gets or how physical he is willing to play. His long-term future with the Sabres is not clear and he may have hit his ceiling as a quality AHL forward.

Nikita Zadorov, D, 19

After sitting out the first month of the season due to internal debates about where his hockey development would best be served, the hulking defenseman has found a permanent spot on the Sabres blue line, often playing alongside Rasmus Ristolainen. Through 34 games, Zadorov has eight points, 37 penalty minutes, and a minus-11 rating while averaging 19:29 per game, which ranks fourth overall on the team.

A big bruiser who looks for the big play, Zadorov is still learning the nuances of playing defense in the NHL and learning how to pick his spots. While his ice time has crept up to nearly 20 minutes a game from the 16-18 minutes he was getting during his first month in the NHL, Zadorov still has bouts of inconsistency. Nolan has made him a healthy scratch on the rare occasion, but that Zadorov has handled himself fairly well as a 19-year-old speaks volumes about his physical maturity and potential. He and Ristolainen should form the team’s future top defensive pairing.

Rasmus Ristolainen, D, 20

The Finnish defenseman has now appeared in 78 NHL games, meaning that he is no longer considered a prospect by Hockey’s Future, but by no means does it mean he is ready to anchor a defense. Ristolainen’s minus-23 rating is a sore sight, but it is more a product of being matched against the opposition’s top forwards and playing on a team that does not score very much. In fact, with eight points in 44 games, Ristolainen is not only tied for the scoring lead among the team’s defensemen, he has also played the most games and the most even strength minutes.

There is no doubt that the former eighth overall pick is a franchise defenseman. Already in just his second NHL season he has improved quite a fair bit. Like most young players he still has inconsistent performances, but as he continues to get physically stronger and gain more experience, his game should become more consistent.

Mark Pysyk, D, 23

Pysyk is a steady defenseman who makes a good first pass out of the zone and skates quite well, but so far in his third pro season still does not have a good foothold on a roster spot with the Sabres. He appeared in 44 games with the Sabres the previous season but has spent most of the year with the Amerks, scoring 15 points in 40 games while serving in a captain’s role during Drew Bagnall’s absence.

Pysyk stayed with the Sabres until mid-October after suffering an injury during camp but was demoted and only briefly called up in late December. He appeared in four games, scoring a goal and averaged 18:26 in ice time.

2015 World Junior Tournament Update

The Sabres were well represented at the World Juniors, headlined by Sam Reinhart and the gold medal-winning Canadian national team. Playing on the team’s top line with Max Domi (ARI) and Anthony Duclair (NYR), the line was unstoppable the entire tournament. Reinhart displayed composure and on-ice smarts, two strengths that made him Buffalo’s top pick in 2014. Reinhart was tied for the scoring lead with 11 points and was named to the tournament all-star team.

JT Compher and Hudson Fasching suited up for Team USA, who had a disappointing showing and finished fifth in the tournament. Fasching played his usual power forward role and finished with three points in five games, one shy of matching his total from last year, while Compher was shockingly kept off the score sheet.

Despite his scoring prowess and devastating speed, seventh-round pick Victor Olofsson was held without a goal in seven games with the Swedish team. Olofsson’s lone point, an assist, came on the power play in a 6-3 win over Finland in the quarterfinals. Goalie Jonas Johansson, a third-round pick from 2014, was slated to be Sweden’s starter but missed the tournament due to injury.

Buffalo Sabres Prospect of the Month

Brendan LemieuxBuffalo Sabres Prospect of the Month - Brendand Lemieux has been on a tear all season, scoring seven goals in October and November, but he nearly doubled that total in December with 13 goals in nine games, including a four-goal game against Sudbury. He has contributed in every way possible, scoring five times on the power play and once shorthanded, in addition to 36 penalty minutes. In just 40 games, he has already set a new career-high with 31 goals and topped the century mark in penalty minutes for the second straight year.

Follow Jason Chen on Twitter via @jasonchen16