Only a team with a wealth of young talent like the Buffalo Sabres could have put together a package appetizing enough to wrestle Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian away from Winnipeg. Outgoing prospects Joel Armia and Brendan Lemieux are promising young players, but the organization has plenty of others—and the best are still in the fold.
The Sabres are so deep that a few notable prospects did not make the cut; wingers Vaclav Karabacek and Gustav Possler were both ranked among the previous Top 20 but are having average seasons. The same can be said of Peterborough Petes forward Eric Cornel and Swedish goalie Jonas Johansson. Not even goalie Jason Kasdorf, acquired from the Jets along with Kane and Bogosian, was good enough to crack the list.
Honorable mention goes to center Phil Varone of Rochester who has had a strong season in spite of injuries.
1. (1) Sam Reinhart, C, 8.0 B
Drafted 1st round, 2nd overall, 2014
Buffalo’s top pick at the 2014 NHL Draft retains the top spot as the organization’s best prospect. Reinhart’s on-ice smarts were on full display at the World Junior Championships where he centered Team Canada’s top line and was named to the tournament all-star team. His nine-game audition in the NHL showed he needed to get stronger, but the Kootenay Ice captain has been tearing up the WHL since being re-assigned and recently became the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Individually, there is little left in major junior for Reinhart to accomplish, and stopping short of a full guarantee, will play for the Sabres next season.
2. (3) Nikita Zadorov, D, 8.0 B
Drafted 1st round, 16th overall, 2013
The graduation of Ristolainen moves Zadorov into the top spot on defense. The big Russian bruiser sat out the first month of the season as the Sabres took their time deciding where his skills would best be developed—ultimately opting to keep the 19-year-old in the NHL. Overall, Zadorov is progressing well and continues to see his ice time rise. Though he is still an occasional scratch by Ted Nolan, he does face a steep learning curve. Zadorov is the second youngest defenseman to appear in the NHL this season behind only Aaron Ekblad (FLA), and has the best point-per-game average among all Buffalo defenseman, while logging regular minutes on the power play.
3. (4) Mikhail Grigorenko, C, 7.5 B
Drafted 1st round, 12th overall, 2012
Grigorenko has had a tough time adjusting over the past two seasons, a result of being re-assigned on multiple occasions. Now settled in as the Rochester Americans’ top center, the talented Russian has successfully translated his elite scoring talent to the pros. He is still not ready to be a full-time center in the NHL, but the question now is “when,” not “if.” Grigorenko was one of the last cuts from training camp and will surely battle for a spot next year. If he can improve his play in the defensive zone, he stands a better chance of cracking the Sabres lineup. He is an ideal offensive No. 1 center, but top centers in the NHL today are required to play competently at both ends of the ice.
4. (5) Jake McCabe, D, 7.5 B
Drafted 2nd round, 44th overall, 2012
Though the former Wisconsin Badgers captain has not appeared in the NHL this season, he has been most impressive—emerging as one of the Amerks’ top defenseman in his rookie year. McCabe performed well in camp but suffered an injury and was later assigned to the Rochester, where he has since remained. A complete, two-way defenseman, McCabe is a confident player who has the ability to change the momentum of a game with a big hit or an end-to-end rush. He skates, shoots and hits, and will be a key supporting player down the road behind Ristolainen and Zadorov.
Larsson continues his impressive scoring run with the Amerks, but the utility forward cannot seem to find a role with the Sabres. In Rochester, Larsson is often used as a top offensive weapon. In Buffalo however, he is often relegated to checking line duties—and the clashing roles have limited his performance. Larsson has voiced his frustration over how he has been utilized, but in his most recent call up was used on the fourth line. With the right team, Larsson could be a skilled third-line player—but that team may not be Buffalo.
6. (18) Justin Bailey, RW, 7.0 C
Drafted 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2013
Only after a strong showing at the beginning of the season did Bailey earn a contract from the Sabres. Big and talented, Bailey has progressed steadily in his third OHL season. Although Bailey is putting up good numbers, his statistics understate his growth both as a consistent performer and as a leader. After a mid-season trade to Sault Ste. Marie, Bailey scored 30 goals for the first time in his OHL career.
7. (15) Nick Baptiste, RW, 7.0 C
Drafted 3rd round, 69th overall, 2013
The season after Baptiste was drafted, he scored 45 goals in 65 games, a remarkable improvement over his first two OHL seasons, during which he scored 29. Perhaps distracted by the controversies surrounding the Sudbury Wolves at the beginning of the season, Baptiste has not scored at the same pace, but a trade to powerhouse Erie has re-ignited his offensive game. His quick release and leadership abilities are strengths that should translate to the pros in either a second or third-line role.
Fasching has not drawn as many rave reviews as he did during his freshman season, although he did have a strong showing at the WJC. Since the tournament, Fasching has been scoring much more often. As a budding power forward, he is getting stronger and can be found in the right areas on the ice, but sometimes the production is not there. With opposition defenses knowing what Fasching is capable of, he no longer has the element of surprise—though with his strength he is still tough to move.
9. (7) JT Compher, C, 7.0 C
Drafted 2nd round, 35th overall, 2013
The reigning Big Ten Rookie of the Year is having a subpar season for Michigan. Though he led the Wolverines in scoring last year, Compher is barely cracking the team’s top 10. In a fourth-line role for Team USA at the WJC, he finished the tournament without registering a single point. Though Compher has the potential to be a second-line center, he may be better suited as a third-line forward who can skate, score and hit, while also playing a substantial role on special teams.
10. (14) Andrey Makarov, G, 7.0 C
Signed as a free agent, September 14, 2012
By the end of the Amerks’ playoff run the previous season, Makarov had emerged as the team’s starting goaltender—and he has successfully maintained that position this season. Though Makarov’s stats are not eye-catching, the 21-year-old is handling himself well in his first full AHL season. Most goalies tend to take a while to develop, with lots of ups and downs, but his development so far has been pretty consistent. He is currently the Sabres’ top goaltending prospect.
11. (10) Chad Ruhwedel, D, 7.0 C
Signed as a free agent, July 16, 2014
The undrafted defenseman out of UMass-Lowell has certainly progressed in his second full season as a pro, though his upside seems to be limited. Ruhwedel has been indispensible to the Amerks, but he faces tough internal competition and has the lowest amount of upside among his peers. At various points he has been forced to sit after taking big hits, which calls into question his lack of size (5’11, 181) and ability to play in the NHL. Nevertheless, he is a steady two-way player that can play in all situations, and may find a home as a No. 4 defenseman.
12. (NR) Connor Hurley, C, 7.0 C
Drafted 2nd round, 38th overall, 2013
A highly touted high school player at the 2013 draft, Hurley spent an extra year in the USHL before joining Notre Dame this season, where he has been one of the team’s most promising young players. The NCAA is a good path for Hurley, who will take the time to add bulk to his 6’1 frame and get experience competing against physically superior opponents. Hurley was a point-per-game player for Muskegon in his final USHL season and projects to be a long-term project for the Sabres. Though Hurley is an excellent playmaker, he would benefit from shooting the puck more. The former second-round pick will likely stay in the NCAA for the next two seasons.
13. (NR) Tim Schaller, C/LW, 6.0 B
Signed as a free agent, April 2, 2013
The Sabres have made a habit of unearthing undrafted gems from the NCAA, and Schaller is yet another. A former Defensive Player of the Year for Providence, Schaller was never known for his offense, but seems to have developed a scoring touch with Rochester. He was rewarded with a call-up on two separate occasions, and in six games with the Sabres he never looked out of place. Many players have carved out productive careers as bottom-six role players, and Schaller has the potential to do so.
14. (NR) Brycen Martin, D, 6.5 C
Drafted 3rd round, 74th overall, 2014
Martin always possessed some talent of his own, though he rarely showed it playing alongside Julius Honka (DAL) in Swift Current during his draft year. Without having to cover for the free-wheeling Honka, Martin has turned loose on offense—especially after a trade to Saskatoon, where he has averaged over a point per game. Given his size, skating and scoring ability, the former third-round pick is making a strong case to turn pro.
15. (NR) Sean Malone, C, 6.5 C
Drafted 6th round, 159th overall, 2013
Malone has battled some injuries, but when he plays he is one of the Harvard Crimson’s best players, with nine points in 10 games this season. A hard-working player who projects to be a second or third-line center in the NHL, Malone is competent in all three zones and also possesses good skating and playmaking ability. He will likely stay in the NCAA for a few more seasons.
The former Blues pick has come a long way from a series of injuries he suffered during his days in the QMJHL. With a clean bill of health, Carrier scored four points in his first three games. Although he eventually cooled off, he recently caught fire again with head coach Chadd Cassidy putting him on the ice in scoring situations more often. Carrier has also been strong defensively, which is impressive given his lack of experience. He should develop into a second or third-line player in the NHL.
17. (16) Dan Catenacci, LW, 7.0 D
Drafted 3rd round, 77th overall, 2011
Catenacci got off to a slow start this season, but he turned a corner in 2015, finishing January with nine points after scoring four in the opening three months of the season. The speed and aggressiveness Catenacci played with on a nightly basis in the OHL is starting to show a lot more, and he has been rewarded with more quality ice-time with the Amerks. He will need to string together a lot more good games to show that he can be a dependable contributor, and if he does, should find himself in a Sabres uniform sooner than later.
18. (NR) Anthony Florentino, D, 7.0 D
Drafted 5th round, 143rd overall, 2013
Though he does not possess the most size or strength, Florentino is a fearless hitter and enjoys the physical aspect of the game. He has good mobility and makes good decisions with the puck, which contributed to his solid freshman season for Providence. Florentino was invited to Team USA’s summer camp but was ultimately not selected for the WJC. He is an underrated prospect who has the potential to be a second-pairing defenseman and should be one of the few fifth-round picks who eventually make their way into the NHL.
19. (13) Linus Ullmark, G, 7.0 D
Drafted 6th round, 163rd overall, 2012
Ullmark was brilliant last year as a 20-year-old rookie with MODO, named the SHL’s Goalie of the Year. The quick goaltender came close to leading the offensively challenged team to the playoffs. Expectations were high for Ullmark this season, but he has been unable to maintain a strong grip on the starting job. MODO is currently last in the SHL and will likely be relegated. However, Ullmark still possesses tons of potential, and having already inked a contract with the Sabres, will move to North America next season.
20. (NR) Victor Olofsson, LW/RW, 7.0 D
Drafted 7th round, 181st overall, 2014
MODO has had trouble scoring all season, but they would be even worse without the speedy Olofsson, who was recently loaned out to Timra in the Allsvenskan. Olofsson scored 10 goals in 37 games before making the move, and prior to that scored three goals in eight games for the Swedes at the WJC. He has been a better player than teammate Possler, a similar type of speedy sniper who was ranked 19th in the previous Top 20.