The Sabres Present and Future
Why has it taken the Sabres so long to attempt to build a winner thru player development. Buffalo always seemed to have this win now attitude, the problem was they never did ‘win now’. From 1983 to 1993 Buffalo advanced past the first round of the playoff once. Yet year after year Sabres brass committed the same mistakes, trading young talent for seasoned veterans. Much of that young talent ended up developing nicely for other clubs.
From 1980 to 1994, Buffalo drafted an amazing 27 defensemen who seriously contributed at the NHL level. However in 1995, only one, yes one, was actually playing for the then blue and gold, Richard Smehlik. The rest had all been given away: John Carney, Kevin Haller, Phil Housley, Calle Johnansson, Joe Reekie, Bill Houlder, the list goes on an on. Now, none of those names are superstars but please, that would have made a nice NHL blue line.
Following their dismal playoff performance in 1995, where Philadelphia simply skated, worked and physically beat them clear off the ice, GM John Muckler decided it was time to try a new approach. Build a team through the draft, smarting selective trading, development of younger, biggest more skillful players all while lowering the teams vastly over stretched pay role. It officially began with the Alex Mogilny trade, where in the crafty but temperamental Russian winger was to Vancouver for two players (Mike Peca and Mike Wilson) plus Vancouver’s first round pick, which turned out to be Jay McKee. However the real building process started a year earlier when Buffalo drafted Wayne Primeau and Curtis Brown.
Though the Sabres management has done everything it could in this past off-season to destroy John Muckler’s hard work, the roots are seeded far to deep for that to occur. With all that being said let’s take a good look hard at Buffalo young talent and prospects.
Next time you look at the Sabres roster, check out the ages of the players. Buffalo is currently the second youngest team in the league, average age 25.8 years old. Curtis Brown, Mike Peca, Wayne Primeau, Erik Rasmussen Michal Grosek, Miroslav Satan, Matt Barnaby, Jason Dawe, Jay KcKee, Mike Wilson, are all under 25 years old. Several are not even 22 yet. Peca, Dawe, Barnaby are viewed as NHL veterans by many fans even though they truly are still young developing players, as scary as that seems. Beyond that Buffalo has eleven more players in roster all under 23. If you look even deeper Buffalo has another five players in junior hockey all close to stepping in. It doesn’t take a hockey genius to see that Buffalo future is still come.
Of these young players lets take a closer look at a few currently playing in the NHL. Jay McKee was selected 14th overall in the 1995 draft. The pick was acquired from Vancouver as part of the Mogilny trade. Jay is big but he is still filling out. Last year he played 47 games as a 19-year-old rookie. The year with the big club was invaluable. He learned a lot about being a professional hockey player. New coach Lindy Ruff and assistant Mike Ramsey are closely working with McKee teaching him the little skills, like knowing when to reverse the puck and when not to. How to win those corner battles. Don’t go fishing for the puck in the slot, take the man out instead. The results are showing. McKee is becoming a better hockey player each day. He is starting to get power play time and he kills penalties on a regular basis. His offensive game is picking up as he has learned how to pick is spots. All in all McKee must be consider well ahead of schedule. He has the talent to be an all-star, however, becoming an all-star is often more based on popularity then actual performance.
Staying behind the blueline we have giant Mike Wilson. He was yet another part of the Mogilny trade. At 6’6″ and well over 200 pounds, Wilson has all the physical tools to be a major force in the NHL. However Wilson frustrates most fans. Having the physical size is one thing, using it appears to a completely different ball game. Wilson uses his massive reach to his advantage. However he doesn’t hit all that much. Wilson never seems to knock down players sitting in front of the net. He ties them up, but he doesn’t always eliminate them that way. His apparent lack of a physical game has drawn heavy criticism form the fans. However, one must quickly realize that hitting is not in Wilson’s nature. He will never be a nasty net clearing type of player, and the fans need to understand that. Wilson is a gifted player with good offensive ability. Once he gains complete confidence in his own abilities, and that may take another couple of year, Wilson will start putting up better offensive number. Patience is the key. Buffalo brass has to ignore the cat calls of the fans and keep working with this kid. He is a jewel and an asset even if the common fan doesn’t realize it. Trading him will look mighty stupid five years from now.
Moving to the forwards we have Wayne Primeau. The 17th overall selection in 1994 draft made a mark last year. He started the season with the big club, was demoted to Rochester then called up after injuries opened up a roster spot. Primeau has been the forth line center ever since. He has learned what it takes to play in the NHL. He has become an effective checker. A smart defensive player. What he has lacked in any offensive numbers. However, one can not realistically expect offensive number when your line mates are Rob Ray and Brad May. Two of the NHL’s biggest stone hands. The only way either one of them score is if the puck bounces off a body part. Considering that it would be nice to see Primeau get more “quality” ice time. However, if he is to develop his offensive game, and the skill is there for him to do so, he will need to do it in Rochester.
The same draft that produced Wayne Primeau also produced Curtis Brown. He was the 43rd player taken in that draft. He was a junior star at Prince Albert and he came to Buffalo with a ton of expectations. Buffalo management made the completely illogical move of touting Brown and Primeau as impact players. Both were actually given a chance to make the roster in the fall of 1995, but neither were ready at 19 years old. Last year both players did make the roster and Brown actually stuck for quiet some time. He was the only Sabre rookie given real ice time by then coach Ted Nolan. However, like most rookies, Curtis quickly discovered the grind of playing in the NHL. He was demoted to Rochester by December and his confidence plummeted very quickly. It took several month of playing in the AHL before Brown began to regain his form. At training camp this year, Brown was a completely different player, more determined, more physical, more ready to compete. He showed well in training camp and made the roster, now if only new coach Lindy Ruff would play him. Curtis has sat out half of Buffalo’s fourteen games, yet he has still managed to score two goal and add a couple of helpers. On a couple of night he clearly appeared to be the Sabres best forward, and on the other nights he has not looked out of place. Brown has already proven he can play and score in the NHL. As long as he keeps working there is no way the coaching staff can justify sitting him or demoting him. Some day Curtis Brown will be a 30 goal producer in the NHL, maybe that day isn’t all that far off.
The jewel of the current Sabre forwards is future power forward Erik Rasmussen. He was the seventh overall pick in the 1996 draft. Last December, Erik Rasmussen was with a doubt one of the best player at the World Junior Championships, though he did not gain a spot on the all tournament team most scouts quickly predicted greatness. After lengthy negotiations Buffalo finally inked their top prospect in mid August. He wasted no time in showing the fans just how good he could be. Erik Rasmussen is by far the biggest and most physical player the Sabres have. He is over 6 foot 2 and he weight close to 215 pounds. He isn’t shy about hitting people but his aggressive style isn’t his biggest asset. The kid is skilled, very skilled. He handles the puck well, makes smart plays, passes well and he owns a fantastic shot. One he must learn to use more effectively.
Unlike many of the other highly touted players, Buffalo management has been quick to tell everyone not to expect too much too soon from Mr. Rasmussen. The move is smart and well thought out. Power forwards tend to take a few years to develop completely. Keith Tkachuk and Keith Primeau are prime example of that. Some day Buffalo hopes Rasmussen become another Keith Tkachuk. He has similar skills and similar size. In time similar results are what is desired.
Beyond those five players Buffalo still has many good young players. Miroslav Satan, acquired in a late season trade last year has provided them with a natural scorer. Though Satan has a lot to learn about playing a complete game, his scoring punch is greatly needed. Another European Buffalo acquired is big Michal Grosek. Inconsistency has plagued Grosek but there are night when he puts it all together and he physically dominates game. He is probably better than Rasmussen but there are still way too many nights when he completely disappears. Another young player who appears to have finally turned the corner is winger Jason Dawe. He already has eight goals this year and he appear to be working on his first 30 goal season. Dawe has proven in the past to be a streak scorer who can go a long time without finding the net. Though this year he appears to have matured.
Moving off the current roster Buffalo is loaded is talent. Though there may not be any true superstars on the horizon, remember two names. Speedy Russian winger Maxim Afinogenov and fellow Russian Alexei Tezikov a vastly skilled defensemen. Both appear to have the skills to become true NHL stars. Also worth mentioning is defensemen Cory Sarich, a player liken to Dallas blue liner Darren Hatcher. Along with a stockpile of young goaltenders, first round pick Martin Biron and Mika Norinen among the notibles.
The future of the Sabres is very bright. Even though John Muckler is gone, it appears it will be a long time before he will be forgotten. His smart trades and solid drafts have laid a tremendous foundation for the club (it should be noted that Don Luce, the Sabres director of scouting is still with the club and he control much of the last five drafts). If current management does not wreck the ship, Buffalo will be an Eastern Conference force in year to come. And if you believe the rumor mill, the current management might not get the chance to wreck Mucklers ship. Sabres minority owner and cable guru John Rigas is rumored to be very close to gaining control of the club. Something he has been trying to do for years. If he does gain control a house cleaning seems very likely regardless of the contractual status of many of the amangement and coaching staff. Including the team President and General Manager, both of whom are less than popular with the Sabres main money supplier.