The Sabres continued consistency can be traced to their ability to draft and cultivate prospects. If they lose players in free agency, they fill the holes with capable youngsters, usually fresh off of a year of AHL seasoning. The problem with the Sabres system of development is that they rarely swing for the fences with their draft picks, since in the eyes of Sabres management, there is no room for error on the picks they make. Buffalo usually settles for good mid-level players that have a good chance of being on the roster some day. In other words, the Sabres draft a lot of good second pairing defenseman and second and third line forwards.
The strategy has worked in consistently keeping them competitive and usually playoff bound. What it has not brought them is a Stanley Cup. 2008 marked the first draft in years where the Sabres took a shot on a couple of boom or bust prospects. The drafting of last year’s Calder trophy winner Tyler Myers seems like the obvious choice now, but back in 2008 there were concerns over how his body would develop and whether his skating would be good enough at the NHL level. Tyler Ennis was a dynamic scorer in the WHL but his diminutive size was a huge concern going into the draft. Luke Adam was blossoming into a prolific scorer in the QMJHL but his skating needed a lot of work.
Now Darcy Regier looks like a genius and 2008 may go down as the best draft in recent memory for Buffalo. With Tyler Ennis poised to make a run at the Calder this year and Luke Adam exploding out of the gate in Portland, trying to become the third Portland player in as many years to win rookie of the year honors in the AHL. It is because of the 2008 draft and emergence of Zack Kassian as a legitimate scoring threat that has made this year’s group of prospects one of the best in recent memory.
Nathan Gerbe again leads the way in the left wing department for the Sabres prospects. Having played 29 NHL games to date Gerbe is poised to become a full time NHLer this season. After Gerbe, the Sabres left wing depth is on the young side, with only Jacob Lagace having graduated to the AHL this year. Lagace is off to a slow start in Portland but should have every opportunity to contribute moving forward. He is a responsible two way player who plays a hard-nosed game which should make him a fan favorite in Portland.
Marcus Foligno is definitely the most intriguing left wing prospect in the Sabres system. Already displaying his toughness and a willingness to punish opposing teams with his size (6’3 225 pounds), Foligno has worked on his offensive game this season and is showing that he has decent hands that can be used to score as well as fight.
Cedrick Henley was the first of two 6’5 left wingers drafted by the Sabres in 2010, getting the call in the sixth round. Henley is a big guy who uses his size well and has good presence around the net. He has had trouble staying healthy the last two years in the QMJHL, but has a lot of potential if he can stay on the ice long enough to realize it. The second towering left winger from this year’s draft is Riley Boychuk, the resident enforcer for the Portland Winterhawks in the WHL. Boychuk strung together a 30 point season to go along with his 157 penalty minutes last year.
The top center prospect for the Sabres also happens to be the most offensively gifted forward in the system. Tyler Ennis has displayed his playmaking abilities everywhere he has gone, culminating last year with his first NHL stint which saw him finish out the last nine games in Buffalo and earn a spot in the playoffs where he was arguably the Sabres best forward. Ennis came into camp this year ten pounds heavier and is poised to make a run at the Calder trophy.
After Ennis, Luke Adam is the only other center in the Sabres system that can be currently categorized as a future top six player, making center the weakest depth position for Buffalo. In his rookie season with Portland, Adam has exploded onto the season with 17 points in his first 12 games, and even saw a two game NHL cup of coffee. With a deft scoring touch and a 6’2 205 pound frame, Adam has all the tools to contribute in Buffalo in the near future. He was one of the last cuts at training camp and would not have looked out of place if he made the big club outright.
The Sabres attempted to address their lack of center ice depth in the third and fourth round of the 2010 draft by selecting center Kevin Sundher from the WHL and Steven Shipley from the OHL respectively. Sundher brings a well rounded game offensively and defensively and has some scoring touch as well. In 72 games last year with Chilliwack he potted 25 goals and 61 points, while playing in all situations. Shipley has been a bit of an enigma so far in his junior hockey career. He possesses all of the tools to be an effective scoring center, while disappearing for long stretches with little to no production. An early season trade from Owen Sound to Niagara in the OHL has so far given him a boost as he has 11 points in as many games.
Paul Byron rounds out the Sabres center depth, beginning his sophomore season with the Pirates in the AHL with eight points in his first 13 games. Byron is a creative playmaker but has yet to really translate his game to the pro level. He is the lightest player in the Sabres system at 156 pounds and often time seems overmatched in the AHL. It will be an uphill battle for him to crack the Sabres lineup but his puck skills make him too dangerous to rule out.
Leading the way on the right wing depth chart, Zack Kassian is possibly the most hotly anticipated prospect in the Sabres organization. He brings a ski
ll set that has not been a priority to the Sabres brass since the lockout as they have continually favored smallish skill players over power forwards. The selection of Kassian in 2009 was both the right move and the popular one as it was clear to anyone in the hockey universe that the Sabres depth chart lacked grit. After his brief run-in with the law in June, Kassian has been a model citizen. He had a great preseason with the Sabres where he made his presence felt all over the ice and in his first twelve games back in juniors he has really been a man among boys with seven goals and 21 points. Kassian will have every opportunity next season to make the Sabres out of training camp and based on his play this season, there is no reason to believe he won’t.
Corey Tropp is a capable talent that could blossom with a couple years in Portland. He plays well around the net and down low in the offensive zone and has good size to go along with a solid motor that should see him patrolling the third line in Buffalo in a couple years.
Justin Jokinen is another player that has flown under the radar thus far. He has the intangibles needed to blossom at the next level but he has yet to put it together in the college ranks, due in large part to a lack of ice time. Jokinen has a ways to go in his development as a power forward but increased ice time at Minnesota-Mankato should go a long way in boosting his confidence.
Derek Whitmore has started the season well in Portland this year with seven points in his first ten games but has still not done anything to make people think he is going to be anything but a good AHL player in his career.
Maxime Legault is a tough depth player who is skating in his pro rookie season with Portland where he will need some seasoning before he has any shot at a bottom six forward position in the NHL.
The lone Buffalo Sabres USHL prospect, Christian Isackson has gotten off to a nice start in Sioux Falls with five points in nine games thus far. He is a very good all around player who possesses a great shot and stellar hockey sense. Isackson will be headed to the University of Minnesota next season.
With increased ice time and a clean bill of health, sophomore OHLer Gregg Sutch has already eclipsed his season point totals from last year in just his first 12 games. His gritty style and non-stop motor should help him make a big jump this year, both in offensive numbers and his relevancy as a future leader in Mississauga.
Defense is easily the Sabres deepest and most diverse position in terms of organizational depth. Since the lockout, Buffalo has taken care to build up the blue line with a variety of different style defenseman. Topping the list in terms of NHL readiness would be Mike Weber. After three seasons in the AHL it looks as though he may finally be ready to make the jump to Buffalo. His rough and tumble style is sorely lacking with the parent club right now and his skill set should be put to good use over the coming months.
Another AHL standout who could see time in Buffalo this year is Marc-Andre Gragnani. In each of his three full seasons with the Sabres AHL affiliate he has lead all defenseman in scoring, Unfortunately an injury during training camp prevented him from securing a spot in Buffalo so he is once again left to log big minutes with Pirates.
Though he was a raw talent coming out of the QMJHL in 2007, T.J. Brennan has finally started to show signs of being the hard hitting power play defenseman that the Sabres envisioned when they drafted him 31st overall. He is a good skater with a cannon shot who is poised to make a big jump in production this year with Portland.
Drew Schiestel enters his sophomore season in Portland looking to improve on a 12 point rookie campaign. He has consistently shown that he can handle second pairing minutes with the Pirates and should make an impact this year with his good transition game. He will be forced to battle for ice time with new-comers Nick Crawford and Alex Biega who will surely push the veterans while trying to make a good impression on Kevin Dineen’s staff. Biega enters his rookie season having captained an overachieving Harvard squad last year, while Crawford will try to build off of his 70 point season with the Barrie Colts a year ago. Dennis Persson brings up the rear on an otherwise strong crop of AHL defenseman, having never lived up to his first round pick status. The door is quickly closing on his chances of ever making it to the big club.
In terms of talented two way defenseman, look no further than the Sabres first round pick this season, Mark Pysyk out of Edmonton in the WHL. Pysyk captains the lowly Oil Kings and has been the lone bright spot on the struggling team. Pysyk is a silky smooth skater with great hockey instincts and an increasing edge to his game.
In addition to Pysyk, the Sabres have two other talented WHL defensemen with Brayden McNabb from the Kootenay and 2010 third round pick Matt MacKenzie of the Calgary Hitmen. McNabb, who was recently named captain of the Ice, and is just getting back from a shoulder injury that sidelined him to start the season, is known for his tough defensive game and a good first pass out of his own zone. Mackenzie plays on the top defensive pair in Calgary and would be classified as a shutdown defenseman with some offensive upside. First year junior player Corey Fienhage will try his luck with Kamloops after two ineffective seasons with the University of North Dakota. Fienhage’s game is more suited for the WHL and it will be interesting to see if the move will have a positive effect on his development.
The Sabres lone QMJHL defenseman is 2010 third round pick, Jerome Gauthier-Leduc. Gauthier-Leduc is one of the premier offensive defenseman in the QMJHL potting 20 goals last year from the back end. He needs to improve his defensive game before he can make the jump to the pros so his learning curve is a bit steeper than some of the junior players on this list.
Drew MacKenzie of the University of Vermont and Mark Adams from Providence College round out the Sabres defensive prospects and represent Buffalo’s only collegiate defenseman. Mackenzie enters his junior season trying to build off of a respectable 2009-10 season in which he managed 14 points in 36 games for the Catamounts. Adams
is beginning his freshman season at Providence and will no doubt be fighting for playing time in 2010-11.
2010-11 marks the first time in years that the Sabres have multiple legitimate goaltending prospects. With the emergence of NCAA net minders Connor Knapp and Bradley Eidsness to compliment Jhonas Enroth, the Sabres have the best depth at the position since the Martin Biron, Mika Noronen, and Ryan Miller days of the early 2000’s. Though he is off to an uninspiring start in Portland, Enroth tops the list for the fifth straight season and will look to finally make the jump from AHL starter to NHL backup in the 2011-12 season behind Ryan Miller.
Knapp will try to build off of great freshman and sophomore seasons where he split time with un-drafted free agent co-starter Cody Reichard. It helps that Knapp is on one of the best college teams in the country, but he has shown good fundamentals and his 6’5 body fills the net well. Eidsness has had a rough start to his junior season at UND, with a 3.73 goals against average and an abysmal .793 save percentage through his first four games. Though he is much smaller than Knapp at only 6’0, Eidsness compensates with precise puck angles and a technically sound style that is not flashy but gets the job done. Both goaltenders will likely play out their college careers before making the jump to Portland.
Rounding out the Sabres goaltending prospects is Nick Eno from Bowling Green. Playing on much worse team than his NCAA prospect counterparts, Eno’s numbers have been less than stellar. He has not had a winning record or a sub 3.00 goals against since his freshman year. As the only senior of the bunch he will be a candidate to get some playing time in Portland next season if the Sabres decide to offer him a contract.