Buffalo Sabres prospects boast size and depth at junior level

By Tony Musso
Photo: Zack Kassian brings size and nastiness to a Buffalo organization that currently lacks both at the forward position. (Photo courtesy of Holly Gunning/HF)

The Buffalo Sabres have 13 prospects at the junior level, four in the OHL, six in the WHL, two in the QMJHL, and one in the USHL.

OHL

Zack Kassian, RW, Windsor Spitfires
Acquired: 1st round (13th overall) in 2009
January 24th, 1991. Ht: 6’3, Wt: 220 lbs

Kassian has done everything right so far in his fourth OHL season. Averaging nearly two points a game on a Spitfires team that has seen many of its best players depart for the NHL. He has shown that he can be a veteran leader and has stayed out of the news off the ice, prompting the Sabres to rekindle contract negotiations in September which culminated in Kassian signing a three-year entry-level deal on November 1st.

Kassian is a lock to be a top six forward on Team Canada for the 2010-11 World Junior Championship in Buffalo, NY, which will give the Sabres brass a good look at one of their most prized prospects playing against the best of his peers.

He is known for his imposing presence on the ice but this year he has put on a show by dominating offensively as well. The most important part of his season will be to continue to stay healthy and try to play a full slate of games in preparation for what will likely be his rookie season in the NHL in 2011.

Marcus Foligno, LW, Sudbury Wolves
Acquired: 4th round (104th overall) in 2009
August 10th, 1991. Ht: 6’3, Wt: 215 lbs

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of any of the Sabres junior prospects this season has been the play of Sudbury Wolves captain, Marcus Foligno. With 27 points in 24 games, Foligno is on pace to more than double his scoring output from last season, showing a huge step in development for a player many considered one-dimensional when the Sabres drafted him 104th overall in 2009. His game has matured offensively and he has shown that he can be disciplined and stay out of the penalty box this year.

Like Kassian, Foligno has developed a reputation as a physical force on the ice, adding to a growing stable of young Sabres prospects possessing grit on the front end. It will be interesting to see if Foligno finishes the season in Sudbury considering that his increased offensive output and unique physical skill set will make him attractive as trade bait for a rebuilding Sudbury squad.

Steven Shipley, C, Niagara Ice Dogs
Acquired: 4th round (98th overall) in 2010
April 22nd, 1992. Ht: 6’2, Wt: 200 lbs

While the concerns about his attitude certainly have not been squashed after he requested a trade this season, it is evident that Shipley is more focused in Niagara then he was in Owen Sound. Shipley’s game seems to have come alive this season, playing on the power play and the penalty kill. While he is still on pace to only match his point totals from last season, it is his attitude that has been the most positive change since arriving in Niagara.

In only his third junior season, Shipley’s maturation process should continue over the next couple years as there is no need to rush his development. His high end skill potential and with a talented supporting cast in Niagara Falls should help in molding a player that could be a solid NHL player in the future.

Gregg Sutch, RW, Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors
Acquired: 5th round (143rd overall) in 2010
February 9th, 1992. Ht: 6’2, Wt: 195 lbs

The Sabres are hoping that 2010 fifth round pick Gregg Sutch can follow the example of Marcus Foligno and continue on a similar career path, possibly expanding his previously one dimensional game to include some scoring touch and discipline. So far, on a talented Mississauga team, Sutch has gotten a lot more ice time and he has been able to stay healthy which has translated into greatly improved offensive totals. With 15 points in 24 games, Sutch has shown that he can do more than fight and bang.

Like Shipley, the Sabres do not need to rush Sutch’s development, giving him time to mature his game and grow into his 6’2 body. Sutch will need at least another year of OHL seasoning before making the jump to the AHL but there is reason to be excited about the play of the tough, hard-working winger.

QMJHL

Jerome Gauthier-Leduc, D, Rimouski Oceanic
Acquired: 3rd round (68th overall) in 2010
July 30th, 1992. Ht: 6’2, Wt: 194 lbs

After scoring twenty goals last season from the blue line, Gauthier-Leduc had seemingly nowhere to go but down in 2010-11. However, it isn’t goals that the Sabres were interested in this season, but if Gauthier-Leduc could become a more complete player in his own end. Posting a minus eight on the season so far, it would be easy to assume that he is having a tough time with the transition but in making adjustments to any young players game there is liable to be bumps along the way.

Gauthier-Leduc was one of four Sabres prospects to be invited to the Canadian World Junior development camp in August. As the youngest of the four he is a long shot to make the team.

Gauthier-Leduc is a smart player with obvious offensive skills and with a couple more seasons of experience in the QMJHL there is no reason to think that he won’t become a more complete defenseman.

Cedrick Henley, LW, Val d’Or Foreurs
Acquired: 6th round (173rd overall) in 2010
January 10th, 1992. Ht: 6’5, Wt: 200 lbs

Cedrick Henley was off to a good start in this his third season in the QMJHL. With nine points in his first twelve games, he would have been on pace to have his most productive junior season to date. However much like 2009-10, his season has been interrupted by injury. Henley had wrist surgery in October and there is still no timetable for his return.

Henley has proven that when healthy, he can be a dangerous offensive player. Possessing great size, he is another in a long line of recent Buffalo draft picks with an edge to their game. Thus far he hasn’t been able to stay on the ice enough to make a lot of real progression and until he can stay healthy for an entire season, his professional upside is unknown. He certainly posses the skill set to be a pro but his durability is in question.

WHL

Mark Pysyk, D, Edmonton Oil Kings
Acquired: 1st round (23rd overall) in 2010
January 11th, 1992. Ht: 6’0, Wt: 175 lbs

There is a lot to like about Sabres 2010 first round pick, Mark Pysyk. He is one of the smoothest skating defenseman in junior right now and his smart two-way play earned him the Oil Kings captaincy. Pysyk will also be a strong consideration for the Canadian World Junior team roster.

One of the biggest improvements for Pysyk this season has been his physical play. While he will never be regarded as a tough defenseman, he is finishing checks and adding some grit to his game in front of the net, traits that were considered weaknesses leading up to last year’s draft. His eagerness to better his game as whole will make Pysyk a quality NHLer for many years to come.

Brayden McNabb, D, Kootenay Ice
Acquired: 3rd round (66th overall) in 2009
January 21st, 1991. Ht: 6’4, Wt: 215 lbs

McNabb was the second Sabres defensive prospect to be named captain of their WHL team this season. After missing two and half weeks in October due to injury, he has been an absolute terror on the blue line for Kootenay. His physical presence and steady play in his own end has garnered him strong consideration for the Canadian World Junior team where he could be one of three future Sabres on the team.

In his fifth and final year of junior eligibility, McNabb has shown very good progression since the Sabres drafted him in the third round in 2009. He brings a nasty streak that the Buffalo blue line has been missing and could help fill the physical void left by Mike Weber in Portland next season.

Kevin Sundher, C, Chilliwack Bruins
Acquired: 3rd round (75th overall) in 2010
January 18th, 1992. Ht: 6’0, Wt: 190 lbs

The Sabres thought they got a steal in the third round of the 2010 draft in Chilliwack’s Kevin Sundher. Known as good two way centerman with decent playmaking skills, Sundher is on pace to put up 85-90 points this season.

Considering the center position is the Sabres organization’s weakest as far as prospect depth, Sundher will shoot up the internal team rankings next season. With Tyler Ennis graduating to the parent club and Luke Adam likely to make the permanent jump in 2011, Sundher will then move up to number one on the organizational depth chart.

Sundher has potential to be a good third line center in the NHL and so far he is on the right track to realize those expectations. However, he still needs another year in Chilliwack and probably at least a year in Portland before we see him in Buffalo.

Riley Boychuk, LW, Portland Winterhawks
Acquired: 7th round (208th overall) in 2010
February 20th, 1991. Ht: 6’5, Wt: 220 lbs

With the exception of Zack Kassian, there is no more accomplished intimidator on the Sabres depth chart then Riley Boychuk. At 6’5 and 225 pounds, Boychuk is an intimidating presence on the ice. His 14 goals in 2009 showed he can add a little scoring to his physical game.

He has been able to stay healthy since having surgery on both hips in the 2007-08 season, having successfully played a full slate of games in his two seasons since then.

While he will never be a top six forward in the NHL, his particular skill set will fit in nicely on a Sabres team that is lacking for toughness on most nights.

Corey Fienhage, D, Kamloops Blazers
Acquired: 3rd round (81st overall) in 2008
May 4th, 1990. Ht: 6’3, Wt: 215 lbs

In move designed to take advantage of his strength’s, Fienhage made the switch from college hockey to the WHL this year. In two seasons at the University of North Dakota Fienhage had trouble finding his game, as his rough physical style of play was more suited for junior hockey than the US college ranks. Unhappy with his playing time and opportunities and seeing the door to his pro career closing because of it, Fienhage made the switch and it has been a smart decision so far.

As a 20-year-old, this is Fienhage’s last season of junior eligibility and he can no longer play college hockey so he is essentially playing for a pro contract from the Sabres next season. The early reviews have been good as Fienhage has initiated his physical style of play more effectively in the rough and tumble WHL. He will never be confused for an offensive defenseman but he shows good decision making in transition and is exceptional down low in his own end. If Fienhage can stay consistent all season, then there is no reason to believe that he won’t get a contract from Buffalo and play a fifth or sixth defensive role in Portland next season.

Matt MacKenzie, D, Calgary Hitmen
Acquired: 3rd round (83rd overall) in 2010
October 15th, 1991. Ht: 6’2, Wt: 200 lbs

It has been a tough season for Matt MacKenzie and the Calgary Hitmen in the Western League. Coming off of a superb 2009-10 season in which they were crowned WHL Champs and played in the Memorial Cup, the Hitmen have gone from first to worst.

MacKenzie joins fellow WHL Sabres prospects Mark Pysyk and Brayden McNabb in captaining his team in 2010-11. MacKenzie is a steady blue line presence who can play in all situations. He is possesses ideal size for a defenseman and is known for his patience with the puck and his ability to transition well out of his zone.

With a late 1991 birthday, expect MacKenzie to play one more season in Calgary. Due mostly to the incredible depth that the Sabres have in front of him on the blue line, MacKenzie will be a prime candidate for one more season of junior hockey to hone his game.


USHL

Christian Isackson, RW, Sioux Falls Stampede
Acquired: 7th round (203rd overall) in 2010
January 20th, 1992. Ht: 6’0, Wt: 185 lbs

Christian Isackson has turned some heads in his first season in the USHL. His 13 points in 17 games is good for second the team and he looks to have adjusted from Minnesota high school to the junior game very well. Isackson is a creative player with good hands that still has a lot to learn, but there is much to be excited about in the young right-wingers game.

He will suit up for the University of Minnesota next year, beginning the likely four-year process of development under coach Don Lucia. Under Lucia, Isackson will learn to play better in his own end and utilize his offensive skills better. If he matures under Lucia like so many other gifted players have, we could be talking about Isackson as a great sleeper pick in a couple years.

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