The Buffalo Sabres have quickly transitioned from a desperate, broken hockey club to one full of potential and promise—and not just because of Jack Eichel. After some daring moves by GM Tim Murray during the offseason, it’s clear that the team has made it a priority to ensure its young star is surrounded with talent as he grows into an elite franchise center.
Sabres fans chided Murray for acquiring Robin Lehner in return for a first-round draft choice at the 2015 NHL Draft, but the young goaltender will be a hungry, passionate battler for the team for years to come. And although Colorado’s asking price for Ryan O’Reilly turned out to be as high as rumoured (three players and a high pick), the Sabres had a deep enough farm system to make the deal a no-brainer.
The Sabres will also be enhanced by the graduation of prospect Sam Reinhart, who is himself a star-to-be at the centre position. The team will likely again miss the playoffs this season, but no one will be too surprised if they do happen to challenge for a wild card spot. They won’t always be pretty—but you can bet that the team will be fun to watch.
20. (10) Andrey Makarov, G, 7.0 D
Signed as free agent, September 14th, 2012
Makarov had a decent season for the Americans in 2014-15, but it was not exactly a vote of confidence when the Sabres traded their 2015 first-round draft pick for Lehner. By the time Makarov is ready to play in the NHL, other options in the system may be better choices. It’s too bad—the 22-year-old netminder does have potential.
19. (16) Vaclav Karabacek, RW, 7.0 D
Drafted 2nd round 49th overall, 2014
It will take more than one disappointing season for the Sabres to give up on Karabacek. He is an intriguing prospect with great upside, though it is still uncertain how his skills will develop at higher levels of hockey. He has struggled to produce for the Drakkar since the Olympiques dealt him at the deadline last season, but he did perform well in the playoffs, scoring 11 points in 12 games and helping the team come within a win of the semifinals.
18. (15) Sean Malone, C, 6.5 C
Drafted 6th round, 159th overall, 2013
Sean Malone has been surprisingly effective for Harvard University, helping the team to an ECAC Championship in March. Unfortunately, his NCAA career has also been plagued by injuries. If he can stay healthy, get stronger, and continue developing his offensive game, Malone could end up being a steal at his draft position.
17. (NR) Eric Cornel, C, 6.5 C
Drafted 2nd round, 44th overall, 2014
Two-way forward Eric Cornel has impressed Sabres management with his hockey IQ and upside as a playmaker. Although he will never be the flashiest player on the ice, he has made a solid commitment to adding dimensions to his play in the offensive zone this season. He is off to a great start with the Petes, drawing three assists in his first two games.
16. (18) Anthony Florentino, D 6.5 C
Drafted 5th round, 143rd overall, 2013
Hard-hitting rearguard Anthony Florentino made his dreams come true this fall when he helped Providence College to an NCAA Championship, even opening the scoring in the finals when he fired the puck past Matt O’Connor (OTT) from the blueline midway through the first period. Evidently, he was still fired up when he arrived to camp in September, taking on fellow prospect Justin Kea in a fight during a team scrimmage. He will return to Providence for his junior year, but his chance to wear a Sabres jersey will arrive eventually.
15. (14) Brycen Martin, D, 6.5 C
Drafted 3rd round, 74th overall, 2014
Puck-moving, playmaking defenceman Brycen Martin had a rough go with the Swift Current Broncos (WHL) last season, but he improved after he was traded to the Saskatoon Blades—where his offensive talents were more effectively utilized. Although he had played well at the Sabres prospects tournament, he was part of the first set of cuts made by the team in training camp, getting him into WHL action quickly. He has looked great in his first games with the Blades, and barring injury, is ready for his best season yet.
14. (12) Tim Schaller, C, 6.0 B
Signed as free agent, April 2nd, 2013
Although Tim Schaller has produced well for the Rochester Americans, he probably doesn’t project to be much more than a third-line center for the NHL Sabres. That said, he will be a very good bottom-six centre, and he didn’t look out of place in 18 games last season—although the Sabres often couldn’t decide whether the young centre was coming or going (usually both). He will likely be stuck in Rochester for the entire season, but may have an opportunity next year when David Legwand’s contract expires.
13. (19) Linus Ullmark, G 7.5 D
Drafted 6th round, 163rd overall, 2012
Ullmark’s stock has risen dramatically since the Sabres selected him in the sixth round (163rd overall) of the 2015 NHL Draft. Although his statistics fell significantly in 2014-15 due to MODO being a far weaker team than usual, he remains a top-tier goaltending prospect. Unfortunately, his immediate prognosis is cloudy due to going under the knife for double-hip surgery in the spring. He was still on the mend when training camp opened, but Ullmark’s future will look far brighter when he finally pulls on an Americans jersey this season in Rochester.
12. (20) Victor Olofsson, RW, 7.5 D
Drafted 7th round, 181st overall, 2014
One of the system’s best-kept secrets, Victor Olofsson played his way to the top of the lineup with MODO last season thanks to his game-breaking speed and deadly release. He is in position to take the league by storm this fall, and if all goes well, could join the Rochester Americans as a late-season addition. Another example of good organizational scouting, he was plucked from the seventh round (181st overall) of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, and he stood out at development camp in July.
11. (12) Connor Hurley, C, 7.5 D
Drafted 2nd round, 38th overall, 2013
Connor Hurley suffered some growing pains in 2014-15, and failed to have the success with the Fighting Irish that he had in high school and in the USHL. Much of that is due to being utilized in a defensive third-line role, but the good news is that Hurley seems to understand how important it is to improve in that respect. A great skater and passer, Hurley could stand to put on a few pounds of muscle, but more face-offs in the offensive zone may be all the playmaker needs to improve on his 10 assists in 2014-15.