Zack Kassian tops group of gritty junior prospects for Buffalo Sabres

By Tony Musso
Photo: Zack Kassian saw many peeks and valleys over the past season in the OHL. He will be expected to play in the AHL next season, although could see some time with the Sabres in the NHL. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

Buffalo’s organizational depth chart has been deeply rooted in the CHL for a long time as 19 of the Sabres 23 draft picks since 2008 have come from the WHL, OHL, or QMJHL. Currently Buffalo has 11 prospects in the CHL and one player in the USHL. Four of the Sabres prospects are still battling in the playoffs with Riley Boychuk and Brayden McNabb going head to head out west, Gregg Sutch in the OHL and Christian Isackson in the USHL.


QMJHL

Jerome Gauthier-Leduc, D, Rimouski Oceanic
Acquired: 3rd round, 68th overall, 2010

Building off his solid sophomore season in the QMJHL, Gauthier-Leduc came back this year and bettered his single season point total with 56 points in 61 games, ten more than last season. He was second in the QMJHL in defensive scoring and his leadership on the power play helped Rimouski become one of the more dangerous man advantage units in the league.

It has been a good development year for the Sabres youngest prospect. He was one of 37 players to attend the 2011 Canadian National Junior Team Development Camp. Though he didn’t make the team, the experience he gained there was evident both in his Sabres rookie camp showing and his overall play in 2010-11.

Offensively, Gauthier-Leduc has all the tools to be a future power play QB in the NHL. With another year of seasoning in Rimouski where he will have more responsibility and play more minutes, Gauthier-Leduc should position himself well for the transition to the pro ranks in 2012-13.

Cedrick Henley, C, Val d’Or Foreurs
Acquired: 6th round, 173rd overall, 2010

It has been a tough year for the 6’5 center from Val D’Or. After just 12 games he went under the knife to have surgery on his wrist which ended up sidelining the big pivot for 42 games. He came back in February and played the final ten games where he put up a respectable goal and seven assists.

Henley will have to try to make up in 2011-12 what was obviously a lost year of development. If his increased offensive totals in the limited games he played are any indication, then the Sabres may have gotten a steal in the sixth round of last year’s draft. Henley has the talent and size to be a solid third line producer at the next level; he will just have to show that he can stay healthy for an entire season first.


OHL

Zack Kassian, RW, Windsor Spitfires
Acquired: 1st round, 13th overall, 2009

It’s hard to grade Zack Kassian‘s 2010-11 season as it was littered with peaks and valleys. Kassian had an excellent training camp in Buffalo to start off the year, even garnering some talk of him making the team out of camp. When that didn’t happen, Kassian set the OHL on fire before the World Junior Championship by posting 51 points in 27 games. After a disappointing World Junior tournament where he managed to earn a two game suspension for an illegal hit to the head and wasn’t much of a factor, Kassian wasn’t the same. In his final 29 games, he posted 26 points and was inconsistent enough to sit in Spitfires coach, Bob Jones’ dog house on numerous occasions.

After an early exit from the OHL playoffs, the Sabres assigned Kassian to AHL affiliate Portland for the remainder of their playoff run. He adjusted well by adding a physical presence to the Pirates offense that was missing before he got there. Next season will be interesting for Kassian, as there are really two options for him within the organization. He will either have to play his way onto the third line in Buffalo out of camp or the more likely scenario would be for him to spend a year in Portland getting acclimated with the pro game. It’s no secret that Kassian’s play in junior this past season was inconsistent, likely due to his boredom at a level where he physically dominated. The question will be if he can regain some of that fire playing with players who are more physically mature and being around veterans that will call him to task.

It seems as though Kassian needs guidance and next year, no matter where he plays, he should get that with the older teammates around him. The main focus in 2011-12 for him will be to get the mental part of his game in the right place as the physical part is a sorely needed component to a Sabres team that could use some snarl in their game.


Marcus Foligno, LW, Sudbury Wolves
Acquired: 4th round, 104th overall, 2009

In contrast to fellow Canadian junior alum Zack Kassian, Foligno had a coming out year of sorts with the Sudbury Wolves in 2010-11. The improvements to Foligno’s status as a pro prospect begin with his being named captain of a Wolves team in need of leadership. From there Foligno led the overachieving Wolves to the second round of the OHL playoffs by beating heavily favored Belleville in four games and eventually being swept by the hottest OHL team right now, Mississauga. Much of this unexpected rise can be attributed to Foligno’s example on the ice and his conduct off of it. The best indication of Foligno’s rise in the OHL ranks might be his surprise selection to the Canadian World junior team in Buffalo. He not only provided much needed grit for the Canadians but also managed to chip in two goals and two assists in seven games.

Statistically Foligno had the best year of his junior career despite a knee injury that sidelined him for 20 games. He bettered his point total by 20 while missing all of that time by registering 59 points in 47 games. He also managed the first plus season of his career as he finished with a plus-five on the season, his previous three seasons combined in Sudbury he was a minus-52. Perhaps the most obvious aspect of his game that showed improvement was his composure on the ice. At times in previous seasons it seemed as though Foligno was running wild on the ice, but by improving his skating and decision making this year you could see the maturation in his game.

Although Foligno seemed to go through a huge transformation this past year, his constant improvement every season leading up to it is exactly what pro teams look for in a player once he is drafted. That being said, Foligno is likely headed to Portland next season once the Sabres sign him to an entry-level deal. Though he is still raw as compared with fellow banger Zack Kassian, he is far more consistent and it wouldn’t be that surprising for him to challenge for a bottom six spot with Buffalo next year. If not, then expect a Portland team that no one wants to play against in 2011-12 with the likely influx of Foligno, Kassian, Riley Boychuk and big tough WHL defenseman Brayden McNabb.


Steven Shipley, C, Niagara Ice Dogs
Acquired: 4th round, 98th overall, 2010

At the start of the 2010-11 season, Steven Shipley requested a trade and was subsequently dealt from Owen Sound to Niagara after a dispute with management. The initial thought here is why is an 18-year-old junior requesting a trade? It immediately sent some red flags up about the ego of the oft inconsistent but very talented centerman from Iderton, ONT. Shipley answered the critics by providing a much needed spark early on for the Ice Dogs with 15 points in his first 15 games. He was a solid playoff performer for the Ice Dogs who eventually fell to Mississauga in the Eastern Conference finals of the OHL.

Though Shipley started off well in Niagara, he quickly fell into his usual inconsistent play as it seemed like he would have 10 or 12 games on and then 10 or 12 games off, a telling sign of a lack maturity. Shipley brings NHL size and a great set of hands but lacks the day in, day out focus that could separate him and give him a shot at the next level. Shipley is still only 19 and he has plenty of time to correct the wild variance in his play, but it all starts by putting together a good showing in 2011-12.


Gregg Sutch, RW, Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors
Acquired: 5th round, 143rd overall, 2010

Gregg Sutch has had a productive third season in the OHL with Mississauga, posting career highs in every major statistical category. He has 28 points this season which is five more than his career total coming into 2010-11. His plus-20 rating is 31 points better than last year, obviously playing on a very good team helped that, but he has been a solid bottom six contributor for Mississauga this season.

Sutch is still very raw and probably destined for a couple more seasons of development before he will even get a sniff at the NHL. There is a lot to like about his passion for the game and his size which have contributed to his agitator status in junior.

He will spend 2011-12 in Mississauga where he will have an increased role. A team can never have too many bottom six players that are defensively responsible and Sutch is turning into one of those players. Look for him to make more of an impact for the Majors next year as he adds some weight to his frame and more maturity to his game.


WHL

Mark Pysyk, D, Edmonton Oil Kings
Acquired: 1st round, 23rd overall, 2010

The Sabres first round pick in 2010 built off his team MVP performance in 2009 by ramping up his game across the board. He was named team captain at the start of the season and was one of the catalysts to helping the Oil Kings young talent mature into a contender for the first time since 2008-09. Offensively, Pysyk doubled his assist total from 17 to 34 and set a new personal best with 40 points. His plus-29 rating is 48 points better than last year and when you consider that he was on the ice for every important situation the Oil Kings were in this season, that’s a pretty remarkable number.

In addition to the statistical upgrades, Pysyk added an element of physicality to his game that was previously inexistent. There is no denying that he was one of the best skaters in the WHL and when you add in his great two way play and the ability to finish checks, Pysyk is really coming into his own. It isn’t that much of a stretch to assume that he has top pairing potential in the future.

Pysyk will be in an interesting situation going into next season concerning where he is going to play. His skating ability and puck movement are excellent and he could be primed to give the Sabres brass fits about keeping him in Buffalo. He may be the odd man out even if he does have an excellent camp because of the great depth on the blue line the Sabres have in Portland. For Pysyk, his age and junior eligibility could trump his play in camp, no matter how good he is. Expect one more season in Edmonton in 2011-12 where he could help the Oil Kings to the best finish in franchise history and gain some valuable experience as a two-year captain in the WHL. After that, as long as his development path isn’t stalled by injury, Pysyk could be roaming the Sabres blue line before his 21st birthday.


Brayden McNabb, D, Kootenay Ice
Acquired: 3rd round, 66th overall, 2009

No junior prospect for the Sabres has improved their stock more than Brayden McNabb in Kootenay in 2010-11. The Ice captain was third in the WHL in defensive scoring with 72 points in 59 games in 2010-11, 22 of those were goals. McNabb lead Kootenay to the WHL finals and currently has 24 points in 16 games. His power play prowess and first-pass precision has silenced many of the doubters who were concerned with his skating ability and decision making prior to the 2009 draft.

McNabb came into the season desperately wanting to play for team Canada at the World Juniors and after earning the invite he seemed to have a good shot of making the team. Those dreams were squelched when he was one of the last cuts for team Canada and McNabb has played with a chip on his shoulder ever since. He is an extremely physical, future shut down defenseman at the next level who should be an important addition to Portland in the AHL next year.

McNabb is intriguing for the Sabres because they haven’t had player with his skill set in a long time. He is much more physical than Tyler Myers was at the same age and is scoring roughly as frequently. He still needs to improve his footwork in transition and could use a year in the AHL but when McNabb gets the call in Buffalo, he has legitimate top four potential and would look good opposite Myers on the Sabres blue line.


Matt MacKenzie, D, Tri-City Americans
Acquired: 3rd round, 83rd overall, 2010

Mackenzie had his hockey world turned upside down when in early January he was traded from Calgary to Tri-City in the WHL. As the captain of the Hitmen and three and a half year veteran of the franchise, it was an adjustment for the defenseman. He handled the move with class and didn’t miss a beat as he added leadership and good two way defensive play the Americans squad.
Mackenzie’s offensive statistics aren’t overwhelming, with seven goals and 38 points on the season but he provides a steady presence on the blue line and is one of the better defenseman positionally in junior hockey. He also managed to rack up 86 penalty minutes and is no stranger to physical play.

He has all the makings of a future second pairing defenseman in the NHL as his great hockey sense and defensive zone play should make up for his mediocre offensive upside. As a late ’91 birthday he falls in the range of an overage player in the WHL next season so he may stay on one more year in Tri-City if the Sabres don’t sign him. With Buffalo’s prospect depth on the blue line it may be the smartest move to let him play another year of junior and get him into the fold in 2012.


Kevin Sundher, C, Chilliwack Bruins
Acquired: 3rd round, 75th overall, 2010

Besides Luke Adam, Kevin Sundher may be the best of a very weak center prospect pool for the Sabres. He has progressed well in Chilliwack this past season, centering the top line and distributing the puck well. He is a natural playmaker as he showed in 2010-11 with 52 assists and 76 points, good for third on the team in scoring.

Sundher has a great opportunity with the Sabres organization considering there are so few center prospects. He could really shoot up the prospect depth chart with a monster year next season in Chilliwack. His offensive instincts and skating ability make him an intriguing possibility as a second line center down the road but a lot will hinge on how much he develops his overall game in 2011-12 and whether he can show consistency every night. The vision and passion are there but like many junior prospects, consistency every night has yet to be established.


Riley Boychuk, LW, Portland Winterhawks
Acquired: 7th round, 208th overall, 2010

After three seasons of battling through injuries, Boychuk has started to make his presence felt in for the Winterhawks. His offensive statistics have consistently been average but he brings other intangibles that are immeasurable. His physical presence on the ice is unmistakable as he finishes checks regularly and is a willing participant in the pugilistic aspects of the game.

Boychuk has also been one of the driving forces in Portland’s run to the WHL final where they are currently tied in the series against Kootenay, 1-1. His four goals and ten points in 18 playoff games are the exact type of secondary scoring that team’s at any level need to win championships.

Boychuk is a 20-year-old this season and will likely be signed and sent to Portland next year. His skill set, along with that of fellow Portland newbie’s Zack Kassian, Marcus Foligno and Brayden McNabb will make the Pirates a tough opponent on a nightly basis.


USHL

Christian Isackson, D, Sioux Falls Stampede
Acquired: 7th round, 203rd overall, 2010

When the Sabres drafted Isackson in the seventh round of the 2010 draft they knew they were getting a very good player that few teams had on their radar. As a high schooler in his draft year, Isackson was overlooked by many clubs because of a lack of exposure, though there was no question he had great hands and stellar hockey sense.

In making the jump to the USHL this season, he was able to showcase his skills on a bigger stage and he delivered, leading Sioux Falls in scoring with 44 points in 58 games.

He has first round talent according to some scouts that have since seen him play since joining Sioux Falls, making him quite a steal for the Sabres if he develops accordingly. Isackson will suit up for the University of Minnesota next year and should be a valuable addition to a Gophers squad that underachieved last year. The development process will likely be long for Isackson and he probably won’t have a shot with the Sabres for at least another three or four seasons.

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