The Portland Pirates came into the 2010-11 season with high hopes centered around an influx of new talent, including eventual Rookie of the Year winner Luke Adam, former Michigan State star Corey Tropp, and a duo of defensive stalwarts in Alex Biega and Nick Crawford. They overachieved by winning the Atlantic division and reaching the conference semi-final, in large part because of the play of AHL defenseman of the year Marc-Andre Gragnani and a team first attitude that was infectious all season long.
Luke Adam, C, 20
Adam was nothing short of brilliant in his pro rookie campaign, as he finished second on the team in scoring behind AHL star Mark Mancari. His 29 goals and 62 points led all AHL rookies and helped earn him Rookie of the Year honors, making him the third consecutive Sabre to earn the award.
Adam has progressed very well since joining the Pirates this past year, as he was able to step right into the lineup and make an impact. It was evident from the start of the year that his skating has improved and he displayed better than adequate speed once he gets going. He still needs to work on his quickness but he certainly did not look out of place in his three stints with the Sabres.
Adam has a legitimate shot at making the team next year as the Sabres will likely have a few forward spots open on the roster for 2011-12. While he is listed as a center, he may be more suited as a right winger in Buffalo and that versatility may be one of his biggest assets. He will need to continually get better in the defensive zone as he looked a little lost at times last year in coverage but that will come with more experience in the pro ranks. There is a lot to be excited about in Adam as he has the potential to be a perennial 30 goal player in the NHL.
Paul Byron, C, 22
One of the more pleasant surprises in Portland’s run in 2010-11 had to be the play of diminutive center, Paul Byron. While still listed at 5’9” and only 170lbs, he plays with an edge that belies his small frame and should help his jump to the next level. Byron finished fourth on the Pirates in scoring this past season with 53 points in 67 games and he nearly doubled his goal total from the previous season with 26. In addition to his improved play in Portland, Byron had an eight game stint with the big club where he was very effective, contributing with his speed and deceptive grittiness and endearing himself to Sabres fans everywhere.
Byron will have an outside chance to make the team next year but is a likely candidate to center the first line in Portland in 2011-12. If the latter happens than he will surely be a frequent injury call up as his hard work, speed and toughness make him the logical choice if a center man goes down.
Travis Turnbull, C, 24
Developmentally it was a tough season for Turnbull as he was sidelined for 59 games with a shoulder injury in the final year of his entry-level deal. Turnbull had a good training camp with the Sabres this year and was poised to have a breakout year before the injury, now he has to hope that he was able to show enough to garner a new contract as he is a restricted free agent on July 1st.
Despite his mediocre skating ability, Turnbull brings some other attributes to the table that could justify a re-up on his contract. He plays hard every night and is a great fore checker who always seems to be around the puck. He is an opportunistic scorer who’s best skill is his board play. His upside is probably that of a third or fourth-liner at the NHL level but he could be a player to keep an eye on next year if he gets resigned.
Corey Tropp, RW, 21
Playing mostly middle six minutes for the Pirates as a rookie this year, Tropp had a solid season. He wasn’t able to light up the scoreboard like he did in his final season at Michigan State but his ten goals and 40 points were good enough to place in him in the top-20 rookie scorers in the AHL.
Tropp adjusted well to the longer schedule in the pro ranks by making steady progress throughout the season. He didn’t really have a point where his production dropped off, which is a good indication of his willingness to do whatever it takes to get to the next level. The feisty winger will see increased minutes next season and could benefit from the additions of space eaters Zack Kassian and Marcus Foligno in 2011-12. Unless he makes huge strides in the offseason, Tropp will likely play the year out in Portland. However if Kassian or Foligno falter at all in their rookie campaigns, he could be a long shot call up next year.
Maxime Legault, RW, 22
There is no doubt that Legault plays with a lot of heart, but time will tell if he has enough skill to hack it in the NHL. Accepting a one-year contract in December to finish out the season, Legault was essentially playing for his an entry-level deal next season and the jury is still out as to whether he did enough to earn one. He has good bottom six attributes and can be a beast on the forecheck but his mediocre skating ability and lack of any real offensive upside could decide his fate.
It wouldn’t be the worst idea to sign Legault to an AHL deal since he gives an honest effort every night but it may be an exercise in futility as his pedigree as a future NHLer is still very much in question.
Jacob Lagace, LW, 21
Battling inconsistency all season long earned Lagace a demotion to the ECHL’s Greenville Road Warriors in January and in his brief stint with them he only managed six assists in 13 games. He was better once he was recalled to Portland but quickly fell off as the year wore on.
He has good offensive tools and plays a hard-nosed game but just couldn’t put it all together in his rookie campaign. Luckily for him, he has two more years left on the entry-level deal he signed with the Sabres last summer to get it all straightened out. Unfortunately, like his former QMJHL teammate Maxime Legault, he has a lot of work to do before he can be mentioned in the same breath as “NHL ready”.
Drew Schiestel, D, 22
Unfortunately, the coming out party only lasted 45 games for Schiestel as he was lost for the season with a knee injury just days after he was selected to his first AHL all star game. There is no denying the progress that he made leading up to that point however, as he was the most steady two-way presence on the Pirates blue line. He had five goals and 23 points in his shortened season and was leading all Portland players with a plus-15 rating.
It will be interesting to see how he responds to the first significant injury of his career. He will likely be called upon as one of the leaders on the team next season with the likely ascension of Marc-Andre Gragnani to Buffalo and could be instrumental in helping Brayden McNabb with the transition to the pro game.
Based on how long it takes him to get back to the level he was at before the injury, he could be one of the Sabres go to injury call ups in 2011-12. It would be a lot to ask for him to really challenge for a spot on the roster out of camp since it will be his first on-ice action since the injury. There is a lot to be excited about with Schiestel and it would be very surprising if he wasn’t one of the top AHL defenseman in 2011-12.
Marc-Andre Gragnani, D, 24
It’s hard not get excited at the thought of Gragnani in Buffalo for a full season in 2011-12 after watching his performance in the playoffs against Philadelphia this year. Gragnani won the Eddie Shore Award as the top AHL defenseman and scored 60 points in 63 games for the Pirates. When he was called up at the end of the season, he made it impossible to send him back down as he outplayed many of his veteran teammates. He finished the season by leading all Sabres in scoring during the 2010-11 playoffs and setting himself up for decent raise and a long term contract this offseason.
As a player that has been in the system for six years it is easy to see the progress he has made in his defensive game. Obviously he was a highly touted offensive defenseman when he was drafted but he has become so much more as his awareness in his own end has gotten better and his defensive zone board play has become a strength.
The Sabres will probably use Gragnani next season as a bottom four defenseman and power play specialist but if he continues where he left off in the playoffs it’s hard to imagine him not getting top four minutes by mid season.
T.J. Brennan, D, 22
Brennan was considered a raw prospect with unlimited upside when the Sabres selected him 31st overall in 2007. Essentially he had the potential to be a shutdown type of defenseman with a booming shot. In his two seasons in Portland under the watchful eye of Assistant coach Eric Weinrich he has finally begun to touch his potential. He potted a team high 15 goals from the back end and bettered his points total by 16 from 2009-10, mostly due to increased minutes on the power play and at even strength.
The caveat to all the positive developments for Brennan over the past year or so is that many of his contemporaries are surpassing him due to his slow development. While the Sabres still believe he will be a valuable part of the defensive corps some day, he has yet to really stand out above some of his teammates. All of this points to another year of developing his all around game in Portland with the chance of maybe getting a late season call up to the big club.
Alex Biega, D, 23
Despite missing a month of the regular season because of injury, Biega was still able to put together solid numbers in his rookie season with the Pirates. While his offensive numbers are mediocre at best, it is the intangibles he brings to the defensive corps that make him such an intriguing prospect. Most notably is his steadying presence on the blue line where he plays solid positional hockey at both ends of the rink. His plus-18 was second on the team for defenseman behind only Gragnani and even as a rookie his voice was heard in the Pirates dressing room.
Biega projects as a bottom pairing defenseman at the next level who will give an honest effort every night. His leadership and skating ability all but ensure that he has a future in the NHL but because of his limited upside offensively and his smallish frame, he will probably have a longer road than some of his more NHL ready defensive teammates.
Nick Crawford, D, 21
Coming off a huge offensive season in the OHL in 2009-10, there were high expectations from the Sabres fan base for Crawford in his first season with the Pirates. While he certainly didn’t match the numbers he put up in his final year of juniors, there was definite progress made in his game. He was able to stay healthy for most of the season and consequently played more games than any other Pirates blueliner in 2010-11. His seven goals and 31 points were good for third on the team defensively and his play improved when he saw more time due to the injuries of Schiestel and Biega.
Crawford is a great skater with a good shot who has a tremendous amount of potential as a two way defenseman. There are some elements to his game that he will have to continually work on to get to Buffalo, most notably his positional play defensively. The good part for Crawford is that there is no pressure to perform in the NHL right now. There are enough defensive prospects ahead of him on the depth chart to give him room to grow into his potential.
Dennis Persson, D, 23
Persson has continued his slow resurgence back into the good graces of the Sabres brass with a good season where he started to show some flashes of the talent that made him the 24th overall pick in 2006. His offensive totals haven’t lived up to his talent but he is starting to understand the defensive nuances of the North American game. He is a very good skater and has good hockey instincts, but until this year he has looked lost on the ice since leaving Sweden in 2008-09.
Beginning with a strong training camp with the Sabres and throughout the AHL season, Persson has shown enough maturity in his game that he may be one of the players that could garner call up attention in 2011-12. He will almost certainly begin the season with the Pirates and the hope is that he can tap into his offensive instincts a bit more and show that he can play more than a bottom pairing role on an NHL team. It is safe to say that he has been a huge disappointment thus far and barring a miracle it will be difficult for him to live up to his draft spot but at this point the Sabres would be happy to get a serviceable NHLer out of him.
Jhonas Enroth, G, 22
It would appear that after nearly three full years of AHL duty with the Pirates, Enroth may have earned the job of backing up Ryan Miller in 2011-12. It started with his superb play in the clutch to help the Miller-less Sabres reach the playoffs in 2010-11. Nobody would have faulted the talented Swede if the Sabres couldn’t get it done with Miller out but it was his determination that caught on with his teammates and inspired their confidence in him. While he probably isn’t ready for a heavy workload at the NHL level yet, he should be able to take some of the pressure of Miller and keep him more rested than he’s been since Martin Biron was around.
Enroth is an unorthodox style goaltender who uses his quickness to make up for his relative lack in size. He doesn’t get rattled easily which has garnered him the respect and confidence of his teammates at both the AHL level and now with the Sabres. All of these traits and his end of the Season performance in Buffalo mean he is also due for a healthy raise when he signs a new contract this summer. Assuming Miller stays healthy, expect Enroth to get 15-25 starts in 2011-12.