The Buffalo Sabres, historically known to produce smaller, hard-skating forwards, have improved their toughness and size over the past couple years and are bursting at the seams in Rochester (AHL) with numerous players who are close to NHL-Ready.
The organization is much better off in terms of the depth of their prospects then they were at this time last season and they seem to have found a good balance between size, skill, and toughness.
Three of Buffalo’s left wing prospects are currently playing in Rochester with Marcus Foligno headlining the list. Foligno is the ideal NHL prospect for Buffalo. He was considered extremely raw and a bit immature in his draft year but his overall game improved each year. He has so far played well in his first year of AHL hockey, managing five goals in 13 games.
Jacob Lagace is looking to get back on track after a tough 2010-11 season that saw him spend part of the season in the ECHL. Lagace has started the season well, but the Sabres brass want to see a more consistent effort from him and a little better play in his own end. He has certainly shown a better motor to start this season.
The surprise Amerks left winger on this list is 20-year-old Riley Boychuk. At the start of the season it was thought that he would play his overage year with Portland of the WHL but he showed enough in Amerks camp to make the opening day roster. He possesses great size and a willingness to play in the dirty areas along the wall which certainly helped his cause this season.
The only left winger not playing pro hockey right now is Cedrick Henley of Val d’Or in the QMJHL. Henley will try to stay healthy for the first time in his junior career as he has been plagued by wrist injuries throughout. He has started the year off well with Val d’Or, posting 16 points in his first 21 games while playing with more of the edge befitting a player of his size.
The Sabres have some of the best depth in years at the pivot, starting with top center prospect top NHL rookie, Luke Adam. The big center has burst onto the scene this year, getting the opportunity to play with Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville right from the opening puck drop. He has made the most of his opportunities, posting five goals and 13 points in the first 17 games of the season. Adam will be centering one of the Sabres top two lines for many years to come.
The Sabres signed former San Jose fifth rounder, Phil Varone this offseason and he has played well in Rochester to date. So far he has been solid offensively and his speed has eased the blow of losing Paul Byron to Calgary in the Robyn Regher trade.
Also representing the Sabres in the WHL right now is 2011 fourth rounder Colin Jacobs. He has been injured since the Sabres prospect camp over the summer. He has an undisclosed upper body injury and is expected back in early December.
The Sabres have two other center’s playing in the OHL in Dan Catenacci and Steven Shipley. Catenacci has progressed well since being drafted in the third round by the Sabres in the 2011 draft. He was one of the standout players at rookie camp this summer.
Shipley is looking to improve on what was ultimately a developmental regression year last season with the Ice Dogs. He was unable to match his previous seasons point totals and his inconsistency was maddening. This season he will get ample opportunity to show what he can do playing on a talent laden Niagara team that should make a deep Memorial cup run.
The lone collegiate center in the Sabres organization is Wisconsin freshman Brad Navin. Navin was the Sabres seventh rounder in 2011 out of Waupaca high school in Wisconsin. He has already played nine games for the Badgers as a freshman and he has the luxury of time as he can mature at his own pace in the collegiate system.
Buffalo has a well stocked group of talented right wingers, beginning with Amerks leading scorer Zack Kassian. He has continued to display all the traits that made him the Sabres first round pick in 2009 as he is extremely strong and tough to play against along the wall in the offensive zone. He will likely play out the season in Rochester to gain some pro experience and should be a roster lock in Buffalo for 2012-13.
Former Michigan State standout Corey Tropp is another Amerk who is off to a great start this season. He was one of the final cuts for the Sabres out of camp this year thanks to his great two-way game and non-stop motor. Tropp is a great forchecker with a nose for the net as evidenced by his four goals in ten games this season. He has also played well in a recent four game stint with Buffalo filling in for the suspended Patrick Kaleta with a goal and an assist.
The other three Amerks right wingers are undrafted free agent signees Shawn Szydlowski and Jonathan Parker, as well as former Sabres seventh round pick Maxime Legault. Szydlowski is a physical winger with a scoring touch who will likely need a few years of seasoning in the AHL before he has a shot in Buffalo.
Parker is a scoring winger who had a great rookie camp that earned him an entry-level deal from the Sabres. Despite his diminutive size, Parker is a fearless competitor with a great shot who skates very well.
Legault has had a tough time getting into games this season with all of the Amerks right wing depth. His relentlessness is admirable and he really lays it all on the ice whenever he is out there but he still hasn’t done enough to be an AHL regular night in and night out.
The Sabres most highly skilled prospect, Joel Armia, is also the only one that isn’t currently playing in North. There are high expectations for the rangy winger as his reputation as a creative goal scorer has put pressure on him to deliver this season. Armia was off to a slow start this season but he has picked up steam of late. He should be one of Finland‘s star players in international competitions this year, including the four nation’s tournament and the World Junior Championships in January.
The Sabres have two right wing prospects playing collegiate hockey right now in senior Justin Jokinen at Minnesota State University and freshman Christian Isackson at the University at Minnesota. Jokinen is one of the leaders on a weak Minnesota State team and should see the best production of his college career with increased minutes in 2011-12.
Isackson enters Minnesota after one very good season in the USHL in which he scored 44 points in 58 games.
Gregg Sutch is the only right winger in the Sabres organization playing in the OHL. His game is still very raw but his skill set being that of a physical high energy player will likely limit him to a fourth line role at the next level due to his lack of offensive skills.
The top of the defensive prospect list starts with current Buffalo Sabres rearguard, Marc-Andre Gragnani. After a stellar playoff series against the Bruins last season and solid camp this September, Gragnani has earned a spot in Buffalo’s top seven. It remains to be seen given the current defensive struggles of the team as a whole if he can remain in the lineup every night.
The list of AHL defensive prospects is extensive and features more than a few names that may be NHL ready. Drew Schiestel and T.J. Brennan headline that list as both have had a good deal of success at the AHL level. Despite an injury in the first game of the season, Schiestel has maintained his high level of play in his return to action. Brennan scored 15 goals and 39 points last year and will look to improve on those totals in 2011-12.
Rookie blueliner Brayden McNabb has been very good playing in all situations and has managed to score eight points in his first 15 games.
Fellow AHL rookie Matt MacKenzie was a surprise to make the Amerks considering he had one year of eligibility left in the WHL this year. His strong play at the Traverse City tournament, coupled with a solid training camp, were enough to earn him an entry-level deal and a spot with the Amerks.
Alex Biega and Nick Crawford will try to build off of respectable rookie campaigns in 2010-11. Biega looked very good in Traverse City and was one of the final cuts in training camp. Crawford is poised to have a huge jump in production this year as he will be counted on to be one of the better two way defenseman on the team.
Former first round pick, Dennis Persson is the final AHL defenseman and thus far he has had a tough time cracking the line up with so much depth in Rochester.
Former first round pick Mark Pysyk is the lone representative from the WHL and he is the most complete defenseman playing junior hockey in the Sabres organization. Look for him to push for a spot on the Canadian world junior team in January.
Buffalo has two collegiate defenseman in Mark Adams of Providence College and Drew MacKenzie at the University of Vermont. Adams is a big sophomore defenseman that is seeing increased ice time this year and MacKenzie is a senior that is essentially playing for an entry-level contract next season.
The Sabres also have one defensive prospect playing for their new ECHL affiliate, Corey Fienhage. He was the odd man out of the crowded Rochester blue line and was assigned to Gwinnett at the start of the season. Fienhage is a physical defenseman who isn’t afraid to drop the gloves.
Goaltending depth is seriously lacking in the Sabres system outside of current Sabres backup, Jhonas Enroth. After filling in admirably for an ailing Ryan Miller at the end of last season, Enroth has picked up right where he left off.
The Sabres underachieving collegiate duo of Connor Knapp and Bradley Eidsness, both seniors, haven’t done anything to stand out on their respective teams. Knapp is still in a time share with Cody Reichard at Miami of Ohio, while Eidsness hasn’t been able to overtake Aaron Dell at the University of North Dakota.
Nathan Lieuwen has been very good as an overage player with Kootenay in the WHL so far this season. Lieuwen played well in Traverse City and he could be in line for an entry-level deal with the Sabres.