As usual, the Sabres have a relatively balanced junior prospect pool. The trend has been to draft more WHLers in the last two seasons as six of the 16 selections they have made were out of the Western League.
Buffalo has only one player drafted before the third round playing in junior right now in Mark Pysyk. Also, until they drafted Nathan Lieuwen in 2011, they hadn’t drafted a goalie from one of the Canadian junior leagues since Adam Dennis in 2005.
Jerome Gauthier-Leduc, D, Rimouski Oceanic
Acquired: Drafted 3rd round (68th overall) in 2010
Though he couldn’t crack the lineup for the Canadian World Junior squad this season, there is a lot to like about Gauthier-Leduc’s game, particularly his great vision and offensive stick work. Gauthier-Leduc has led the QMJHL in defensive scoring since the opening puck was dropped and currently sits in tenth for overall league scoring. His 19 goals in just 33 games betters his total from all of last season, he is currently on pace for a 30 goal season from the blue line.
His failure to make the final roster for the Canadian’s in this year’s World Junior Championship has more to do with Coach Don Hay’s defensive style than Gauthier-Leduc’s lack of credentials. While he still needs to work on his defensive game, he has already shown improvement from a year ago, as he is getting more opportunities and plays in all situations for the Oceanic.
Gauthier-Leduc was one of the youngest players in his draft class and consequently he may get an opportunity to play one more season in the QMJHL as a 20-year-old, depending on what the Sabres decide to do with him in the off-season. If he continues at his torrid scoring pace at the junior level, he could earn an entry-level deal from the Sabres and ply his trade in Rochester next season.
Cedrick Henley, LW, Val d’Or Foreurs
Acquired: Drafted 6th round (173rd overall) in 2010
The oft injured Henley started strongly this season, with six goals and 18 points in 25 games to go along with a renewed commitment to hard-nosed hockey. It seemed as though he may have shaken the injury bug that had plagued him since his rookie season. Unfortunately for Henley, that wasn’t the case as he broke his thumb at the beginning of December and will be sidelined for a couple of weeks.
Henley needs to continue to fight through these injuries and prove that he can stay healthy for an entire season. His physical game has been good and he has shown a willingness to drop the gloves which will add another dimension to his game when he makes the jump to the pros next year. It is important for the former sixth round pick to continue to grind it out and to prove his worth as a checking winger to earn a contract from the Sabres next year.
Steven Shipley, C, Niagara IceDogs
Acquired: Drafted 4th round (98th overall) in 2010
When the Sabres drafted Shipley early in the fourth round of the 2010 draft, they were expecting to get a player with tremendous upside. In his second full season since being drafted, Shipley hasn’t developed as expected. He has shown a tendency for being inconsistent over the length of the season. His 10 goals and 24 points through the first 30 games of the season are at the pace he set in 2010-11.
An argument could be made that he plays on the most talented hockey team in Canadian major junior and he isn’t getting the ice time that some other players get because of the competition on his own team. A player with his hands and build should have capitalized on better linemates, instead his often uninspired play and defensive zone ineptitude have dropped him further down the Sabres prospect depth chart.
Despite the scathing review, all is not lost for Shipley. He still has a ton of talent and the ability to finish plays in the offensive zone. He needs to show more commitment to his defensive zone play and willingness to be more consistent night in and night out. This season is a critical year for him, particularly during the World junior tournament as four of his teammates will be representing the Canadian’s, opening up more opportunities for him with the IceDogs.
Gregg Sutch, RW, Barrie Colts
Acquired: Drafted 5th round (143rd overall) in 2010
Playing on his third OHL team in his four year junior career, Sutch has set about improving some of the finer points of his game in 2011-12. Known for being a hard working player who loves to hit and drop the gloves, Sutch is improving offensively and is on pace for a career high number of goals. His six tallies through the first 32 games of the season is one shy of his total from last season.
Sutch will never be considered an offensive player but in today’s NHL, he needs to do more than just fight. He is an adequate skater who plays with a lot of passion and should be able to find work on a fourth line in the NHL in the future. He may get an opportunity to play as an overager next season in the OHL. This will give him more time to develop his skills away from the puck and add some bulk to his 6’2 frame.
Daniel Catenacci, C, Owen Sound Attack
Acquired: Drafted 3rd round (77th overall) in 2011
Catenacci has been everything the Sabres hoped he could be when they snatched him in the third round of the 2011 draft. After a highly publicized trade out of Sault Ste. Marie over the summer, Catenacci arrived in Owen Sound ready to show his critics that he could be the player that was drafted first overall in the OHL Priority selection draft.
Through 36 games thus far he has 19 goals and 40 points, on pace to best his career high totals from last year. To go along with his increased point totals, Catenacci has worked on taking fewer bad penalties and is a plus player for the first time in his junior career.
Look for Catenacci to continue to improve throughout the season. He has NHL caliber speed as an 18-year-old and as he continues to refine his puck skills, he could develop into a legitimate scoring threat at the next level.
Alex Lepkowski, D, Barrie Colts
Acquired: Drafted 5th round (137th overall) in 2011
After twice missing significant chunks of time due to an ailing back early in the season, it appears that Lepkowski is finally healthy. The rugged blueliner is on pace to shatter his point totals from a season ago. He already has more goals in the last month than he had in the rest of his junior career combined.
Lepkowski was the lone defenseman selected by the Sabres in the 2011 draft and because of the talent ahead of him on the Sabres prospect depth chart, they can afford to let him develop at his own pace. His stay at home style represents an area on the Sabres blue line that could use bolstering. His size and toughness will be a welcome change of pace from the Sabres usual smooth skating offensive minded defensive prospects.
Mark Pysyk, D, Edmonton Oil Kings
Acquired: Drafted 1st round (23rd overall) in 2010
After a slow start to the season, Pysyk has really come on of late with points in four of his last five games. Pysyk is the most NHL ready player on this list and over the course of the last two seasons he has done all the things a prospect should do to get better. His biggest strength has always been his spectacular skating ability but he has also added a healthy dose of grit to his game making him an intriguing option for the Sabres in the future.
Pysyk was the only Sabres prospect to make the Canadian world junior team after Gauthier-Leduc was cut early in the selection camp. He doesn’t really have any deficiencies in his game and he limits mistakes which makes him an excellent choice to eat up minutes on a middle pairing for the Canadian team at the tournament.
This will be Pysyk’s last season in junior after signing a three-year entry-level deal with the Sabres that should land him in Rochester for the 2012-13 season.
Kevin Sundher, C, Victoria Royals
Acquired: Drafted 3rd round (75th overall) in 2010
After a strong training camp with the Sabres it was expected that Sundher would start off strong but his offensive output to date has exceeded expectations. He currently sits fifth in scoring in the WHL with 21 goals and 34 assists in just 35 games. It was a surprise when Sundher was left off the Canadian world junior selection camp roster but it should motivate him moving forward.
Sundher is one of the only pure centers in the Sabres prospect ranks and thus his value is extremely high right now within the organization. At 5’11 he isn’t big, but plays bigger than advertised and he has very good instincts on the ice. After signing an entry-level deal with the Sabres on December 15th, Sundher should get ample opportunity to play in Rochester next season and likely after the junior season this year as well.
Colin Jacobs, C, Seattle Thunderbirds
Acquired: Drafted 4th round (107th overall) in 2011
Unfortunately for the Thunderbirds, Jacobs missed the first 26 games of the season with an upper body (shoulder) injury. The encouraging thing is that in the five games he has played in since coming back he has looked rested and ready. He scored two goals and an assist and added a shootout winning goal in those five games to make his presence felt.
Jacobs is a big-bodied power forward who should get better as the year goes on and hopefully improve off of last year when he broke out with 22 goals. Jacobs will play one more season in the WHL but his size, heavy shot and toughness should make him a future fan favorite in Buffalo.
Nathan Lieuwen, G, Kootenay Ice
Acquired: Drafted 6th round (167th overall) in 2011
Though he was passed up in his draft year, the Sabres were happy to get the WHL veteran net minder in the sixth round of the 2011 draft. It has already paid dividends as Lieuwen helped the Sabres win the Traverse City tournament this summer with strong play between the pipes. He is now first in the WHL in goals against and second in save percentage and his Kootenay team currently sits in third place in the WHL’s Eastern Conference.
Lieuwen is a technical goalie who relies on his angles more than his own athleticism. This isn’t a knock on his athleticism, just a statement of his propensity to work angles over flailing around in the crease. He has a good chance of earning an entry-level deal with the Sabres in the off-season, if for no other reason that the fact they are lacking in quality goaltending prospects in the organization. He could be Rochester bound in 2012-13.