Thank goodness the exhibition season is over! At least, I’m sure that is what most Buffalo Sabre fans are thinking as they watched their favorite NHL team go 1-6 in pre-season play (2-6 if you count the win over the Austrian team).
While I’m sure many are heaving a sigh of relief at not having to endure another sloppy exhibition game, the bad news is the 98-99 season begins for the Sabres Saturday in Dallas. To say that this team does not even remotely resemble the team that made the final four last season would be an understatement. True, there are four players holding out, but this does not explain the sometimes-indifferent play by many of the players that were regulars last season. If the Sabres believe that they can flick a switch that will improve their play, then they could be in for a rude awakening in their first two contests in Dallas and Denver.
With regard to the Sabre prospects attempting to make the team, the main battle has been for the 7th defensive slot, i.e. the guy who will spend most of the season watching games from the press box. The top two contestants for this position are Jason Holland and Rumun Ndur, with Mike Hurlbut also receiving some consideration. To my eyes, Holland appears to be the more accomplished player, but he is not the physical presence that Ndur can be. The player that ultimately will win this position could be decided by what type of player the Sabres would like to have in reserve. Still, my feeling is that Ndur’s skills are not quite NHL caliber, and that Holland will prevail.
At the forward position, the only prospect still with the team is Erik Rassmussen. Erik has the physical tools to play in the NHL, but his hockey-sense could still use some fine-tuning. His skating is definitely up to NHL standards, and he appears to have fairly soft hands for a tough guy. When he has the puck, however, he does not always make good decisions when making his next move, which is not unusual for a young player. Erik’s decision-making will not improve without a good amount of ice time, but, once Donald Audette and Miro Satan are signed, it is not likely that Rassmussen will receive that needed experience. To sum up, he will begin the season with the Sabres, but will likely be sent to Rochester early in the season for further development.
Buffalo Sabres prospect watchers should cast their gaze towards Rochester, where the Americans will have several bona fide NHL prospects in their line-up. Although the Amerks finished 1-2 in their brief pre-season, there were performances by some younger players that should be a hint of things to come in the regular season. If this group of youngsters plays to their potential, Rochester could have their best team in years.
The defensive crop is strong, with J.L. Grand-Pierre returning to the fold, and newcomers Cory Sarich, Alexei Tezikov and Dimitri Kalinin adding their talents to the defense corps. While Grand-Pierre does not quite have NHL ability at this time, he should receive enough ice time to improve his game. Sarich, Tezikov, and Kalinin all contributed offensively in the Amerks pre-season games, which could bode well for goal production.
The performance of Kalinin, the Sabres first pick in ’98, has to have the Sabres scouting personnel in good spirits. He plays with more poise than your average 18 year-old defenseman, and there have been some signs that he does have some offensive ability that might not have been evident in his 97-98 statistics. Should Mike Hurlbut and/or Rumun Ndur be sent down from Buffalo, however, Dimitri could end up playing in Moncton of the QMJHL. Still, it appears that the Sabres did indeed get a steal in Kalinin.
Two forwards that impressed in pre-season games were Francois Methot (C) and Daniel Bienvenue (LW). Methot, a 3rd round pick in ’96, was not too productive in the first two Amerk exhibition games, but exploded for a four point performance (one goal, three assists) in the Amerks’ victory over Hamilton. If Francois can display this kind of talent on a regular basis, he will almost certainly get a shot in the future with the offense-starved Sabres.
Bienvenue, a 5th round pick in ’95, had two consecutive 2-goal performances for the Amerks, and is making a strong bid to remain in Rochester. Daniel spent most of last season with South Carolina of the ECHL, but worked hard in the off-season to improve his game. Obviously, that work has paid off, at least for now. While he is probably a longshot to ever play for the Sabres, more hard work and 2-goal performances could make the Sabres’ brass take notice.
Other Amerk forwards that could one day wear the black and red are Darren Van Oene (LW), Denis Hamel (LW), and Matt Davidson (RW). Van Oene scored a goal in the win over Hamilton, but will be valued more for his toughness and leadership abilities. Hamel and Davidson at times played well while in the Sabres camp, but are still lacking some ingredients that would make them above-average prospects.
A sleeper on the Amerks could be 25 year-old winger Dean Sylvester. Dean played college hockey at Kent State and Michigan State before entering the San Jose Sharks minor league system. While he does not have a NHL contract, the Sabres are said to be quite interested in Dean’s progress, and might consider giving him a look if the situation warrants it. Sylvester has the size to play in the NHL (6′ 2″, 205 lbs.), and has displayed a scoring touch at the minor league level. Dean could be a late-bloomer, which is why the Sabres have taken notice of his play.
The Buffalo Sabres have reached the point, should they add the necessary ingredients, where they could be considered a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. What became evident in this pre-season, however, is that there are no prospects with the offensive ability currently needed by the Sabres, while Buffalo’s defensive prospects have not yet developed into bona fide NHL defensemen. To become a serious Cup contender, the Sabres need an above-average center with offensive ability, and might need another experienced defenseman. The possibility of a trade(s) will almost certainly impact the Sabres prospect depth, but the Sabres are in a position to make a trade without seriously hurting their depth. This is a position that most of the other NHL teams would like to be in.
Next article: Progress report of Junior and European prospects
In addition to personal observations and information from other hockey fans, I used the following stories for source material: “Sabres covet Amerks prospect”, Kevin Oklobzija, Rochester D&C 9/16/98 “Newcomers are getting their shot with the Amerks”, Rochester D&C 9/28/98 “Pair make strong bid for Amerk spots”, Kevin Oklobzija, Rochester D&C 10/4/98