Top 20 Prospects of the Buffalo Sabres

By Ken McKenna

For this month’s edition of the Sabres Top 20, I’ve decided to remove the name of Vaclav Varada, the man that occupied the top spot in my last Top 10 offering. Vaclav has been removed, not because of poor play or a trade, but because he has convinced me that he is a bona fide NHL forward. He may not put up great numbers this season, but I believe that he could develop into a player capable of 25-30 goals a season.

As for the rest of the list, I am including a few 1998 draftees that had not previously been listed. These players have begun their junior seasons, so I’ve been able to get a better feel for what players are displaying NHL potential. I’ve included statistics as of 10/12/98 for most of the players (Rochester stats will be added once they’ve played more games) so that prospect-watchers will have an idea of how these players are performing.

Cory Sarich D
6′ 3″
182

Cory did not have as good a camp as the Sabres would have liked, so he will receive more development time in Rochester. He has all the tools to be a top-notch NHL defenseman, but he needs to play with a little more control. He has earned the reputation of being a big hitter, but he sometimes goes for the big hit at the expense of being caught out of position. There are several defensemen on the Buffalo roster, so there is no need to rush Cory into the NHL.

Dimitri Kalinin D
6′ 2″
198


Dimitri has made a good enough showing to this point that he remains with the Rochester Amerks. Although there is great debate about whether he is a stay-at-home defenseman or a more offensively gifted player, there is little doubt that, before too long, Dimitri will be a force to be reckoned with on the Sabres blueline. The Sabres may have gotten a real steal in Kalinin.

Erik Rassmussen C
6′ 2″
207

Although Erik did not make the big club to start the season, he did impress with his physical presence in pre-season games. He may get a chance with Buffalo once the logjam at the Sabres center position has been broken, but the Sabres would like to see Erik develop more of a scoring touch to complement his physical style. The best place for him to develop that touch would be in Rochester.

Mika Noronen G
6′ 1″
191

Mika started the Finnish Elite League’s season with a bang, allowing just 3 goals in 3 games while leading Tappara to a 3-0 start. His play, however, has deteriorated since that time as he strung together a handful of poor performances. One obstacle that will slow Mika’s development this year is his mandatory tour of duty with the Finnish army. This will cut into his practice time, and in fact may have contributed to his recent poor play. Still, Mika is a great prospect who will only get better with experience.

98-99 Team GP MIN Shots GAA Save % SO

Tappara 8 399 163 3.45 .859 0

Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre D
6′ 3″
207

Jean-Luc had a less-than-spectacular training camp, which earned him a demotion to Rochester. Prior to training camp, it was felt that Jean-Luc might make a push for the spot vacated by Bob Boughner, but it became obvious that he needed more seasoning with the Amerks. Grand-Pierre does display a good bit of hustle at times, but some of this effort is necessary because he has a tendency to take himself out of position. He needs the playing time to improve his game, and he should get plenty of it playing in Rochester.

Alexei Tezikov D
6′ 1″
198

Both Tezikov and Kalinin are with the Rochester Amerks, but have not yet played in a regular season game because they have not signed contracts. Once Alexei begins playing, the Amerks will have an unpolished offensive defenseman who has the capibility to be a game-deciding force. What they will also have, however, is an undisciplined defenseman who can sometimes be caught badly out of position. Once Alexei learns to play a more controlled game, he will have an excellent chance to show his skills at the NHL level.

Martin Biron G
6′ 1″
160

If his first regular season start for Rochester is any indication, this could be a banner year for Martin. Biron appears to have picked up where he left off last season, picking up a shutout on the same day Dominik Hasek earned his first 98-99 shutout. Martin went to training camp knowing that he would end up in Rochester, but he made a good showing in his brief appearances. There were some that wrote Biron off early last season as a bust, but he has turned things around to the point where he is considered a good NHL prospect. Martin will have to split time in goal with Tom Draper, but he should get plenty of opportunity to re-assert himself as an heir apparent to Hasek.

Maxim Afinogenov RW
5′ 11″
176

Obtaining information on Maxim has been difficult. I have kept his name in the top 10, but I am of the opinion that a couple of ’98 picks could surpass Maxim on this list. Afinogenov is valued primarily for his great speed and offensive ability, but it remains to be seen whether he has the desire to play in North America. We should get the opportunity to see him play in the WJC in Winnipeg; perhaps he’ll be persuaded to join the Amerks after that tournament is completed.

98-99 Team GP G A Pts PIM +-

Moscow Dynamo (EHL) 1 2 0 2 0 2

Henrik Tallinder D
6′ 3″
194

Henrik continues to develop over in Sweden as he enters his second season in the Swedish Elite league. Tallinder’s strengths at this time are his skating ability and his hockey sense. He appears to be the prototypical stay-at-home defenseman, but there is hope that the offensive side of his game will develop. Some in Sweden think that they see a little Borje Salming in Henrik’s play, which is quite a compliment, indeed. Tallinder is a concietious, hard worker who is determined to play in the NHL. Henrik is another player to look for in the WJC this year.

98-99 Team GP G A Pts PIM +-

AIK (SWE) 9 0 0 0 10 -2

Francois Methot C
6′ 0″
175

Francois has impressed in his first tour of duty with Rochester. There was some concern over the state of the knee he injured last year in juniors, but he is currently playing at full speed without a knee brace. Methot is a fast-skating offensive player who will improve the Amerks power play. Francois will almost certainly spend this entire season in Rochester, which will allow him to hone his offensive game in preparation for next year’s training camp.

Norm Milley RW
6′ 0″
195

Norm was one of three Sabre 2nd round picks in the ’98 draft. He is off to a great start with Sudbury of the OHL, scoring at a point-a-game pace. His 5 goals include one highlight reel end-to-end rush that resulted in a game-winning goal. Norm appears to have improved his game since last season, and he will be expected to carry an average Sudbury team this season. Norm is at least a couple years away from getting a shot with Buffalo, but the Sabres have to be pleased with what he has done to this point of the season.

98-99 Team GP G A Pts PIM +-

Sudbury (OHL) 8 5 5 10 8 -2

Jaroslav Kristek RW
6′ 0″
183

Jaroslav is the third of the three ’98 2nd round picks, and, like Norm Milley, he is off to a great start this season. Kristek appears to have adapted very quickly to the North American game, displaying good offensive skills and grit. He is quickly becoming a fan favorite for Tri-City because of his offensive ability, as well as for his enthusiasm for the game. Like Milley, Kristek is at least a couple years away, but his quick adaptation to the North American style of play can only be good news.

98-99 Team GP G A Pts PIM +-

Tri-City (WHL) 6 3 5 8 6 -1

Luc Theoret D
6′ 1″
198

Luc is a solid defensive defenseman who has at times shown a good offensive touch. Some observers of his play suggest that he can be lazy at times, and that he plays well only when he feels like it. Perhaps the added duties of being the team captain for Lethbridge will force him to be a more consistent player, although he and his team are off to a slow start. Luc was chosen for the Canadian Junior Team tryout camp, but the roster for that team has not yet been chosen. An appearance in the WJC could certainly be a boost to his standing as a prospect, but he is at least a couple years away from getting a shot with the Sabres.

98-99 Team GP G A Pts PIM +-

Lethbridge (WHL) 8 0 4 4 14 -3

Matt Davidson RW
6′ 2″
190

Matt was voted Rochester’s most improved player last year as he potted 15 goals in his rookie season. Matt is a player valued for his size and goal-scoring ability, but it remains to be seen whether he will develop his game enough to get a serious shot with the Sabres next year. Davidson had a solid though unspectacular camp with Buffalo, so he was sent to Rochester for further development. He will be given plenty of playing time in Rochester this year, so he will have plenty of opportunities make the Sabres’ brass take notice.

Denis Hamel LW
6′ 2″
205

Another big, second-year winger with the Amerks, Denis had a solid camp with the Sabres before being returned to Rochester. He is a hard-nosed player with a good scoring touch whose only major shortcoming is his skating ability (or lack thereof). To my eyes, it appears that Denis has improved his skating a little bit, but I don’t know if that is enough for him to be given a serious look with Buffalo later in the season. Still, he is an intriguing player who, should he develop his game sufficiently, could end up being quite a find for the Sabres.

Darren Van Oene LW
6′ 3″
207

Darren is a first-year winger for Rochester who will be valued primarily for his toughness. At the time the Sabres drafted Darren, they hoped he would develop more of a scoring touch. While his offensive skills improved only slightly in juniors, he became a player valued for the leadership abilities he brought to his junior team. It’s hard to say whether his leadership will show in his first pro season, but he has a good chance to develop into a good 3rd or 4th line winger in time. For now, though, his career path will be the same as Matt Davidson and Denis Hamel, namely spending the first couple years developing in Rochester.

Jeff Martin C
6′ 2″
177

Jeff had a great season with Windsor last year, finishing amongst the top 10 scorers in the OHL. He is said to be a good two-way center with deceptive speed and a good wrist shot. He is not a physical player, and his slight build could be a hindrance to his playing in the NHL. The Sabres have plenty of centers at this time, so he will be allowed to bulk up while developing his game in the OHL and AHL.

98-99 Team GP G A Pts PIM +-

Windsor (OHL) 7 3 2 5 4 -9

Kamil Piros C
6′ 1″
183

Kamil gave indications in last year’s WJC that he is not just another late round pick. He was amongst the leading scorers in that tournament, displaying an effective finesse style against his peers. It remains to be seen whether Kamil will ever play in North America, as his play may not be suited for the smaller ice size. He is currently playing in the top Czech league, and has acquitted himself fairly well. He will likely play in the WJC again this year, so Sabre fans should get the chance to see him play a couple times, at least.

98-99 Team GP G A Pts PIM +-

Litvinov (CZE) 8 3 0 3 2 N/A

Mike Pandolfo RW
6′ 3″
226

There isn’t much to report on Mike up to this point because BU has played just one exhibition game. He could potentially be a steal if he has the skill of his brother Jay (NJ Devils). It is said that he has good skating ability for a player his size, but it remains to be seen whether he will have a good scoring touch. Regardless, he will likely spend his entire 4 years in college developing, so it will be awhile before he dons a Sabre jersey.

Andrew Peters
LW
6′ 4″
195

The player that will forever be remembered as the guy the Sabres drafted with the lone pick that they received in the Pat Lafontaine trade. Hopefully Andrew will do enough to make people forget that fact, but his development will likely be slow. He is a big, tough kid that needs to grow into his large frame before he can be rated objectively. There is some hope that he could develop a bit of a scoring touch, but his future is more likely as a 3rd or 4th line winger with a lot of grit and enthusiasm. Still, he is at least 3-4 years away from receiving a serious look from the Sabres.

98-99 Team GP G A Pts PIM +-

Oshawa (OHL) 2 0 0 0 12 -1