Some people may dispute that the Buffalo Sabres have the best defensive prospects in the game, but I think that they would have to concede that the young defensive players Sarich and Grand-Pierre that Buffalo has in the minors are among the best out there.
When you look at a list of their defensive prospects, the premier names that come up are Cory Sarich, Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre and Dimitri Kalinin. Some other names on the list are Henrik Tallinder, Brian Campbell and Luc Theoret. Even with the loss of Alexei Tezikov in a trade with the Capitals for Joe Juneau, the Sabres’ future defensive core looks strong. Sarich and Grand-Pierre have both seen limited time with the Sabres and have played well. They may have been kept in the lineup but Coach Lindy Ruff chose to opt for veteran smarts and leadership over the tough, solid play displayed by the young D-men. It’s hard to talk about Grand-Pierre and Sarich in the same context because, although they are both great talents and they are the Sabres top two defensive prospects, their styles of play are very different.
Grand-Pierre has many key attributes that make him such a good prospect, attributes such as toughness, speed, and a powerful shot. His toughness was put on display in a game against the New Jersey Devils when he squared off against opposing forward Denis Pederson and punished him with his quick right fist. In the AHL all-star skills competition, he was rated as the quickest skater as well as having the second hardest shot in the entire league. It should also be noted that his time in the speed competition was quicker than NHL best Peter Bondra. Grand-Pierre has played with the Sabres and looked very good, as he has brought toughness to an often weak defensive unit. He has also caught opposing defensemen on their heels as he flew up the ice and created numerous chances. There is even a chance of him seeing ice time in the Stanley Cup playoffs this year. In spending the majority of the 1998-99 season with the Rochester Americans, Jean-Luc has racked up 9 points (5 G, 4 A) as well as 90 PIM’s. However, these stats don’t accurately reflect the impact he has had on the team. On most teams Grand-Pierre would be the number one defensive prospect, but in Buffalo he is on equal (if not lesser) footing with Cory Sarich.
Sarich made his NHL debut this year, and in 4 games played did not look out of place on the Buffalo blue line. Like Grand-Pierre, he enjoys hitting and does it well. His hitting added a dimension to the Sabres defense that was missing for much of the year. He also possesses some offensive abilities which is why Rochester coaches used him on the power play for a large part of the season. However, what makes Sarich really stand out is his smart play and defensive savvy. Let me put it this way, when I rated him on the hockey computer game NHL ’99, I set Sarich’s defensive awareness as high as possible. In this 1998-99 season, in playing 64 games Sarich has earned 27 points (3 G, 24 A) and received 74 penalty minutes. While Grand-Pierre may be a more electrifying player, it’s Sarich’s smart decisions and strong positional play that have earned him the status of Buffalo’s best defensive and overall prospect.
Right now the Sabres defensive core consists of Alexei Zhitnik, Darryl Shannon, Jason Woolley, Jay McKee, Rhett Warrener, Richard Smehlik and James Patrick. The veteran Patrick has been a healthy scratch for the majority of the games throughout the season but has played consistanly well when given the oppurtunity. Smehlik has become the whipping boy of many Buffalo fans; he has size but is by nature not a physical player. He also gives the puck away and has cost the Sabres several key goals. Zhitnik, Shannon and Woolley are considered the foundation of the defensive unit. Although Zhitnik is going through an off year, their play will help these young players come into their own as NHL defensemen. Warrener, acquired in a trade for Mike Wilson, is another young and physical defenseman who looks to have a promising future in Buffalo. McKee has become one of the most solid and hardest hitting Sabres on the ice for much of this season, and such production will be expected from Sarich and Grand-Pierre soon.
Don’t be surprised if you see Sarich and Grand-Pierre in Buffalo Sabres jerseys for much of next season, the organization is expecting them to step up their play in the near future much like Jay McKee did this year. With solid veterans like Zhitnik, Shannon and Woolley and physical young players like McKee, Warrener, Sarich and Grand-Pierre, Buffalo’s future on the blueline looks promising.