Sabres Report: The Prospect Rankings

By Ken McKenna

The Buffalo Sabres entered the 1999-2000 season with one of the most impressive prospect lists in the NHL. Little has occurred during the 1st quarter of this season that would change Buffalo’s standing as one of the more talent-rich clubs, so it is time to reflect on the more notable performances given by the top Sabre prospects thus far.

The order at the top of the prospect list has changed a good bit since my last offering (there is no truth to the rumor that this writer is suffering from a Stanley Cup hangover), with Cory Sarich losing the top perch he had held throughout most of last year, and a couple of new names entering the top 10. Several players near the top of the list started the season in Rochester, where they helped get the Americans off to a blazing start. The Amerks have since come back to earth, as 3 of their best players were called up to Buffalo, but there are still some strong prospects to watch in Rochester.

As for the prospects in juniors, some of the more prominent prospects (Kristek, Milley, Zigomanis) started slowly, but have recently improved their play. And, in the college ranks, ’99 draft picks Barrett Heisten, Doug Janik and Ryan Miller have been very impressive so far this season.

Players such as Martin Biron, Maxim Afinogenov and Cory Sarich are still on the list, in spite of the fact that they are with the Sabres. None of these three players have played 25 NHL games to this point, so I have decided to keep their prospect status intact.

And now, on with the show!

Top 10 Prospects of the Buffalo Sabres

Martin Biron
G
6′ 1″
165

Martin turned in a splendid season for the Rochester Americans in 1998-99, which earned him the Hockey News Minor League Player-of-the-Year award. The off-season did not hurt Biron’s momentum any, as he got off to a great start with the Amerks this season with 6 straight victories. Martin has been referred to as the Sabre’s “goalie of the future”, and, with Dominik Hasek’s future clouded due to another injury, the future appears to be now for Biron. Martin has been solid for the Sabres, going 9-3-0 in 12 games played. He earned his first NHL shutout on 11/19 vs. Atlanta. While Biron has looked a little green at times, he has also shown flashes of brilliance, which could be indicative of great things to come.

Team
GP
Minutes
Shots
GA
GAA
Saves
Save %

Rochester (AHL)
6
343
158
12
2.09913
146
0.92405

Buffalo (NHL)
12
618
264
26
2.52427
169
0.90152

2) Maxim Afinogenov

RW
5′ 11″
176

Maxim is considered by many to be the best Sabre prospect, and he has done little this season to dispel that notion. Afinogenov has displayed the speed and offensive skills that scouts have raved about for the past couple seasons, first using these skills to help Rochester get off to a quick start, then contributing to Buffalo’s offense after an early season call-up. Maxim has added a spark to the Sabres offense that was missing prior to his arrival, so it is conceivable that he could stick with the Sabres for the remainder of the season. Afinogenov’s defensive deficiencies have cropped up at times, and he has a tendency to over-handle the puck, but it appears the Sabre fans have a potential offensive star to watch for seasons to come.

Team
GP
G
A
Pts.
PIM
“+/-”

Rochester (AHL)
15
6
12
18
8
5

Buffalo (NHL)
7
4
4
8
2
2

3) Cory Sarich

D
6′ 3″
193

Following a somewhat disappointing performance in the ’99 training camp, Cory started the season in Rochester. Along with fellow top prospects Biron and Afinogenov, Sarich played well enough to earn a look from the Sabres, and so received a promotion to the big club following a rash of injuries to the Buffalo defense. Cory has not squandered his NHL opportunity, as his play has improved with each passing game. Sarich is a good skater, and makes few mistakes in his own end. The offensive side of Sarich’s game is not as well developed as his defensive play, but he has shown flashes of offensive ability. Although Cory is known for making punishing checks, his physical play needs to improve to meet the physical demands of his position. Overall, though, Cory is another strong Sabre prospect who is just starting to make his mark in the NHL.

Team
GP
G
A
Pts.
PIM
“+/-”

Buffalo (NHL)
11
0
2
2
6
4

Rochester (AHL)
10
0
3
3
26
5

4) Dimitri Kalinin

D
6′ 1″
205

Dimitri made his professional debut at the end of last season with the Rochester Americans, where he played capably in a limited role. Kalinin has received a heavier workload with the Amerks this season, looking like a player who is much older than his 19 years. The knock against Dimitri at the time he was drafted was that he lacked the offensive skills that would make him a top defensive prospect. While Kalinin hasn’t lit up the board with big numbers, he has shown that he is quite capable both offensively and defensively. Kalinin has a couple multi-point games under his belt, including the 11/24 game vs. Wilkes-Barre where he scored the game-winning goal while also chipping in an assist on a power play goal. Dimitri appears to have a bright future ahead of him as a NHL defenseman, but his immediate future will be spent developing his game in Rochester.

Team
GP
G
A
Pts.
PIM
“+/-”

Rochester (AHL)
22
2
5
7
12
8

5) Brian Campbell

D
5′ 11″
185

Brian may have been the most impressive Sabre rookie in training camp, which allowed him the opportunity to start the season with the Sabres. Although Campbell is currently playing for Rochester, this is less a reflection on his play in Buffalo than it is a numbers game, as he is one of the few NHL-caliber defensemen that can be moved freely between Buffalo and Rochester. Brian did not look out of place during his two stints with the Sabres, as he displayed the same excellent skating and offensive skills that made him the top junior player last season. To be sure, Campbell could use some improvement in his defensive zone play, but he was not a major defensive liability while playing for the Sabres. Brian’s greatest strengths are his skating and passing skills, which will make him a candidate for duty as a power play QB, something the Sabres have been sorely lacking for several years. Brian will continue to develop his game in Rochester, but Sabre fans should not have to wait too long to see him in a Sabre uniform on a regular basis.

Team
GP
G
A
Pts.
PIM
“+/-”

Buffalo (NHL)
7
1
2
3
4
0

Rochester (AHL)
14
1
6
7
4
1

6) Mika Noronen

G
6′ 1″
205

The thought heading into the regular season was that Martin Biron would be the first-string goalie for Rochester, and that Mika would play 20-25 games while being eased into the North American style of play. That all changed with the injury to Hasek, and Noronen now finds himself as the go-to guy in goal for the Amerks. Mika has handled his baptism-by-fire very well, as he has posted 8 wins in 15 AHL games. Two of his eight victories have been shutouts, including a shutout in his very first AHL start 10/13 vs. Albany. Noronen is 4th in victories amongst AHL goaltenders, and he is tied for the lead in shutouts. Mika has had his shaky moments, but that is not surprising since this is his first professional experience. Noronen appears to have shaken the inconsistency that plagued him with Tappara last season, and his continuing development in Rochester should mean that the Sabres would have two strong prospects at the goaltender position.

Team
GP
Minutes
Shots
GA
GAA
Saves
Save %

Rochester (AHL)
15
818
391
35
2.56724
356
0.91049

7) Barrett Heisten

LW
6′ 1″
184

Barrett was the Buffalo’s first pick in the ’99 draft (21st overall) following a good freshman season with NCAA champ, the University of Maine. While Barrett had struggled early last season, he blossomed in the second half to the point where he was considered first round material. The problem for NHL GM’s was to decide whether the real Barrett was the low scoring forward of the first half season, or the goal-scoring forward of the second half. If Heisten’s early season performance is any indication, the Sabres may have found themselves a scoring left wing possessing good skating ability and toughness. Barrett is off to a good start with Maine this year, as he is tied for 6th in Hockey East scoring. In addition, Heisten is tied for 4th in goals scored, and tied for 3rd in power play goals. Barrett has been a force in almost every game the U of M has played, which is not always the case with second-year players. If Barrett continues to develop as quickly as he has this year, it would not be surprising to see the Sabres sign him following the season. In the meantime, he is helping lead undefeated Maine to a second consecutive NCAA title.

Team
GP
G
A
Pts.
PIM
“+/-”

U. of Maine (HE)
11
6
7
13
18
3

8) Mike Zigomanis

C
6′ 0″
190

Mike started the season somewhat slowly, but lately he has been the hottest player in the OHL. Zigomanis is currently 4th in scoring in the OHL, and is near the top of several other scoring categories, including assists (2nd), power play goals (tied for 7th) and power play points (5th). “Ziggy” has turned in a 6-point performance (1 goal, 5 assists) 11/19 vs. Plymouth, and he has compiled several multi-point games during his recent scoring binge. Zigomanis’ recent strong play has earned him the OHL’s Player-of-the-Week award for the week ending 11/21. Mike’s greatest assets are his playmaking ability and his ability to operate in heavy traffic. Zigomanis is an average skater, but he seems to get around this shortcoming with intelligent play and hard work. It is not a given that Mike will make it in the NHL, but he seems to be making some big strides in that direction.

Team
GP
G
A
Pts.
PIM
“+/-”

Kingston (OHL)
21
15
22
37
31
7

9) Jaroslav Kristek

RW
6′ 0″
185

Perhaps missing his line mate from last season (NHL rookie sensation Scott Gomez), Jaroslav got off to a slow start with Tri-City this season. Kristek’s play has picked up in recent weeks, however, as he is currently the leading scorer for the Americans. Jaroslav has a handful of multi-point games, and he is scoring at a better than point-a-game pace. Kristek’s greatest strength appears to be his work on the power play, as he has scored 6 of his goals with that unit. The Sabres signed Kristek to a contract in the off-season, so it appears they have a good deal of faith in his ability. If Jaroslav continues to develop as he has to this point, he could have a bright future in the NHL.

Team
GP
G
A
Pts.
PIM
“+/-”

Tri-City (WHL)
21
14
14
28
6
10

10) Norm Milley

RW
6′ 0″
195

Norm is another of Buffalo’s junior prospects that started slowly this season, but he has since come on in recent weeks to put up numbers similar to the big numbers he had last season. Milley is currently tied for 3rd in the OHL in goals scored, due largely to a goal-scoring binge he has put together in the last 3 weeks. Norm’s strong play in week 8 earned him OHL Player-of-the-Week honors, and he should be a contender for Player-of-the-Month honors, as well. Milley’s forte is clearly putting the puck in the net, but he is also a decent two-way player with good skating ability. Whether or not Norm can continue his scoring ways in the pros remains to be seen, but his recent work is proving that his big 1998-99 season was not a fluke.

Team
GP
G
A
Pts.
PIM
“+/-”

Sudbury (OHL)
23
18
11
29
10
3

Part 2 of this article will feature Sabre prospect rankings 11-20.