With only sporadic talk of new ownership for the Buffalo Sabres, not to mention the lack of advertising or marketing of the hockey club, it is easy to forget that there is a NHL team in Buffalo, NY. What seems like an even more distant memory is the NHL Draft that took place in June, where Buffalo GM Darcy Regier and his scouting staff added more depth to the Sabres organization.
This infusion of new, young talent means that it is time for this writer to awaken from his slumber, and to go about the task of updating the prospect rankings for the Sabres. The main focus of this revision is the top 15 prospects in the organization, many of whom will be the future core of this club. While there may not be major changes to the list, there will be a couple new names added to the roll, which means others currently on the list will be replaced.
The obvious additions to the list are Buffalo’s two 2002 1st Round choices, D Keith Ballard and LW/C Dan Paille. Neither player merits placement amongst Buffalo’s top 5 prospects, but both could someday hold down one of those lofty positions.
As for more familiar names on the list, players like G Mika Noronen and D Henrik Tallinder could make that jump from prospect to bona fide pro this season. Both players showed signs of being NHL-ready in the 2001-02 season’s second half, with the coming training camp offering the duo definite opportunities to earn spots on the Sabres’ roster. Other players that could be in line for a promotion this fall include RW Norm Milley and C/RW Ales Kotalik.
>For the most part, this revised top 15 listing should be considered a snapshot in time, since the rankings following training camp could look much different. If Noronen, who has been on this list for a few years, should make the Buffalo roster (which appears certain), it will likely be time to remove him from consideration as a prospect. The same could also be true of Tallinder, Milley and Kotalik should they play enough games this season to officially qualify themselves as NHL rookies.
Other factors, such as trades or new ownership, could also affect Buffalo’s prospect landscape. For now, though, that is speculation that is best left for a later date. Let’s instead take a look at some of the players that could be on Sabres’ fans lips during this coming season, and into the future.
- Mika Noronen, Goaltender
- Ryan Miller, Goaltender
- Jason Pominville, Right Wing
- Henrik Tallinder, Defenseman
- Jiri Novotny, Center
- Ales Kotalik, Center/Right Wing
- Keith Ballard, Defenseman
- Norm Milley, Right Wing
- Doug Janik, Defenseman
- Derek Roy, Center
- Dan Paille, Left Wing/Center
- Milan Bartovic, Left Wing
- Paul Gaustad, Center/Left Wing
- Denis Denisov, Defenseman
- Artem Kriukov, Center
Yes, Ryan Miller has garnered a truckload of awards during an outstanding college career, but Mika Noronen has shown that he has the ability to play at the pro level. Noronen struggled in Rochester at the beginning of the 01-02 season, but he had righted the ship by season’s end. In addition to turning in several solid performances for the AHL’s Americans, Mika also played well during his first extended stint in the NHL, posting a 4-3-1 record with the Sabres. His main job in the coming season will be to learn the ropes at the NHL level, but Mika’s presence will also be useful in making sure that current Sabres starter Martin Biron does not lose his focus. Until his status as Biron’s backup is confirmed, however, Mika will remain at the top of Buffalo’s prospect rankings.
Buffalo Sabres GM Darcy Regier appears to be in hot pursuit of prized prospect Ryan Miller, and it’s no wonder considering the career Ryan has had with Michigan State. Ryan again led the Spartans into the NCAA playoffs, while adding to his NCAA-record number of shutouts. Even more impressive was Miller’s performance with Team USA at the 2002 World Championships, where he posted a 2-1-1 record to go along with a 1.76 goals-against average and .950 save percentage. If Regier can get Miller’s signature on the dotted line, the East Lansing, MI native will have a spot waiting for him in Rochester as the Amerks’ starting goaltender.
Jason didn’t exactly come out of nowhere last season, since he was one of Buffalo’s three 2nd round picks in the 2001 NHL Draft. Pominville had a solid camp with the Sabres, using that experience as a springboard to a great 01-02 season with the Shawinigan Cataractes of the QMJHL. An injury towards the end of the regular season caused Jason to miss most of Shawinigan’s playoff run, but Pominville’s lack of playing time in the playoffs did not dampen the Sabres’ enthusiasm for this prospect. The Sabres signed the right winger to a contract in early August, with Rochester being Jason’s likely destination for the 2002-03 season. Pominville isn’t a player who will mix it up in the corners, but he could provide some needed offensive savvy to a team that has been in need of this quality for many years.
The big Swede’s arrival on these shores for the 01-02 season was much anticipated, and, for the most part, Henrik did not disappoint. After missing the beginning of the season due to a knee injury, Tallinder stepped into the Rochester lineup and performed with poise and confidence. Henrik showed an ability to rush the puck, but not at the expense of solid defensive play in his own zone. He also exhibited a willingness to take opposing forwards into the boards when the opportunity arose, which is a trait that is sorely needed in Buffalo’s defensive corps. For his fine play in Rochester, Henrik earned a promotion to the NHL at the end of the 01-02 season, and did not look out of place in his two NHL appearances. Barring a poor training camp, there should be a spot waiting for Tallinder along Buffalo’s blueline.
While there is probably a 4- or 5-way tie for this position in the rankings, the nod will go to Jiri based on his solid play in the Czech Elite league this past season. Novotny spent most of his 01-02 season playing against older competition, and though he didn’t dominate, he nevertheless showed enough flashes of the form that made him a top pick that he has earned this top 5 position. While Jiri’s offensive prowess is open to debate, there is enough that he does well in other parts of his game that make him a solid prospect for the Sabres. If he can take his offensive game to another level this season, Novotny should solidify his place amongst Buffalo’s top prospects for now, and into the future.
Following a breakout 00-01 season in the Czech Republic, Ales came to North America to begin his quest for full-time duty in the NHL. Kotalik seized his opportunity early in the 01-02 season with a strong training camp, which continued into his early season performances in Rochester. Ales’ strong play did not go unnoticed, as he appeared in 13 games for the Sabres over the course of the season. Kotalik’s production tailed off a bit as the season wore on, but there were stretches where he was Rochester’s best skater. Ales showed some niftiness with the puck in traffic, while also using his size along the boards to battle for the puck. Right now its difficult to figure exactly where Kotalik could fit into the Buffalo lineup, but another strong showing in Buffalo’s training camp might make it difficult for the Sabres’ coaches to send this versatile player back to Rochester.
Keith Ballard, the robust defenseman from the University of Minnesota who was Buffalo’s top pick in the 2002 NHL Draft, has the talent to be a top 5 prospect. In addition to his talent, Keith may also possess a winner’s touch that is certainly needed in the Buffalo organization. Ballard has been a big part of championship teams the past two seasons (NCAA and USHL), so he may have that certain something that allows him to achieve in pressure-filled situations. In spite of his impressive resume, Keith is not without his detractors, so declaring him a can’t-miss prospect would appear to be premature. Still, Buffalo fans could get a close-up look at Ballard’s talent level next Spring, when the NCAA Frozen Four Tournament is held at HSBC Arena; a repeat as an NCAA champ should only help Keith’s stock rise further up the prospect list.
Although it was not due to a lack of effort, Norm had what could be described as a frustrating 01-02 season. He played well in the pre-season, but was one of the last cuts from Buffalo’s roster. While fellow late cut Taylor Pyatt was able to use his demotion as motivation to later grab a spot on Buffalo’s roster, Milley’s demotion seemed to set him back mentally. The effort was still there, as it usually is with Norm, but the results weren’t. Later in the season, Milley’s hard work started to pay off with improved production, which led to his first promotion to the big club. Norm showed signs during his stint with the Sabres that he might finally be ready to step up to the next level, so the coming training camp could provide Norm with that final push to a more permanent spot on Buffalo’s roster.
Like fellow AHL rookie and sometimes-defense partner Henrik Tallinder, Doug Janik turned in a solid first season on Rochester’s blueline. While his main duty was to provide solid defensive play in his own end, Doug contributed offensively, as well, which may not have been expected of him in his first season. Janik’s strong showing did not go unnoticed in Rochester, as he was the recipient of several club awards at the end of the season. Doug may not be a shoo-in for a roster spot on Buffalo’s defense this season, but he should get a longer look from the coaching staff in this training camp. Continued improvement on Janik’s part should help him see his first NHL action during the course of the 02-03 season.
Derek turned in another solid performance for the Kitchener Rangers this past season, although his offensive totals were not a marked improvement over the previous season’s output. Roy is used in all situations by the Rangers’ coaching staff, so they certainly have a lot of confidence in Derek’s abilities. Derek caught the eye of talent evaluators from Team Canada, who invited Roy to participate in Canada’s WJC Talent Evaluation Camp this month. It’s an experience that should help Derek get a better feel for where he stands, talent-wise, with his peers, and should also help him come to Buffalo’s camp with a little more confidence than he may have had in his first NHL camp.
There is a good bit to like about Buffalo’s other 2002 1st rounder, Dan Paille. For starters, he provides some quality depth at a position that for Buffalo had been lacking in prospects. Paille has good size and speed, and uses both of these assets to his advantage more often than not. He scored at nearly a point-a-game pace last season, but there is some talk that his offensive game may be his weak spot. Nevertheless, he was thought of highly enough to have been invited to tryout for Canada’s WJC team (along with fellow Buffalo prospect Derek Roy), so he’ll be the better for that experience. Paille would appear to be a solid candidate for 2nd- or 3rd-line duty in the future, but he’ll have plenty of time to develop his game with the OHL’s Guelph Storm.
Milan turned in a decent first pro season with Rochester last year, but it is safe to say that his game will need more fine-tuning in the AHL during the coming season. Bartovic has excellent speed, but he doesn’t necessarily use it on a consistent basis. Milan displayed some defensive ability, often playing on the Amerks’ penalty killing unit, but his offensive game was absent for a good portion of the season. Ultimately, Bartovic may need another full season in Rochester before he receives consideration for a place on Buffalo’s roster.
On a personal level, the 01-02 season was a good one for Paul. He picked up where he left off in the 2001 WHL playoffs, improving his offensive output by 37 points while becoming the undisputed leader of the Portland Winter Hawks. On the downside, Portland’s high hopes for playoff success were dashed by underdog Seattle in a tough, 7-game series. Gaustad then turned pro by signing a contract with the Sabres, with his likely destination being Rochester. Amerks’ fans will welcome Paul’s size and intensity, but it will be interesting to see how well he can keep up at the NHL level. The main knock against Gaustad is that his skating is average, but a player like Paul can sometimes make up for shortcomings in the foot-speed department by working hard.
There isn’t a great deal of information to report regarding Denis, but he is said to have acquitted himself well in his first season in Russia’s top league. Denisov is similar to Buffalo prospect Doug Janik in that he is a solid, all-around defenseman who errs on the side of defense, but does have some offensive ability. Buffalo apparently tried to sign Denis last year, but there were no reports that the Sabres were tying to sign him this off-season. At any rate, another year playing for the Soviet Wings club won’t hurt Denis’ development.
The early portion of Artem’s 01-02 season was forgettable due to a knee injury that kept him out of action for a couple of months. By season’s end, however, he was a member of the championship team in Russia’s top league, the Lokomotiv of Yaroslavl. Although he did not appear in all of Yaroslavl’s playoff games, Artem did contribute to the team’s title run. Kriukov remains an intriguing prospect due to his size and robust style of play, but the lack of offense from the big Russian is a concern. There are players Artem’s age, or younger, who have been far more productive in Russia’s top league, so you have to wonder if the former 1st round pick really has the offensive upside that had been predicted of him. Kriukov should have a larger role on this year’s Yaroslavl squad, so it will be interesting to see just how much his game improves with the added ice time.
Other players to watch for future inclusion in the top 15 include C Chris Thorburn, who will be playing for the Saginaw Spirit of the OHL, as well as two 2002 draft choices, C Maxim Sheviev and D Martin Cizek. And, if he can stay healthy, RW Jaroslav Kristek could finally make his presence felt amongst Buffalo’s top prospects.
One player that has attained “Graduated” status is D Brian Campbell. Brian no longer meets HF’s criteria for being considered a prospect, which coincides with the likelihood that he’ll start the season on Buffalo’s roster. It is probably do or die for Campbell, at least as far as his career in Buffalo is concerned, so it will be interesting to see if he finally has his breakthrough season.