With less than one week left until the Buffalo Sabres play their final game of the 2002 preseason schedule, the team’s hockey brain trust is still in the process of paring their roster down to the 23-player roster limit. A handful of young prospects are making, or have made, some noise, but the end result of this trial period may be an opening-night Buffalo roster that is not all that different from the one that closed the 01-02 season.
Upon the completion of the St. Catherines portion of training camp, the Sabres began to whittle away at the training camp roster, with six players being returned to their respective junior teams. LW/C Daniel Paille (Guelph- OHL), LW Michael Tessier (Acadie-Bathurst- QMJHL), C Chris Thorburn (Saginaw- OHL), D Martin Cizek (Plymouth- OHL), D Dennis Wideman (London- OHL) and G Marty Majers (Owen Sound- OHL) were the junior-eligible prospects to return to the CHL. While Paille, Tessier and Majers were perhaps the most notable performers of the players sent down, it is safe to say that all six players have a good bit of work to do to make themselves bona fide pro prospects.
With the majority of the junior players having been sent to their respective teams, the Sabres’ next cut-down would include the first installment of players intended for the roster of Buffalo’s AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans. Buffalo prospects included in these initial cuts were LW Milan Bartovic, C/LW Paul Gaustad, RW Jaroslav Kristek, RW Karel Mosovsky, C/W Jiri Novotny, RW Jason Pominville, and D Doug Janik. With this many prospects in the fold, Rochester fans should be in for a fresh and entertaining 2002-03 season.
The prospect from this group that seemed to catch the eye of some observers was Milan Bartovic, the speedy (and feisty) winger from Slovakia. Although small in stature, Milan isn’t afraid to go where angels fear to tread, and he has speed that is second only to Max Afinogenov in the Buffalo organization. Bartovic’s offensive game has yet to come around, but his showing in camp might help Milan take his game to the next level this season.
The most recent cuts from Buffalo’s squad came today, with six players being sent to the Americans, and one being returned to his junior team. Taking the ride down the I-90 to Rochester were C Chris Taylor, RW Sean McMorrow, LW Jason Botterill, D Rory Fitzpatrick, D Radoslav Hecl, and G Tom Askey.
The most infamous player from this group, and a name that has been on Rochester fan’s lips for the past few months, is Sean McMorrow, the big winger signed from the OHL’s Oshawa Generals. McMorrow has so far shown only flashes of the punching prowess for which he is known, but there are many that consider Sean to be the NHL’s next marquee heavyweight. At least two players on the Ottawa Senators (Shane Hnidy and Chris Neil) might be willing to attest to McMorrow’s fighting skills, with both having tangled with Sean in a preseason game, and both coming out the worse for the experience.
The one returnee to the junior ranks, C Derek Roy, in some ways has been the star of the Sabres’ training camp. Roy has not looked the least bit out of place in his preseason appearances, and, before today, there was some talk that he might stick with the club. Still, the return to the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers should be a worthwhile experience for Derek, since that team is seen as a contender for the OHL crown, which would also mean a trip to the Memorial Cup Tournament. In addition to having these opportunities for growth at the junior level, Roy should also receive some valuable international experience as a member of Canada’s entry at the 2003 World Junior Championships. While his place on the WJC roster is not guaranteed, it would be surprising if Roy were left off, given the fact that the Canadians are determined to take only their best players to this tournament.
So, from a beginning camp roster of 52 players, the list has been whittled down to 27 players (RFA holdout Vaclav Varada is not included in that total). The remaining prospects on the roster include RW Norm Milley, C/RW Ales Kotalik, LW Andrew Peters, D Henrik Tallinder, G Mika Noronen, and G Ryan Miller. In addition to these six players, you have veterans such as C/LW Denis Hamel, C Adam Mair and LW Eric Boulton fighting for a roster spot, so this final week should be an interesting one.
The one player from the group of prospects listed above that would seem to be a lock to make the team is Tallinder. Henrik has been noticeable right from the start of camp, having been singled out for praise on more than one occasion by Sabres’ head coach Lindy Ruff. Tallinder’s presence on the Buffalo roster may ultimately be determined by the number of defenseman the Sabres decide to keep; if the team decides to go with seven defenseman, then Henrik may be the odd man out. Then again, maybe some other veteran is in for a surprise, because the big Swede’s performance has been worthy of a roster spot.
Going into camp, it was assumed that Mika Noronen would be Martin Biron’s backup in goal. This will most likely be the case, of course, but former MSU star Ryan Miller is not making Ruff’s choice an easy one. For one thing, Noronen struggled badly at the beginning of camp, although he has since flashed the form that has made him Buffalo’s top prospect for the past couple of seasons. Miller, on the other hand, has been steady throughout camp, and has displayed the form that makes him Buffalo’s top prospect of the moment. In his first NHL start vs. Ottawa on Saturday night, Ryan stopped 21 of 22 shots in two periods of action, with several of those saves being of the difficult variety. Still, a year in Rochester will not hurt Miller’s development, while another year with the Amerks would be a setback for Noronen, as he has nothing else to prove at that level.
Of the three remaining forward prospects, the most impressive has been Ales Kotalik. The Czech Republic native has been effective in the offensive zone, using his size and speed to create scoring chances for himself and his linemates. Andrew Peters has had probably his best camp since being drafted by Buffalo. Peters, a player of modest talent, is throwing his considerable frame around in the hopes of landing a spot of Buffalo’s 4th line. Norm Milley has had a solid training camp, but the scoring touch from his junior days has yet to appear. It may be difficult for Norm to secure a roster spot given the glut of players in Buffalo that can play the right side, so he may ultimately be ticketed for Rochester.