While the NHL did not experience a bumper crop of rookies this season, there is some depth to the Class of 2003. A pair of Sabres draftees from this group, right wing Ales Kotalik and defenseman Henrik Tallinder, were two of the better prospects at their respective positions, with Kotalik turning in a performance worthy of Calder Trophy consideration.
The lengthy stay in the NHL for these two Buffalo prospects means, of course, that they are no longer eligible for inclusion in the prospect rankings at the Hockey’s Future Buffalo Sabres page. Kotalik and Tallinder have been shifted to the ‘Graduated’ section, leaving two open slots amongst the top 5 prospects.
The Buffalo prospects benefiting from the graduation of Kotalik and Tallinder are University of Minnesota defenseman Keith Ballard, who moves into the fourth slot, and Rochester Americans center Paul Gaustad, who holds down the fifth slot. Moving from fifth to third is Guelph Storm left wing Dan Paille.
The upward shift into the top 5 of two prospects means that all prospects move up in the rankings, with two slots opening up towards the bottom of the top 15. Those openings have been filled by left wing Milan Bartovic, who made his NHL debut late in the 2002-03 season, and Russian defenseman Denis Denisov, who has completed his second season in Russia’s top league. Both players have been previously listed in the top 15.
One prospect whose stock has plummeted is right wing Jaroslav Kristek. Kristek essentially abandoned his Rochester teammates shortly before the end of the regular season to return to the Czech Republic. His name remains amongst the ‘Other Notables’ section for the time being, but it seems likely that his days in the Buffalo organization are numbered.
Two prospects advancing in the rankings as a result of Kristek’s disappearing act are Plymouth Whalers center Chris Thorburn and Swedish defenseman Calle Aslund. Thorburn, who moves up an extra slot to #11, has found new life since being traded to one of the top teams in the OHL. Aslund has improved steadily while playing in the Huddinge organization, but he is still a work in progress.
One prospect whose name can safely be deleted is Russian right wing Vasily Bizyayev. Vasily spent one season with the Kitchener Rangers, but has virtually fallen off the face of the hockey map since returning to Russia. Goodbye, Vasily, we hardly knew ya!
Another Buffalo draftee seemingly headed for prospect oblivion is former 2000 first round pick Artem Kriukov. Speaking recently on a local sports talk show, Buffalo GM Darcy Regier indicated that the Sabres wouldn’t be signing the lanky Russian center to a contract. While the stated reason for not doing so was Kriukov’s contract situation with Yaroslavl, the implication was that Artem would not be in a Sabres uniform anytime soon, possibly never. This is not surprising considering the limited playing time the young center has had since moving up to the Russian Superelite League. Kriukov barely played for Yaroslavl this season, instead being loaned by that club to Siber Novosibirsk, where he skated on that team’s fourth line.
His name will remain on the prospect list for the time being, but Artem could in time be considered perhaps the worst first round pick in Sabres’ history. This is particularly painful when you consider that nearly every player drafted after Kriukov in the first round of the 2000 Draft has a legitimate chance of becoming at least a solid NHL player, with a couple having a chance at stardom.
For the short term, then, Buffalo’s prospect list becomes a bit thinner with the departures of Kotalik and Tallinder. That situation should be rectified in a couple months, however, when the Sabres reap the rewards of a bad season by drafting fifth overall at the 2003 NHL Draft. Let’s hope the Buffalo scouting staff has done their homework well.