The tumult of the Buffalo Sabres’ 2002-03 season may have overshadowed the fact that the team seems to have its most solid list of prospects in several years. The high draft position the Sabres “earned” as a result of their poor season was perhaps the one silver lining, but it also presented the team’s hockey department their best opportunity in many years to add high-end talent to their existing stable of prospects.
The Sabres did not disappoint their fan base at the 2003 NHL Draft, as they used their first selection on University of Minnesota star forward Tomas Vanek. Vanek wowed both hockey fans of Western New York as well as a national TV audience while earning MVP honors at the Frozen Four Tournament held in Buffalo last spring. The Austrian appears to possess a scoring touch not seen on the shores of Lake Erie since Alexander Mogilny was shipped to Vancouver back in 1995.
Vanek will fill a void left near the top of the Sabres’ prospect list, a void created with the departure of 2002 first selection Keith Ballard. Ballard, a teammate of Vanek’s at the University of Minnesota, was Buffalo’s best defensive prospect; in fact, the stocky rearguard was probably one of only two defensive prospects worthy of top ten consideration.
The player that finished atop the Sabres’ prospect list last season, goaltender Ryan Miller, remains in that position to start the 2003-04 campaign. Joining Miller in the top five are Vanek, plus forwards Derek Roy, Jason Pominville and Daniel Paille. A couple of the newer entries to the top ten include center Chris Thorburn and 2003 second round selection Branislav Fabry.
The strength of the Sabres prospect list is the forward positions. Goaltending is not a problem either, since Miller is currently behind Martin Biron and Mika Noronen on the depth chart. The Sabres attempted to address their lack of defensive depth by selecting five defensemen at the 2003 NHL Draft, but there would appear to be a need to use a higher draft selection on a high quality rearguard.
- Ryan Miller, Goaltender
- Tomas Vanek, Left Wing
- Derek Roy, Center
- Jason Pominville, Right Wing
- Daniel Paille, Left Wing/Center
- Paul Gaustad, Left Wing/Center
- Mike Ryan, Right Wing
- Chris Thorburn, Center
- Jakub Klepis, Center
- Branislav Fabry, Right Wing
Miller turned in a strong performance in camp this year, which earned him the starting nod in the Sabres’ first two regular season games. With Martin Biron and Mika Noronen still ahead of Miller on the depth chart, however, the Sabres elected to send the former Michigan State star down to Rochester. Although obviously upset over his demotion, Miller has made the most of his situation; he leads the AHL in goals-against average, and is near the top of the save percentage category for that league. Overall, Miller has done nothing to have his name removed from the number one position, so he remains the Sabres top prospect to start the 2003-04 season.
The University of Minnesota Golden Gophers have stumbled out of the gate as they begin their quest to “three-peat” as national champions. Defense has been the Gophers’ Achilles heel so far this season, but their offense is producing at a good clip, with Vanek leading the club in scoring after four games. The 19-year-old winger appears to have all the tools necessary to one day be a scoring star in the pro game, with the combination of his high draft position and presence on a two-time defending champion sure to invite close scrutiny of Vanek’s progress this season.
Following a season in which he lead his team to the CHL’s Memorial Cup championship, Derek Roy signed a pro contract with the Sabres, signaling a start to his pro career. Roy, a second round pick of the Sabres in 2001, was passed over in the first round of that draft primarily because of his smaller stature. Before all is said and done, many of those teams that tagged Roy as too small may well end up kicking themselves, with the former Kitchener Rangers star turning in a strong start with the Rochester Americans. Roy’s game is already fairly well rounded, with the young center possessing some of the qualities that can be found in the Sabres main offseason acquisition, Chris Drury.
Pominville’s pro career may have begun a year too soon, as the former QMJHL star struggled through much of his initial campaign with the Rochester Americans last season. The young winger showed flashes of his talent towards the end of the season, however, with his strong finish carrying over into the beginning of the 2003-04 season. Pominville currently leads the Amerks in scoring, forming a potent offensive combination with fellow 2001 second rounder Derek Roy. The craftiness that helped make Pominville a scoring star with the Shawinigan Cataractes is now clearly evident at the pro level, and it may only be a matter of time before he makes his presence felt in the NHL.
In spite of trading 2002 first pick Keith Ballard, the Sabres still have a first round selection from that draft in their system. Forward Daniel Paille of the OHL’s Guelph Storm is an interesting combination of size, speed and character, but he is still very much a work in progress. The stocky winger played for Team Canada at the 2003 WJC, and will be looked to for leadership on this year’s WJC squad. Paille showed good speed and some playmaking ability in the early portion of the Sabres 2003 training camp, but he’ll continue his development in the OHL this season.
After having been completely overlooked by Central Scouting Service in his draft year, versatile forward Paul Gaustad has steadily improved his game over the past couple of seasons. The North Dakota native has had little trouble adjusting to life in the AHL, where he is entering his second season with the Rochester Americans. At 6’5″ and 220 pounds, Gaustad has great size and uses it to his advantage. While his foot speed may not be breathtaking, Gaustad nevertheless gets to where he has to go, in part due to his longer stride. The former Portland Winter Hawk had a solid camp with the Sabres, and should get another look at the NHL level during the course of this season.
A 2003 trade deadline acquisition for the Sabres, Mike Ryan has embarked on his pro career following a solid collegiate career at Northeastern University. Ryan came to the Sabres with a reputation for scoring goals, an attribute that has been lacking in many Sabres prospects over the years. Like many college players, however, Ryan’s overall skills are a bit rough around the edges; he needs to adjust to the pro game, in general, and must work on his defensive play, in particular. The Massachusetts native showed good speed during his time at the Sabres camp, and he displayed a willingness to go to the net. Ryan could have a future as a top six forward, but for now he’ll need to develop in the AHL.
Prior to the 2002-03 season, Chris Thorburn had the look of a player headed for obscurity. His junior team, the North Bay Centennials, had moved south of the border following a forgettable 2001-02 season. The move to Saginaw, MI did not improve the team’s on-ice fortunes, however, and Thorburn struggled right along with the rest of his teammates. A trade to the Plymouth Whalers prior to the 2002-03 trade deadline changed the big forward’s fortunes, however, as he finally had a stage to display the talents that made him a second round pick for the Sabres in 2001. Thorburn made the most of his opportunity, as he helped the Whalers make a run through the OHL playoffs. The confidence Thorburn gained from that experience seemed to carry over into the Sabres 2003 training camp, where he formed an imposing duo with Paul Gaustad. Thorburn still has much to learn, which he’ll be doing in Rochester for the next season of two.
Czech center Jakub Klepis is a bit of an enigma; on the one hand, he appears to have some bona fide talent, which he displayed at the 2003 WJC tournament up in Nova Scotia. On the other hand, his desire to play hockey in North America seems uncertain, in part because he elected to stay in the Czech Republic last season after spending 2001-02 with the WHL’s Portland Winter Hawks. There was talk that Klepis wanted to play in the WHL again this season, but that so far has not come to pass. Klepis is said to have some playmaking ability, but he may lack the grit necessary to handle the tighter confines of NHL rinks. His status as a first round selection (for Ottawa) may inflate expectations beyond what Klepis is capable of accomplishing, but he’ll need to make the jump to North America before he can be properly judged.
Slovakian winger Branislav Fabry rode a strong performance at the WJC-U18 tournament to a selection in the second round of the 2003 NHL Draft. Fabry, who was somewhat overlooked earlier in the 2002-03 season, turned some scouting heads with his offensive ability and gritty play, with the Sabres being the team to act on their belief that Fabry could be a good find. The speedy Slovak didn’t disappoint at training camp, as he could be seen darting around the ice while displaying some offensive skill that perhaps had not been considered amongst his best abilities. Fabry still has much developing to do, however, and he’ll continue that development in Slovakia this season.