Sabres Top 20 prospects

By Ken McKenna

In the preseason version of this listing of the Buffalo Sabres Top 20 prospects, forward Thomas Vanek knocked goaltender Ryan Miller from the top slot that the goaltender had held for some time. But the pendulum has swung back towards Miller in this mid-season presentation of the Top 20, with the two Rochester Americans teammates reverting back to their former standings.

This reversal is probably the most significant change in the top ten rankings, but there has been other movement in the lower half of the list that has a few new names appearing in the top 20 for the first time. Newcomers to the list include goaltender Michal Valent, a 2004 selection, and defenseman Nathan Paetsch, one of a handful of rearguards chosen by the Sabres in the 2003 NHL
Entry Draft.

As has been the case for the past couple of seasons, forwards have a solid hold on the top ten, with defensive prospects being better represented in the lower half of the list. There appears to be a solid mix of offensive players and grinders amongst the forwards, with Vanek, Roy and Pominville representing the former and Paille and Stafford amongst the latter. On the other hand, the defensive prospects seem to suffer from the lack of a real standout performer, while the group itself is characterized by more undersized players with decent ability. The goaltending is obviously topped by Miller, with the Slovakian netminder Valent having the potential to develop into a solid goaltending prospect.

  1. Ryan Miller, Goaltender
  2. Height: 6’2, Weight: 170, Current Team: Rochester Americans (AHL)

    Ryan Miller is having a season that harkens back to his days at Michigan State. After a shaky start to the season, he has been one of the main reasons that the Americans are at the top of the AHL standings at the 2004-05 season’s midpoint. The East Lansing, MI native is at or near the top of several goaltending categories, with his play being consistent from November on. Miller leads the AHL in wins, and is tied for the lead in shutouts with seven, a figure that is an Americans club record. His strong play has not gone unnoticed, as he was named to the Planet USA squad for the AHL’s All-Star Game.

    Honors: Named AHL Player of the Week twice (11/14/04, 1/30/05), AHL Goaltender of the Month once (January), and was chosen to play in the 2005 AHL All-Star Game.

  3. Thomas Vanek, Left Wing
  4. Height: 6’2, Weight: 207, Current Team: Rochester Americans (AHL)

    Not unlike his teammate Miller, Thomas Vanek struggled out of the gate at the season’s outset. As he has become more comfortable with the level of play in the AHL, his performance has improved steadily. Vanek currently leads all rookies in power play goals with 10, and is third overall amongst rookies both in scoring (35 points) and goals (19). He is fourth in scoring for the Amerks, and leads that club in power play goals. Vanek was also chosen to play in the AHL All-Star Game, but elected to join the Austrian national team to help them earn a berth in next year’s Olympics.

    Honors: Named AHL Player of the Week once (11/28/04), and selected to play in the 2005 AHL All-Star Game.

  5. Derek Roy, Center
  6. Height: 5’9, Weight: 190, Current Team: Rochester Americans (AHL)

    Derek Roy has been said by some to seem indifferent in his play during the 2004-05 season, but you wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell that from his statistics. Roy currently leads the Amerks in scoring with 47 points, a total that has him tied for 18th in the AHL in that category. Roy also leads his club in game-winning goals with six, and is second in power play goals (7) for the Amerks. If this is indicative of his indifferent play, it will be interesting to see what Roy can do when he is inspired.

  7. Jason Pominville, Right Wing
  8. Height: 6’0, Weight: 178, Current Team: Rochester Americans (AHL)

    Winger Jason Pominville is turning in another solid season in the AHL, his third in that league. The former QMJHL star has been typically productive offensively in 2004-05, as he currently stands third in scoring for the Amerks with 39 points. His 18 goals leave him second on the club in that category, and he also is second in game-winning goals (5) for the Amerks. Perhaps the lone negative for Pominville is that he is one of two active Amerks that
    has a negative plus/minus rating. Overall, though, Pominville has continued his solid play at the AHL level.

  9. Drew Stafford, Right Wing
  10. Height: 6’2, Weight: 200, Current Team: University of North Dakota (WCHA)

    One "Drew" is leaving town, but another might one day patrol the right side at HSBC Arena if recent events are any indication. The first non-Amerk on this list, Drew Stafford is turning in another solid season for UND. He is currently second in scoring for the Fighting Sioux with 26 points (9 goals, 17 assists), and his +9 rating leads his club in that category. Perhaps a greater reason for optimism is Stafford’s performance at the 2005 World Junior Championships, where he starred for the U.S. squad and led the team in points. While Stafford may not possess as much skill as the three forwards ahead of him on this list, he has the size and enough ability to be a good two-way forward in the pro game.

    Honors: named to Team USA for the 2005
    WJC.

  11. Daniel Paille, Center/Left Wing
  12. Height: 6’0, Weight: 197, Current Team: Rochester Americans (AHL)

    In his first pro season, forward Daniel Paille is trying to adapt to a new level of play the way most rookies do. Like Stafford, Paille is expected to develop into a grinding forward, but one with some versatility and some leadership qualities. While the former Guelph Storm star is not known for his offensive skill, he has shown flashes of some goal-scoring ability, including his first pro hat trick on 1/7 vs. the Cleveland Barons. Paille has made steady progress this season, so he’ll likely be an even better pro player next season.

  13. Clarke MacArthur, Center/Left Wing
  14. Height: 6’0, Weight: 180, Current Team: Medicine Hat Tigers (WHL)

    The first player from the junior ranks on the list is Medicine Hat Tigers scoring star Clarke MacArthur. The versatile forward is again producing offense for his team, as he sits second on the Tigers and tenth overall in the WHL in scoring with 62 points in 44 games. His assist total of 37 is ninth in the WHL, while his 25 goals rank him 16th in that league. In addition to his strong play for the Tigers, MacArthur also had a productive role as an energy player for the gold medal-winning Canadian squad at the 2005 World Junior Championships.

    Honors: named WHL Player of the Week once (10/11/04), and was selected to play for Team Canada at the 2005
    WJC.

  15. Paul Gaustad, Center
  16. Height: 6’5, Weight: 220, Current Team: Rochester Americans (AHL)

    Hulking center Paul Gaustad has continued the steady defensive play that has been his hallmark the past couple of seasons, but he has also picked up his offensive game some after struggling during the 2003-04 season. The former Portland
    Winter Hawk has already topped his goal total from last year, and should easily surpass his point total from 2003-04. Gaustad has been particularly effective when paired with another big forward, Chris Thorburn, with the two forming an imposing pair that isn’t afraid to mix it up along the boards.

  17. Denis Ezhov, Defenseman
  18. Height: 6’0, Weight: 195, Current Team: Metallurg (RSL)

    Russian defender Denis Ezhov is the first defenseman to make this list. He is currently playing for Metallurg in the Russian Super League, where he is said to be playing a solid defensive brand of hockey. The Togliatti, Russia native moved up the rankings with a strong performance at the 2005 World Junior Championships, where he combined with Toronto prospect Dimitri Vorobiev to form an effective first defensive pairing. Ezhov will never be known for his offensive ability, but he is very good in his own end.

    Honors: selected to play for Team Russia at the 2005
    WJC.

  19. Chris Thorburn, Right Wing
  20. Height: 6’3, Weight: 220, Current Team: Rochester Americans (AHL)

    Banging winger Chris Thorburn has proven to be an effective grinding forward in his second AHL season. The Sault Ste. Marie, ON native currently
    has a +12 rating, which is tied for second on the Amerks, while his 115 penalty minutes ranks him third on the club. While not known for his offensive ability at the AHL level, Thorburn should nevertheless surpass his point total of last season, with his eight goals already topping the six he scored in 2003-04.

  21. Nathan Paetsch, Defenseman
  22. Height: 6’0, Weight: 195, Current Team: Rochester Americans (AHL)

    After spending most of last season playing the wing, Paetsch has settled back into the defensive position that is most comfortable to him. The former WHL star came to the AHL with more of a reputation as an offensive defenseman
    who tended to shy away from the physical game. But in 2004-05 the opposite has been true for Paetsch, as he has concentrated on solid play in his own end while playing a more physical brand of hockey. Paetsch’s +14 rating leads the Amerks, while his 99 penalty minutes places him fifth on the club in that category.

  23. Michael Funk, Defenseman
  24. Height: 6’4, Weight: 194, Current Team: Portland
    Winter Hawks (WHL)

    Although he is still prone to the occasional glaring mistake, defenseman Michael Funk has made some strides this season towards becoming the player that some thought he could be prior to his draft year. Funk currently
    is a +9 on a club full of minus ratings, while his 25 points are second among
    Winter Hawk defensemen. Some long-time Hawks fans compare Funk to NHL journeyman defenseman Jeff Finley, albeit a slightly more physical version of the NHL veteran.

  25. Denis Denisov, Defenseman
  26. Height: 6’0, Weight: 180, Current Team: Ak Bars Kazan (RSL)

    As has been the case the past couple of seasons, there was talk that the Sabres were interested in signing Denis Denisov to a contract. But this has yet to take place, and, given the presence of other similarly built defensemen on Buffalo’s depth chart, it’s entirely possible that the steady Russian defender has simply been bypassed by other prospects. Still, Denisov is now in his fifth season in Russia’s top league, yet has only recently turned 23. The next logical step for him would seem to be the NHL, but for obvious reasons that is now on hold.

  27. Artem Kriukov, Center
  28. Height: 6’4, Weight: 187, Current Team: Yaroslavl Locomotiv (RSL)

    Just when it seems safe to write off lanky Russian center Artem Kriukov as a wasted pick, the resilient forward and former first round selection makes some worthwhile progress. Kriukov, who has been plagued by various injuries since being drafted by the Sabres, has managed to stay healthy over the course of the 2004-05 season. As a result, the 22-year-old forward has seen his most extensive action in Russia’s top league, mostly on an energy line featuring the likes of Alex Mikhnov and Denis Shvidki. Granted, the offensive ability that the Sabres saw in Kriukov has yet to surface, but any progress has to be seen as a good thing at this point.

  29. Branislav Fabry, Right Wing
  30. Height: 6’0, Weight: 185, Current Team: Slovan Bratislava (SVK)

    Slovakian forward Branislav Fabry has split time between Slovan Bratislava and Zilina in Slovakia’s top league, and has also spent time with Bratislava’s junior squad. The Bratislava native was very productive at the junior level, picking up 16 points in 16 games, but in a lesser role in the Extraleague has produced just one assist in 21 games. Fabry was chosen to play for Slovakia at the 2005 World Junior Championships, where he turned in a good performance for the offensively challenged Slovaks.

    Honors: selected to play for Slovakia at the 2005
    WJC.

  31. Milan Bartovic, Left Wing
  32. Height: 6’0, Weight: 194, Current Team: Rochester Americans (AHL)

    Speedy winger Milan Bartovic is now in his fourth season with the Rochester Americans. He at one time was thought to be a potential scoring threat from the left side, but has not been able produce offense in the pros the way he did in his junior days. Instead, he could have a role with the Sabres as an energy player for the third or fourth lines, as he did in a stint with the big club last season.

  33. Andrej Sekera, Defenseman
  34. Height: 6’0, Weight: 200, Current Team: Owen Sound Attack (OHL)

    The third consecutive Slovak on this list is defenseman Andrej Sekera. Sekera left his homeland to play in the OHL for Owen Sound where he is currently that club’s leading scorer amongst defensemen. Perhaps Sekera’s biggest accomplishment this season was his participation in the 2005 World Junior Championships as a member of Slovakia’s entry. Sekera is a more offensively oriented defenseman with a bit of heft to his smaller frame. His skating is certainly adequate for the pro game, but it remains to be seen if he can hold his own in the North American game.

    Honors: named to the Slovakian team for the 2005 WJC, named Owen Sound’s Defenseman of the Month for January, 2005.

  35. Michael Ryan, Left Wing
  36. Height: 6’1, Weight: 191, Current Team: Rochester Americans (AHL)

    Former Northeastern University star Michael Ryan makes
    the list based more on potential than actual performance. For all intents and purposes, Ryan is
    a rookie since he missed a great deal of last season due to injury. The Boston, Massachusetts native has shown some of the skating speed that he is known for, but his offensive game has not yet come around. Ryan will soon be 25, so his window of opportunity
    is not as wide as that of a younger prospect.

  37. Michal Valent, Goaltender
  38. Height: 6’2, Weight: 185, Current Team: Sparta Junior (CZE)

    Slovakian born goaltender Michal Valent elected to move to the Czech Republic to further his career. Valent joined the Sparta organization for the 2004-05 season, where he has starred for their junior club. In 35 games, Valent has compiled a 1.76
    goals against average to go along with a save percentage of .936. Valent is a lanky, butterfly-style goaltender who seems eager to improve his game, but he is still very much a work in progress.

  39. Dylan Hunter, Center
  40. Height: 6’0, Weight: 195, Current Team: London Knights (OHL)

    Dylan Hunter and his London Knights teammates are having a season to remember, with the Knights dominating the OHL like few clubs ever have. Hunter is having his best season yet, standing second in scoring for both the Knights and in the OHL. The Petrolia, Ontario native’s efforts have not gone unnoticed, with Hunter being chosen to play for the Western Conference squad in the recent OHL All-Star Game. The stocky pivot has improved his game each year in the
    OHL, and it will remain to be seen if he can continue that improvement in the pro game.

    Honors: named OHL Player of the Week once (11/22/04), chosen to play in the 2005 OHL All-Star Game.

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