Size and toughness main strengths of Buffalo Sabres prospect pool

By Jason Chen

Joel Armia - Buffalo Sabres

Photo: Finnish forward Joel Armia is among the many promising young prospects in the Buffalo Sabres' system. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Slowly, the Buffalo Sabres are shedding their reputation for being an undersized team severely lacking in the toughness department. At the 2012 NHL Draft, GM Darcy Regier selected two marquee centers, Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons, with the 12th and 14th overall picks, giving them size, depth and versatility at that position.

1. (NR) Mikhail Grigorenko, C, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 12th overall, 2012

Based on talent alone, Mikhail Grigorenko is the top prospect in the Buffalo system. Though he was frequently placed second on pre-season draft lists, over the course of the 2011-12 season, his stock fell. There were many questions surrounding Grigorenko. His poor showing in the QMJHL playoffs was attributed to a bout with mononucleosis, but some scouts wondered if he was even really giving it his all. There is also the Russian factor, where he might return to the KHL if he is not satisfied with his career in North America. 

In terms of boom-or-bust potential, he is certainly Buffalo's most high-risk, high-reward prospect. He has the talent to be a first-line center, but there is also a good chance he becomes a third-line power forward with some offensive ability. If he pans out, he may turn out to be one of Buffalo's better centermen in recent years. Grigorenko likely will return to the Quebec Remparts for 2012-13 where he will build up more strength and learn to play with more consistency.

2. (1) Joel Armia, C, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 16th overall, 2011

The versatile Joel Armia can play center or wing, and most likely looks to do the latter in North America. A star on the Finnish national junior team, Armia is entering the last season of his contract with Assat Pori in Finland's top league.

Once Armia finishes the upcoming season, barring any sort of setbacks or injury, expect him to join the Buffalo system. The Sabres traditionally do not take Europeans with their first round picks and they are willing to let Armia slowly develop overseas. Armia has good size like Grigorenko, although he is a less dynamic playmaker and more of a goal-scorer with deceptively good hands.

3. (NR) Zemgus Girgensons, C, 7.0B
Drafted 1st round, 14th overall, 2012

There are many offensively gifted forwards in the Sabres system, but few possess the same kind of defensive acumen Zemgus Girgensons brings to the table. Though he may never develop into a Selke caliber forward, Girgensons should develop into a solid top six center who can be depended on equally for shutting down opposing forwards and providing timely offense.

Having signed an entry-level contract in mid-July, Girgensons is ineligible for NCAA hockey, and could start the season in either Rochester or Buffalo. If the Sabres do not think Girgensons is ready for the pro game, he will be assigned to the Kelowna Rockets of the WHL, who picked him in the 2011 CHL Import Draft. The Sabres are familiar with the Rockets, having selected Tyler Myers in 2008. Kim Gellert, the Rockets assistant coach, also serves as a scout for the Sabres. Though Girgenson's offensive upside is lower than Grigorenko, he plays a more mature, polished game, so there is a chance he could make his NHL debut first.

4. (2) Brayden McNabb, D, 7.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 66th overall, 2009

Brayden McNabb should start the season with the Sabres after appearing in 25 games with the big club and looking like he belonged, but he will have to fend off veteran defensemen Adam Pardy, Alexander Sulzer, and Mike Weber for regular minutes. Head coach Lindy Ruff opted to protect McNabb last year by pairing him a lot with Jordan Leopold, but with Tyler Myers healthy the Sabres may wish to trot out a "twin towers" pairing in shutdown situations.

At 6'4, he is one of Buffalo's bigger defenseman and biggest open-ice hitter. A point-per-game player with Kootenay of the WHL, McNabb has some offensive ability, but how much will be on display will largely be dependent on the type of role the Sabres ask him to play.

5. (3) Mark Pysyk, D, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 23rd overall, 2010

Mark Pysyk comes with a higher pedigree than McNabb and offers more offensive upside, but is not as far along in his development. Projected as a top-four defenseman, Pysyk's greatest asset is his swift, mobile skating ability and his steady play. He possesses excellent hockey sense and vision and makes a great first pass.

The 20-year-old defenseman is likely to spend the next two seasons in the AHL, where he will have to adjust to a much faster, more structured style of game in the pros. He will also need to add considerable strength to his 6'1, 188 pound frame. Pysyk does not possess a particularly strong slap shot, but he can get it on net and although he has never scored more than seven goals a season in the WHL, the general feeling is that he can at least match that total in the NHL, making him a capable second unit power play quarterback.

6. (5) Marcus Foligno, LW, 6.5B
Drafted 4th round, 104th overall, 2009

With his spot on the big club all but assured for the 2012-13 season, Marcus Foligno seems the likeliest of all the Sabres' prospects to graduate next year. Because the Sabres prefer to score by committee, Foligno should see ample time in the top-nine, especially after finding smashing success playing alongside Drew Stafford and newly converted center Tyler Ennis.

While Marcus Foligno could wind up being a better player than his older brother, Nick, his 13 points in 14 games in 2011-12 is somewhat misleading. He does not project as a point-per-game player in the long-term and his game is better suited for a third-line energy role. He has good enough hands to see some spot-duty on the power play, but Foligno is clearly a spark plug-type with a penchant for scoring big goals.

7. (7) Jerome Gauthier-Leduc, D, 7.5D
Drafted 3rd round, 68th overall, 2010

When Gauthier-Leduc was drafted in 2010, many wondered how much potential he had. He went from scoring just one goal in his rookie junior year to scoring 20 the following season. Gauthier-Leduc now quietly graduates from the QMJHL as the league's best power play quarterbacks. The only defenseman in the league to average more than a point per game, Gauthier-Leduc was also one of the few Oceanic players who kept pace with the heavily favored Saint John Sea Dogs in the QMJHL final.

It looks like Gauthier-Leduc may develop into a powerplay specialist, similar to current NHL defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron. Physically, there are legitimate questions about whether or not he can keep up at the pro level, but the offensive talent is undeniable. The Sabres want to see what Gauthier-Leduc can do in Rochester first.

8. (NR) Jake McCabe, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 44th overall, 2012

The Wisconsin Badgers under head coach Mike Eaves have built a reputation for producing talented NHL defensemen, and Jake McCabe appears to be another one of his prizes. With Justin Schultz joining the Edmonton Oilers, the Wisconsin blue line will be counting on McCabe for some big minutes and big production. Although he did not get off to a good start at the US World Junior camp held in early August, his play improved as camp went on and often found himself on the top pairing with Connor Murphy (PHX). He will be a mainstay for the American side at the upcoming WJCs.

McCabe is a solid two-way defenseman whose skills lean more to the offensive side of the game. He has good puck-moving ability and with more seasoning and more muscle, can develop a hard, accurate point shot. For now, however, it seems like McCabe is more focused on polishing up the defensive aspects of his game.

9. (4) T.J. Brennan, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 31st overall, 2007

The development of T.J. Brennan's was fairly slow, with him spending about three full seasons in the AHL before seeing NHL ice time. Projected as a second-pairing defenseman in 2007, Brennan's potential has not diminished, but his longer-than-expected journey means that many of Buffalo's young defensemen have leapfrogged Brennan on the depth chart.

Brennan was given an 11-game audition last year in which he neither impressed nor disappointed. With less competition and more minutes, Brennan can still be a serviceable NHL defenseman, but that becomes less of a reality with each passing day.

10. (6) Corey Tropp, RW, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 89th overall, 2007

Corey Tropp is one of Buffalo's many prospects, like Luke Adam or Patrick Kaleta, who is groomed for a specific role. The Michigan State alum has seen his stock rise every year and shot out of the gates in Rochester, scoring 22 points in 27 games before earning a call-up to Buffalo where he appeared in 34 games and notched eight points.

Tropp found himself alongside Cody Hodgson and Thomas Vanek during Ruff's line-juggling last year, but that will not happen on a regular basis. Like Foligno, Tropp is likely guaranteed a spot with Buffalo next year, although most likely in a fourth-line role.

11. (10) Connor Knapp, G, 6.5C
Drafted 6th round, 164th overall, 2009

With Drew MacIntyre opting to play in the KHL, the former Miami Redhawk could be penciled in as the backup to David Leggio in Rochester. Knapp finishes his college career having never lost more than eight games a year or posting a save percentage lower than .904. However, over his four-year career in Oxford, Ohio, he has split duties with Cody Reichard. This also means that Knapp has far less game experience than most of his peers, though he did post a sparking 1.69 goals-against average and .933 save percentage in his senior season, outperforming Reichard by a significant margin.

Knapp is tall and lanky, and like most goalies with big wingspans but slow feet he will need a couple seasons in the AHL. His most obvious strength is that he covers a lot of the net, but is also technically sound and plays his angles well. Still, he has a long ways to go before being considered for NHL duty, but the Sabres are not in need of any goaltending help in the immediate moment.

12. (NR) Logan Nelson, C, 7.0D
Drafted 5th round, 133rd overall, 2012

After being passed over in the 2011 Draft, Logan Nelson decided to leave the Des Moines Buccaneers of he USHL for the WHL with the hope that a more intense hockey schedule will further his development and better his chances of getting noticed. He excelled for the re-located Victoria Royals, finishing second in team scoring after fellow Sabres prospect Kevin Sundher was traded to Brandon. The Royals are not a particularly strong or deep team, which means Logan should see a lot of ice time.

Nelson is a big center who is easily overlooked because he does not have a standout skill. That the Minnesota native has made such a smooth transition to the WHL bodes well, but at this point he still projects to be a low-end, two-way, second-line center.

13. (9) Daniel Catenacci, C, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd round, 77th overall, 2011

An undersized offensive forward who is known to score in bunches, Daniel Catenacci in many regards is a traditional Sabres forward prospect. He does not have first-line talent but he has a willingness to get in the dirty areas and has posted two straight seasons in which he has eclipsed 70 points and 110 penalty minutes. With Mike Halmo signing with the New York Islanders, Catenacci will spearhead the Owen Sound offense. The question is how good Catenacci be as the go-to guy, having played on middle-of-the-pack teams throughout his OHL career.

Catenacci's best weapon is his speed, which he used it to finish his checks as much as he used it to score goals last year. But, like many speedsters, his mind has not quite caught up to his feet, and as a result he often finds himself in precarious positions. If he can make more efficient use of his speed he has the makings of a second-line scorer in the NHL.

14. (NR) Nick Crawford, D, 6.5C
Drafted 6th round, 164th overall, 2008

Nick Crawford made a surprisingly smooth transition from the OHL to the AHL, posting seven goals and 31 points in his rookie AHL season. The former OHL First Team All-Star took a step back in his second AHL season, but that is not out of the ordinary for young defensemen in the AHL, so the regression is not yet a major concern.

The general consensus is that Crawford can add a bit more muscle to his small frame, though the trade-off could be less agility and foot-speed. As a sixth round pick the odds are stacked against him, but Crawford will get his chance if McNabb and Brennan make the big club.

15. (8) Kevin Sundher, C, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd round, 75th overall, 2010

The well-travelled WHL veteran did not finish his junior career on a high note. As a key offensive cog for the Chilliwack/Victoria franchise, Kevin Sundher's production fell way off after being traded to Brandon, where he fell behind Mark Stone (OTT) and Michael Ferland (CAL) on the depth chart. He finished with a career-worst minus-12 in just 18 games with the Wheat Kings and potted just four goals in that span.

Small and slight, Sundher is projected to be a winger in the pro ranks. He possesses good speed and hands to become a good AHL scorer, but at this point, with his stock falling, an NHL future seems very unlikely. He will have to fine-tune his craft in Rochester this year and face bigger, stronger, and faster defensemen.

16. (NR) Jacob Lagace, LW, 6.0C
Drafted 5th round, 134th overall, 2008

Jacob Lagace was a scoring machine in the QMJHL as an overager, which was expected, but he has since really started to embrace the less glamorous duties that may someday lead to an NHL role. He is entering the last year of his entry-level contract, so the undersized forward has a ton to prove.

A versatile winger who can play either side, the knock against Lagace is the same as virtually all young players: a lack of consistency. Part of it may be due to the fact that his on-ice role has slowly changed since his junior days, but the Sabres like his work ethic and will play it by ear.

17. (NR) Philip Varone, C, 6.0D
Signed as a free agent, March 20th, 2012

Originally drafted by the San Jose Sharks in 2009, Philip Varone signed a minor-league deal with the Buffalo Sabres in 2011 and wowed scouts in his first AHL season, leading all rookies in assists with 41. Having potted 11 goals in 76 game last year, it was obvious that playmaking and skating were Varone's forte. Whether the 21-year-old forward is good enough to make the NHL or destined to top out as an AHL scorer like Jeff Tambellini or Brandon Reid remains to be seen.

18. (12) Drew Schiestel, D, 6.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 59th overall, 2007

Over the course of the 2011-12 season, Drew Schiestel slowly lost ice time to Crawford, Brennan, McNabb, and Joe Finley, and ended up finishing the season with the Texas Stars on a loan. It is important to remember that the Rochester Americans are a competitive team and want to win games, so they may not always have Buffalo's developmental interests in mind. Like Brennan, who was taken earlier in the same round, Schiestel was a potential second-pairing defenseman who has seen his development stalled by injuries. But, with Dennis Persson heading to the Swedish Elitserien and the expected graduation of either one of McNabb or Brennan, spots are opening up for Schiestel.

It could be awkward to bring back a player after loaning them out, as the Sabres did with Schiestel, but they obviously still have some confidence in him to re-sign him to a one-year contract. The key for Schiestel to find success is to stay healthy. Playing a full season could do wonders for his development and confidence.

19. (NR) Justin Kea, C, 6.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 73rd overall, 2012

A big, 6'4 power forward, Justin Kea's ceiling as an NHL forward, should he make it, is a likely as a big-bodied third-line center. Already seen as a defensive player in the OHL, Kea is not a particularly creative player on offense, and does not project well in that part of the game. 

Kea will need to work on just about everything, but skating is key, especially if he wants to shut down speedier NHL forwards. Regardless of the continued controversies around fighting and concussions, Kea is a player who might be able to improve his stock if he is willing to drop the gloves a little more.

20. (19) Nathan Lieuwen, G, 5.5C
Drafted 6th round, 167th overall, 2011

The Kootenay Ice netminder improved his stock drastically in his 2011 WHL playoff run in which he was named MVP. Like Sundher, Nathan Lieuwen did not finish his junior career on a particularly high note, having posted a .896 save percentage and 3.53 goals against average in the 2012 playoffs. Lieuwen will battle Knapp for the Rochester back-up role behind David Leggio. Though Knapp may be a more polished goaltender at the moment, Lieuwen does have a lot more experience, having appeared in over 50 games for Kootenay each of the past two years.

There is a good chance that Lieuwen gets sent to the ECHL and there is nothing wrong with that. While the quality of competition is lower, Lieuwen will have the opportunity to get regular minutes there.