The Buffalo Sabres addressed their biggest organizational need by selecting two marquee centers, Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons, at the 2012 Draft. Both have signed entry-level contracts and it is now a waiting game for the Sabres, as they continue to reap the benefits from the continuing development of their young players.
Top Pro Prospect
Zemgus Girgensons, C, Rochester Americans (AHL)
The Sabres had the option of sending Zemgus Girgensons to the WHL's Kelowna Rockets, but instead assigned the two-way Latvian center to Rochester. The move is a clear indication of how much confidence the organization has in Girgensons' ability to play at the pro level. At just 18 years old, he will be the youngest player in the AHL this year.
Cody Hodgson is expected to be Rochester's top center, which means the pressure on Girgensons to produce in his first pro season will be lessened. Look for the well-rounded Girgensons to line up as the number two or three center and employed in all situations by head coach Ron Rolston.
Shawn Szydlowski, RW, Rochester Americans (AHL)
Despite scoring 41 goals in 66 games in 2010-11, his last year of junior hockey, Shawn Szydlowski did not score a single goal in 53 games with the Americans last season. Szydlowski's biggest weakness is his footspeed, and it is largely the reason why he is having trouble adjusting to the pro game. He regained some confidence following a short demotion to the ECHL in mid-February last year, but will once again have to work his way up the depth chart. That could prove more difficult this year, given the number of NHL-ready players the Sabres have assigned to play in Rochester. On the other hand, playing with more talented linemates could bring out Szydlowski's offensive game.
Jacob Lagace, LW, Rochester Americans (AHL)
Jacob Lagace scored 10 goals in each of his past two seasons in the AHL, and while no one is expecting the undersized sparkplug winger to be an offensive star, the general feeling is that Lagace can produce much more. He will certainly get that opportunity this year with a deep Rochester team, although the onus is on Lagace to play more consistently from shift to shift and shoot the puck more often.
Top Junior Prospect
Mikhail Grigorenko, C, Quebec Remparts (QMJHL)
The Sabres' most talented prospect will return to Quebec for one more year of tutelage under head coach Patrick Roy. The sky is the limit for the offensively gifted Russian center, who was named the CHL's Rookie of the Year and awarded the Mike Bossy Trophy as the league's top draft prospect.
Grigorenko is expected to continue his offensive dominance, and with 2013 draft eligible Anthony Duclair on the wing, will spearhead what could be the QMJHL's most dangerous offensive team. The key this year for Grigorenko is motivation. Cracking the 100-point barrier this year is an attainable goal for Grigorenko, but the worry is that he may become bored with the competition, especially after questions about his work ethic arose during his poor playoff showing.
The Sabres still have some time before they decide what they want to do with Logan Nelson, who is entering his second WHL season. Having established the franchise record for points by a rookie with 62, Nelson is expected to build on that as the team's de facto number one center. The Royals allowed a league-worst 325 goals last year and finished 17 games below .500, but Nelson still managed to post a minus-two rating even though a large number of his teammates finished with ratings in the minus-30s. Playing on a weak team hurts Nelson, but as long as he can separate himself from the rest of the pack he stands a good chance of getting signed.
Colin Jacobs, C, Prince George Cougars (WHL)
Colin Jacobs appeared in just 44 games last year due to injury and posted the worst scoring totals of his three-year junior career. He was given a fresh start after being traded to Prince George this offseason, where he is expected to be a mentor to Alex Forsberg, the team's top prospect. This is the last chance for the former fourth round pick to convince the Sabres that he is worth signing.
Top Amateur Prospect
Jake McCabe, D, Wisconsin Badgers (WCHA)
With Justin Schultz signing with the Edmonton Oilers, Jake McCabe will be relied on by head coach Mike Eaves to be Wisconsin's go-to defenseman. No one else on the Badger's blue line has the same kind of upside McCabe possesses, who averaged close to half a point per game in 26 games for the offensively-challenged Badgers. The WCHA is arguably the NCAA's toughest conference, but playing against tough competition should benefit McCabe's development into a highly versatile, two-way defenseman.
Mark Adams, D, Providence College Friars (Hockey East)
The 6'3 stay-at-home defenseman saw his sophomore season cut short due to injuries and appeared in just 19 of 38 games. The Friars are a low-scoring team, which means they rely heavily on their defense to win games. They missed having Adams on the blue line and allowed 89 goals, third-worst in the conference. Entering his junior season, Adams will be counted on to provide veteran savvy and leadership on the Friars blue line, as well as making sure highly touted goalie Jon Gillies (CAL) is not overwhelmed in his first college season.
Christian Isackson, RW, Minnesota Golden Gophers (WCHA)
The Golden Gophers are expected to be the toast of the WCHA again with four of their top five scoring forwards returning. This is both good news and bad news for Christian Isackson, a former finalist for Minnesota's Mr. Hockey award. The good news for Isackson is that he will get the opportunity to play with some of the nation's top offensive players, but the bad news is that Isackson will find it difficult to move up the depth chart. If he gets into the Gophers' lineup regularly, the raw but skilled playmaker can provide some scoring depth.
One of Finland's most highly-touted power forwards, Joel Armia is once again expected to shoulder most of the offensive load for Assat Pori. The 6'3 winger is Buffalo's most dangerous sniper since Thomas Vanek and will most likely make the jump to North America at the conclusion of the 2012-13 season. In light of the NHL lockout, there is a chance that Assat Pori may sign an NHL player or two, but this is clearly Armia's team.
A standout goalie in the Swedish junior circuit, Linus Ullmark was loaned out to Mora IK in Sweden's second-tier league as a backup to Daniel Hansen. Hansen has been Mora's starter for most of the past two seasons, but his contract expires at the end of the season and should he falter, there is a good chance Mora will give Ullmark a long look. Mora narrowly missed the playoffs last year but will feature a much stronger team this year, especially having just signed Anze Kopitar. Being exposed to stronger competition, as well as having an NHL player like Kopitar on the team, should greatly benefit Ullmark's development.