Patient approach at player development paying off for Buffalo Sabres

By Jason Chen

Brayden McNabb - Buffalo Sabres

Photo: Defenseman Brayden McNabb (81) is one of several Buffalo Sabres prospects who would be competing for a spot in the NHL right now if not for the ongoing lockout. (Bill Streicher/Icon SMI)

The Buffalo Sabres have traditionally taken the long and steady approach to developing their projects, giving their prospects as much time as needed to develop into an NHL player. That patience has paid off, with many players drafted in the past five years making contributions at the NHL level last year, and are ready to this year, if or when the NHL lockout ends. Corey Tropp, Luke Adam, Brayden McNabb, Marcus Foligno, and a few others are among those who have proven that they can play in the NHL.

Left Wing

The Sabres' left flank may seem shallow, having just taken four left wingers in the past five drafts, none of them higher than the fourth round. But positions, other than differentiating between forwards and defensemen, do not really matter that much to Buffalo. General manager Darcy Regier has always been known to take the best player available. Head coach Lindy Ruff's tendency to juggle lines is also well known, so drafting a player who can only play one position can be a stumbling block. Down the road, the Sabres are expected to turn some of their centers, including Daniel Catenacci and Kevin Sundher, to wingers.

The left winger of note is Marcus Foligno, who impressed in 14 games last year and has all but locked up a spot on the regular club. Currently in the AHL, Foligno's smashing start to the season with 10 points in his first eight games has scouts wondering if there's more undiscovered offensive potential with the sparkplug winger. Already possessing good size, skating, and energy, he is also showing the ability to mesh well with high-end talents like Cody Hodgson, and produce results.

With the NHL lockout, the Amerks have benefitted from employing NHL caliber players, but the costs have been the spots of minor leaguers who could fill bottom six positions. Jacob Lagace was inconsistent but appeared to be heading down the right route after hitting double-digit goal totals again, but was assigned to ECHL Bakersfield. He is off to a disappointing start with just an assist in six games and needs to play a lot better to be considered for a call-up.

Riley Boychuk, having already split the previous season between the AHL and ECHL, was looking to become an AHL regular, but was instead assigned to Fort Worth Brahmas of the CHL. The Brahmas are not an official affiliate of the Sabres, but the two have a working relationship. The big winger is expected to log big minutes in Fort Worth, something he would not have been able to do in Rochester.

Center

With Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons, not to mention the acquisition of Hodgson and Tyler Ennis' switch back to center, the Sabres suddenly look deep down the middle. All four players can be significant contributors to the NHL level and how to find enough ice time to appease everyone will be a welcome headache down the road. There is a chance that at least one will be used on the wing to make room for everybody, and it could be Hodgson, who has not fared well in the circle and has been used on the wing in international competitions.

In Grigorenko, the Sabres have a potential franchise number one center, capable of playing big minutes in all situations and posting strong offensive totals. Grigorenko is currently dominating the QMJHL with the Quebec Remparts, but could be in the NHL in the very near future.

In Girgensons the Sabres have a strong, two-way center who plays physically in all three areas of the ice. Now playing in the AHL as an 18-year-old, Girgensons is undergoing a massive transition from the USHL to North American pro hockey. His game is likely going to take a few years to come together, but the sky is practically the limit for the Latvian forward.

After finishing 17 games below .500 last year, the Victoria Royals have been an early surprise team in the WHL. A big reason for the surge is Logan Nelson, who is off to a point-per-game start this season. The Royals are undoubtedly better this year, and Nelson is clearly taking advantage of it after playing with subpar support last year. Nelson's play has so impressed early on that he is expected to challenge for a spot on Phil Housley's US World Junior squad.

Regarded as a shutdown center, Justin Kea is also off to a good start. With 11 points in 15 games already, Kea is going to shatter his previous high of 14 points. This sudden burst of offense is not surprising, given that he is a year older and entering his third OHL season.  Also, headed into the 2012 NHL Draft, there was some belief Kea had some untapped offensive ability. 

Undersized center Philip Varone has the work ethic, the talent, and the ability to raise his game in key situations, but with Buffalo's young stars getting off to hot starts, he could get buried on the depth chart. Given his skill set however, Varone could eventually carve out an important role in the Sabres organization.

Daniel Catenacci is off to a great start in his final year of CHL eligibility and selected to play in the Super Series. Kevin Sundher has only appeared in one game for the Americans so far and will serve as a depth player for most of the season. Both players were drafted as centers, but both will likely find more success at the pro level on the wing. Size is the major question and given their strong foot speed, they could be much more effective hockey players coming down the wings.

On the other hand, Brad Navin has the size but not the skating, and may be relegated to the wings so he does not have to cover as much ice. He does possess a hard shot and is a depth scoring option playing on a line with Brendan Woods (CAR), though the Wisconsin Badgers are off to a slow start to the season.

Colin Jacobs was given a fresh start after being traded to Prince George following a difficult third season with Seattle. Considered a veteran leader on a young team, Jacobs leads his team in scoring and has a very good chance of breaking his career high of 44 points. Jacobs, a fourth round pick from 2011, is still unsigned.

Judd Peterson, the Sabres' last pick in the 2012 draft, is playing well with USHL Cedar Rapids. He is still considered a long-term project and will suit up for St. Cloud State for the 2013-14 season.

Frederick Roy, an undrafted free agent signing, rounds out Buffalos' depth at center. Though Roy's size did not hinder him from producing big numbers with the Remparts, it is unlikely he will play center in the pros. In his five games with Rochester, Roy has one point while playing on the fourth line.

Right Wing

With Joel Armia, the Sabres have a player who has been already been known to be a special goal-scorer in his native Finland for the past two years. Entering his final year with Assat, Armia is off to a hot start with eight goals in 17 games. His presence will take some pressure off Jason Pominville and Drew Stafford to score goals from the right side.

Just as Foligno has bumped off a player on the bottom of the depth chart, the presence of Corey Tropp is doing the same. Tropp is a physical, hard-working winger who does his best work on the bottom lines, grinding out opponents, but has enough skill to provide some secondary offense.

Because of Tropp's presence in Rochester, Shawn Szydlowski has been assigned to CHL Fort Worth and Jonathan Parker has yet to appear in a game with the Amerks. Szydlowski is a tough winger with limited offensive ability.

Meanwhile, at the University of Minnesota, after appearing in just 11 games last year Christian Isackson is making his mark. Isackson's raw offensive potential was hard to ignore, but he was inconsistent during his freshman season. Over the summer, he worked on skating and building his strength. The hard work has paid off, as Isackson is playing with Nick Bjugstad (FLA) and Kyle Rau (FLA) on the top line. He scored a hat trick in an exhibition game against the University of Lethbridge before sweeping Michigan State to begin the season.

Defense

Defense is perhaps the strongest aspect of Buffalo's pipeline. While there is no standout in the prospect pool, it is only because the 22-year-old Tyler Myers is playing in the NHL. What Myers needs is a strong supporting cast, and the Sabres have collected a very strong group.

Brayden McNabb is the most NHL ready and would be competing for a spot, possibly next to Myers, if not for the lockout. McNabb plays with a physical edge not many of Buffalo's other defensemen do. With a knack for big hits, McNabb will have to tip toe the line. He has already been suspended for one game this year for a hit to the head.

Mark Pysyk, the Sabres' number one pick in 2010, was off to a strong start with three points in his first five games, but his play has since tailed off. A season of ups-and-downs is expected with Pysyk, a highly touted puck-mover who will need at least one year of AHL seasoning.

T.J. Brennan, a second round pick from 2007 the Sabres have held on to, is putting up big numbers. Now in his fourth AHL season, the Sabres patience has paid off, as Brennan is proving to be an offensive dynamo from the blue line and leads the Amerks defensemen with 10 points. The key for Brennan at the beginning of the year was to not get buried with Buffalo's depth on defense. Now the key is to keep the momentum going.

The Amerks crowded blue line continues with Nick Crawford playing in one game this year and Drew Schiestel and Alex Biega playing in a handful of games. Schiestel was loaned out to Texas last year after a tough second year in Rochester, but was brought back on a one-year contract. After an uninspiring start, Schiestel has been replaced by Biega, who has made the best out of his opportunity and managed four points in five games.

Matt MacKenzie, who spent the 2011-12 season in the ECHL and AHL, has played in seven games with Rochester so far. MacKenzie is a third round pick from 2010 that has good size and puck-moving ability, but is still finding his role at the professional level.

Corey Fienhage was assigned to ECHL Gwinnett to make space and has not recorded a point so far. Fienhage is a rugged defenseman with good size. He projects to be a stay-at-home defenseman, but first must improve his skating and puck-distribution.

Another player competing for time on Rochester's blue line is Jerome Gauthier-Leduc, who is coming off a 74 point season with Rimouski Oceanic. Gauthier-Leduc is an offensive defenseman with good puck-distribution and vision though his strength has been a point of concern. He also needs to prove he can put up huge numbers in the pros.

Jake McCabe's Wisconsin Badgers were swept in their opening weekend series, but a 2-0 win over Minnesota-Duluth is a sign things are turning around. McCabe collected two assists in the win, his first two points of the season. He is expected to be a force on the Badgers blue line. 

Rounding out the blue line are OHL defenseman Brady Austin and Alex Lepkowski. Both are big defensive defensemen who are better known for their ability to deliver hits than contribute offensively.

Goalies

With Ryan Miller and Jhonas Enroth, the Sabres do not need a goalie right away and seem content going forward with what they have.

Connor Knapp won the backup job in Rochester but has yet to appear in any games this year. A former goalie for Miami University (Ohio), Knapp has great size at 6'5 and plays his angles very well. He lacks mobility though and needs to improve his post-to-post movement though.

Nathan Lieuwen will have start with ECHL Greenville if he wants to see some minutes. Another exceptionally tall goaltender (6'5), Lieuwen has fairly good technique and does a good job of using his size to cover the net.

Free agent signing Andrey Makarov was a nice depth addition to the Sabres prospect pool. Makarov is an athletic goaltender who established himself as a viable NHL prospect with his performance as Andrey Vasilevskiy's (TB) backup for Team Russia in the 2012 World Junior Championship. He still needs to work on the finer points of his game, such as his post-to-post movement and his ability to play angles.

Rounding out the position is Linus Ullmark, a sixth round pick from 2012. Ullmark has good size at 6'3 and plays fairly aggressive in his net, though he remains a long-term project at this point in his development.

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