Buffalo Sabres have talented, experienced group at minor-league level

By Jason Chen

Mark Pysyk - Buffalo Sabres

Photo: Mark Pysyk is one of several talented defensive prospects the Buffalo Sabres have at the AHL level. (Abelimages/Getty Images)

The Buffalo Sabres' AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans, are one of the biggest beneficiaries of the NHL lockout. Though Cody Hodgson, Marcus Foligno, Brayden McNabb, and T.J. Brennan have, for the most part, been pillars for head coach Ron Rolston, the Amerks are currently sitting just out of playoff position. Hurting the Amerks is overall consistency and a lack of quality depth up front.

At times, Rolston has even been forced to dress seven defensemen. Though the Sabres have a handful of forwards in the ECHL, none have stood out enough to get recalled. Goaltending is yet another area in which the Amerks have struggled, with David Leggio in a slump and rookie Connor Knapp seeing limited action.

AHL

Connor Knapp, G, 22

After a stellar four-year career with Miami University, Knapp beat out Nathan Lieuwen for the backup job in Rochester, but Knapp has played in just six of Rochester's 31 games thus far. With David Leggio established as the team's number one goaltender, Knapp is not expected to get many starts but he is making the most of his opportunities. Against the Adirondack Phantoms in his third career start, Knapp collected his first pro win after making 41 saves, 25 of them in the second period. Knapp was rewarded for his performance with a second straight start, though the Amerks fell to the Marlies, 4-3. So far this season, Knapp's statistics closely mirrors Leggio's for the up-and-down Amerks. If the slumping Leggio cannot improve and return to last year's form, head coach Ron Rolston could end up giving Knapp more starts down the road.

Brayden McNabb, D, 21

If it were not for the lockout, McNabb would be plying his craft in the NHL. He is the Amerks' best all-round defender thus far, second in scoring among the team's defensemen. At this point, McNabb is continuing to fine-tune his game in the AHL, especially in regards to his consistency, which has slipped a little since last year.

Jerome Gauthier-Leduc, D, 20

With a crowded blue line, the smooth-skating Gauthier-Leduc has been used sparingly by Rolston, playing in just 17 games so far. Gauthier-Leduc made a big splash in his pro debut in mid-November, scoring an eye-popping goal from the point, and was rewarded with three more games before being scratched yet again. Gauthier-Leduc has played in the Amerks' more regularly as of late, making himself more indispensible for Rolston and the Amerks offense. In 13 games in December, he managed a goal, three assists, and 19 shots.

Mark Pysyk, D, 20

Pysyk has not missed a beat since leaving the Edmonton Oil Kings. He was too raw to be considered for a roster spot on the Sabres, but given how he has acclimated himself with the Amerks, that train of thought no longer exists. Pysyk has missed just three games so far and has been able to move the puck around the ice. The one thing Pysyk has struggled with is the size of the players in the AHL. The Amerks are talented, but the lack of size throughout the roster, Pysyk among them, is being exposed.

T.J. Brennan, D, 23

The franchise record for goals by a defenseman is 18, set by Rick Pagnutti during the 1972-73 season. Through 31 games, Brennan has 12 goals. Not only is Brennan on pace to shatter that mark, he is currently tied for third in scoring among AHL defensemen. Having been leapfrogged by younger prospects like McNabb on the depth chart, Brennan is re-establishing himself at the top of the list. Though his defensive game still needs work, he is showing that his offensive skills can make up for those deficiencies. Case in point: in a game against Albany, Brennan scored two shorthanded goals.

Nick Crawford, D, 22

Like Gauthier-Leduc, the two-year AHL veteran has seen his playing time diminish with the logjam of defensemen in Rochester. Having appeared in 146 games over the past two years in the AHL, Crawford has just nine games under his belt this year. Though he has put up a few points in his nine games, Crawford's offensive game is actually quite limited. He does not possess the size to justify a spot in the lineup either. Crawford is in the final year of his entry-level deal and, with limited opportunities, earning a contract for next year will be difficult.

Alex Biega, D, 24

Biega is putting together yet another solid season for the Amerks, but it is becoming apparent that no matter how hard he works or what kind of numbers he puts up, his lack of size will prevent him from moving up to the big leagues. A skilled defenseman with speed to burn and tireless work ethic, Biega is 5'10 and has struggled with bigger forwards throughout his career, especially in tight areas. At 24, Biega is close to make-or-break time. Buffalo's depth and youth works against Biega and he may be forced to sign elsewhere next year.

Drew Schiestel, D, 23

Once a prized prospect in the Buffalo pipeline, Schiestel was loaned to the Texas Stars last year, which led to speculation the Sabres were prepared to give up his rights. He was given a second chance and brought back on a one-year deal after posting five points in 16 games with the Stars, but this season has only reaffirmed the notion that the Sabres are no longer looking at Schiestel as a long-term option. With a logjam on the blue line, Schiestel has taken shifts up front as a left winger and at one point was demoted to the ECHL for three games. Through 11 games combined with Rochester and Greenville, Schiestel has zero points.

Matt MacKenzie, D, 21

MacKenzie split the season between Rochester and Greenville last year, and with the Amerks reaping the benefits of the lockout having McNabb and Brennan on the roster, he is doing much of the same this year. MacKenzie has played in nine games for Rochester so far and was demoted with Schiestel to Greenville for a short period. A defenseman who can play with an edge and some offensive ability, MacKenzie is looking for more consistent ice-time to showcase his skills. He is considered a project and a long shot to make the NHL.

Corey Tropp, RW, 23

A third round pick from 2007 who was establishing himself as a regular with the Sabres last year after playing in 34 games, Tropp scored two goals in the season opener, but suffered a ligament injury in his knee in the same game. He is expected to miss the entire season.

Jonathan Parker, RW, 21

Parker split the season between the ECHL and AHL last year, but to his credit has stayed with the Amerks for the entire year so far. However, Parker has been rarely used by Rolston, and even when Parker is dressed, he has played very few shifts. An undersized grinder, Parker has struggled in the AHL, save for three goals he scored in the middle of December. The Amerks lack quality depth up front, which explains why they have kept Parker around, but at this point Parker would be better off playing more minutes in the ECHL. 

Marcus Foligno, LW, 21

Foligno has a big name to live up to in Buffalo, but he is on the right track. The big 6'3 power forward plays a similar game to father Mike and is slowly discovering how much damage he can do offensively. Foligno is currently leading the Amerks forwards in scoring with 27 points in 31 games, spending most of the time playing on the top line with Cody Hodgson. Though Foligno will never score 40 goals like his father, he is undoubtedly making a significant impact in the organization. Projected to be a checking line role player when he was drafted in 2009, Foligno's is now projected to be a potentially impactful top six forward in the NHL.

Zemgus Girgensons, C, 18

The youngest player in the AHL this season, Girgensons has not looked out of place in the pros. The Sabres chose to let Girgensons play in the AHL rather than send him to the Kelowna Rockets and it has been an astute decision. Though his statistics have been pedestrian so far, keep in mind that offense is not Girgensons' game. The two-way forward has been used in all situations by Rolston and already possesses good size to take the abuse.

Despite being one of the top Latvian players eligible to represent his country at the 2013 WJCs, Rochester did not release Girgensons, citing a high number of injured players on their roster.

Kevin Sundher, C, 20

The knock against Sundher is his lack of size, despite possessing a good skill set. Though he has remained healthy for most of his four-year junior career, mostly with the Chilliwack Bruins, Sundher has battled inconsistency and injuries this season, limiting him to 18 games of action. Consistency in all areas of the game is something Sundher needs to work on. His offensive abilities have only been put on show sporadically, though he has spent most of the time playing on the fourth line with Parker.

Philip Varone, C, 22

Varone has not quite captured the same kind of late game magic he displayed last year and he has been bumped down the depth chart with the addition of Hodgson and Kevin Porter. Still, the undersized center has plenty of spunk and energy and one of Rolston's go-to guys in the shootout. The 5'10 center has plenty of intangibles, but given his size, he will need to continue to build on his skills so he will be difficult to ignore down the road. The Sabres have been particularly successful using undersized centers in the past.

Brian Flynn, C, 24

The former Maine Black Bears captain has been the biggest surprise for the Amerks this season. Undrafted and signed as a free agent after four years with Maine, Flynn has worked his way up from being a healthy scratch in the Amerks' first game to seeing time on the top line with Foligno. He currently leads all Amerks forwards with nine goals and a staple in the league's rookie scoring race. At 24, Flynn is older and less experienced than the majority of prospects in Buffalo's pipeline, but the upside to spending more time in the NCAA ranks is breaking into the pros with a much more polished, mature game. As the season goes on, Rolston has shown increasing confidence in Flynn, who is in good position to get a second NHL contract.

Frederick Roy, C, 21

Signed to a two-way AHL/ECHL deal after finishing a stellar career with the Quebec Remparts, Roy has played consistently and well enough to dress in 21 games for the Amerks. Once thought to have been an inflated stock because he was playing alongside Mikhail Grigorenko, Roy has proved his critics wrong. He does not have the ability to play center at the pro level, but he is tenacious and willing to compete, making him a formidable winger with his speed and vision. If Roy can continue to stay in the lineup and chip in offensively when needed, an NHL contract should not be far off in the future.

ECHL

Nathan Lieuwen, G, 21

The bad news for Lieuwen was that he would have to begin his pro career at the bottom of the totem pole with the ECHL's Greenville Road Warriors, a team affiliated with in-state rival New York Rangers, no less. The good news is that Lieuwen is getting all the starts and leads ECHL rookie goalies in minutes played with 1238, which is also sixth among all goalies. Lieuwen is a big reason why the Road Warriors are one of the teams currently in position to claim the Eastern Conference title.

Corey Fienhage, D, 22

Like Lieuwen, Fienhage is playing outside of the organization with the Gwinnett Gladiators, the Phoenix Coyotes' ECHL affiliate. The Gladiators are among the ECHL's stingiest team, having allowed just 84 goals. That Fienhage is playing regularly and missed just three of the Gladiators' 35 games thus far is good news for his development. A stay-at-home with limited offensive ability with good size at 6'3 and 215 pounds, Fienhage still projects to be a career minor-leaguer.  

Jacob Lagace, LW, 22

One of the few drafted players on the Bakersfield Condors, Lagace is making the best of his situation. He currently sits third in team scoring and is one of the team's better two-way players, but his development has stalled. Having posted 10 goals in 58 games in each of the past two seasons, Lagace has not taken the step forward the organization was hoping he would. He has not distanced himself from the rest of ECHL competition either, which means in all likelihood he will be staying in the ECHL for the rest of the season.

Shawn Szydlowski, RW, 22

A 41-goal scorer with the Erie Otters, whatever offensive skills Szydlowski may have are not being put on display with the Fort Worth Brahmas (CHL). He has just four goals in 24 games and a team worst minus-8 rating. Though he is one of the younger players on the roster and getting consistent ice-time, the fact that the slumping Amerks have chosen to let Szydlowski play low-level minor-league hockey is an indication of how his development is coming along. Though Szydlowski has one more year in his contract, he has to improve his play significantly if he wants a regular AHL role next year.

Riley Boychuk, LW, 21

The other Amerk currently playing with Fort Worth, Boychuk has fared better than Szydlowski. For the most part, he has improved since last year. As a big power forward with limited mobility, he is slowly adjusting to the pro game. A bruiser in the WHL, Boychuk has been concentrating more on his puck skills, pitching in with five goals so far. He is Fort Worth's biggest player and the feeling that is that once Boychuk feels more comfortable with the puck on his stick, he can use his size, which is still his best asset, much more effectively. At this point, Boychuk's prospects of making the NHL are slim.

 

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