Sabres training camp preview

By Kristofer Baker

The Buffalo Sabres commence their 2006 training camp with a heightened sense of optimism following last season’s success. Quick, young, and balanced, the 2005-06 Sabres surprised the hockey world with their impressive, wire-to-wire run that ended with a game seven loss to Carolina in the Eastern Conference Finals. The team carved a hard-working identity while exceeding expectations, and will be a hunted group as they’re expected to again sit among the conference pacesetters in 2006-07.

Quality depth was a major factor in the Sabres success last season, and the organization suffered a bit of a hit in that department over the summer. Three key players from the 2005-06 edition, D Jay McKee (STL) and wings J.P. Dumont (NAS) and Mike Grier (SJ), exited Buffalo in this past offseason, and another, sparkling C Tim Connolly, hasn’t fully recovered from a postseason concussion suffered in the second round vs. Ottawa. With Jaroslav Spacek signed as a free agent from the Oilers to occupy McKee’s former blue line spot, the Sabres will promote from within their prospect ranks to fill the open forward positions. A lighter, quicker Andrew Peters is expected to push for an expanded fourth line role on what will be a 22-man roster to begin the season.



Forwards


The Sabres will open camp on September 15th with eleven attackers returning from the previous season, so it appears that the hopefuls are playing for two bottom-six roster spots until Connolly is well enough to re-enter the lineup. (Nifty winger Jason Pominville is still considered a prospect for eight more NHL games per Hockey’s Future criteria, but it’s assumed that he will be a full time NHL player in 2006-07.) Because of the versatility of many of Buffalo’s forwards, true position isn’t going to factor into who sticks and who plays elsewhere as much as waiver eligibility and NHL salary rate will.

The summer months saw a significant spike in the Sabres payroll, and the historically frugal franchise will be forced to monitor the checks being doled out to the fringe of their roster. Conventional wisdom suggests that a player like Jiri Novotny, who if cut would be subject to waivers after proving adequate in limited duty last season, would be a favorite to make the team with a decent camp performance given his league minimum price tag of $450,000 a year. Conversely, third-year checker Daniel Paille can move freely between Buffalo and the Sabres AHL affiliate while carrying a $760,000 NHL salary. Time will tell exactly how much dollars and cents and ease of AHL placement drive the construction of the Sabres opening night roster.

Former first round selections Novotny (2001) and Paille (2002) are just two of a capable group of forwards looking to impress the Sabres brass before the final cut down. As the two-way Paille enters camp in full health after injuries derailed parts of his 2005-06 campaign, the 6-2, 194-pound Novotny returns looking to continue the momentum of a superb year that finally demonstrated his value to the Sabres organization after two sub-par seasons of AHL hockey. Both earned a fourteen-game NHL call-up in 2005-06, with each notching three points while averaging double-digit minutes of ice time during their stay. With a respectable +5 rating at left wing, the 6-0 Paille earned some statistical separation over the –4 of his Czech counterpart. The Sabres showed preference and confidence in Novotny by dressing the center for four pressure-packed playoff games, but the slate will be clean for both when the skates hit the ice for a new year.

On the eve of his first NHL training camp, 2004 first-rounder Drew Stafford has positioned himself as a potential wildcard in the mix of players fighting to win a job. The former University of North Dakota standout got his first taste of elite level hockey this spring by being one of two collegians (Bruins prospect Phil Kessel was the other) tabbed for Team USA at the World Championships. At 6-2, 205 pounds, Stafford already has NHL size and strength, and his versatile package of speed, offensive potential, and responsible defensive hockey immediately place him in the top tier of two-way point producers looking to break through.

Many eyes will be fixed on another first-year player when the team convenes for practice. Recently inked to a three-year deal, 2004 first-round pick Marek Zagrapan skates into the pro ranks as a key to the Sabres offensive future. The 6-1 Slovakian pivot is coming off a two-year QMJHL career that saw him score nearly a point and a half per contest. He’s performed well on the large ice surfaces in international play, and continues to progress while dealing with less space in the North American game. Zagrapan won’t turn 20 years of age until December, and his development won’t be rushed as long as there isn’t a pressing need for his skills with the top club.

There isn’t any shortage of size down the right wing as long as Chris Thorburn and Mark Mancari stay in the system. With a scrappy, team-first style, the 6-3 Thorburn added some offensive shine to his gritty game by accumulating 23 goals and 50 points with Rochester in 2005-06. The Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario native will arrive at camp a svelte 206 pounds after trimming over fifteen pounds off his 2005-06 playing weight. Thorburn is a fourth-year pro, and despite the low risk involved, is subject to waivers if he can’t make the team out of camp. Regardless of the situation, displaying his nose for the net and bringing toughness to the ice should earn him a long look from the Sabres staff.

Mancari, who stands at 6-4, 225 pounds, employs a grinding puck control style that a team always needs in order to compete. Like Thorburn, Mancari’s 18 goals as an AHL rookie suggests he has the hands around the net to finish plays. Unlike Thorburn, he needs to come into camp with a meaner disposition. Mancari has the frame to deliver game changing body checks, and his being more assertive in the hitting department would certainly get the attention of the Sabres decision makers as they slot their players.

Perhaps the darkest of the horses in the running for a job in Buffalo is left wing Clarke MacArthur. A riser since being a third-round pick in 2004, the former Medicine Hat Tiger translated the frustration of not making the final cuts with Buffalo into an impressive first year with Rochester. His 53 points were second most on the team, and his hard-working style proved effective in all game situations. Buffalo’s depth could be a boon for Rochester, as the Alberta native looks poised for a breakthrough year.

OHL products Dylan Hunter and Patrick Kaleta will embark on their second Sabres camp hoping to turn a few heads on their way down to Rochester. As evidenced by his 263 assists over a five-year span with London, the offensive-minded Hunter generates smart plays with the puck. Working to overcome a lack of foot speed and achieving better defensive balance will enhance his chances of climbing the ladder of the Amerks forward ranks. The crash-and-banging Kaleta was the darling of last year’s camp with his energy and explosive checking ability, so you can bet that his camp mates will be aware of his presence this time around. The former Peterborough Petes wing will likely entertain fans in Rochester’s Blue Cross Arena with his pesky style for a season or two before making any kind of impact in Buffalo.

QMJHL centers Benjamin Breault and Felix Schutz, and Slovakian right wing Branislav Fabry round out the Sabres 2006 training camp crop of prospect forwards. It’s a virtual certainty that Breault and Schutz will be sent back to Baie-Comeau and Saint John respectively as part of the first round of cuts after getting a taste of the speed and challenges of the pro game. The six-foot Fabry didn’t look out of place during the Buffalo and Rochester camps last season, but returned to Europe without a contract to play in a second tier Czech league. His working, two-way style would fit well in the AHL if the Sabres chose to offer him the assignment. He did sign a deal with HC Znojemsti Orli of the Czech league over the summer, so that may ultimately be his destination in 2006-07.

Although no longer considered a prospect, former Northeastern University center Michael Ryan will begin his fourth professional campaign with a ticket punched for another year in the AHL. The speedy winger improved his output to 15 goals and 37 points in 56 games for the Amerks last season, but isn’t a threat to push for a NHL job this season.



Defense

The Sabres blue line situation is a little more cut and dry compared to the ambiguity of the forward ranks. Barring injury, the defensive sweaters are already stitched and packed for the October 4th season opener in Carolina.

With Rory Fitzpatrick gone to Vancouver via free agency, it is assumed that 2005-06 Amerks MVP Nathan Paetsch will graduate to the role of 7th defenseman on the Sabres roster. Buffalo’s seventh round pick in 2003, the steady defender doesn’t have much to prove by remaining in the AHL. Also, the Sabres have a developmental gap with their back line prospects, so risking the waiver-eligible Paetsch doesn’t appear to be in the cards.

Following Paetsch on the depth chart is a trio of rookie rearguards that will comprise one half of the 2006-07 blue line in Rochester. 2004 draft classmates Michael Funk (second round), Andrej Sekera (third round), and Mike Card (eighth round) will spend much of camp engaging the Sabres defensive system while jockeying for position on the emergency call-up totem pole. All three attended camp last season and will be expected to hit the ice in full stride as the next wave of Sabres blueliners begins to take shape.

The watchful eyes of the coaching staff will be looking to track the progression from a year ago before handing the troika over to new Amerks Assistant Coach Moe Mantha in preparation for the AHL season. Last September, Funk earned a spot in a preseason game by exhibiting his skating ability and propensity to join the up-ice attack. Sekera, who himself owns a smooth skating style and above average puck skills that earned him OHL’s Defenseman of the Year honors, employed a more conservative approach as he concentrated on his duties inside his blue line. Meanwhile, Card played a smart positional game by proving to be in the right places at the right times while leaving room to improve on his strength. The play of the three CHL products makes for a secondary battle worth tracking throughout the preseason.

Another offensively gifted defenseman will return to Buffalo for a slice of pro experience before finishing his QMJHL career. PEI Rocket gunner Marc-Andre Gragnani will be noticed for his smart style of hockey marked by crisp passes and easy recovery but will return to the Q projected as one of the league’s elite defenseman. The Sabres organization can only hope that he’s able to turn in a highly productive output similar to that of Sekera’s last season in Owen Sound. Working to add bulk to his 6-1, 180-pound frame while piling up points will further legitimize his potential to someday be a top-four defenseman in the NHL.

Mike Weber of the Windsor Spitfires will bring his rugged, stay-at-home game to his first professional training camp looking to gain a feel for the speed of the NHL. Buffalo’s second of two first-round picks in the 2006 draft, Weber’s skating ability and physical strength will be put to the test before returning for 2006-07 OHL action.

The Sabres will be looking at a thirteenth defenseman by adding Troy, Michigan native Christopher Trick to their camp roster. The 6-4, 210 pound right-hander played 15 games for Pensacola of the ECHL after completing his collegiate career at Notre Dame.



Goaltending


With Ryan Miller and Martin Biron firmly cemented as the Sabres goaltenders, the question still remains as to which Sabres property will be in the Amerks crease next season. Since Buffalo shares their AHL affiliate with the Florida Panthers, only one Sabres netminder will be wearing a Rochester sweater in 2006-07.

The OHL’s all-time leader in wins and former London Knights stopper Adam Dennis will enter camp following a summer spent rehabilitating a left knee that was injured in a May playoff contest against Peterborough. The 2006 OHL Goaltender of the Year isn’t flashy in the crease, but he finds ways to stop the puck and looks to be a solid AHL level keeper. Showing up healthy should eventually earn the unsigned Dennis his contract and the roster spot with Rochester.

With Dennis’ future hanging in the training camp balance and 2006 second-rounder Jhonas Enroth staying in Europe, the Sabres were forced to go fishing for an insurance policy by signing former Atlanta Thrashers prospect Adam Berkhoel as a free agent in the days leading up to camp. The Minnesota native caught the attention of the hockey world by leading the Denver Pioneers to the 2004 NCAA Frozen Four title in 1-0 shutout of Maine. He also comes to Buffalo with nine NHL games on his resume as he was part of the five-man punch line that manned the Thrashers nets in 2005-06. Berkhoel will challenge Dennis for the #3 spot, but he has an equal chance of being loaned to a minor league outfit outside of the Sabres organization.



Missing the Action



The following players will not be attending the 2006 Buffalo Sabres Training Camp:



D Dennis Persson (Djurgarden – SEL)

G Jhonas Enroth (Sodertalje – SEL)

W Philip Gogulla (Kolner Haie – DEL)

D Vjacheslav Buravchikov (RSL)

D Chris Butler (Denver – NCAA)

D Alex Biega (Harvard – NCAA)

W Tim Kennedy (Michigan State – NCAA)

W Nathan Gerbe (Boston College – NCAA)

W Andrew Orpik (Boston College – NCAA)

W Matt Generous (St. Lawrence – NCAA)

D Thomas Morrow (Boston University – NCAA)

D Dennis Ezhov (Traktor Chelyabinsk – RSL)

C Maxim Shevjev (Rus. High League)

C Artem Kriukov (Vityaz Podolsk Chekov – RSL) *graduated prospect



Preseason Schedule



Buffalo will play a six-game pre-season schedule:



Monday 9/18 Buffalo at Toronto 7:30

Tuesday 9/19 Buffalo at Columbus 7:00

Friday 9/22 Buffalo at Ottawa 7:30

Saturday 9/23 Buffalo vs. Pittsburgh 7:30 (in Hamilton, Ontario)

Friday 9/29 Buffalo at Pittsburgh 7:30

Saturday 9/30 Pittsburgh at Buffalo 7PM