Sabres Top 20 prospects

By Stuart McDonald

For the last couple of NHL amateur drafts, the Buffalo Sabres have relied on video as much as live scouting for their player rankings. If many of the current Sabre prospects pan out, this practice could influence other teams. Though Buffalo has since reversed this practice somewhat, keep an eye on this particular group of prospects. Their success or failure could have league-wide ramifications for the future of scouting.

Top 20 at a Glance

1. (2) Drew Stafford, RW
2. (6) Clarke MacArthur, LW
3. (5) Andrej Sekera, D
4. (1) Marek Zagrapan, C
5. (4) Daniel Paille, LW
6. (7) Jhonas Enroth, G
7. (9) Michael Funk, D
8. (8) Marc-Andre Gragnani, D
9. (3) Dennis Persson, D
10. (nr) Nathan Gerbe, C
11. (10) Nathan Paetsch, D
12. (11) Mike Weber, D
13. (nr) Vyateslav Buravchikov, D
14. (12) Chris Butler, D
15. (nr) Mike Card, D
16. (14) Mark Mancari, RW
17. (nr) Tim Kennedy, LW
18. (13) Patrick Kaleta, RW
19. (17) Alex Biega, D
20. (nr) Benjamin Breault, C

Key: Rank (former rank), name, position, current team (league), HF rating

1. (2) Drew Stafford, RW – Buffalo (NHL) 7.0 A
Drafted: 1st round, 13th overall, 2004

Stafford, a skilled but gritty winger, is an NHL sure thing. He projects as a well-rounded second liner, but has some upside as a power forward.

January’s American Hockey League Rookie of the Month, Stafford took advantage of injuries to four Buffalo Sabre forwards in February to post eight points in five NHL games. After Max Afinogenov broke his wrist on Feb. 15, Stafford was called up from Rochester and placed on what is now Buffalo’s second line with Derek Roy and Thomas Vanek. The 6’1, 200-pound, Milwaukee native made the most of his ninth promotion.

Stafford scored three goals in the five-game point streak, including a game winner. He also managed a two-assist, first-star performance in a 6-5, Feb. 22 victory against Ottawa. His five-game point total was two more than he managed in his first 21 NHL games. Stafford has since scored four points in his last seven games bringing his 2006-07 totals to nine goals and 18 points in 33 NHL contests. Stafford’s ninth promotion will likely be his last as he’s in the NHL to stay.

2. (6) Clarke MacArthur, LW – Buffalo (NHL) 7.0 B
Drafted: 3rd round, 74th overall, 2003

After two brief 2006-07 NHL call-ups and 1.3 points per game in Rochester, MacArthur was given a serious look by Buffalo management when he was promoted to the Sabres on Feb. 15. MacArthur managed a three-point night Feb. 27 in a 6-1 win in Toronto, but has only two points in his other 15 NHL games. MacArthur’s ice time has decreased from an average of 11 minutes in his first seven games to seven minutes in his last nine outings. 

Nonetheless, 2006-07 has been a breakthrough season for the 6’1, 190-pound, 21-year-old, as he leads Rochester in scoring by nine points despite his recent 16-game NHL stint.  A member of the Canadian AHL All-Stars in 2007 and the winner of the game’s shooting accuracy competition, MacArthur continues to develop offensively. His 59 points in 45 AHL games is a big improvement on his 2005-06 totals of 53 points in 69 games.

3. (5) Andrej Sekera, D – Rochester (AHL) 6.5 B
Drafted: 3rd round, 71st overall, 2004

Sekera signed a three-year entry-level contract last summer after being named the OHL’s Defenseman of the Year for the 2005-06 season. Sekera’s 21 goals and 55 points in 51 games shows he has a solid offensive game. He is defensively sound also and is a potential two-way NHL threat.

Sekera continued his excellent play in 2006-07 with a great training camp where he didn’t look out of place playing 18 minutes a game in four NHL preseason tilts.  Sekera almost took the seventh defenseman’s spot from Nathan Paetsch despite being three years his junior.

After some early season injuries, Sekera, has put together a decent AHL rookie season with 19 points in 50 games. He’s second among Amerks defensemen in points, fourth on the team in plus/minus (+10), and has played twice with the Sabres in the 2006-07 season.

4. (1) Marek Zagrapan, C – Rochester (AHL) 7.5C
Drafted: 1st round, 13th overall, 2005

Zagrapan, last fall’s No. 1 prospect, has slipped four places after a decent, but hardly spectacular AHL pro debut in Rochester. The playmaking Zagrapan has 30 points in 56 games in 2006-07, after posting two nearly identical over 80-point seasons in 59 QMJHL games for Chicoutimi.

Zagrapan, like many young players, needs to work on his defensive game before he’ll see NHL action. Having recently turned 20, Zagrapan has plenty of time on his side and can expect at least one more year of professional experience in Rochester before getting a serious chance with Buffalo.

5. (4) Daniel Paille, LW – Buffalo (NHL) 6 A
Drafted: 1st round, 20th overall, 2002

A character player with leadership qualities, Paille has eight points in 23 NHL games in 2006-07 and 21 points in 29 AHL games so far this season with Rochester. 

Paille, a former captain of Canada’s 2003 World Junior Championship silver medal team was one of the last cuts at training camp. Though defensively responsible, Paille’s NHL ice time has varied significantly. It’s clear he doesn’t yet have the full trust of the Sabres coaching staff.

The speedy winger was recalled seven times prior to breaking his finger against Philadelphia Feb. 20. Paille’s NHL future is on the third line. 

6. (7) Jhonas Enroth, G – Sodertalje, (Swedish second division) 7.0 C
Drafted: 2nd round, 46th overall, 2006

The top Swedish goalie selected in the 2006 NHL draft, Enroth is considered by many to be the best goalie prospect from Sweden since Henrik Lundqvist. Although undersized at 5’10, 175 pounds, Enroth is a quick butterfly goalie with an exceptional glove hand and an even temperament.

Enroth was the youngest player on Team Sweden at the 2007 WJCs. He shared goaltending duties with Joel Gistedt and started three of Sweden’s seven games including a crucial semi-final against Russia. Enroth was pulled after he made an errant clearing attempt which led to Russia’s third and game-clinching goal.

Despite that, Enroth has played very well for Sodertalje in 2006-07. Sharing duties with Swedish veteran Magnus Lindquist, Enroth earned a .937 save percentage and a 1.61 goals against average in 24 games for the Stockholm-based Sodertalje franchise.

7. (9) Michael Funk, D – Rochester (AHL) 7.0 C
Drafted: 2nd round, 43rd overall, 2004

After averaging eight minutes of ice time in his first two NHL contests, Funk was dressed for the next three games, only to see one shift in each. Mercifully, the 6’4, 210-pound defenseman was shipped back to Rochester after his “cup of coffee” in late November 2006. 

Since then Funk has played solidly in a defensive role for the Americans. The AHL rookie has two goals and seven points in 48 games to go along with a plus/minus of +3. Funk would like to bulk up to 225 pounds before next season so he’s a frequent visitor to the weight room. 

With a long smooth stride, Funk has some offensive potential which he showed in a seven-game stretch in late December. Funk managed two goals and three assists in the seven-game span, but has been pretty quiet offensively since then. Consistent offensive production at the pro level is a long-range goal for Funk. 

8. (8) Marc-Andre Gragnani, D – PEI Rocket (QMJHL) 7.0 C
Drafted: 3rd round, 87th overall, 2005

Gragnani is the fifth leading scorer among QMJHL defensemen and is fifth in points on the high scoring Rocket. Gragnani leads all QMJHL defensemen with 22 goals in 2006-07. He’s averaging over a point per game with 66 points in 64 games with one game remaining in the regular season.

While offense is a given for Gragnani, his improved defensive play has helped the Rocket move from 15th last year to sixth out of 18 teams this season. Gragnani’s plus/minus (+6) is second among Rocket defensemen. 

Gragnani’s chief assets include an interesting combination of heart and hockey intelligence. At 6’2, 190 pounds, Gragnani will have to put on some weight to excel at the pro game.

9. (3) Dennis Persson, D – Djurgardens IF (SEL) 7.0 D
Drafted: 1st round, 24th overall, 2006

Persson has fallen further than any other Sabre prospect in the Hockey’s Future Top 20 rankings. After a promising 2005-06 with Vasteras Juniors in Sweden, Persson played on four different teams in 2006-07 which slowed his development. 

He signed with Swedish Elite League team Djurgardens IF for the year.  He played nine games with Djurgardens, 11 with Djurgardens’ junior team, three with Almtuna in the Allsvenskan (Swedish men’s second division) and finished the season playing for Nykopings HK in the Allsvenskan. Of those stops he played most with Nykopings, scoring eight points and earning a -7 in 29 games.

Persson’s key attribute is his great hockey sense. He is not a physical defenseman and will use his brain rather than brawn when he can. At 6’1, 180 pounds, Persson must fill out considerably and improve his upper body strength before he can make the jump to North American pro hockey.

10. (nr) Nathan Gerbe, C – Boston College (Hockey East) 7.0 C
Drafted: 5th round, 142nd overall, 2005

Gerbe, a gifted goal scorer, leads the Hockey East conference in goals with 23. Gerbe is also fourth in points in his conference and 35th in points in the NCAA. Gerbe’s 23 goals has him tied for ninth in the NCAA.

Gerbe, 5’5, 160 pounds, has improved his NCAA totals considerably from his 2005-06 season when he scored 10 goals and 17 points in 37 games.

A big fan of New Jersey’s pint-sized Brian Gionta, Gerbe doesn’t let his size prevent him from playing an aggressive game as he consistently racks up penalty minutes. He had 67 PIMs in 37 games in 2005-06 and has the Eagles’ third most PIMs in 2006-07 with 70.  

In January of this year, Gerbe helped Team USA capture the bronze medal in the 2007 WJCs. Gerbe led all American forwards in assists, scoring six in seven games and finished tied for 12th overall in tournament scoring.  He will be a junior in 2007-08.

11. (10) Nathan Paetsch, D – Buffalo (NHL) 6.0 C
Drafted: 7th round, 202nd overall, 2003

Paetch fits in well with the Sabres. His youth, puck-moving skills, mobility and vision fit Buffalo’s playing style to a T.

Paetsch’s weakness has always been his defensive play and 2006-07 has been no exception. He scored seven points in seven NHL games in late January and has rarely seen less than 17 minutes of ice time since then, up from a 10-16 minute range in his 32 previous games. Because of his defensive limitations, Paetsch has to produce offensively.

His plus/minus (+10) is only sixth among Sabres defensemen although Paetsch’s nine power-play assists and 24 points in 57 games make him a decent option for second unit power-play duty. His point total is third among Sabres defensemen. If Paetsch continues to score at a reasonable pace, he’ll remain in the NHL.

12. (11) Mike Weber, D – Barrie (OHL) 6.5 C
Drafted: 2nd round, 57th overall, 2006

Weber’s PIMs give a good indication as to what kind of game he plays. The 6’2, 205-pound Pittsburgh native led Barrie with 172 PIMs in 60 games in 2006-07, just a bit less than his 181 minutes in 68 games last year. Weber’s 34 points were a nice bonus, but the big defenseman’s future is not bound to his point totals.  His plus/minus (+11) this year and plus/minus (+17) last year, mostly for a weak Windsor Spitfire team, show Weber can look after his own end.

Weber was traded on Jan. 3, along with left wing Thomas Battani and a 2007 fifth-round pick to the Barrie Colts for defenseman Blake Parlett, a second-round pick in 2008 and another second rounder in 2010. The high-scoring Colts have the fourth-best record in the 20-team OHL, but they were willing to sacrifice some youth to acquire Weber’s defensive toughness for the playoffs. Weber’s best offensive asset is his shot. He managed to win the hardest shot competition at the 2005-06 Top Prospects Skills game.

13. (nr) Vyateslav Buravchikov, D – AK Bars Kazan (RSL – Russia) 7.0 D
 Drafted: 6th round, 191st overall, 2005

The offensive blueliner captained Russia’s 2007 WJC squad in Leksand, Sweden. Buravchikov came through in the clutch for the young Russians, scoring four points in seven games and winning his team’s best player award in their semi-final win over Sweden.

Buravchikov signed with perennial Russian Super League favorites Ak Bars Kazan for 2006-07. Ak Bars Kazan won the RSL’s regular season handily and Buravchikov was a big part of it despite being the team’s second youngest member. An excellent skater, Buravchikov played 35 of his team’s 54 games finishing with a plus/minus (+5). 

Buravchikov’s on-ice vision complements his excellent skating, but he still needs work in his own end.  He will need to be signed this summer.

14. (12) Chris Butler, D – Denver (WCHA) 6.0 C
Drafted: 4th round, 96th overall, 2005

A St. Louis native, Butler improved his numbers slightly over 2005-06 going from 22 points in 35 games to 27 points in 39 games in 2006-07. Butler’s 27 points are seventh among WCHA defensemen and third among WCHA sophomore defensemen. He’s the fifth leading scorer on his team.

Butler hopes to follow in the footsteps of Matt Carle, a Pioneer defenseman he played with in the 2005-06 season who is now a rising star for the San Jose Sharks.  Butler is seeing plenty of ice time, including time on the team’s No. 1 power-play unit.

Butler is a solid 6’1 and 190 pounds and can play as well in his own end as he can offensively. 

15. (nr) Mike Card, D – Rochester (AHL) 6.0 C
Drafted: 8th round, 241st overall, 2004

Card was a two-way defenseman in junior, finishing third in scoring among WHL blueliners with 55 points in 66 games in 2005-06. Although his offensive game is his strength, it’s too early judge his AHL offensive production. He has nine points in 50 AHL games in 2006-07.

Card is a good sized defenseman for his age at 6’1, 195 pounds. He doesn’t punish people, content to merely defend. He is considered cool under pressure, a trait he exhibited in the 2004 Memorial Cup as a WHL rookie.

Card played for 11 minutes in one NHL game and played a total of five shifts in his other three games with Buffalo this season.  He has some problems with his decision-making in his own zone that he’ll have to overcome.

16. (14) Mark Mancari, RW – Rochester (AHL) 6.0 C
Drafted: 7th round, 207th overall, 2004

The 6’4, 225-pound Mancari is a little too mild mannered for the Sabres at this point in his development. The Sabres organization would like a little more grit and some improved skating from the hulking winger before he earns an extended trip to Buffalo. Mancari is improving, however, judging by his 2006-07 point totals. He has 19 goals and 41 points in 50 games compared to 18 goals and 42 points in 71 games last year.

Mancari is currently second in scoring among the depleted Americans and earned two brief trips to Buffalo in February. In his first two games, Mancari saw the ice for eight minutes each time but was limited to two shifts in his third game. The Sabres like him enough to see what the youngster can do with his large frame against NHL opposition.    

17. (nr) Tim Kennedy, LW – Michigan State (CCHA) 7.0 D
Drafted: 6th round, 181st overall by Washington, 2005  

Michigan State sophomore winger Tim Kennedy progressed nicely in the CCHA after struggling with a hand injury last year. The 5’10, 180-pound playmaker finished tied for 16th in 2006-07 CCHA scoring with 15 goals and 37 points in 38 games. That’s a significant improvement from his 2005-06 season when he scored 19 points in 29 games.

Kennedy, a Buffalo, NY native finished tied for third among sophomore scorers in the CCHA. He carried the load as the Spartans scoring leader, playing on a line with Justin Abdelkader (DET) and Tim Crowder (PIT). Kennedy also led the team with 22 assists and seven power-play goals.

Despite his small frame, Kennedy is not shy on the ice and finished with the fourth most PIMs on the Spartans with 43. He has consistently racked up penalty minutes throughout his career.

Kennedy’s four points in the playoffs helped the Spartans to a third place finish in the CCHA.

18. (13) Patrick Kaleta, RW – Rochester (AHL) 5.5 B
Drafted: 6th round, 174th overall, 2004

Kaleta, a hard-hitting right winger, has 10 points and 91 PIMs in 46 games for Rochester in his rookie AHL season. His grittiness earned him a promotion to the Sabres on Feb. 21. Kaleta played seven games for the Sabres where he averaged eight minutes of ice time before he returned to Rochester on Mar. 12. The Buffalo native scored two assists and served 21 PIMs in his brief NHL stint.

Kaleta throws all of his 6’0, 200-pound frame around with abandon. He was voted the best body checker in the OHL Eastern Conference for the 2004-05 season and projects as a third-line checker at the NHL level.  

19. (17) Alex Biega, D – Harvard (ECAC) 7.0 D
Drafted: 5th round, 147th overall, 2006

Biega tied for the lead in scoring among Harvard Crimson defensemen in 2006-07 with six goals and 18 points in 33 games. The 5’11, 205-pound Montreal native finished his season tied for ninth in scoring among ECAC defensemen and finished first among ECAC freshmen defensemen.  Biega, an extremely fast skater, netted three power-play goals.

20. (nr) Benjamin Breault, C – Baie-Comeau (QMJHL) 5.5 C
Drafted: 7th round, 207th overall, 2006

Breault is a slight, 5’11, 185-pound center whose main assets are his skating, his quickness and a nice pair of hands.

Breault’s stock has risen and falled many times over his young career, but in 2006-07, his goal totals make him look like a bargain in the seventh round. So far, he has 40 goals and 79 points in 64 games.

Breault is tied for 12th in goals in the QMJHL while he’s third in points and second in goals on the Drakkar. Only eight of his goals have come on the power play. The other 12 QMJHL goal leaders average 21 power-play goals each. Breault is clearly not leaning on the man advantage as he can score goals in any situation.

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