Buffalo Sabres Top 20 filled with new and emerging talent

By Jason Chen

Mikhail Grigorenko - Buffalo Sabres

Photo: Forward Mikhail Grigorenko is expected to have a strong 2013-14 season with the Buffalo Sabres. Grigorenko played in 25 games with the Sabres last season, managing a goal and four assists. (courtesy of Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Buffalo Sabres continue their re-build with a sense of optimism this coming season. Mikhail Grigorenko steps in full-time as one of the team's top centers while Finnish power forward Joel Armia prepares to test his scoring abilities on North American ice.

There are still decisions to be made, such as the futures of star players Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek, but general manager Darcy Regier has replenished the minor league system, leaving no glaring holes at any position.

1. (1) Mikhail Grigorenko, C, 7.5B
Drafted 1st round, 12th overall, 2012

Mikhail Grigorenko retains his spot at the top of the Buffalo Sabres Top 20 list as the big Russian center prepares to become a key offensive contributor for the upcoming season. Grigorenko began the season with the Quebec Remparts and joined the Sabres after the lockout, but he struggled in the NHL and through 25 games was unable to find a proper role under Lindy Ruff.

Despite only managing five points in his time in the NHL, Grigorenko got a taste of what the pros were like. He looked overwhelmed, but with a full 82-game season, a new coach, and already penciled in as one of the team's top centers, he will have plenty of chances to find his groove. Given his meteoric rise and lofty expectations, it is easy to forget this is only Grigorenko's third full season of hockey in North America. The learning curve can still be quite steep but the immediate focus in Buffalo right now is player development. The Sabres will be giving their young players lots of ice time to make their mistakes and learn from them.

2. (NR) Rasmus Ristolainen, D, 8C
Drafted 1st round, 8th overall, 2013

A big, rangy defenseman with impressive two-way abilities, Rasmus Ristolainen vaults to the top of the pile among Buffalo's stash of promising blueliners. Selected eighth overall, Ristolainen is the first Sabre to be taken in the top 10 since Thomas Vanek in 2003. Touted as one of the very best defenseman in his age group, one of Ristolainen's best qualities is his ability to play with poise, his heart seemingly unaffected no matter the situation.

At 6'3 and well over 200 pounds, Ristolainen already played against men in the Finland's top league. He is not known to be a physical force, but by no means is he passive or soft and most scouts believe he will have no trouble handing the average NHL forward. Ristolainen is a big piece of the Sabres re-build and was quickly signed following the draft, which will allow him to play in the AHL should he fail to make the Sabres lineup.

3 (2) Brayden McNabb, D, 7.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 66th overall, 2009

It is a little hard to imagine that two years ago Brayden McNabb was the hot topic on Buffalo's blue line, a big, WHL-bred defenseman who had a 101.8 mph cannon and a knack for making big open ice hits, often drawing comparisons to Shea Weber's style. A knee injury cut McNabb's season short and robbed him of an opportunity for call-ups, and those opportunities will come even fewer and further between now with more defensemen in the system.

McNabb will likely start in the AHL to begin the season. His sliding production over the past two years provided opportunities for others to leapfrog him on the depth chart and his rehabbed knee is still untested. McNabb is still one of the first names the Sabres will look to call up should there be an injury, but unlike before, where McNabb was considered to be a piece of the future moving forward, he is now currently considered a depth player.

4. (5) Mark Pysyk, D, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 23rd overall, 2010

Mark Pysyk is arriving ahead of schedule as he figures to be part of the Sabres defense this fall and his value is obvious. In a league where over 60 percent of the players are lefties, smooth-skating right-handed defensemen such as Pysyk are a premium. With only Tyler Myers and newly acquired Jamie McBain as the team's other right-hand shots, Pysyk already has a step up over his competition, not to mention he is coming off an impressive rookie season.

Pysyk was able to find a lot of success in the WHL with his skating ability. He is not particularly fast, but he covers the ice efficiently and moves the puck well. In 19 games with the Sabres last year Pysyk showed he had no problems with the speed or physicality of the game, but he has to improve his awareness and prepare himself for a full, 82-game NHL grind. Things may have come a little too easily for Pysyk last year and players do tend to regress in their sophomore season.

5. (NR) Matt Hackett, G, 7.5C
Acquired via trade with the Minnesota Wild, April 3rd, 2013

Matt Hackett was not getting many chances to prove himself at the NHL level in Minnesota, but he may get his chance in Buffalo. It will depend on what the Sabres elect to do with Ryan Miller, but Hackett is their most NHL-ready goaltender. In 13 NHL games, all with the Wild, Hackett has a 2.63 goals against average and .914 save percentage.

The battle for the starting job in Rochester will be intense, but for the moment Hackett appears to be the number one. He has managed to play more than 40 AHL games a year over the past three seasons, but despite the strong track record he has three goaltenders behind him pushing for more playing time as well.

6. (3) Jake McCabe, D, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 44th overall, 2012

The captain of the gold medal-winning squad at the 2013 World Juniors, Jake McCabe opted to return to Wisconsin for his junior season for another shot at the national title. The Badgers improved in the standings by six spots last year en route to winning the WCHA title before being ousted in the first round of the NCAA tournament. McCabe, named an alternate captain this year, will play a vital role as one of the team's most experienced players.

McCabe made a name for himself at the 2013 WJC, showcasing his abilities to read the play on offense, making solid plays on defense and scoring the big goals when his team needed a boost. McCabe projects to be a strong two-way player in the NHL, capable of playing both offensive and defensive roles.

7. (NR) Nikita Zadorov, D, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 16th overall, 2013

The Sabres other prized first round pick from the 2013 draft, Nikita Zadorov is as big and mean as anyone on the ice. Zadorov was drafted to fill a particular need after years of criticism about the team's lack of size, grit and toughness.

Like Grigorenko, Zadorov is still adjusting to the North American game. His on-ice success and ability to skate so well with his 6'5 frame has scouts salivating, but the reality is Zadorov needs more time in major junior hockey. In Russia, he played a more defensive style, but his coaches in London are asking him to play both ends of the ice, something that requires a different mindset and style of play. Zadorov figures to be an important part of a vaunted London squad this year.

8. (4) Joel Armia, RW, 7B
Drafted 1st round, 16th overall, 2011

Everyone is waiting to see what Joel Armia can do. A highly touted goal-scorer, Armia leaves the Finnish men's league after three years, during which he played 149 games and scored 55 goals. The totals may seem underwhelming, but Armia was among Finland's top scorers as a teenager when most of his competition is nearly 10 years older.

Armia is still untested and how well his scoring prowess translates to the North American game is a question mark. He has a quick release and shoots hard, but time and space comes at a premium on NHL ice surfaces. At 6'3 Armia can easily slot in on the third line as a checker with scoring upside, but scorers find the most success when they are put in positions to finish on the top two lines, and those opportunities may have to first come at the AHL level.

9. (8) Daniel Catenacci, C, 7D
Drafted 3rd round, 77th overall, 2011

An aggressive, rough-and-tumble player whose play can sometimes be described as reckless, Dan Catenacci will enter his first pro season this fall. A model of consistency for both production and style of play with three consecutive seasons with more than 70 points and 110 penalty minutes in the OHL, Catenacci is a spark plug type player who can also score goals.

Size will always be an issue for the 5'10 Catenacci though he never plays like it. Being smaller will not take away his ability to tenaciously forecheck, but him being able to handle hits from bigger, strong players over the course of a full season will be something worth monitoring. Catenacci suited up for two games with Rochester at the end of the season and will continue where he left off in the AHL in 2013-14.

10. (13) Andrey Makarov, G, 7D
Signed as a free agent, September 14th, 2012

The Sabres were surprised when Andrey Makarov went undrafted and quickly snatched up the Saskatoon Blades alum with an entry-level contract right before the start of the 2012-13 season. The Sabres already had other goaltending prospects in the system, but adding another top netminder never hurts and a rebuilding team can never have too many assets.

Makarov was impressive in 2011-12, his rookie season, posting a 29-21-1 record in and even managed to outplay starter Andrey Vasilevskiy (TB) for stretches during the two World Junior Championships both goalies took part in. To prove it was no fluke, Makarov posted a 37-17-2 record and cut his goals against average by nearly half a goal from 3.01 to 2.62 in his second season with the Blades. He will have to battle hard for playing time in Rochester, fending off sophomores Nathan Lieuwen and Connor Knapp, but Makarov certainly has the most upside of the three.

11. (NR) Johan Larsson, RW, 6.5B
Acquired via trade with the Minnesota Wild, April 3rd, 2013

Johan Larsson spent the entire season with the AHL, save one game with the Wild where he served as an injury replacement. A versatile winger who plays both ends of the ice very well, Larsson is the type of player who can fit anywhere except on the top line. He combines good hockey sense, solid puck protection skills, and a good work ethic to help him contribute in numerous ways. His 16 goals in 69 games in the AHL proves that he can score, but his offensive playmaking skills, once described as explosive, has yet to manifest itself.

When he does not score, Larsson does other things well enough to warrant a spot on the lineup. Whether or not he cracks the Sabres roster out of training camp, Larsson should eventually be able to fill a solid two-way role on the Sabres third line.

12. (3) Zemgus Girgensons, C, 6.5B
Drafted 1st round, 14th overall, 2012

Zemgus Girgensons already has more experience in the pros than most of his peers. As the AHL's youngest forward last year at 18 years old and the highest ever drafted Latvian, Girgensons has a lot to live up to. He did not disappoint in his first season, playing in 61 games for the Rochester Americans and scoring 17 points. In the playoffs he kicked it up a notch, scoring three goals in three games before the Amerks were ousted in the first round for the second straight year.

Odds are Girgensons will play in the AHL for yet another year, though call-ups during the season are not out of the question. Girgensons played against tough competition and held his own, but the Sabres prefer to have a little more experience in their checking lines.

13. (14) Brian Flynn, RW, 6.5C
Signed as a free agent, March 29th, 2012

Brian Flynn will be 25 when the puck drops in October, making him the oldest Sabres prospect on this list. What Flynn lacks in professional experience he makes up for with a well-rounded, mature, two-way game. Flynn is not flashy, but he works hard for his goals, knows where to be and is willing to engage physically.

The former Maine Black Bears captain scored 32 points in 45 games for Rochester before getting the permanent call-up, finishing with 11 points in 26 games for the Sabres, a respectable total. Long term, Flynn is a depth player who can play on the bottom two lines and spot duty on the second line in case of injuries.

14. (NR) JT Compher, C, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 35th overall, 2013

A great skater who is not afraid to get his nose dirty, J.T. Compher lives and dies with his unyielding play and off-the-charts competitiveness. Recruited by Sabres head coach Ron Rolston to attend the NTDP program, Compher graduated with 50 points in 52 games and will join the Michigan Wolverines this fall, a program eager to get back on the right track after posting its first losing record since 1987.

Compher is above average in all facets of the game and projects to be a utility player with offensive upside. He has the makings of a pesky third line checking center in the NHL, though he is at least a couple of years away. Compher plays well away from the puck, something that will certainly help for a player who is not known for high-end offensive skills.

15. (NR) Connor Hurley, C, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 38th overall, 2013

The highest ranked high school player in the 2013 draft, Connor Hurley is a rangy center who plays a hybrid power forward/playmaking game. He has an long reach and good stickhandling ability, which allows him to get deep into the offensive zones where he likes to pass the puck across the slot for easy, tap-in goals.

At 165 pounds Hurley has to put on a lot of muscle. He has already committed to Notre Dame, but will play in the USHL this year before moving to South Bend for the 2014-15 season.

16. (NR) Gustav Possler, LW, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 130th overall, 2013

One of the most intriguing prospects in Buffalo's pipeline, by all accounts Gustav Possler could be the steal of the 2013 draft. The skilled Swedish winger led MODO's junior squad with 19 goals with an impressive plus-14 rating before going on to lead the team with eight points in seven playoff games. Possler is an opportunistic scorer, using his explosive first step to create room for himself and his quick hands to stick handle and score. There is maturity to his game, too, often using his speed to close gaps and take away pucks on defense.

Possler will stay in Europe to further hone his game. Though just 18 years old, he already has two goals and nine games of Elitserien experience under his belt. His positioning could be better, which will make more efficient use of his strong skating ability, but there is little doubt Possler is ready to play in the senior league.

17. (NR) Chad Ruhwedel, D, 6.5C
Signed as a free agent, April 13th, 2013

Signed out of UMass-Lowell after three seasons, Chad Ruhwedel stepped into the Buffalo lineup right away and played in the team's final seven games. A right shot who skates well and competes every night, Ruhwedel averaged around 14 minutes a game. He registered zero points in those seven games and played cautiously, making sure the puck was never on his stick for too long and made good, smart passes.

The Sabres liked what they saw from Ruhwedel in his seven-game audition but there are not many open spots on the blue line. He plays a similar style and role as Pysyk, which makes for an interesting battle in camp, but Pysyk does have an edge with more upside and more experience. Ruhwedel is physically overmatched due to his 5'11, 180 pound frame, but he skates well and seems to have no problem keeping up with some of the league's faster forwards.

18. (NR) Justin Bailey, RW, 6.5D
Drafted 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2013

Plucked right from their backyard out of Williamsville, Justin Bailey is a budding power forward who got better after every game in his first season of major junior hockey. Prior to joining the Kitchener Rangers, Bailey did not play at the highest levels and only appeared in two games in the USHL. As a result, his skill set is still considered very raw. He has a strong stride, battles well in the corners and can score goals from in close with his size at 6'3, but has trouble putting it all together on a nightly basis.

The Sabres took a chance with the hometown kid knowing that he is more than a couple of years away from the NHL. His positioning and awareness need further work and there is still some untapped potential. He missed some time with a concussion after getting hit by Windsor's Patrick Sieloff (CAL), but with added muscle that will not be happening too often down the road.

19. (NR) Nick Baptiste, RW, 6.5D
Drafted 3rd round, 69th overall, 2013

Nick Baptiste was the sixth overall pick in the OHL draft but it has taken him a while to live up to the billing. Not only did Baptiste significantly improve his production, his dedication to playing defense had scouts raving about his newfound approach to the game. He was in the right spots on defense and he engaged physically, with both his body and fists.

Like Bailey, Baptiste made such significant improvements to his game it is difficult to predict how much their game will develop moving forward. Baptiste, who models his game after Ryan Kesler and Wayne Simmonds, plays a style that gives him a good chance to fight for a bottom six spot down the road.

20. (10) Corey Tropp, RW, 6C
Drafted 3rd round, 89th overall, 2007

Corey Tropp was ready to break out this year until he tore his ACL and MCL in the sixth game of the season with Rochester. Last year, Tropp received a call-up and made an impact instantly with his competitiveness, grit and toughness, something that was lacking in the lineup. He had some scoring punch as well, totaling 26 points in 33 AHL games over the past two seasons and scoring another three goals in 34 games in his only stint with the Sabres.

Tropp faces an uphill climb to get back to where he left off. There will always be a space for his intensity and toughness in the Sabres lineup, but Tropp has to rehab his knee back to full strength before he can become a regular contributor.

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