The future of the Buffalo Sabres is now. Five of the six players drafted by the Sabres in the first round since 2010 – Mark Pysyk, Joel Armia, Mikhail Grigorenko, Zemgus Girgensons, and Rasmus Ristolainen – are expected to be key contributors this season.
Head coach Ron Rolston enters his first full NHL season and will take his time to figure out a long-term plan for the Sabres cadre of potential young stars. Here are some key players to watch heading into the 2013-14 season.
Top Pro Prospect
Rasmus Ristolainen, D, Buffalo Sabres (NHL)/Rochester Americans (AHL)
With each passing day, Ristolainen looks more and more like he belongs in the NHL. Already possessing an NHL-ready size at 6'4 and 207 pounds, the 18-year-old could easily be mistaken for an NHL regular. His decision-making is excellent, drawing from two years of experience in the SM-liiga. He is always in the right position and takes good routes to the puck carrier.
Ristolainen contributed at both ends of the ice in his first preseason game, blocking three shots then later assisting on Colton Gillies' game-tying goal late in the third period. He also led all Buffalo skaters in ice-time with 23:22, a testament to the coaching staff's confidence in the Finnish blueliner. Ristolainen looks ready for the NHL and his own comments certainly reflect as much. However, there are 10 defensemen at camp vying for just six spots on Buffalo's blue line, not to mention Jamie McBain, Chad Ruhwedel, and Pysyk are all right-hand shots. It is rare for 18-year-old defensemen like Ristolainen to break into the league and there is evidence to suggest their rookie seasons will be bumpy rather than smooth. A close comparable would be Victor Hedman, the second overall pick from 2009, who was similarly praised for his maturity after playing two years in the SHL but looked overwhelmed in his rookie NHL season.
Bounce Back Prospect
Corey Tropp, RW, Buffalo Sabres (NHL)
There should be no lack of motivation for Tropp this year. The Michigan State alum earned a spot in Buffalo's lineup during the second half of the 2011-12 season with his hard-nosed play, injecting some much-needed grit and toughness into the lineup. The timing was perfect since Tropp was entering the final year of his entry-level contract, but the lockout forced Buffalo to assign him to Rochester to begin the season. Tropp scored two goals in the Amerks' season opener but injured his ACL and MCL later in the game and missed the next 70 contests, robbing him of a potential breakout season.
Head coach Ron Rolston likes what Tropp brings to the lineup. His aggressive, grinding style gives Buffalo a more dynamic attack, but more importantly, Tropp has been very good at creating room for his linemates and was lined up alongside Grigorenko and Girgensons in preseason games. Tropp's offensive ceiling is limited, but with the Sabres lineup having so many moving parts, he could be used anywhere from the second to fourth lines. Even when he does not score, his play away from the puck is invaluable.
Mikhail Grigorenko, C, Buffalo Sabres (NHL)
The Sabres held onto Grigorenko to start the season last year, hoping the talented Russian center could contribute to an offense still in search of a bona fide number one center. But after 22 lackluster games in which he averaged less than 10 minutes a game and notched only four points, he was returned to the Quebec Remparts to make room for Ville Leino and Tyler Ennis, both of whom were returning from injuries.
This year will be different. In the first two preseason games Grigorenko already looks much more comfortable, scoring the shootout winner on a backhand against Montreal then adding another backhand goal in regulation against Columbus. The Sabres desperately need a player to become the team's offensive leader as it ushers in a new era and Grigorenko has that potential. Like most centers in Buffalo's lineup, Grigorenko is struggling to win faceoffs, but he has the requisite size and strength to play the middle of the ice, putting him in better position than Cody Hodgson to be the team's future number one center. The key for Grigorenko heading into the 2013-14 season will be consistency.
The Sabres want the size but they do not have the room. At 6'5 and 221 pounds, Zadorov is a fearsome hitter who gives the Sabres a physical presence on the blueline. Zadorov has looked good in camp logging regular minutes on even strength and special teams, but in order to stick around he has to play even better.
The Sabres will almost certainly send Zadorov back to London for more experience. He has played only one season of North America hockey and his offense is still developing. He could also benefit from playing with a top team like the Knights and participating in a World Juniors tournament. Also, the Sabres have not signed Zadorov to an entry-level contract and will have to do so if they wish to extend his stay into the regular season.
Nelson appeared in only 49 games last year due to injuries though he did score 43 points. It was a frustrating season for the 6'2 power forward who was trying to build on an impressive 62-point rookie campaign. When healthy, the right-handed Nelson is a big, strong center who shoots well and plays physical, two essential characteristics for a potential checking forward.
The Royals are expected to be a strong team with a handful of players returning from NHL camps. Nelson is one of Victoria's key forwards and he has to show he can fill the offensive and leadership roles to convince Buffalo he is worth signing. Nelson performed well at the Traverse City tournament and played alongside Colin Jacobs, a player who also entered his final junior year as an unsigned prospect but earned an entry-level contract after making huge strides.
Justin Bailey, RW, Kitchener Rangers (OHL)
Observers are unsure how good Bailey will be in the future but his raw potential is undeniable. A budding power forward at 6'3 and 193 pounds, Bailey was only scraping the surface when he scored 17 goals last year. There are a number of things the big forward does well – driving the lanes, protecting the puck, winning puck battles – but rarely does he do everything well on the same night.
The Rangers added some offensive talent over the summer to improve their offense, but the team should also benefit from having Bailey and Radek Faksa (DAL) play the entire season. It will be interesting to see how the Rangers utilize Bailey on the power play, who can be effective both as a screen or a shooter.
Top Amateur Prospect
J.T. Compher, C/LW, Michigan Wolverines (Big Ten)
Compher will have an opportunity to make his mark early as one of Michigan's 10 incoming freshmen. A feisty, hard-working player who skates well and scores goals in high traffic areas, Compher is the most heralded of the newcomers, though he will have to earn his ice time with legendary coach Red Berenson promising to give all his incoming players a close look. The Wolverines will also play in the brand new Big Ten conference, providing yet another wrinkle to an already intriguing season. There will not be many upperclassmen to keep the boat steady and Berenson already admitted it could be a challenging year.
Compher's personal preference is to play center and he will likely do so with the Wolverines. The 5'11 forward will mature physically over the years though some observers continue to have doubts about his ability to play center in the NHL. Unless Compher has an outstanding first year and proves beyond a doubt that he is above the competition, he is expected to stay in Michigan for several years.
It will be a family event in Muskegon this year, with Connor Hurley joining his older brother Cullen for the entire season. Last year, Hurley split time with four different teams and his late-season dropoff in production was largely attributed to fatigue. A lanky forward with explosive skating ability, Hurley uses his long reach and deft stick handling ability to maneuver around defensemen and create scoring opportunities. He was the offensive leader for the Edina Hornets and led the team to their 11th state title.
Hurley scored eight points in 11 games with Muskegon last year but the sample size is small. The USHL is undoubtedly a faster and more physical league than high school hockey. It will be interesting to see how Hurley responds to tougher competition before moving on to Notre Dame in 2014-15. The Lumberjacks are also making some transitions of their own with a new coach and ownership group and will only get better as the season progresses. For now, Hurley is penciled in on the Lumberjacks' top line.
Unsigned for 2014-15
Christian Isackson, RW, University of Minnesota (Big Ten)
Isackson was held to 11 appearances in his freshman year and did not score a single point. He appeared in 40 games last year and scored 20 points, a marked improvement for the 6'2 playmaker. A finalist for Minnesota's Mr. Hockey Award in 2010, Isackson still has some raw potential. He is considered a late bloomer, spending a year in the USHL after high school before joining the Gophers.
Isackson has two more years of NCAA eligibility but this is his key year. The Gophers graduated five players to the pros but Kyle Rau (FLA), unanimously named the Big Ten's player by the coaches, is returning and could move to center, opening up opportunities for Isackson to play with him.
However, Isackson will also have to fend off an impressive freshmen class that includes Taylor Cammarata (NYI) and Hudson Fasching (LA). Isackson has to improve his offensive output or otherwise risk getting leapfrogged on the depth chart.
Top European Prospect
Gustav Possler, LW/RW, Modo Hockey (SHL)
Over the years MODO has crafted a reputation for having a strong youth development program and Possler is quickly establishing himself as one of Sweden's top young players. Possler is a scoring winger whose greatest weapon is his explosive first step. Once he separates himself from a checker and finds open ice, he immediately becomes a scoring threat. His goal-scoring ability can be described as opportunistic as he uses his speed to create turnovers and pounce on loose pucks.
MODO is ushering a wave of young talent and Possler is one of five teenagers on the roster. Head coach Anders Forsberg has even put together a kid line with Possler playing with Christopher Bengtsson and Edwin Hedberg. Possler flew under the radar and was drafted in the fifth round but there is no denying his talent is top-notch.
First Year Pro to Watch
Linus Ullmark, G, Modo Hockey (SHL)
In reality Ullmark has as much of a right as Possler to claim the title of top European prospect. Ullmark has slowly made a name for himself in Sweden over the past two seasons and named the J20 SuperElit's best goaltender last year after posting a .924 save percentage and 2.04 goals against average in 23 games. He covers the net well with his 6'3 frame and possesses quickness and athleticism that is rare for a goaltender of his size.
Ullmark is firmly entrenched as one of MODO's two goalies this year and will battle 20-year-old Anton Forsberg (CBJ) for playing time. The crease is crowded in Buffalo but the competition should not have an immediate impact on Ullmark's future since he is expected to remain in Sweden for a few more years.
Ullmark was not named to Sweden's World Junior evaluation camp roster in July but his strong play early on in the SHL season could force the coaches to think twice.