Rebuild fully underway for Buffalo Sabres

By Jason Chen

Zemgus Girgensons - Buffalo Sabres

Photo: Forward Zemgus Girgensons is one of four teenagers to play for the Buffalo Sabres this season. The Latvian-born Girgensons was selected 14th overall in the 2012 NHL Draft. (courtesy of Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

Currently amid a full-scale rebuild, the Buffalo Sabres have 43 prospects in their system, including seven first-round picks, giving them both quantity and quality at every position. The Sabres also have many prospects already contributing at the NHL level, including forwards Zemgus Girgensons, Mikhail Grigorenko, and Johan Larsson.

It is early in the 2013-14 season, but the organization has already taken further steps in their rebuilding effort, trading sniper Thomas Vanek to the New York Islanders for forward Matt Moulson and a package of picks. More moves are expected as the season wears on too, with Sabres goalie Ryan Miller already the subject of trade speculation.

Left Wing

If there is one overlooked prospect who can rise to the top, it is Gustav Possler. Playing for MODO of the SHL, the 18-year-old Possler has eight goals and five assists through 18 SHL games. Drafted 130th overall in 2013, Possler is quickly playing himself into "steal" status and the Sabres do have a history of finding late gems, such as Ryan Miller and Brian Campbell. Possler is bound to stay in Europe for another year or two, but there is no denying he has the potential to be a sniper in the NHL.

The speedy and feisty Daniel Catenacci, who managed at least 25 goals and 110 penalty minutes in each of his last three years of junior hockey, has not missed a beat in Rochester. Through 10 games, Catenacci has scored twice and added six penalty minutes.

In Saginaw, Eric Locke was named the team captain after he was cut from the Sabres. Locke's improvement last year was astounding, going from 20 goals and 40 points in 2011-12 to 44 goals and 97 points in 2012-13. He is Saginaw's most important player will likely be found at the top of the OHL scoring race by the end of the year.

Rounding out the left wings is Brad Navin, a junior forward for Wisconsin who has failed to become a key contributor to the Badgers since joining them in 2011. He has managed only five goals through over two seasons of NCAA hockey and is close to no longer being relevant in the Sabres system.

Center

The Sabres are no longer lacking in quantity or quality at center so now the puzzle is figuring out who plays where. There are only four spots available at center and the top two are usually reserved for players with more offensive skill. For the Sabres, their most gifted prospects are not ready for that kind of responsibility. This creates a nightly dilemma for head coach Ron Rolston, who often has to decide between playing young, mistake-prone offensive players or less skilled but more dependable veterans.

Mikhail Grigorenko, the 12th overall pick in 2012, is toiling on the Sabres' fourth line despite scoring 70 goals in 92 games in the QMJHL. Grigorenko's effort level has been inconsistent, but assigning him to the QMJHL will not make any sense financially, because he is already in the second year of his entry-level contract. Grigorenko is talented but will not see increased ice time until he earns more confidence from his team.

On the other hand, Zemgus Girgensons, taken two picks after Grigorenko, has been one of the season's pleasant surprises. Though Girgensons had his share of ups and downs last year, he performed well overall, collecting 17 points in 61 AHL games. This year, Girgensons is playing in the NHL, primarily on left wing, and has provided a lot of speed and energy from the third line. His offensive ceiling is not as high as Grigorenko's, but Girgensons' more well-rounded play and more consistent effort level will give him a chance for more opportunities early on.

Johan Larsson rounds out the group of centers currently playing for the Sabres. Though he has one point through 17 games, Larsson has been one of the more consistent players and his stats do not do him justice. His ability to play on the wing gives the Sabres a lot of flexibility to use him in different roles. Larsson has been surprisingly adept at faceoffs, a skill few rookies excel at, which certainly speaks to his mature game.

In Rochester, Tim Schaller, Hockey East's Defensive Forward of the Year in 2013 and signed as a free agent out of Providence College, is slowly carving out a role for the Amerks. Kevin Sundher is doing the same, though his play so far has not shown a marked improvement from his rookie campaign in which he scored just four goals in 38 games. Meanwhile, skilled playmaker Phil Varone is off to a hot start and rebounding nicely from a disappointing sophomore season. Though Schaller and Sundher are listed as centers, both have spent time on the left wing and appear to be comfortable.

Outside of Grigorenko and Girgensons, the Sabres' should be excited about JT Compher, the 2013 second round pick who has earned the first line center spot at Michigan. Compher's strong two-way play earned head coach Red Berenson's trust and, playing alongside USNTDP teammates Evan Allen and Tyler Motte (CHI), the Wolverines' new top line has been electric to start the season. Making a little less noise at Harvard is Sean Malone, another USNTDP product who has skated in five games so far.

The Sabres will add another to the college ranks next year when Connor Hurley, the top high school player in the 2013 NHL Draft, joins Notre Dame. Hurley is playing for Muskegon of the USHL, giving him a chance to put on more muscle and play with older brother Cullen. The younger Hurley is expected to be one of the Lumberjacks' top player this year and currently has three goals and seven assists through 12 games. 

Justin Kea and Logan Nelson are the Sabres' lone representatives in junior hockey, though they are playing at opposite ends of the country. Both players are in their final year of junior eligibility and off to good starts. In Victoria, Nelson is on pace to establish career highs in goals and assists after a tough sophomore season riddled with injuries. In Saginaw, Kea is taking on a leadership role as the team's power forward and plays well at both ends of the ice. Neither player has signed an entry-level contract but will certainly get a chance to join the Amerks for a trial run if and if their junior seasons end early.

Right Wing

Even when Jason Pominville was around, the Sabres' right flank was never particularly strong. Drew Stafford is the only player truly comfortable playing on the right wing. Tyler Ennis and Steve Ott have taken turns on the right side but both seem much more comfortable on the left wing or at center. Brian Flynn, the former Maine Black Bear captain, has been the most consistent, often winning races to the puck and battles in the corner with his strong work ethic. He does not have the best hands but below the hash marks he is a relentless forechecker.

Finnish sniper Joel Armia was supposed to provide offensive help but is still rehabbing a broken hand. When healthy, Armia has the potential to be a top six scoring winger. He is expected to return to action sometime in November.

Sparkplug winger Corey Tropp brings a good mix of speed and aggressiveness to the lineup, but he has been hampered by injuries too. He missed almost the entire year last year after injuring his ACL and MCL in the Amerks' first game and suffered a broken jaw in a preseason fight. Tropp returned to the Sabres lineup in November and has played mostly on a line with Ott and Marcus Foligno.

Colin Jacobs is the prospect of note in Rochester after setting career highs across the board in his final year of junior hockey with the Prince George Cougars. He is still finding his rhythm in Rochester and projects to be a depth player, though he shows a strong work ethic that could push his play to new heights.

Jonathan Parker and Shawn Szydlowski are both in the final year of their entry-level contract but neither has shown the ability to be consistent contributors at the AHL level. Since Buffalo has a large number of prospects, they could be considered expendable pieces.

In the NCAA, Christian Isackson has failed to capitalize on the voids left by Erik Haula (MIN), Zach Budish (NSH), and Nick Bjugstad (FLA), three of the Golden Gophers' top scorers from last year. The struggling Isackson was recently used as a fourth line center, and while he gets time on the powerplay still, the production is not there.

Judd Peterson, Buffalo's seventh round pick in 2012, will spend another year with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders of the USHL to get physically stronger. He will suit up for St. Cloud State next year. He is very raw at this point, but he projects as a two-way forward with offensive upside.

Justin Bailey and Nick Baptiste will stay in the OHL for a few seasons as they gain more experience. Bailey, in particular, is considered a player with the complete package of size and skill, but lacks experience compared to the rest of his peers. He is considered a long-term project. Meanwhile, Baptiste has scored 15 goals through Sudbury's first 19 games, building on a breakout sophomore season. Both players can bring the aggressive, agitating style of hockey that has been sorely missed in Buffalo.

Defensemen

The blue line was going to be built around Tyler Myers, but since winning the Calder Trophy as a 19-year-old, his development and production have slipped for three consecutive seasons. Defense is the hardest position to learn in the NHL and Myers still has tons of untapped potential, but with a new flock of young defensemen, the towering defenseman finds himself as potential trade bait.

Leading a changing of the guard is a pair of two 2013 first round picks in Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov. Ristolainen has the better all-round game and has two years of pro experience in the SM-liiga. He impressed in the preseason but struggled once the games began to count and the speed and physical play increased. However, Ristolainen is known for his strong decision-making ability and the Sabres fully intend to keep him in the pros for the season.

The plan for Zadorov is more unclear. A physical defenseman, he does not have the same level of experience as Ristolainen. More than once Zadorov has been caught out of position and left goaltender Ryan Miller out to dry. His offensive game still needs work and he would likely benefit from playing at least one more year in juniors with the London Knights. Both Ristolainen and Zadorov are considered future building blocks for the franchise.

Meanwhile, 21-year-old Mark Pysyk is acclimating himself well in the NHL. The former Edmonton Oil Kings captain was always considered a good skater, but his slight frame was concerning to those who felt he was not physically strong enough. He has surpassed expectations so far and needed less than one year of AHL seasoning before making the jump. He is averaging a little over 20 minutes a game under Rolston and will be part of the defensive core moving forward.

Brayden McNabb was well on his way to being a regular for the Sabres but has since been leapfrogged by Pysyk. McNabb did his best during the preseason to earn a spot but was re-assigned back to Rochester, where he is currently one of the Amerks' top defenseman and will serve as one of the team's first call-ups.

Former UMass-Lowell standout Chad Ruhwedel is McNabb's defensive partner on the Amerks and playing well in his first pro season. A solid two-way defenseman whose game is not as aggressive or eye-catching as McNabb's, Ruhwedel is still a solid prospect with an NHL future.

Jerome Gauthier-Leduc struggled mightily in his first pro season last year, recording just seven points in 48 games after scoring 74 points in 62 games for Rimouski in the QMJHL the year before. He certainly appears more comfortable in the AHL this year and though his production is mostly feast or famine, his skills do translate to the NHL.

Nick Crawford and Matt MacKenzie round out the defensemen in Rochester. Crawford has the higher upside and the better track record to prove it, but neither are considered key contributors to the team. Their upside is minimal.

The Sabres were interested in having Jake McCabe turn pro after two years with Wisconsin, but with such strong competition on the blue line and another opportunity to win a national championship, McCabe declined. He is the Sabres' best defensive prospect currently not in the pros. The former Team USA captain is a solid two-way player and is off to a fine start with a much stronger Badgers squad.

The Sabres have two other defensive prospects in college in Anthony Florentino and Mark Adams, both of whom play at Providence College. Florentino plays a game much bigger than his 6'0 frame suggests and possesses strong leadership qualities. He has emerged as one of Providence's best defenseman as an 18-year-old and plays well at both ends of the ice. On the other hand, Adams is entering his final season with Providence after missing the majority of the past three seasons with concussion issues. He played just 26 games in his sophomore and junior seasons and scored his first career NCAA goal this year in a 10-4 blowout win over American International College. Adams is considered a long shot given his injury history.

Brady Austin is the Sabres' lone defensive prospect in major junior and though he improved just marginally over two seasons with Belleville, he has joined the London Knights team as an overager. With Olli Maatta (PIT) looking like he will stay in the NHL, Austin will provide a veteran presence on the team. Being with the much stronger London team should raise his game, but his future status with Buffalo is still to be determined.

Goaltenders

The goaltending prospect everyone should know about is Swedish goalie Linus Ullmark. Selected in the sixth round of the 2012 NHL Draft, the 20-year-old is making headlines in first full SHL season with MODO. With Possler leading the offense and Ullmark allowing less than two goals per game, they have kept a young MODO squad competitive. Anton Forsberg's (CLB) strong play has forced head coach Anders Forsberg to split the starts, but Ullmark is considered to have higher upside. He will stay in Sweden to further refine his game before moving to North America.

Matt Hackett, acquired in the Pominville trade, is on the cusp of being an NHL goalie, even though he has played poorly in Rochester so far. A fiery competitor, Hackett has a tendency to lose his cool and lose focus, something that he will have to work on before playing in the NHL.

Given his poor start, Hackett has yielded playing time to Nathan Lieuwen, the Sabres' sixth round pick in 2011 who played 27 games in the ECHL last year. The former Kootenay Ice standout has improved considerably in all facets.

Lieuwen's competition last year, Connor Knapp, is currently assigned to the Greenville Road Warriors of the ECHL and will split time with recent Niagara University grad Carsen Chubak.

Another high-profile goaltending prospect is Andrey Makarov. Named the 2013 CHL Memorial Cup Most Outstanding Goaltender, Makarov was an undrafted free agent signing by Sabres last year, and is thought to have very good upside. He is currently playing for the Fort Wayne Komets of the ECHL.

Waterloo Black Hawks goalie Cal Petersen rounds out Buffalo's goalie prospects. After splitting time with Eamon McAdam (NYI) last year, Petersen is now the de facto starter and has been impressive thus far, posting a 6-1 record and a 2.28 goals against average. Petersen will join Connor Hurley next year in Notre Dame.