Photo: Sean Malone scored eight goals and 10 assists for Harvard this season, despite being limited to 21 games. (Courtesy of Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire)
If anything, the 2014-15 season indicated that the Buffalo Sabres are indeed on the right track. The past two seasons have been arguably the worst stretch of hockey the organization has ever seen, but still the future is bright. The majority of the team’s prospects took big steps forward, such as Justin Bailey, while others, such as Sam Reinhart, re-affirmed their status as one of the league’s top prospects.
In the AHL, the Rochester Americans missed the playoffs, finishing second-last in the Western Conference after suffering a 21-point drop in the standings from the previous season. Defense was the team’s Achilles heel; their 251 goals-allowed ranked second-last in the entire league. However, due to various injuries the Amerks were forced to go with unproven youngsters in net, and over the course of the season used seven different goaltenders. When the Sabres conducted their fire sale at the deadline, the Amerks’ roster was further depleted with all their top players getting called up, which was a factor in the team going 2-8-0 in the final stretch of the season.
At the college level, the Sabres had plenty of representatives at the Frozen Four tournament, including Anthony Florentino and Mark Adams, who won the national championship with Providence. Hudson Fasching and Christian Isackson were unable to help Minnesota get past the first round, sharing the same fate as Sean Malone and Harvard. Judd Peterson and St. Cloud State sneaked by Michigan Tech in their first round matchup, but fell to a much stronger Notre Dame squad in the quarterfinals.
In junior, Justin Bailey, Jean Dupuy and the powerhouse Soo Greyhounds are still battling Nick Baptiste and the Erie Otters in the OHL Western Conference Finals, while Eric Cornel’s Peterborough Petes were eliminated in the first round. Sam Reinhart’s Kootenay Ice, Brycen Martin’s Swift Current Broncos and Vaclav Karabacek’s Baie-Comeau Drakkar, however, were also eliminated in the early rounds of their respective leagues.
There were three key graduations for the Sabres this season with forwards Mikhail Grigorenko and Johan Larsson, and defenseman Nikita Zadorov. Grigorenko and Larsson spent much of the year shuttling back and forth between Rochester and Buffalo, while Zadorov stayed with the big club all season despite sitting as a healthy scratch at various points. Of the three graduates, Zadorov has the best long-term prospects with Buffalo. Larsson was far more productive with the Sabres at the end of the season when he became the team’s No. 1 center, while Grigorenko’s inconsistency has been a source of frustration since his rookie season.
Hardest Worker: Justin Bailey, RW, Soo Greyhounds (OHL)
After a breakout season with 25 goals in just his second full year of OHL hockey, Bailey was conspicuously absent from the Sabres’ preseason games and returned to Kitchener without a contract. It is possible that the Sabres simply wanted a little more time to evaluate the raw but talented power forward, or perhaps they wanted to motivate him a little more, but by early November the Sabres were fully committed and signed him to an entry-level deal.
That investment has paid off handsomely, with Bailey setting a new career-high with 34 goals in the regular season and playing a big role for the Greyhounds in their quest for the OHL title. What Bailey has done in such a short period of time, especially since he did not play in a particularly competitive circuit before making the jump to the OHL, has a lot to do with his improved consistency. Once Bailey adds more strength to his 6’3 frame he will certainly be a force in the pros.
Hardest Shot: Nikita Zadorov, D, Buffalo Sabres (NHL)
The 6’5, 220 pound Zadorov puts everything into his slap shots, and has been used heavily on the power play. Defenses are already wary of his raw strength, and if he can improve his decision-making and positioning, he will become a fearsome shooter from the point. Zadorov finished the season with three goals, two of which were scored on the power play.
Brycen Martin is another defenseman who can shoot, although not quite as often or as hard as Zadorov. Martin’s all round ability gives him a chance to contribute on the power play, but most likely on the second unit as a passer rather than a shooter.
Best Defensive Prospect: Jake McCabe, D, Rochester Americans (AHL)
Zadorov or Rasmus Ristolainen would usually occupy this space, but it would be remiss to not give McCabe his due. The former Wisconsin Badgers captain shared the team’s Rookie of the Year honors with goaltender Andrey Makarov, after making a huge impact with 29 points in 57 games. His strong play earned him a two-game call-up with the Sabres, and though it was clear he was not quite ready for the NHL, his aggressive style and ability to make plays at both ends of the ice were on display.
Seasoned NCAA players tend to make a smoother transition to the pros, and McCabe was no exception. Coupled with his experience as a leader and playing big minutes in high pressure situations, there is little doubt that McCabe has a future in the NHL as a second-pairing defenseman.
Fastest Skater: Victor Olofsson, LW/RW, Modo (SHL)
A seventh-round pick from last year’s draft, Olofsson is yet another speedy sniper Buffalo has plucked from Modo, the other being Gustav Possler. The difference between the two this year has been health; while Possler seems be suffering from the effects of a knee injury, Olofsson has managed to stay healthy. He has appeared in 39 games for MODO (10 goals), eight for Timra (two goals) late in the season on a loan, and 15 games (three goals) for the national team.
Olofsson uses his terrific speed and acceleration to separate himself from his opponents, though he has yet to develop an elite finishing move. He shoots hard and has an arsenal of dekes and jukes, but simply needs a little more experience and polish before he moves to North America.
Prospect of the Year: Sam Reinhart, C, Kootenay Ice (WHL)
There is not much to be said of Reinhart that has not been said before. Though just one year removed from being drafted, he is already considered one of the smartest two-way players in the game, and his ability to calm his teammates and maintain a high level of disciplined play no matter the stakes were evident at the World Junior Championships. Max Domi (ARI) and Anthony Duclair (ARI) were high-flying offensive weapons, but it was Reinhart who held everything together.
Reinhart scored 65 points in 47 games with Kootenay to become the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, but does not possess the head-turning offensive talents needed to win scoring titles in the pros. However, that will not prevent him from being a franchise player, and simply suggests that his style is more steady (like Jonathan Toews) than flashy (like Tyler Seguin).
Breakout Player for 2015-16: Sean Malone, C, Harvard (NCAA)
Malone was hampered by various injuries in his sophomore season, but otherwise had a strong season with eight goals and 18 points in 21 games. The hard-working pivot was an invaluable contributor for the Crimson when he played, finishing sixth on the team in scoring. Malone was invited to Team USA’s evaluation camp for the WJC but did not make the team. With Jimmy Vesey (NSH) expected to turn pro sooner than later, the reins should be turned over to Malone next year. Having a healthy campaign may be Malone’s biggest challenge entering his junior year.
Most Improved Prospect: Tim Schaller, F, Rochester Americans (AHL)
Schaller has always been known for his strong defensive play, so it was a pleasant surprise when he scored 15 goals and 43 points this season—his highest total in seven years. His game was quicker, faster, and edgier; his 116 penalty minutes were another career high. His strong play did not go unnoticed and he appeared in 18 games for the Sabres, scoring a goal and an assist.
Schaller turned pro with a little more polish than his peers, and did not look out of place in his first NHL stint. He is unlikely to become a steady scorer in the NHL, but certainly could have a future as a checking-line forward who can pitch in with 10-15 goals a season, providing some serviceable depth.
Overachiever: Chad Ruhwedel, D, Rochester Americans (AHL)
The dependable two-way defenseman was named the Amerks’ MVP this season with 10 goals and 36 points in 72 games while playing the most difficult minutes. Where Ruhwedel overachieved is his scoring ability; he had just 15 goals over three seasons with UMass-Lowell and zero in 32 games with the Sabres. The Amerks had a very young team this season, and Ruhwedel’s relative experience and steady play contributed in immeasurable ways, but to think that his MVP award will translate into a lengthy NHL career would be a logical leap.
Underachiever: Linus Ullmark, G, MODO (SHL)
A year after being named the SHL’s Goalie of the Year, Ullmark failed to live up to expectations. His goals-against average ballooned to 3.12 from 2.08 and his save percentage dropped to .904 from .931. His struggles paved the way for backup Adam Reideborn to appear in 25 games, and though Reideborn did not fare much better, he played well enough to split the starts.
Expectations for goalies should be tempered because of their typically slower and longer development term, which is why Ullmark’s outstanding campaign from the previous season and his poor play this season should be taken with a grain of salt. It will be difficult to gauge Ullmark’s long-term future until he moves to North America, which may be as soon as this coming fall. He is still considered one of Sweden’s top young goalies, and should bounce back next year. Being named the top goalie in Sweden’s top league at 20 years old requires more than just luck.
Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Eric Cornel, F, Peterborough Petes
The Sabres took a chance on Cornel, spending a 2nd round pick on the big forward in 2014. Cornel’s stock had risen steadily heading into the draft, in large part because of the significant improvement he had made from the previous season, going from 16 points to 62 points in his second year of OHL hockey. However, Cornel took a major step backwards this season, scoring just 14 goals and 52 points at an age where he should be dominating the competition.
There is still some hope for Cornel, who collected an assist with the Amerks after his OHL season ended. He can add muscle to his frame and still possesses enough talent to be a scorer, but the risk with Cornel is the possibility that the Sabres may have squandered a valuable second-round pick.
Player of the Month – Nick Baptiste, RW, Erie Otters (OHL)
Baptiste had a relatively quiet first round against Sarnia, but against the vaunted London Knights and the Soo Greyhounds, Baptiste has stepped up to the occasion once again. Despite a five-game goal drought from the end of the London series to the beginning of the Western Conference Final, Baptiste still managed nine goals and 16 points in 10 games in April. His six goals over the final three games against the Greyhounds were crucial in helping the Otters advance to the next round. While Connor McDavid continues to make headlines, Baptiste has been an overlooked star for the Otters, who are now riding a wave of momentum after dispatching the regular season champs. The Otters will face the Oshawa Generals in the final.