Buffalo Sabres feature a strong collection of talent in Spring Top 20

By Jason Chen

Rasmus Ristolainen - Buffalo Sabres

Photo: Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen (55) remains is the top prospect for the Buffalo Sabres. Ristolainen has split the 2013-14 season between the NHL and AHL. (courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

With over 40 prospects currently in their system, and at least 10 picks in the first two rounds of the 2014 and 2015 NHL Drafts, the Buffalo Sabres are aggressively re-building. Two players graduate from the fall Top 20 rankings – former University of Maine standout Brian Flynn is now a fixture with the big club and winger Corey Tropp is now a Columbus Blue Jacket after being waived in November.

Almost every single prospect in Buffalo's system is trending upwards, though their rank may not necessarily reflect that. Even with a new general manager in Tim Murray, the sweeping changes will be made with the big club, not the prospects in the system, which boasts just about every single player type imaginable. It is certainly one of the deepest in the NHL.

1. (2) Rasmus Ristolainen, D, 8.0C
Drafted 1st round, 8th overall, 2013

Buffalo's potential franchise defenseman takes over the top spot in the top 20 rankings despite his struggles at the beginning of the season. Ristolainen made the team out of training camp, but after a rocky start, it was decided that his development would be better served playing significant minutes at the AHL level with the Amerks, who are vying for a playoff spot.

Ristolainen's highlight so far has been at the 2014 World Juniors, where he led Finland to a gold medal and was named to the tournament's all-star team. He is one of Rochester's top two-way defensemen and plays in all situations. He will certainly challenge for a roster spot on the Sabres next year.

2. (12) Zemgus Girgensons, C, 7.0B
Drafted 1st round, 14th overall, 2012

The Latvian Olympian makes the biggest jump from 12th to second, though Girgensons ranked in the top five in last spring's edition. Head coach Ted Nolan, who also serves as Latvia's bench boss, was familiar with Girgensons prior to joining the Sabres, and the relationship is paying dividends. Nolan's confidence in the 20-year-old grows game-by-game, and Girgensons is showing an offensive element that may have been overlooked prior to the 2014 Olympics, where he scored three points in five games.

Though he played as a winger for much of the season, Girgensons recently made the switch back to center, his natural position. A hard-working player who is improving every game, Girgensons may end up even better than projected.

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

Grigorenko is a frustrating player to deal with because he possesses elite-level scoring talent, but often seems uninterested in becoming a better overall player. Often derided for his lack of effort, Grigorenko spent most of the season in the press box, since playing in the AHL was not an option. Despite a strong showing at the WJC, he was re-assigned to the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL, though he was reluctant to accept. He has received more playing time, but he had already shown he could dominate at the junior level. It is far too early to give up on him, but his stock is certainly falling.  

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

There continues to be a lot of intrigue surrounding the Russian defenseman, who was labeled as a rugged, fearsome hitter with his 6'5, 220-pound frame. Because he had limited experience playing in North America and was adjusting to a different style of play on defense, it was difficult to gauge his offensive skills early on. Zadorov is now averaging nearly a point per game with the London Knights, after scoring 25 points in 63 games last year. He was also named to the WJC all-star team, and his strong two-way play has vaulted him into "blue chip" status as a potential first-pairing defenseman.

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

One of Buffalo's few bright spots this season, the former Edmonton Oil Kings captain continues to play an intelligent, two-way game. The Sabres have featured a seven-man rotation on defense for much of the season, and at times when Pysyk was made a healthy scratch, though the Sabres insists it is because they want to give other young players a chance to play. He was re-assigned to the AHL in late January, but should see more time in the NHL before the 2013-14 season is over.

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

A hard-shooting defenseman who was named an AHL All-Star for the third consecutive year, McNabb continues to get leap frogged by Buffalo's influx of young talent. Over the past three seasons, McNabb scored 94 points in 143 AHL games, but is finding it tough to match that type of production in the NHL. Despite having a slap shot that is regularly clocked over 100 mph, McNabb has only 10 shots on goal in 12 games with Buffalo. There is no doubt he has the potential to a second-pairing defenseman, but his skating, defensive awareness, and ability to consistently generate offense need to improve.  

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

The former captain of the gold-medal winning Team USA at the 2013 WJC, McCabe decided against turning pro after his sophomore season for another shot at winning the national title. His offensive ability remains his strong suit, but defensively there are questions over whether can handle a full NHL schedule against bigger and stronger forwards. He continues to lead Wisconsin defensemen in scoring, averaging nearly a point per game in the new Big 10 conference, and is expected to turn pro at the end of the year.

8. (8) Joel Armia, RW, 7.0B
Drafted 1st round, 16th overall, 2011

A highly touted goal scorer in Finland, Armia is having a tough season in North America. He suffered a broken hand early in the season and was unable to put his scoring prowess on full display. The Sabres are the worst offensive team in the league, but Armia never seemed to be a viable option to fill that offensive void, which speaks to how much further he has to come before he establishes himself as a top-six scorer, especially in North America. He has five goals in 37 games with Rochester, where he will stay for the rest of the season, after scoring 55 over three years in the SM-liiga as a teenager.

9. (11) Johan Larsson, C/W, 6.5B
Trade with Minnesota Wild, April 3rd, 2013

Larsson struggled with just one assist in 21 games with the Sabres, but he has really picked up his game after being re-assigned to Rochester. A little shy to pull the trigger at times, he is shooting the puck far more often, and as a result is one of the AHL's hottest scorers. Averaging a point per game in the AHL, expectations for his offensive production in the NHL should be tempered because Larsson is not considered a strong finesse player. The Sabres will likely let Larsson stay in the AHL all season, and let him dominate at that level before giving him another look next year.

10. (14) J.T. Compher, C, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 35th overall, 2013

Michigan's star freshman center, Compher's stock has risen considerably since the 2013 NHL Draft. After the Wolverines disappointing 2012-13 season, the speedy Compher headlined a crop of incoming freshmen who were tasked to turn the program around. Head coach Red Berenson allowed his players to dictate which line they would play on, and Compher never relinquished his spot on the top line. He did miss the WJC after suffering a broken foot, which was an unfortunate setback since he was expected to be one of the team's key forwards. He seems to be suffering no ill effects upon his return, however, and continues to lead the Wolverines in scoring.

11. (17) Chad Ruhwedel, D, 7.0C
Signed as free agent, April 13th, 2013

Ruhwedel played seven games for the Sabres immediately after signing last spring, but spent most of the season in Rochester this year. Averaging over 20 points per season in the NCAA, Ruhwedel is a regular contributor on offense for the Amerks, but his defensive play is inconsistent, and he has been a healthy scratch as a consequence. He is one of the Sabres' first options for injury call-ups, having been featured in a handful of games already, and plays mostly on the third pairing.

12. (9) Daniel Catenacci, C/LW, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 77th overall, 2011

Even though Catenacci is a natural winger, he has found the perfect role as the team's checking line center playing alongside Armia and Colton Gillies. A pesky, aggressive player who racked up goals and penalty minutes in the OHL, Catenacci has yet to really make his mark in the AHL with just seven goals, and for the first time in five years he is on pace to finish with more games played than penalty minutes. He seems hesitant, at times, and will need some more experience in the pros, but his ability to play center is an added bonus. Catenacci's new rank is a reflection of stronger showings from other prospects, and not a knock on his play.

13. (5) Matt Hackett, G, 7.0C
Trade with Minnesota Wild, April 3rd, 2013

The former third-round pick is having a disappointing season with Rochester with just 13 wins in 31 games, and continues to cede playing time to backup Nathan Lieuwen. A notorious hothead, Hackett has collected a career-high 20 penalty minutes this season.

Lieuwen, Cal Petersen, and Connor Knapp did not make the Top 20, but all are considered above average prospects and could push Hackett out of the equation unless he turns his season around.

14. (19) Nick Baptiste, RW, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd round, 69th overall, 2013

Baptiste's stock has been steadily rising since the 2013 NHL Draft, and the Sudbury Wolves alternate captain is having a great season in the OHL. The Wolves want to play a tough, punishing game, and Baptiste has done just that, leading the way in scoring while finishing checks. His plus-23 rating is tops on the team and he has improved in nearly facet of the game. Though he missed a few games due to injury, it has not slowed him down. Baptiste participated in the Subway Series and notched an assist in a shootout loss to Russia in Game four.   

15. (18) Justin Bailey, RW, 7.0D
Drafted 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2013

Like Baptiste, Bailey's stock has been steadily rising, though not quite to the same degree. The Kitchener Rangers are struggling this season, but it has not deterred the future power forward from improving in numerous facets of the game while leading the team in scoring. When star center Radek Faksa (DAL) was traded in January, Bailey picked up the slack and scored his first OHL hat trick in February. Matia Marcantuoni (PIT) has taken over Faksa's spot, but the team's future success hinges on Bailey.

16. (NR) William Carrier, LW, 7.0D
Trade with St. Louis Blues, February, 28th, 2014

Carrier's season-ending ankle injury limited him to 34 games last year, but still managed to score 16 goals. A year later, the injury still seems to be affecting his play, with just 17 goals in 60 games so far. A talented forward, Carrier does not shy away from physical play and was in-demand at the QMJHL trade deadline, before landing in Drummondville. The Sabres have a lot of prospects, and Carrier finds himself on a lower rung in Buffalo's system. He has not broken out offensively yet, but the Sabres will be patient with him.

17. (10) Andrey Makarov, G, 7.0D
Signed as free agent, September 14th, 2012

A two-time medalist for Russia at the WJC, Makarov suffered an injury early in the season and missed valuable playing time, and in the organization's effort to find regular playing time for their six goalie prospects, assigned him to ECHL Fort Wayne. Now healthy, Makarov has been a staple in the Komets' net, leading the team in appearances, wins, and saves. With the Amerks set with Hackett and Lieuwen, Makarov will likely spend the rest of the season in the ECHL.

18. (NR) Linus Ullmark, G, 7.0D
Drafted 6th round, 163rd overall, 2012

Named the SuperElit Best Goaltender with MODO in the previous season, the 20-year-old Ullmark continues to be one of the top young goaltenders in Sweden. Despite playing on a team that has trouble scoring goals, MODO's goaltending remains its strongest suit. Ullmark is splitting duties with 21-year-old Anton Forsberg (CLB), but Ullmark is emerging as the stronger goaltender with a sub-2.00 goals against average and a .935 save percentage. Despite his impressive debut in Sweden's top league, Ullmark will stay overseas for the foreseeable future.

19. (16) Gustav Possler, RW/LW, 7.0D
Drafted 5th round, 130th overall, 2013

MODO's top young forward made the senior team and was the scoring leader early in the season with eight goals through 22 games, including a six-game goal streak. In early November, Possler suffered what was believed to be a minor knee injury, which hampered his ability to play for a month before doctors concluded he would require season-ending surgery. It is unfortunate Possler's promising rookie season was cut short and prevents him from climbing in the spring rankings. Rehab will take around six months, but he will certainly have a key role for MODO next season.

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

Opting to spend another year in the USHL, Hurley intended to spend the season in Muskegon with his brother Cullen, but was traded in December to Green Bay after a lackluster start, which explains a slight drop in the rankings. Now playing alongside Nick Schmaltz (2014) on the top line on a stronger team, Hurley's offensive production has taken off, averaging a point per game. The lanky center is considered a long-term project – he was the youngest player taken in the draft with a late '95 birthday – and will attend Notre Dame next fall.

Follow Jason Chen on Twitter via @jasonchen16