Skill and depth on display in Buffalo Sabres prospect awards

By Jason Chen

Nick Baptiste - Buffalo Sabres

Photo: Forward Nick Baptiste was one among the Buffalo Sabres’ most improved prospects in 2013-14. Baptiste managed 89 points in 65 OHL games this past season, more than his previous two junior seasons combined. (courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

If the decline of the Buffalo Sabres had to reach its darkest depths before progressing upwards, the 2013-14 season was certainly the franchise's lowest point. At various points throughout the season, the team was in a state of flux, either in the front office, behind the bench, or on the ice.

But now that the fog has cleared, the Sabres have emerged with legitimate reasons to be optimistic. By trading away the team's veteran stars for an array of high draft picks and prospects, the Sabres now boast the best group of young talent in the NHL.

Hardest Worker: Johan Larsson, F, Rochester Americans (AHL)

Larsson has two particular strengths that will help him be an effective player in the NHL, the ability to stay on his feet and his knack for being at the right place at the right time. He is neither the swiftest skater nor the niftiest puck-handler, but the stocky forward hangs around the goal and consistently takes the puck to the net. He plays all three forward positions and there is little the Swedish jack-of-all-trades cannot do. Already a highly regarded penalty killer, Larsson's 82 points in 120 AHL games also proves he is no slouch on offense. The next obvious step for Larsson is a regular role in the NHL.

Best Defensive Prospect: Rasmus Ristolainen, D, Rochester Americans (AHL)

A man amongst boys at the 2014 World Junior Champions, the 6'4 defenseman was named to the tournament all-star team for his strong two-way play and scored the overtime winner to help Finland capture the gold medal. Ristolainen's performance in the pros has not been as stellar, but all things considered, the 19-year-old has only reaffirmed himself as one of the world's best young defensemen. He had a tough start to his NHL career, but certainly received a boost in confidence at the WJC and later became one of Rochester head coach Chadd Cassidy's most trusted players, finishing the season with 20 points in 34 games. There is no denying that Ristolainen will again be penciled in to start next season with the Sabres, and though he is no longer eligible for the Calder Trophy, he will certainly be talked about as one of the league's up-and-coming defensemen.

Hardest Shot: Nikita Zadorov, D, London Knights (OHL)

The Sabres claimed a monopoly on the all-star defensemen at the World Junior Championships when Zadorov was also named to the team. The Russian defenseman is known for his crushing body checks and relentless physical play, but he is just as good at crushing pucks. A hand injury limited his effectiveness early in the season and his first NHL goal was scored on a weak backhand, but once Zadorov settled himself back in London, it was bombs away with 11 goals in 36 games. At 6'5 and 220 pounds, Zadorov can put a lot of muscle on the puck, and he is so strong he often winds up only halfway to get his slap shot off a little faster without having to sacrificing much power. Zadorov is a future triggerman for the Sabres, who traded hard-shooting Brayden McNabb to the Los Angeles Kings and have been missing a big point shot on the power play for quite some time.

Fastest Skater: Daniel Catenacci, F, Rochester Americans (AHL)

Speed is Catenacci's greatest weapon, though it may take him some time to harness. Catenacci is at his best when the game is played at a fast pace, and by using his speed and agility, he is often able to create room for himself and his linemates. What he lacks in size he certainly makes up for in grit and feistiness, notching over 400 penalty minutes in his junior career, but his normally eye-catching playing style was subdued in his first pro season with just 10 goals and 32 penalty minutes in 76 games. With more confidence and a bigger role next year, Catenacci should be an even bigger contributor to the Amerks.

Most Improved: Nick Baptiste, RW, Sudbury Wolves (OHL)

A third-round pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, Baptiste improved his goal totals from 21 to 45 and his assists from 27 to 44 this season. He grew stronger in every facet of the game, and although the plus-minus stat is no longer considered a reliable indicator of defensive play, his plus-21 improvement is still admirable. Baptiste ended the regular season with five goals in his last six games, but managed just one goal in the playoffs. The Wolves crashed out of the first round with a 7-0 defeat in a deciding Game 5, but Baptiste's overall play improved by leaps and bounds over the course of the season. He is expected to play a big leadership role next year.

Prospect of the Year (tie): JT Compher, C, Michigan Wolverines (Big Ten)
Nick Baptiste, RW, Sudbury Wolves (OHL)

No two prospects are alike, and it was difficult to put Compher or Baptiste ahead of one another for the Prospect of the Year Award. Though neither player was drafted in the first round, both of them far exceeded expectations for the 2013-14 season, despite poor finishes by their respective clubs, and rose to the top in Buffalo's deep system.

Compher was named the Big Ten Rookie of the Year and led the team in scoring with 31 points in 35 games after emerging as the team's top center early in the season. He missed the world juniors with a foot injury but will play a big role for Team USA next year. Compher has already committed to going back to Michigan for his sophomore year to improve on their third-place finish in the Big Ten.

Baptiste's Wolves also had a disappointing end to their season, but his individual play was outstanding. If the Wolves can bolster their roster a little more and Baptiste continues this upward trend, it is not inconceivable to see him score 50 goals next season and challenge for the OHL scoring title.

Breakout for 2014-15: Mikhail Grigorenko, C, Quebec Remparts (QMJHL)

Grigorenko is often criticized for lazy back-checking and looking lost in the defensive zone, but the truth is, the incredibly skilled playmaker has played for four different teams every season over the past two years. It is tough to build any kind of chemistry with linemates or familiarize with new systems when stints on teams last only weeks or just a few months. The Sabres misread Grigorenko's ability to play in the NHL, but kept waffling on their decision to re-assign him back to major junior. It resulted in burning the first year of his entry-level contract, causing him to miss game time as a healthy scratch, and then experience costly delays in re-assignments to other leagues. As a result, the 19-year-old Grigorenko will enter the 2014-15 season on the final year of his entry-level contract with just eight points in 43 NHL games.

Grigorenko has a lot to prove, and perhaps knowing that he will be a full-time pro next year, he finished the season on a strong note, drawing good reviews from Amerks head coach Cassidy. Grigorenko's talent is undeniable and it would be a squandered opportunity if the Sabres fail to bring out the best in him. Letting him stay and develop in one league for a full season should help.

Overachiever: Nicolas Deslauriers, LW/RW, Buffalo Sabres (NHL)

The Sabres really liked the kind of size Deslauriers brought to their lineup, and there was also the added bonus of having a player who can play defense or forward. The former third-round pick by the Los Angeles Kings was converted to wing and increased his offensive production this past season, which earned him a 17-game audition with the injury-depleted Sabres. Deslauriers certainly brought a physical edge to the lineup, but he managed just one goal and still needs to work on his defensive play, one of his biggest weaknesses. Head coach Ted Nolan may like his size, but the league's worst team just cannot afford to allow any more goals if they want to improve.  

Underachiever: Matt Hackett, G, Rochester Americans (AHL)

Hackett was considered one of the Minnesota Wild's top goalie prospects at the time he was dealt for Jason Pominville, and he certainly lived up to the hype with three brilliant starts for the Amerks late last year. This season, he was expected to push Jhonas Enroth for the backup job, but was re-assigned to Rochester and his season has largely gone downhill since. He lost the AHL starting job midway through the season to Nathan Lieuwen, and would not have played for the Sabres if not for a slew of injuries to the Sabres' goalies. In 21 career NHL appearances, Hackett has not convincingly shown he has the ability to be a starting goalie. His future with the Sabres is still up in the air as an impending restricted free agent this summer. Lieuwen and Andrey Makarov may be the Amerks' tandem moving forward.

Highest Risk/Reward: Connor Hurley, C, Green Bay Gamblers (USHL)

The highest-drafted high school player in the 2013 draft, taken 38th overall, the 6'1, 178-pound playmaker will take the long road to the NHL, sometimes a painstakingly slow task in an era where young players are asked to contribute in big ways right away. Spending the year in Muskegon with his brother Cullen, the younger Hurley was traded to Green Bay during the season to help develop his offensive game, and his points-per-game average jumped from 0.67 to 1.03. He will need to bulk up as he prepares to join Notre Dame next year, who will also feature another Sabres prospect, goalie Cal Petersen. The timetable for Hurley will be a few years, and he may come along a little later than his peers due to his late birthday, September 15th, which is the day of cutoff eligibility for the 2013 NHL Draft. He has the potential to be a top-six scorer, but he is still unproven and things can still go either way in the coming years.

Follow Jason Chen on Twitter via @jasonchen16