Reinhart leads deep, promising group of prospects in Buffalo Sabres’ 2014 Fall Top 20

By Jason Chen
Sam Reinhart - Buffalo Sabres

Photo: Selected second overall in the 2014 NHL Draft, forward Sam Reinhart comes to the Buffalo Sabres with high expectations. Reinhart managed 36 goals and 69 assists with the Kootenay Ice of the WHL last season. (courtesy of Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)


There is little doubt that the future is very exciting for the Buffalo Sabres. With one of the league’s deepest pool of prospects already and another five picks in the first two rounds of the 2015 NHL Draft, general manager Tim Murray is aggressively laying down the foundations for the rebuilding Sabres.

The embarrassment of riches means that a few noteworthy prospects missed the cut. Among them were utility forward Johan Larsson, who did not have much success in the NHL last year, as well as Jordan Samuels-Thomas, a physical bruiser who has not yet played any pro games. Connor Hurley and Sean Malone also just missed the cut, as well as goaltender Nathan Lieuwen.

1. (NR) Sam Reinhart, C, 8.0B
Drafted 1st round, 2nd overall, 2014

Up until Murray walked up to the podium to announce the second overall pick, the Sabres were lacking an on-ice leader, a steady presence on a wildly talented young team. Reinhart steps in as a potential captain and first-line center. His dedication to a strong, positional two-way game combined with his high hockey IQ and playmaking ability makes him a complete player. He is not a highlight-reel type player, but he is very productive offensively

Reinhart is ready to be a full-time Sabre for the 2014-15 season, but there is no rush. Even though he rarely shows his frustration and maintains his discipline, it will be a big adjustment going from the Kootenay Ice, a conference semi-finalist, to the Sabres, who are expected to finish near the bottom of the standings again. While having lots of competition is good, there are already plenty of older, more experienced players looking to secure roster spots. Reinhart will likely get at a nine-game audition with the Sabres at start the NHL season, and a decision will be made about his future after that.

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

If Reinhart is the total package on offense, Ristolainen is his counterpart on defense. He is a tall, smooth-skating defenseman who can play a physical game and provide offense on the first power play unit. Even with three seasons in Finland‘s top professional league under his belt before joining the NHL, Ristolainen had his fair share of growing pains in his rookie season. A roster in flux and inconsistent play led to a demotion in the AHL where he quickly righted the ship with 20 points in 34 games. He needs to get stronger to play in the NHL and take his time to make the right decisions on the ice.

Ristolainen is the future backbone of the Sabres’ defense. With more experience, more disciplined positional play, and some added muscle, he will be on his way to becoming a first pairing defenseman.

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

There are plenty of words to describe how Zadorov plays and most of them are synonyms of “thunderous” or “punishing.” The big 6’5 Russian does not just bump bodies into the boards, he skates through them in open ice, and when he shoots, he puts his entire 220 pound frame into his shot. His positional play needs a lot of work as he continues to get used to playing in North America, but once he puts all the pieces together he will be a fearsome top-four defenseman.

Zadorov had an uneven performance in his seven-game audition with the Sabres last year. Though he was physical and unafraid to make plays, his defensive positioning and overall decision-making was poor. The Sabres have a few other defensemen who are ahead of Zadorov in terms of age and stage of development, which means it is very likely he returns to the London Knights for the 2014-15 season. He has just 128 games of OHL experience under his belt.

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

Of the Sabres’ prospects, no player has the same ceiling in offensive elite skill as Grigorenko. The former Quebec Remparts star is a scoring dynamo with quick hands and good vision. He would be a consistent point producer if not for his woeful defense and questionable work ethic, and it is starting to sound like a broken record after two disappointing showings with the Sabres.

To be fair to Grigorenko, the past two seasons have been a rollercoaster, playing for three different teams each season. But now that he is a full-time pro, there will be fewer excuses for not being able to find his groove. The Sabres need offense after finishing dead last in goals for last year, but Grigorenko’s offense is not good enough to offset his defensive deficiencies. He will likely spend most of the season in Rochester.

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

McCabe is a two-way defenseman who plays a very aggressive style of hockey. He is always on the lookout for the big hit and is not afraid to jump up on offense if he sees an open lane. Overall, because he is a strong skater and plays a well-rounded game, he is used in all situations and has the potential to be a second-pairing defenseman.

Even with three seasons of college hockey under his belt, McCabe will need more seasoning in the AHL. He can be a contributor to the Sabres for stretches, but his long-term development is better served in the AHL for the 2014-15 season.

6. (8) Joel Armia, C/W, 7.0B
Drafted 1st round, 16th overall, 2011

Armia has not had an easy time making the transition to North America, suffering a wrist injury in training camp and never quite looking comfortable all season. He is a talented goal scorer with a nose for the net, but he is not a particularly strong skater or stick-handler, though he manages to protect the puck well with his size.

With a clean bill of health, Armia should push to be the Amerks’ top goal scorer. He has a proven track record but needs the opportunity to shine. Competition will be tough in Buffalo and Rochester, which should give Armia a little more push. A good showing early in the season could lead to a call-up if the Sabres’ offense sputters again.

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

Compher is an elite skater who uses his speed on the forecheck to force turnovers, create offensive opportunities, and be a nuisance to his opposition all over the ice. He competes for loose pucks and battles along the boards, and if it is not physically tiring to keep Compher at bay, it certainly can be draining with his unrelenting style.

He won the number one center job his freshman year at Michigan and was crowned as the Big Ten Rookie of the Year. The Wolverines program has not been as successful in recent years and Compher is hoping to change that as he takes on a greater leadership role for his sophomore season. He continues to get better every year and could earn a contract from the Sabres at the end of the season. He projects as a second or third line forward at the pro level.

8. (5) Mark Pysyk, D, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 23rd overall, 2010

If there is a defenseman who is unfazed by his lack of size, it is the smooth-skating Pysyk. There is nothing flashy about the former Oil Kings captain but he can skate the puck out of his own zone and move up the ice with relative ease. His lackluster shot prevents him from being a goal-scoring offensive defenseman, and he will need to add more muscle to jostle against NHL forwards.

After splitting the past two seasons with Buffalo and Rochester, Pysyk may do the same yet again for the 2014-15 season. He brings a good skill set to the table, but faces stiff competition on the bottom two pairings and will need a dependable defensive partner to cover up his lack of strength and potential mistakes.

9. (NR) Brendan Lemieux, C/W, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 31st overall, 2014

Like father, like son. Lemieux is a two-way forward who plays an agitating, aggressive game and relishes being the villain on the ice, a role few young players are willing to play. Lemieux knows the type of game he wants to play, but he may be putting himself in a pigeonhole because his untapped offensive abilities could turn him into a second-line player. Aggression and physicality will still be his trademarks, but he may be looking for the hit too often when he can be helping out on the scoreboard instead.

Lemieux is determined to make an impact at the Sabres’ camp, most likely with physical play, but he is not ready for full-time NHL duty. He will return to Barrie for the 2014-15 season where he will play a big offensive role, especially if Aaron Ekblad (FLA) does not return.

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

Ruhwedel is an offensive defenseman with upside, though he has yet to play with confidence at the NHL level. His strongest asset may be his skating ability and the fact that he shoots right, which is a rarity among NHL defensemen. He is undersized for his position, but is often able to get himself out of danger with his skating ability and by making good decisions with the puck.

Ruhwedel has the potential to be a second-pairing defenseman but needs to add more strength and develop a better shot if he wants to score in the NHL. As it stands, he will battle for one of the last spots on Buffalo’s defense, and could spend the entire season in the AHL.

11. (16) William Carrier, W/C, 7.0D
Trade with the St. Louis Blues, February 28th, 2014

If there is one characteristic that Murray is targeting when trading for young prospects, it is the player’s desire to compete. Carrier’s size is only above average, but it does not stop him from playing like a bruising power forward. He is not afraid to play a physical game, and combined with good hands and shot, he has the potential to be a well-rounded second-line forward. However, there are times where Carrier tries to do too much, and ends up spreading himself thin, a habit that he may have picked up while carrying the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles on offense.

Carrier is no longer eligible for major junior and will begin his pro career in 2014-15, most likely with Rochester. His effort level and performance at development camps were really good and there is an outside chance he cracks the Buffalo lineup, but it would be better to bring him along more slowly, especially after considering the amount of time he has missed due to injuries over the past two seasons.

12. (NR) Hudson Fasching, W, 7.0D
Trade with the Los Angeles Kings, March 5th, 2014

Fasching is a developing power forward who has good hands and a powerful stride, but what observers rave about Fasching is his leadership ability. A hard-working player who does not hesitate to engage in physical play along the boards, Fasching shows considerable promise as a talented role player who can galvanize his team both on and off the ice.

After a very good freshman season with Minnesota with 30 points in 40 games, Fasching will remain in the NCAA for the 2014-15 season. Originally thought of as a project player, Fasching’s faster than expected development means he will turn pro sooner than later, perhaps as early as next fall.

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

Ullmark is a Swedish goalie who is quickly becoming the talk of the SHL. A butterfly goalie who likes to play deep in his net, the 21-year-old was recently named the SHL’s Goalie of the Year and kept a low-scoring MODO squad in the playoff race all season. He has a good blocker and a quick glove, but he needs to improve his lateral movement. A sixth-round pick from 2012, Ullmark is looking like a steal and, if he keeps up his strong play, will challenge for the starting job in Buffalo in due time.

Signed to an entry-level contract this summer, Ullmark will return to MODO for the 2014-15 season, where they will be relying on some of their younger players, then join Rochester in 2015-16.

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

It was a head-scratcher why Makarov was never drafted. A goalie with quick reflexes who covers the bottom of the net very well, Makarov went on to become the best goalie at the Memorial Cup in 2013 after being signed. The Sabres had a glut of goalies to start the 2013-14 season and assigned Makarov to the ECHL, but with some hard work and injuries to other goalies, Makarov found himself as the Amerks’ starter by the end of the season and started all five of the team’s playoff games.

Despite his brilliant showing, Makarov’s sample size is still quite small and will need to battle Nathan Lieuwen for the starting job in Rochester. He will need to work on his positioning, since relying on just his quickness and reflexes can be mentally and physically taxing over the course of an entire season.

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

The Sudbury Wolves forward was one of the most improved players in the OHL during the 2013-14 season. Offensively, he set new standards for himself by doubling his goals and points totals and paid more attention to defense than ever before. His work ethic has never been questioned and he is certainly trending upwards. A slight fall in the rankings is not a knock against Baptiste – the Sabres simply are collecting a lot of high-end talent.

The Sabres signed Baptiste during the offseason but really have no plans to keep him around for the 2014-15 NHL season. If not for an arcane rule that only allows CHL players who are 20 years or older to play in the AHL, Baptiste’s development would be better served at the minor pro level. Regardless, it certainly will be interesting to see what Baptiste can do with another season in Sudbury as an overage player. It will be difficult to top what he accomplished last season, but Baptiste has always met his challenges head-on.

16. (12) Daniel Catenacci, C/W, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd round, 77th overall, 2011

Catenacci’s greatest asset is his speed, but his first full year as a pro saw mixed results. When he played with confidence, he was a strong forechecker and was able to beat his opponents to loose pucks consistently, but that was not the case for the majority of the season. The feisty forward was not able to assert himself most nights, though that should come with more experience and maturity. He still has the potential to be a complementary winger on the second or third lines.

The former OHL standout racked up goals and penalty minutes in major junior and there is no reason he cannot do the same in the minors. He will continue to play in Rochester until he gets stronger, learns how to use his speed a little better, and hopefully put everything together to be an all-round forward.

17. (NR) Vaclav Karabacek, RW/LW, 7.0D
Drafted 2nd round, 49th overall, 2014

Karabacek’s offensive game is more north-south than east-west, which works well for the scoring winger who is not particularly flashy. He had a really good first season in the QMJHL as a player who protects the puck well, finds the open spaces, and is not afraid to play in traffic. Defense is Karabacek’s biggest weakness, but that can be overcome by paying greater attention to details, working on his skating, and gaining more experience.

Karabacek’s ceiling is still tough to gauge, but the Sabres obviously believe in him. He will return to Gatineau for the 2014-15 season and could put up some gaudy numbers in a league where offensive players flourish.

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

Bailey’s improvement from 17 goals to 25 goals was modest, but it should be noted that the 2013-14 Kitchener Rangers were much weaker. Stats certainly do not tell the story with Bailey, who is developing into power forward with top-six upside. He can certainly give Zadorov a run for the strongest player on this list.

His overall game still needs work and he is still trying to figure things out, having jumped from the relatively unknown Atlantic Metro Hockey League to the OHL. His hard shot and physical style should see him be a dominant force for the Rangers and he will also serve as a veteran leader.

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

The Swedish winger is an opportunistic goal scorer with explosive speed and a knack for creating turnovers in the middle of the ice. He is a good stick-handler with a quick release on his shot, so he cannot be faulted for not passing the puck enough. He was on his way to becoming one of MODO’s top offensive players before his season was cut short by a knee injury.

Possler’s 2013-14 season is best described as incomplete, playing in just 22 games. He has the potential to be a dynamic goal scorer in the NHL, and the notion that Possler can be such a valuable contributor as a fifth-round pick is a testament to Buffalo’s ability to find value in the later rounds, something that they seem to do quite consistently. Possler will return to MODO for the 2014-15 season and join Ullmark and Victor Olofsson, another speedy sniper with good hands.

20. (NR) Nicolas Deslauriers, LW/RW, 7.0D
Trade with the Los Angeles Kings, March 5th, 2014

Deslauriers is an excellent skater who recently switched from defense to forward and reaped the offensive benefits with 19 goals in 65 AHL games. After being acquired from the Kings, the Sabres gave Deslauriers a long look, but it is clear that he is not quite ready for full-time NHL duty. His positioning needs work, a similar criticism when he was playing defense.

With three full seasons of AHL hockey under his belt, Deslauriers should be on the cusp of making the NHL.

Follow Jason Chen on Twitter via @jasonchen16