Over the past three NHL Drafts, the Buffalo Sabres have made 12 picks in the first two rounds, more than any other team over that period of time. It is a big reason why the Sabres are regarded to have the deepest pool of prospects in the league, but the organization has supplemented their high picks by unearthing potential gems in the later rounds, such as Cal Petersen or Sean Malone.
As the 2014-15 season approaches, many of those prospects are expected to make huge strides in their development. Not all of the players will meet or exceed their expectations, but the idea is to set high standards and keep improving. Some of the prospects, including Rasmus Ristolainen, are on the cusp of becoming regular NHL players, while others are fighting for their chance to become a part of the Sabres’ long-term plans, such as Mikhail Grigorenko.
Top Pro Prospect
Rasmus Ristolainen, D, Buffalo Sabres (NHL)/Rochester Americans (AHL)
The 2013-14 season was a year of adjustments for Ristolainen, who split his rookie season between Buffalo and Rochester, but there is no doubt he will be a first-pairing defenseman in the future. His combination of size (6’4, 219) and potential skill (20 points in 34 games with Rochester) allows him to be a two-way force.
Ristolainen still needs a little more polish, but at 19 years old he is well beyond most of his peers. The pressure on him will be immense, but he will not shy away from it, and newcomers Josh Gorges and Andrej Meszaros will certainly help him along the way. Like most young defensemen, Ristolainen is bound to face more growing pains over the next few seasons, even with three seasons of pro experience already. The Sabres may assign Ristolainen to Rochester to start the season instead of throwing him into the fire again, and that will largely depend on his performance at camp, but he is still regarded as a franchise defenseman.
Bounce Back Pro
Joel Armia, RW, Rochester Americans (AHL)
Armia suffered a broken bone in his wrist during training camp that clearly bothered him all season, and combined with having to make the necessary adjustments after arriving from Finland, it was a very frustrating debut. Armia scored 55 goals as a teenager over three years with Assat, so scoring just seven goals in 54 games for Rochester was a disappointing result for a highly regarded sniper. He did perform well in the playoffs, though, leading Rochester with six points in five games. With a clean bill of health and a year’s worth of experience under his belt, he should return to form and establish himself as a top AHL scorer.
The Sabres see Armia as a top-six scoring winger but he has to prove himself in the AHL first. Armia is a confident and hard-working player when he is at his best, but he needs to work on his core strength. Given his talent and the flashes of elite skill he showed off last year, Armia should be one of Rochester’s key offensive weapons.
Mikhail Grigorenko, C, Buffalo Sabres (NHL)/Rochester Americans (AHL)
Offensively, Grigorenko is as gifted as they come. However, despite his immense scoring talents he has been unable to find a regular roster spot over the past two years, splitting time with Buffalo, Rochester, and the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL. At the junior level, he produces enough offensively to negate his typically lackluster defensive play, but he is unable to get away with it in the pros.
It would be inaccurate to say that Grigorenko brought these problems onto himself or to stereotype him as a talented yet enigmatic Russian, but if you do not score you have to contribute in other areas of the game. Grigorenko received some praise from Rochester head coach Chadd Cassidy near the end of last season, but he will have to build on that. A full season with Rochester should help Grigorenko find his groove and once he gets comfortable, his value and offensive production should skyrocket. Another shaky performance could see him get squeezed out by centers Sam Reinhart and JT Compher.
Top Junior Prospect
Sam Reinhart, C, Buffalo Sabres (NHL)/Kootenay Ice (WHL)
By all accounts, Reinhart is ready to step in and contribute to the Sabres this season, but there are a few good reasons why the Sabres should return Reinhart to Kootenay. The Sabres lack depth down the middle and having Reinhart helps, but the team is not expected to compete for a playoff spot, and as fantastic as Reinhart is at the moment, he is only 18 years old and his contributions to the team may not be significant enough to justify a regular spot in the lineup. By sending him back to Kootenay, Reinhart will play lots of tough minutes, the Sabres can take advantage of an entry-level slide and keep his rights for a little longer and reduce the cap hit.
In Kootenay, Reinhart will get another chance to compete for the WHL title and will be assured of a spot on Team Canada for the World Junior Championships. Make no mistake, however, if Reinhart returns to Kootenay for the 2014-15 season, it will certainly be his last in junior hockey. Should the Sabres keep Reinhart for the full season, London Knights defenseman Nikita Zadorov represents the Sabres’ best prospect in the CHL circuit.
The third overall pick from the OHL draft, Cornel struggled in his rookie season with 16 points in 63 games, succumbing to the pressure of being a high pick and playing against players much older and stronger than him. Questions about his ability arose, but with added size and strength Cornel silenced his critics with 62 points in 68 games in 2013-14 and was one of the OHL’s top playmakers in the second half of the season. Even with the marked improvement, the general feeling is that Cornel has much more to offer. Many players blossom in their third year of junior hockey and Cornel has the potential to score 80-90 points, especially if he plays with Nick Ritchie (ANA) and Hunter Garlent again.
Cornel became an offensive force when he was moved to the wing where he uses his speed much more effectively. A move back to center is possible given his strength and faceoff abilities, but playing along the boards also allows him to be a stronger two-way player and helps him protect the puck. He projects to be a top-six playmaker and could be one of the OHL’s best players this year.
Unsigned for 2015-16
Justin Bailey, RW, Kitchener Rangers (OHL)
Like Cornel, the big power forward from nearby Williamsville, NY will be looking to set the bar even higher in his third season. The Rangers were not a particularly strong team last year but Bailey still set career-highs in goals (25) and points (43). He is a long-term project player due to his lack of experience compared to his peers, having played mostly in the relatively unknown Atlantic Metro Hockey League before moving to Kitchener.
There is no hurry for the Sabres to sign Bailey just yet, but his fellow 2013 draftees, including Zadorov and Nick Baptiste, have all signed entry-level deals. The Sabres have a deep pool of prospects and the competition is tough with a limited number of spots available. The Sabres only have one spot remaining on their 50-man reserve list but will have over 20 free agents to re-sign next summer, so the odds of Bailey getting signed remain optimistic. It is unlikely the Sabres will relinquish the rights to Bailey, a second-round draft pick, but another season of setting personal records provides more assurance of a contract offer.
Top Amateur Prospect
JT Compher, C, Michigan Wolverines (Big Ten)
Compher was the big man on campus at Michigan last year, winning the first-line center job as a freshman early in the season. With explosive speed and a near-obsessive dedication to an aggressive forecheck, the ultra-competitive Compher was a disruptive force all over the ice. Compher’s play, including leading the team in scoring and being named the Big Ten Rookie of the Year, was good enough to warrant a move to the pros, but instead he will return to Michigan and help lead them to a national title. He should be able to top the 40-point mark next year.
A player like Compher thrives on competition. Though he is penciled in as Michigan’s number one center, Compher will face competition at center ice from junior Andrew Copp (WPG) and newcomer Dylan Larkin (DET). Compher was also one of Team USA’s best players at the August evaluation camp while showing off his versatility by playing center and right wing. Compher was unable to represent Team USA at the WJC last year due to a lower-body injury but should feature prominently in this year’s upcoming tournament.
Freshman to Watch
Connor Hurley, C, Notre Dame Irish (Hockey East)
A lanky center who possesses excellent playmaking ability, Hurley was the youngest player drafted in 2013. Due to his age, Hurley is seen as a long-term project and opted to spend the year with the USHL‘s Muskegon Lumberjacks with older brother Cullen before joining Notre Dame. However, Hurley’s development hit a road bump when he started to struggle offensively, scoring just 14 points in 21 games. A trade to Green Bay midway through the season sparked Hurley, who scored 36 points in his next 35 games and finishing tied for 18th in league scoring.
Hurley participated in Team USA’s evaluation camp and played on the left wing, showcasing a bevy of high-skill offensive moves. He headlines Notre Dame’s incoming class as the Fighting Irish look to improve on their seventh-place finish in Hockey East. The 38th overall pick from the 2013 draft has first-round talent but will need some time to realize it.
Unsigned for 2015-16
Hudson Fasching, RW, Minnesota Golden Gophers (Big Ten)
Fasching has three more years of NCAA eligibility so there is no rush to sign him, but his 30-point freshman campaign was impressive and another equally impressive performance should prompt the Sabres to develop him in the pros. A fourth-round pick by Los Angeles in 2013, Fasching felt he was drafted lower than his talent dictated because of his shaky interviews going into the draft. He struggled offensively with the NTDP with 36 points in 65 games during the 2012-13 season and had trouble describing his playing style during interviews. Now that the 6’2, 213-pound winger has dedicated himself to being a power forward, his stock is rising quickly.
Fasching will not amaze with his high-end skill but does bring a lot of intangibles to the table and is good enough offensively to be a second-line player. He played on a line with Compher at the Team USA evaluation camp, foreshadowing a potential Big Ten dynamic duo for the Sabres.
Top European Prospect
Linus Ullmark, G, MODO (SHL)
The reigning Goalie of the Year for the Swedish Hockey League after posting a .931 save percentage and 2.08 goals-against average, Ullmark has established himself as one of the best young goalies to hail from Sweden in recent memory. It has been a roller coaster for Ullmark over the past two years, who was not offered a spot in any of Sweden’s top hockey programs out of high school. Originally a reserve player for MODO, Ullmark got his chance when one of the players vacated a spot on the team. He has not looked back since and credits his strong mental game with disappointments suffered early in his career.
MODO had one of the weaker offenses last year and three of the team’s top five scorers have moved on to different teams, which means the 21-year-old is expected to carry the team for much of the season yet again. A big, tall athletic goalie who compares himself to Pekka Rinne, Ullmark will make his North American debut in the 2015-16 season either with Buffalo or Rochester.
Bounce Back European
Gustav Possler, LW/RW, MODO (SHL)
A streaky goal scorer with excellent speed and a quick release, Possler suffered a serious knee injury that limited him to 22 games, but not before he tied an SHL record with seven-game goal scoring streak. Like Compher, Possler was robbed of a potential breakout performance at the WJC due to injury but should feature prominently on this year’s squad. MODO is expected to struggle offensively again for most of the season with its lack of big-name scorers, but general manager Per Svartvadet expressed confidence in the now-healthy Possler to spearhead the team’s offense.
It is quite the task for the 19-year-old but he is a capable young player. Though Possler’s main job is to score goals, he will also need to work on his play away from the puck and has shown a tendency to float. There is no rush to bring him to North America until he gains more experience, grows stronger, and rounds out his game.
First-Year Pro to Watch
Victor Olofsson, LW/RW, MODO (SHL)
Continuing with the Sabres’ monopoly on MODO’s top prospects, Olofsson is another young scoring winger MODO will rely heavily on for offense. The son of a former MODO defenseman, Olofsson’s skill was never in question after scoring 32 goals and 53 points in 44 games for MODO’s junior club, but his lack of size certainly was. Listed at 5’7 in pre-draft rankings, size is no longer an issue with Olofsson, who now stands at 5’11 and just under 180 pounds.
Like Possler, Olofsson’s game is based on his speed and ability to create offensive plays with his quick hands. Olofsson is very confident in his own abilities and had a strong showing against Team USA during the August evaluation camps in Lake Placid. Olofsson will stay in Sweden for the time being but should have a spot in Buffalo’s long-term plans.
Follow Jason Chen on Twitter via @jasonchen16