Team Rankings: Rebuilding Buffalo Sabres still have NHL’s top prospect pool

By HF Staff
Rasmus Ristolainen - Buffalo Sabres

Photo: Buffalo Sabres defensive prospect Rasmus Ristolainen is one of a handful of good prospects at that position. Ristolainen is a part of the prospect group ranked first in HF’s team rankings (courtesy of Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)


Hockey’s Future presents the top group of the 2014-15 Fall NHL team rankings. The teams are ranked by the overall quality of their prospect pool as voted on by the HF staff. For reference, the top five prospects are listed. To be eligible, a prospect must meet  HF’s prospect criteria. The ranking is done twice a year, in the Fall and Spring. Each team’s rank from the previous rankings is listed in parentheses.

The rebuilding Buffalo Sabres lead the Fall rankings. The Sabres added nine prospects to their system via the 2014 NHL Draft, including the dynamic Sam Reinhart. They have depth and skill at every position, and while the current NHL squad is struggling, the future is bright.

Several of the top teams have risen several spots since the Spring, namely the Calgary Flames, New York Islanders, and Florida Panthers. All three teams not only added high quality talent from the 2014 NHL Draft, but have also seen positive growth in their prospect pool.

1. (1) Buffalo Sabres

Strengths: The Buffalo Sabres are going through a painful rebuild right now but the long-term future looks very bright for the organization. There is high-end talent at every position, but the Sabres are particularly flush at forward. Sam Reinhart leads a deep group of centers that also includes the big and skilled Mikhail Grigorenko and the speedy, hardworking JT Compher. Both wings are also very deep and varied in talent, with Justin Bailey, Joel Armia, Nick Baptiste, Hudson Fasching, and Brendan Lemieux all bringing a mix of size and skill. The organization does not have the same level of depth on defense as they do at forward, but they are still very deep on the blue line and have several very promising defensive prospects in Rasmus Ristolainen, Nikita Zadorov, and Jake McCabeAndrey Makarov leads a fairly deep pool of goaltending prospects.

Weaknesses: Picking early and often in the last three NHL Drafts has left the Sabres with few major weaknesses in their prospect pool. The team could probably stand to upgrade their goaltending, and they could definitely use a franchise center to hasten the rebuild, but the prospect pool is extremely deep and trending in the right direction.

Top 5 Prospects: 1. Sam Reinhart, C; 2. Rasmus Ristolainen, D; 3. Nikita Zadorov, D; 4. Mikhail Grigorenko, C; 5. Jake McCabe, D.

Key Additions: Sam Reinhart (2014), Brendan Lemieux (2014)

2. (6) Calgary Flames

Strengths: The Calgary Flames have undergone an incredible amount of organizational turnover the past couple of seasons, but a promising vision for the future appears to be finally taking shape. They currently have a young, talented NHL roster, headlined by prospects such as Johnny Gaudreau, Josh Jooris, Sven Baertschi, and Markus Granlund – not to mention Sam Bennett, who is currently recovering from shoulder surgery. Their AHL system is well stocked, too, with Emile Poirier, Bill Arnold, Michael Ferland, and others pushing for NHL jobs. There are even more talented forwards at the NCAA and CHL levels, with Mark Jankowski, Morgan Klimchuk, and Hunter Smith all showing various degrees of promise. The Flames also have a few promising defensemen, such as Tyler Wotherspoon, who are close to NHL-ready. The goaltending pool is not particularly deep, but the prospects that are there – Mason McDonald, Jon Gillies, and Joni Ortio – have good potential.

Weaknesses: The Flames have great depth on defense, but the system lacks a high-end, puck-moving defenseman who can transition the puck up ice and run the power play. As mentioned earlier, the Flames have several quality goaltending prospects, but the position lacks depth.

Top 5 Prospects: 1. Johnny Gaudreau, LW; 2. Sam Bennett, C; 3. Sven Baertschi, LW; 4. Max Reinhart, C; 5. Markus Granlund, C.

Key Additions: Sam Bennett (2014), Mason McDonald (2014), Hunter Smith (2014), Sena Acolatse (free agent)

3. (7) New York Islanders

Strengths: As the New York Islanders turn the corner from bubble team to playoff contender, their prospect pool remains one of the best in the league. Their diverse depth of quality defenders is enviable, with Griffin Reinhart, Ryan Pulock, and Scott Mayfield all close to being NHL-ready. Centers Ryan Strome and Anders Lee will probably spend the 2014-15 season on Long Island, and the depth behind them is solid. The additions of Michael Dal Colle and Josh Ho-Sang bring more weapons to the Islanders arsenal of highly-skilled forwards. A new crop of goaltenders, including Ilya Sorokin, Linus Soderstrom, and Kent Simpson, all have high potential and improve the quality of the position.

Weaknesses: The wings are still lacking depth given the numerous graduations over the years. There are also many high risk/high reward prospects across the board, most notably Sebastian Collberg and Ho-Sang. Most of the goaltending prospects are years away from joining the organization.

Top 5 Prospects: 1. Ryan Strome, C/W; 2. Griffin Reinhart, D; 3. Michael Dal Colle, LW; 4. Ryan Pulock, D; 5. Anders Lee, C.

Key Additions: Michael Dal Colle (2014), Josh Ho-Sang (2014), Ilya Sorokin (2014), Kent Simpson (trade with Chicago)

Key Losses: Calvin de Haan (graduated), Ville Pokka (traded to Chicago)

4. (3) Detroit Red Wings

Strengths: The Detroit Red Wings are the model franchise for how a healthy farm system keeps the parent club competitive in the NHL. Each position is well stocked and boasts at least one quality player. The forwards in particular are strong due to their versatility and a combination of high-end skill and hockey sense. Anthony Mantha, Tomas Jurco Dylan Larkin, and Teemu Pulkkinen all project to become difference makers. Speed has also become an underrated characteristic in the system. The blue line still boasts good all-around talent led by near-ready products Alexey Marchenko, Ryan Sproul, and Xavier Ouellet.

Weaknesses: The Red Wings have never been known for their physicality and that reflects in their system with a lack of sizable forwards. Behind Petr Mrazek, the goaltending depth is suspect.

Top 5 Prospects: 1. Anthony Mantha, RW; 2. Petr Mrazek, G; 3. Tomas Jurco, RW; 4. Dylan Larkin, LW; 5. Xavier Ouellet, D.

Key Additions: Dylan Larkin (2014), Dominic Turgeon (2014), Tomas Nosek (free agent), Joe Hicketts (free agent)

Key Losses: Riley Sheahan (graduated)

5. (2) Anaheim Ducks

Strengths: The Anaheim Ducks have built up a tremendous pipeline that could go toe-to-toe with many in the league. With at least one exceptional talent at each position, the Ducks possess a well-rounded group of prospects. Many of these players, like Rickard Rakell, John Gibson, and William Karlsson, are just beginning their NHL careers. In the less immediate future, the Ducks also have tremendous skill at wing and on the blue line with players such as Nick Ritchie, Nick Sorensen, and Marcus Pettersson waiting to break in at the next level. With young goaltenders Frederik Andersen and Gibson still considered prospects, the Ducks have a very bright future in net.

Weaknesses: Center may be the only place the Ducks are truly lacking. While Nicolas Kerdiles is adapting nicely to the AHL, and Karlsson is having a nice start to his NHL career, there are a lot of question marks past those two players. Louis Leblanc was jettisoned from Montreal, while many of the other centers look like career minor leaguers.

Top 5 Prospects: 1. John Gibson, G; 2. Nick Ritchie, LW; 3. Shea Theodore, D; 4. Rickard Rakell, RW; 5. Frederik Andersen, G.

Key Additions: Nick Ritchie (2014), Marcus Pettersson (2014), Brandon Montour (2014), Louis Leblanc (trade with Montreal)

Key Losses: Sami Vatanen (graduated)

6. (11) Florida Panthers

Strengths: The Florida Panthers are extremely strong on defense, having recently added 2014 first overall draft pick Aaron Ekblad to an already deep group that includes Mike Matheson, Ian McCoshen, Alex Petrovic, and Jonathan Racine. Although Aleksander Barkov has recently graduated, the system is still well stocked with NHL-caliber forwards such as Vince Trocheck, Rocco Grimaldi, and Brandon Pirri. There are also several forwards further down the pipeline, such as recent second round pick Jayce Hawryluk, who possess intriguing potential.

Weaknesses: The Panthers have graduated many of their top forward prospects over the years, so while the system has a fair amount of depth, there are no elite forwards waiting in the wings. Goaltending is a weakness for the organization, as none of their current prospects in net project to be more than backups in the NHL.

Top 5 Prospects: 1. Aaron Ekblad, D; 2. Mike Matheson, D; 3. Vincent Trocheck, C; 4. Brandon Pirri, C; 5. Alex Petrovic, D.

Key Additions: Aaron Ekblad (2014), Jayce Hawryluk (2014), Andrew Yogan (trade with Rangers), Juho Lammikko (2014).

Key Losses: Aleksander Barkov (graduated)

7. (4) Chicago Blackhawks

Strengths: Although the Chicago Blackhawks have been considered Stanley Cup contenders for several years now, they still have managed to build one of the deepest prospect pools in the NHL. The main strength of the organization is at center, led by the immensely talented Teuvo Teravainen and recent first round pick Nick Schmaltz. The Blackhawks have strong depth on the wings, too, with Ryan Hartman and Mark McNeill among those who look like they could contribute to the NHL squad in the near future. Defensive depth is also a major organizational strength, with Stephen Johns, Adam Clendening, and the recently acquired Ville Pokka among the many defensive prospects who possess NHL potential.

Weaknesses: Goaltending is thin, especially compared to the depth at forward and defense. Although a lot of the forwards in the system possess NHL potential, their upside is either limited or unclear. There is also a general lack of size among the Blackhawks’ forward prospects.

Top 5 Prospects: 1. Teuvo Teravainen, C; 2. Nick Schmaltz, C; 3. Stephen Johns, D; 4. Adam Clendening, D; 5. Ryan Hartman, LW.

Key Additions: Nick Schmaltz (2014), Matt Iacopelli (2014), Ville Pokka (trade with Islanders)

Key Losses: Kevin Hayes (free agent), David Rundblad (graduated), Kent Simpson (trade with Islanders)

8. (5) Tampa Bay Lightning

Strengths: The Lightning have arguably both the top forward prospect and goaltending prospect in hockey right now under contract and in the organization. Jonathan Drouin has gotten off to a strong start in Tampa Bay and has seen regular minutes in their top-nine. Forwards Cedric Paquette and Vladislav Namestnikov have also recently made an impact at the NHL level, and the system has more NHL-caliber talent on the way. Andrey Vasilevskiy is widely considered the top goaltending prospect in the league right now and is being eased into the North American game with solid starting minutes with the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch. With Ben Bishop and Evgeni Nabokov in Tampa Bay, there is no need to rush Vasilevskiy, who should be an NHL goaltender in the near future.

Weaknesses: Although the Lightning drafted defensemen in the first and second rounds in 2014, defensive depth is still a bit of a concern. There is not a lot of size up front, with the majority of the Lightning’s forward prospects being on the smaller side.

Top 5 Prospects: 1. Jonathan Drouin, LW; 2. Andrey Vasilevskiy, G; 3. Anthony DeAngelo, D; 4. Vladislav Namestnikov, C; 5. Dominik Masin, D.

Key Additions: Anthony DeAngelo (2014), Dominik Masin (2014), Johnathan MacLeod (2014), Jeff Costello (trade with Vancouver)

Key Losses: Nikita Kucherov (graduated), Andrej Sustr (graduated)

9. (9) Dallas Stars

Strengths: The goaltending and defense positions remain two big areas of strength for the Stars. Jack Campbell remains an intriguing goaltending prospect, while Philippe Desrosiers is having another strong year in the QMJHL. The ridiculous amount of defensive prospects the Stars have was only bolstered by the addition of Julius Honka, who is arguably the best prospect now in the system. They have defensemen of various styles and sizes, and overall have an incredibly diverse and talented defensive group.

Weaknesses: Dallas has versatility and depth, but few top-end talents. They also do not have the best group at wing, with Brett Ritchie and Jason Dickinson being probably the two strongest players in those positions. There is depth there, but overall not a lot of quality potential.

Top 5 Prospects: 1. Jack Campbell, G; 2. Julius Honka, D; 3. Brett Ritchie, RW; 4. Jason Dickinson, LW; 5. Jamie Oleksiak, D.

Key Additions: Julius Honka (2014), Brett Pollock (2014), Ludwig Karlsson (trade with Ottawa), Brendan Ranford (free agent)

Key Losses: Nicholas Paul (trade with Ottawa), Alex Guptill (trade with Ottawa)

10. (8) Columbus Blue Jackets

Strengths: Forward is the primary strength of the Columbus Blue Jackets, led by former first round picks Alexander Wennberg, Marko Dano, Kerby Rychel, and Sonny Milano. The system also has several solid NHL role players up front, such as Michael Chaput, Sean Collins, and Jerry D’Amigo. Goaltending is also a major strength for the organization, with Anton Forsberg, Oscar Dansk, Joonas Korpisalo, and Elvis Merzlikins all possessing varying degrees of potential.

Weaknesses: The Blue Jackets have graduated the majority of their defensive prospects, leaving the blue line extremely thin on both talent and depth. Depth on the wing is very suspect, although there are several promising prospects such as Daniel Zaar and Oliver Bjorkstrand.

Top 5 Prospects: 1. Alexander Wennberg, C; 2. Sonny Milano, C; 3. Oscar Dansk, G; 4. Marko Dano, C; 5. Kerby Rychel, LW.

Key Additions: Sonny Milano (2014), Ryan Collins (2014), Jerry D’Amigo (trade with Toronto)

Key Losses: Tim Erixon (graduated)

Hockey’s Future Fall 2014-15 Team Rankings
1-10 | 11-20 | 21-30

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