Tyler Ennis tops talented group of Buffalo Sabres prospects

By Tony Musso
Photo: Buffalo Sabres top prospect Tyler Ennis is expected to have an impact rookie season for the Sabres in 2010-11. (Photo Courtesy of www.whl.ca)

While talented forwards such as Tyler Ennis, Zack Kassian, and Luke Adam are among those at the top of the top 20, it is the depth on defense and in net that make this group different. Among those making their top 20 debuts are 2010 draft picks Mark Pysyk, Matt MacKenzie, and Jerome Gauthier-Leduc.

Top 20 at a glance:

1. (1) Tyler Ennis, C, 8.0B
2. (2) Jhonas Enroth, G, 8.0C
3. (3) Zack Kassian. RW, 7.5C
4. (4) Luke Adam, C, 7.5C
5. (10) T.J. Brennan, D, 7.5C
6. (NR) Mark Pysyk, D, 7.5D
7. (5) Mike Weber, D, 7.0B
8. (7) Nathan Gerbe, LW, 7B
9. (8) Corey Tropp, RW, 7C
10. (6) Brayden McNabb, D, 7.0C
11. (11) Drew Schiestel, D, 6.5B
12. (12) Jacob Lagace, LW, 6.5C
13. (NR) Matt MacKenzie, D, 6.5C
14. (14) Nick Crawford, D, 7.0D
15. (18) Marc-Andre Gragnani, D, 6.5C
16. (16) Bradley Eidsness, G, 7.0D
17. (17) Alex Biega, D, 6.5C
18. (13) Connor Knapp, G, 7.0D
19. (NR) Jerome Gauthier-Leduc, D, 7.0D
20. (NR) Marcus Foligno, LW 6.5C

1. (1)Tyler Ennis, C, 20
Drafted 1st round, 26th overall, 2008

Tyler Ennis has not faltered at all in holding the top spot on the Sabres prospect depth chart. Collecting Rookie of the Year honors with Portland in the AHL last year, he capped off the season by becoming an instant fan favorite in Buffalo during the 2010 playoffs, tallying four points in six games and standing out as the Sabres best forward.

His challenge in the 2010-11 season is keeping the ball rolling. Sabres GM Darcy Regier made clear Ennis would earn his spot on the team this year but it would take a cataclysmic regression for the diminutive forward to be left off the opening day roster. Ennis should be a top six forward by mid-season with the Sabres being a little thin on top end skill.

The Sabres will look for the speedy forward to continue showing his offensive creativity while also playing a responsible defensive game. If he manages a similar pace as last season, there is no reason to think he would not be a candidate for another rookie of the honor in 2011.

2. (2) Jhonas Enroth, G, 22
Drafted 2nd round, 46th overall, 2006

It’s not easy having number one goalie potential and never getting to showcase it at the NHL level, just ask Jhonas Enroth. For the past two years Enroth has steadily improved in the AHL and shown that he deserves a shot as a regular in the NHL. However, he has limited opportunities in Buffalo with Ryan Miller firmly entrenched until 2014-15 season. So while he has made serious strides at the AHL level, his NHL value is still a bit of a question mark.

It is a good possibility that Enroth will get a couple games this year in Buffalo, likely just to get a look at how he fares against NHL talent, but with Patrick Lalime in the fold, his reps will be limited. Enroth should see over 50 starts in Portland as well which will really get him ready for the jump next year into a backup roll with the Sabres.

3. (3) Zack Kassian, RW, 19
Drafted 1st round, 13th overall, 2009

It was tough to keep Kassian at his number three ranking this fall with all the ups and downs he had last year. First Kassian was suspended 20 games for a high hit in an OHL game. Then he came back and had a good end to the season, filling his role on a very talented Windsor squad by mixing it up against opposition en route to the Spitfires 2010-11 Memorial Cup. One week late he ran into legal problems regarding an altercation at downtown Windsor nightclub. His most recent problems were with 2010 first round pick Erik Gundbranson (FLA) during the Canadian World Junior development camp when Kassian delivered a nasty spear to his midsection at the end of a scrimmage.

Clearly Kassian still has some growing up to do, but all the tools are there. He is a beast on the ice, combining toughness and soft hands that will one day be a huge addition to the Buffalo Sabres. That being said, his maturity level is nowhere near where it should be for a professional hockey player and he really has to learn a little discipline this year to show he can handle the pro game.

It would take a really strong training camp for Kassian to have any shot at playing for the Sabres in 2010-11, so his most likely destination is one more year in Windsor where he will be on the best hockey team in junior and vying for a third straight memorial cup.

4. (4) Luke Adam, C, 20

Drafted 2nd round, 44th overall, 2008

Luke Adam has shown steady improvement during his junior career but in 2009-10 he had a breakout season, posting 49 goals and finishing with 90 points, good for fifth in the league last year.

t will be interesting to see how he fares in Portland this season considering he should get every opportunity, to showcase his skills. Depending on how he does in the AHL, he could be a late season call up in Buffalo and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if his numbers justify it. There will be a big adjustment for him with the speed of the AHL, but he his skating is improved over the past year and he has an uncanny ability to score goals.

With the most of the Sabres minor league depth lying in the defensive corps, Adam is in a great position to distinguish himself as a future top six NHLer. If he can keep it simple this coming season and acclimate to the speed of the pro game, he may just play himself into a regular role in 2011-12.

5. (NR) Mark Pysyk, D, 18

Drafted 1st round, 23rd overall, 2010

Pysyk probably couldn’t have gone to an organization better suited for him right now then the Buffalo Sabres. With an abundance of future NHL defensive prospects, the Sabres can afford to let Pysyk develop at his own pace and not feel pressured to make it in Buffalo right away. That being said they are definitely excited about what he brings to the organization, with an effortless stride and a cerebral style of play, Pysyk has all the makings of a future top pairing defenseman in the NHL.

Pysyk tallied seven goals and 17 assists in an injury shortened 48 game season but was clearly the best player on his team, garnering team MVP and Best Defenseman honors along the way. He will play one more year for the Oil Kings in the WHL and then he may get signed to play in Portland. In addition, Sabres fans may get a chance to see him play at this year’s World Junior Championships in Buffalo as he was one of the 18 defenseman invited to the Canadian development camp.

The realistic outlook on Pysyk is that if he continues to develop his offensive game and gets a little tougher in his own end he could be a good number two defenseman in the NHL. He already possesses great vision and a good first pass which are sometimes the toughest things to instill in a young defenseman.

6. (10) T.J. Brennan, D, 21
Drafted 2nd round, 31st overall, 2007

Of all the players that were ranked on last year’s top 20 list, Brennan’s ranking has jumped up the most. With solid finish to the 2009-10 season and a great rookie development camp in Buffalo this summer he has finally started to show signs of why the Sabres made him the 31st pick in the 2007 draft.

He was regarded as an extremely raw talent coming out of junior so his learning curve was expected to be steep. His determination to play in the NHL however has been what sets him apart. He has very quietly tightened up on the holes in his game, namely his defensive positioning. Couple that with his heavy shot from the point and his tough style of play and you see why he has jumped this far on the list.

Brennan was the best defenseman at the Sabres Rookie development camp this summer and he has parlayed that into a possible top pairing spot in Portland this year. Depending on what happens with Mike Weber this season, Brennan could be seeing a lot of ice time with the Pirates. He needs to put together a good offensive year in his sophomore season in the AHL and improve on the six goals and 23 points he had in his rookie season.

7. (5) Mike Weber, D, 22
Drafted 2nd round, 57th overall, 2006

As the most NHL ready defenseman on this list, Weber should be the only one that is graduated off of it next year. With 23 NHL games already under his in the past three seasons, Weber showed flashes of the toughness that has made him a fan favorite everywhere he has played. Possessing good defensive skills and a nasty streak the Sabres desperately need, he could easily slip into the sixth or seventh defenseman role with Buffalo in 2010-11.

Last season was Weber’s best professional season from a statistical perspective, he tallied five goals, 21 points, and a team leading plus-18 in 80. He also made his first AHL All-Star appearance. Considering a severe shoulder injury that prematurely ended his 2008-09 season, Weber had a great bounce back year.

As far gaining a regular spot with the Sabres, the outlook is very good for Weber in 2010-11. With the departures of Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder and the inconsistent play of Chris Butler and Andrej Sekera, the door will be wide open for the fifth, sixth and seventh defensive slots in Buffalo this year. With a good training camp Weber should be a lock to crack the opening day roster.

8. (7) Nathan Gerbe, LW, 23
 Drafted 5th round, 142nd overall, 2005

After a 2008-09 season in which Gerbe was named the AHL rookie of the year, a lot was expected of him coming into training camp in Buffalo last year. It was a huge disappointment when he didn’t make the opening roster and instead was sent back to Portland for another year of seasoning in the AHL. Gerbe responded with a drop in his statistical totals but a commitment to fixing the deficiencies in his game, most notably his play in his own end of the rink.

In the two playoff games that Gerbe was called up for last year he tallied a goal and an assist, but it was his play away from the puck that helped his cause for 2010-11
Gerbe should provide some needed scoring punch on the Sabres third line in 2010-11 and has an outside chance to crack the top six as well.

9. (8) Corey Tropp, RW, 21
Drafted 3rd round, 89th overall, 2007

As a junior at Michigan State, Corey Tropp led the Spartans in scoring and was named team MVP, registering 20 goals and 42 points in just 37 games. His game really came together last season and he brings a good set of skills to the Sabres with his hard working style of play. He will probably play on one of the top two lines in Portland this season because he has good skill down low and should be an effective banger on the forecheck for the Pirates.

Tropp’s timetable may be a bit shorter than some players that are above him on this list as he projects as more of a third liner in the NHL and though he does have decent skills as evidenced by his 2009-10 season, his value to the Sabres is in his hard working style of play. It would be surprising if Tropp didn’t have a solid rookie year in Portland, paving the way for a possible roster spot with the Sabres in 2011-12 season.

10. (6) Brayden McNabb, D, 19
Drafted 3rd round, 66th overall, 2009

McNabb is another Sabres prospect benefiting from the defensive depth of the organization. As a 19-year-old, he will be playing his last season of
junior this year in Kootenay of the WHL and based on the jump he made last year, a lot will be expected of him.

In each of his four seasons in the WHL his point totals have improved, finishing last year with 17 goals from the back end. While he is known for his toughness and shot, he also possesses great hockey instincts and will be a solid addition to the Sabres defensive unit in a couple years.

McNabb has a good shot at making the Canadian World junior team after joining fellow Sabres prospects Zack Kassian, Mark Pysyk, and Jerome Gauthier-Leduc at the Canadian World Junior development camp this summer. Realistically McNabb still has to develop his skating to get to the NHL level and a likely timeframe for his arrival in Buffalo is probably the 2013 season.

11. (11) Drew Schiestel, D, 21
 Drafted 2nd round, 59th overall, 2007

Schiestel had a respectable rookie season with Portland in 2009-10. In 52 games he had a goal and 11 assists and managed a plus-5 rating playing second pairing minutes. Known primarily for his ability to lead the rush out of his own end, he has made some strides in improving his work defensively and bulking up by adding 10 pounds to his lanky frame.

Another solid year in the AHL could garner Schiestel more attention and facilitate his eventual jump to the Sabres. He needs to really work on his defensive play and learn when to pick his spots to join the rush. With the glut of minor league defenseman at the Sabres disposal he will need to stick out somehow, which he has yet to do.

12. (12) Jacob Lagace, LW, 20
Drafted 5th round, 134th overall, 2008

It will be interesting to see if the Jacob Lagace from the first half of 2009-10 or the second half shows up in Portland next year. In the first 35 games of last season while playing in Chicoutimi of the QMJHL, Legace seemingly scored at will, lighting the lamp 30 times and adding 23 assists. A midseason trade to Cape Breton however changed all that, with his totals dropping off significantly, five goals in his last 25 games.

Obviously Lagace still needs to mature as a player as evidenced by his inconsistency last year, but the Sabres have a player that knows how to put the puck in the net and has a good motor offensively. Lagace should have two solid years to develop in Portland having just signed a three-year entry-level deal this summer, which should give him plenty of time to work on his consistency and two way play.

13. (NR) Matt MacKenzie, D, 18
Drafted 3rd round, 83rd overall, 2010

The Sabres may have gotten a steal in 2010 third round pick Matt Mackenzie. Possessing a package of skill, size, and maturity, Mackenzie should improve on a great 2009-10 season that saw him post six goals and 40 points in 64 games. These are particularly good numbers when you take into account he was counted on to shutdown his opponents top line every night and still managed to be plus-16 on the year.

Mackenzie possesses a great a hockey IQ and really has a calming presence on the ice. He makes smart decisions with puck and is strong on the rush as well as in his own end. The blueliner will have to improve the accuracy of his shot and gain a more experience as a setup man on the power play but he has all the tools to be top a four defenseman. Another year in Calgary playing 25 minutes a game will help him gain valuable experience and could make Darcy Regier look like a genius for nabbing him in the third round.

14. (14) Nick Crawford, D, 20
Drafted 6th round, 164th overall, 2008

Crawford is a player that could really shoot up this list next year if he can put together a season like he had in the OHL last year. Finishing second in the voting as the OHL’s best defenseman last year, Crawford scored 11 goals and added 59 assists in 68 games last year. His offensive game exploded when given more ice time on the power play and he added a staggering plus-51 rating to his resume as well.

He played top-pairing minutes in Barrie so he was often up against the best players in the OHL. Crawford will have to add some bulk to his lean 6’1 frame and could hit some stumbling blocks as he adjusts to the much faster AHL next year.

Crawford should have a decent opportunity next year to play 15 minutes a game in Portland and get used to the bigger and faster pro game. There is no question that he can be a great player someday with a couple of AHL seasons under his belt and a commitment to playing a sound all around game.

15. (18) Marc-Andre Gragnani, D, 23
Drafted 3rd round, 87th overall, 2005

The window for Gragnani to secure a spot with the Sabres is slowly closing. Joining Nathan Gerbe as the oldest player on this list, Gragnani hasn’t been able to take his defensive game to the next level. There is no question that he is a talented offensive player, but as a defenseman he hasn’t shown a consistent ability to lock down his own end before jumping into the play.

With Tyler Myers the only defenseman who can legitimately play the point on the powerplay, Gragnani’s prowess on the man-advantage could be his ticket to another stint in the NHL.

Having just signed a one-year deal with the Sabres in August, Gragnani needs to show he can round out his game or he will spend his career as a good AHL defenseman. That said, if he has a great training camp, there will be opportunity for him to make a push for the seventh defenseman spot in Buffalo, based on his versatility as a defenseman or a forward.

16. (16) Bradley Eidsness, G, 21
 Drafted 5th round, 139th overall, 2007

It has been awhile since the Sabres had three bona-fide starter quality goalies in the farm system. While Jhonas Enroth is the most talked about, Bradley Eidsness has quietly put together two solid years for the UND Fighting Sioux. Behind arguably the best defense in college hockey, Eidsness posted a 2.11 goals against and a .914 save percentage while playing 41 games last season.

Eidsness has great reflexes and plays solid positionally as many smaller goalies do. He needs to work on his rebound control and his puck handling ability, but his game does not have any major weaknesses

Eidsness will continue with his junior season at North Dakota where he will continue to play behind a great defensive unit and should build on his accomplishments from 2009-10. His future may be tied to Enroth as the likely scenario
would see him moving up to back up Ryan Miller in the 2011-12 season, leaving the starting goaltender spot open in Portland for either Eidsness or Connor Knapp.

17. (17) Alex Biega, D, 22
Drafted 5th round, 147th overall, 2006

After being named team MVP for the second year in a row, the Harvard captain will look to have a breakout first season alongside fellow rookie defenseman Nick Crawford.

Biega signed a contract with the Sabres that will keep him in the organizational fold for the next two years, giving him plenty of time to develop his game. Possessing great hockey instincts and natural leadership skills, Biega will try to make the most of what will likely be third paring minutes.

Biega is an above average skater, which will help in his transition to the pro game, but he is considered undersized for a defenseman at 5’11 and 195 pounds. It will be interesting to see how he holds up against bigger, stronger and more skilled competition than he saw at Harvard.

18. (13) Connor Knapp, G, 20
Drafted 6th round, 164th overall, 2009

Miami University (Ohio) has an embarrassment of riches at the goaltending position in Connor Knapp and Cody Reichard. Last season they split time in the net with Knapp starting 19 games. For that reason, it is tough to get a read on how he would hold up with a full plate of games. However, Knapp was the talk of the NCAA tournament last year with his 55 save, game winning performance against Michigan in the NCAA Midwest Regional Championship, advancing Miami to the Frozen Four.

Knapp is big-bodied goalie at 6’5 and he covers a lot of the net so he plays a very different style from Eidsness or Enroth. He relies much more on his size than his quickness and though he is not slow, it is his awareness and positioning that have made him successful.

More than likely Knapp will play out his college career at Miami, especially if teammate Cody Reichert is signed as free agent by an NHL club. He has the luxury of being able to develop slowly with Miller only 30 years old and Enroth and Eidsness ahead of him on the Sabres depth chart.

19. (NR) Jerome Gauthier-Leduc, D, 18
Drafted 3rd round, 68th overall, 2010

It’s hard to overlook a season in which a defenseman, at any level, scores 20 goals. That was part of what motivated the Sabres to draft the smooth-skating defenseman. He has all the makings of a future power play specialist in the NHL and with some added bulk and continued hard work he has a good chance of getting there.

He obviously moves the puck well and is a good stick-handler, but he is also better in his own end then he gets credit for. Evidence of this could be seen in his simple approach to the Canadian world junior development camp, where he was not flashy but played sound defensively.

Gauthier-Leduc has some filling out to do and his defensive game still needs work but he could really turn some heads in the next couple years by honing his raw offensive talents. He certainly has time to develop as the Sabres youngest prospect.

20. (NR) Marcus Foligno, LW, 19
Drafted 4th round, 104th overall, 2009

One of the most improved players in the Sabres stable of prospects has been Sudbury’s Marcus Foligno. Tasked with improving his all around game in 2009-10, Foligno put together the best statistical season of his caree,r tallying 14 goals and 39 points in 67 games and adding 156 penalty minutes for good measure.

Foligno will need to show even more progression during the 2010-11 season in Sudbury, particularly on offense and in his skating ability. He has committed to playing a two way game as evidenced by his drastically improved plus/minus last year and should have every opportunity to better his offensive numbers with increased time on special teams.

There were other Sabres prospects with more skill than the 19-year-old but, as far as playing in the NHL someday, Foligno’s particular skill set is lacking in the Sabres organization, making him a coveted asset.