Youth and talent dominate Buffalo Sabres’ minor-league system

By Tony Musso
Photo: Corey Tropp has demonstrated great poise in his rookie pro season, posting five goals and 10 assists through 33 games. (Photo courtesy of Holly Gunning/HF)

The Portland Pirates, the AHL affiliate for the Buffalo Sabres, boasts a great deal of talented young prospects including goaltender Jhonas Enroth and forward Corey Tropp. The team currently has a record of 19-11-4-1. The team is offensively prolific, scoring the sixth most goals in the league.

Jhonas Enroth, G, 22

The top goaltending prospect for the Buffalo Sabres has seemingly nothing left to prove at the AHL level but this season in Portland is pivotal in his development process moving forward. There is no question that he is the clear cut number one goalie for the Pirates but he has yet to show he can dominate games in this, his third full AHL season.

With the probability being high that he will back up Ryan Miller next season in Buffalo, Enroth will need to show the ability to consistently perform at a high level for Sabres coach Lindy Ruff to have confidence in him as the number two net minder next year. In five starts this year with Buffalo, he has played extremely well which Enroth will need to build off of in Portland.

Luke Adam
, C, 20

It has literally been an up and down year as Adam has been called up to Buffalo three times due to a Sabres injury and this most recent call up may be the last one with the Sabres losing number one center Derek Roy for the season. Adam’s time in Portland has been nothing short of brilliant as he posted 12 goals and 10 assists in 20 games.

While his game still needs refinement at the NHL level, there is no denying that this former second round pick has the ability to be a legitimate goal scorer in the NHL. It will be interesting to see how he develops during his likely extended call up to Buffalo.

T.J. Brennan, D, 21

In just his second full season for the Pirates, T.J. Brennan is trying to set himself apart from the wealth of other blueliners in the Sabres farm system. So far this season statistically he is on pace to match his totals from his rookie campaign in 2009-10 when he scored six goals and finished the year with 17 points. What Brennan does bring to Portland and eventually to Buffalo is a heavy shot from the blue line which has been lacking in Buffalo for years.

The Sabres knew they were drafting a project when they selected Brennan 31st overall in 2007 so there is no rush to get him to Buffalo but he certainly has the tools to be a difference maker someday, his learning curve may just be a bit steeper than some of the other Sabres defensives prospects.

Corey Tropp, RW, 21

Tropp is having a productive rookie season in Portland with 15 points so far in 33 games. His workman like style of play and decent playmaking ability has afforded him some power play time which has made a huge difference in his confidence level. Tropp has also chipped in with four fighting majors this season, showing that he isn’t afraid to drop the gloves despite his 185 pound frame.

He will need to continue to improve as the season goes along and display the scoring touch he had at Michigan State but his development process appears to be going smoothly. Tropp will likely need a couple more years in the AHL ranks before he is ready for a spot with the big club, fortunately the Sabres have the luxury of time with him.

Drew Schiestel
, D, 21

Schiestel is having a breakout season in Portland after a respectable rookie campaign in 2009-10 that saw him tally 12 points in 52 games. This season Schiestel reached those totals in a mere 24 games and his plus-10 rating is tops on the Pirates. He is getting power play and penalty kill time to go along with top pairing minutes, suggesting that besides Marc-Andre Gragnani that he is establishing himself as the Sabres most NHL ready minor-league defenseman.

Despite his elevated statistics, Schiestel may have to wait to showcase his skills on the big club. With the log jam on the back end for the Sabres it is entirely possible that Schiestel will have to spend one more season in Portland before there is room on the Buffalo blue line for him.

Jacob Lagace, LW, 20

After missing the first five games of this season with a knee injury, Lagace has struggled to find his scoring touch in his first pro season. As a scrappy winger with decent playmaking ability and above average hockey sense he will be expected to o continue to grow and show that he can score in the AHL. He is slightly undersized for a player that consistently plays in the tough areas of the ice but he has held up well aside from the early season injury.

At the NHL level Lagace projects as a checking line winger with scoring ability. With there being no need to rush his development, Lagace has the luxury of being able to absorb everything at his own pace which could pay huge dividends for his development.

Nick Crawford, D, 20

Nick Crawford has put together a steady beginning to his professional career after he dominated the OHL last season splitting time between Barrie and Saginaw. As a rookie this year with Portland, Crawford is playing a lot of minutes and so far he has answered the call from Coach Kevin Dineen. He has consistently shown a willingness to learn and get better as the season has progressed, which will pay dividends in his development.

While he was drafted as an all around defenseman for the Sabres in the sixth round of the 2008 draft, it has been his offensive game that has developed the most throughout junior and now in the AHL. During his junior career, Crawford’s point totals nearly doubled every season from the back end, and he has started his rookie year in Portland with a respectable twelve points in 31 games. There is a lot of upside to Crawford’s game and with some added bulk and another year or two of seasoning in Portland he could be a top four defenseman in the NHL someday.

Marc-Andre Gragnani, D, 23

As the oldest player on this list, Gragnani has the most to gain from having another good season for the Pirates. After a disappointing training camp in Buffalo
where Gragnani sprained his knee, he has bounced back from it and picked up right where he left off with the Pirates last year. On pace for another 50 point year in the AHL, it will be interesting to see if he can keep his plus/minus up and put together a better defensive season.

Gragnani is a risk taking offensive minded defenseman that makes a great first pass and rushes the puck well but he has yet to show that he can play sound positional hockey in his own end consistently. Until he does that, he will continue to be an above average AHLer.

Alex Biega, D, 22

Drafted in the fifth round in 2006, Alex Biega is the second of two rookie defenseman that are patrolling the Pirates blue line 2010-11. Biega came into training camp this year boasting quite a prestigious college resume of work. He was the captain for the Harvard Crimson last season and was renowned for his leadership skills on the ice. His role with the Pirates this season has been to play a steady two way game and limit his mistakes. Thus far he has done just that, with only one goal to show for his efforts, Biega has contributed to the Pirates in other ways, namely with his defensive game. He is currently tied for tops on the team through the first 34 games with a plus-10 rating.

Biega will have a long road to make it in the NHL as an undersized defenseman that doesn’t possess elite speed or above average offensive instincts, but his leadership skills and smart puck movement could make up for his shortcomings.

Paul Byron, C, 21

Settling in comfortably in his second full season in the Portland, Paul Byron has started to correct some of their deficiencies in his game and it is showing on the ice. There is no denying that he is a creative player offensively but watching him this season you see that he has become more responsible defensively as well. He is currently on pace for 50 points this year which would be a significant improvement on his totals from a year ago.

Even though Byron has started to round out his game, it is hard to overlook the fact that he is still 5’8 and 155 pounds. His biggest challenge will be to see how much more weight his diminutive frame can comfortably handle without giving up his speed. Right now it would be difficult to imagine him being able to withstand the NHL game on a nightly basis.

Maxime Legault, RW, 21

In his first full season as one of the prime character players for the Pirates, Maxime Legault has excelled. He has shown that he can be an agitator when needed and is very strong on the forecheck playing limited minutes on the fourth line. He has even been able to chip in offensively, potting three goals in a two game span during the month of December.

As a fourth-liner Legault has a chance to fill the same role with Buffalo some day, he needs to continue to work hard and show that he isn’t a liability defensively and we could see him playing bottom six minutes in Buffalo in a couple of years.

Dennis Persson, D, 22

In what may be the fate deciding season for the temperamental Swede, Persson has finally started to show signs of why the Sabres drafted him in the first round in 2006. On pace to more than double his offensive output from last season, it is Persson’s new found confidence that has led the way to better results this season. In addition to his offensive totals, Persson is also a plus player for the first time in his career which is encouraging.

The reality of the situation is that Persson needed to show signs of improvement on North American ice to have any chance of getting a new contract from Buffalo. He will need to continue to improve and show he can play at a high level consistently before he has any chance of playing for the Sabres.

Travis Turnbull
, C, 24

Turnbull has spent the last month recovering from a shoulder injury that he sustained in November. He had played well centering one of the Pirates checking lines until the injury, tallying eight points in 18 games. The former University of Michigan stand out has progressed in his second AHL season, with his hard, workman like style and decent hands, he could be an intriguing player in the future as a possible 13th forward in the NHL.