Zack Kassian new top prospect for Buffalo Sabres

By Tony Musso
Photo: Zack Kassian brings a lot of size to an otherwise smallish group of Sabres forwards. (Photo courtesy of Holly Gunning/HF)

With top prospect Tyler Ennis graduating mid season, this rendition of the Sabres top 20 has a slightly new look. Zack Kassian makes his debut in the number one spot while a couple players drop off to make way for the strong play of some Portland veterans. While this list shows the organizations tremendous defensive depth and the recent draft efforts to try to get bigger and tougher, it also showcases the Sabres overall lack of center depth and the need for an elite forward prospect.

1. (3) Zack Kassian, RW, 7.5B
Acquired: 1st round, 13th overall, 2009

With the recent graduation of Tyler Ennis off of the prospect list and the pedestrian play of goaltender Jhonas Enroth in the Portland, Zack Kassian assumes the role of the top Sabres prospect for the first time. Though his offensive production has slowed from the two points a game pace he was on in the first half of the season in Windsor, Kassian will still finish out the season with the best totals of his career. He has shown throughout this season that he can be a dominant physical force on the ice and is likely ready to take a shot at a lineup spot in Buffalo next year.

One issue he has had is the occasional bout of inconsistency that may be attributed to a lack of focus or even boredom in Kassian’s case. As a 20-year-old he is more physically mature than the majority of his competition and that fact may be the reason for his taking the odd night off. Either way, Kassian has a lot of upside for a Sabres team that could sorely use what he brings to the table. His size and grit may just garner him a spot on the third line in Buffalo next season.

2. (2) Jhonas Enroth, G, 7.5B
Acquired: 2nd round, 46th overall, 2006

In dropping Enroth below Kassian for the first time, the indication would be that he did something wrong to warrant it. The truth is that it’s not so much what he did wrong as it is that he hasn’t really set himself apart from other AHL goalies. As the top prospect in an organization you would assume that the player was elite in whatever league they are playing in, that is not the case with Enroth. While he has clearly showed in spot duty with the Sabres that he has NHL talent, it should not be ignored that over nearly three full seasons in Portland he has been slightly above average.

With all that being said, there is a lot to be excited about in what we have seen from Enroth in his stints with Buffalo this season. His lateral movement is remarkable and he plays his angles well, which is important for a small goaltender. He has excellent quickness and as evidenced by his three NHL wins. He is also a great shootout goalie. He needs to work on his rebound control but that will come with time. Next season will be a huge test for Enroth as he will likely be called upon to backup Ryan Miller. With Miller having to play as many games as he has over Patrick Lalime’s tenure it will be important for Enroth to inspire trust from Lindy Ruff that he can handle around 20 games and give Miller a rest.

3. (4) Luke Adam, C, 7.5C
Acquired: 2nd round, 44th overall, 2008

Adam exploded out of the gate in this his rookie season posting thirteen points in his first nine games to earn rookie of the month honors for October in the AHL. Since then he has been called up to Buffalo on four separate occasions showing that his game may need a little work before he calls Buffalo his full time home. There were concerns when he was drafted about his skating and relative lack of speed, which have been squashed for the most part as he looked to have a deceiving burst to the puck. There is no denying that he has an uncanny nose for the net, he always seems to be around the puck in the offensive zone which is encouraging because it is one of those attributes that can’t be taught. Going forward he needs to work on his defensive zone play, which is usually an issue for rookies. Additionally he needs to work on finding better lanes in transition, with that being said, there is much be excited about in his development.
Expect Adam to have a legitimate shot at making the Sabres next year, as the Sabres appear to have a major need at the center position.

4. (7) Mike Weber, D, 7.0B
Acquired: 2nd round, 57th overall, 2006

The rugged blueliner finally got into the Sabres lineup as a regular, and he did it by bringing a no-nonsense attitude to the ice and keeping Ryan Miller’s crease clear. Weber has perhaps been Buffalo’s most steady defenseman since the New Year, playing a simple game that has limited any mistakes. He is never going to make you jump out of your seat because of his skills but you have to respect the effort he gives game in and game out.

The outlook for Weber is rosy as he is playing his way into a modest raise and a new contract in the off-season from the Sabres. The 23-year-old has helped to fill the void left behind when Toni Lydman left in the offseason by posting a team high plus-12 so far. Weber fills an important need for the Sabres with his nastiness on the back end; it would be a shock if he weren’t a major contributor in Buffalo for years to come.

5. (11) Drew Schiestel, D, 7.0B
Acquired: 2nd round, 59th overall, 2007

One of the biggest movers on the list, Drew Schiestel was putting together a nice sophomore season in Portland until injuring his knee on January 25th which will sideline the blossoming blueliner for the rest of the season. To add insult to injury Schiestel was selected to his first ever AHL all-star game days earlier and was set to accompany Luke Adam in representing the Pirates.

Not all is lost however, as some real progress was made in Schiestel’s game before the injury. There was a deliberate commitment to the defensive zone that was lacking in previous seasons. If not for the knee injury it would be easy to say Schiestel would have an outside shot of making the Sabres out of camp next year. Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is that the injury has set him back and will probably result in one more year of duty with the Pirates.

6. (5) T.J. Brennan, D, 7.5C
Acquired: 2nd round, 31st overall, 2007

In watching T.J. Brennan play you seem to always get the sense that there is so much more to his game that he hasn’t quite found yet. He has all the physical tools to be a difference maker at the next level, with a booming shot, good skating ability and a little nasty streak but his development has been extremely slow thus far. As far as upside goes he really is capable of being a top four defenseman in the NHL if he works at it.

This season he has shouldered more responsibility on the power play and his point totals have gone up modestly with 10 goals and 18 assists compared to six goals and 17 assists last season. He projects as a top four defenseman in the NHL and while his talent should probably put him in the top five of the prospect depth chart, his slowed progression keeps him on the outside looking in.

7. (6) Mark Pysyk, D, 7.5D
Acquired: 1st round, 23rd overall, 2010

When the Sabres drafted Pysyk in the first round last year, they knew they were getting a strong two-way defenseman that was arguably the best skating blueliner in the draft. This season, his fourth in the WHL, Pysyk was named captain of the Oil Kings and is regularly logging more than 20 minutes a night in helping the team shoot up the standings into playoff contention, a big jump from the Oil Kings last place finish in 2009-10. He has put up better offensive numbers in 2010-11 with five goals and 30 assists compared to last seasons injury shortened campaign when he had seven goals and 17 assists in 48 games. Perhaps the most glaring improvement from last season is in his plus/minus, where he has gone from a minus-19 in 2009-10 to a plus-29 this season.

Pysyk left the Oil Kings February 25th game with an upper body injury and did not return, the severity of which has yet to be determined. If he can stay healthy for a full season, the Sabres may have stumbled onto a late first round gem. The 19-year-old has the tools to be a steady top four defenseman in the NHL with his superior skating ability, leadership and untapped offensive potential, he should be manning the Sabres blue line in a couple years.

8. (8) Nathan Gerbe, LW, 7.0B
Acquired: 5th round, 142nd overall, 2005

Gerbe has progressed well in his first full season in the NHL, particularly since Derek Roy went down with a torn quad muscle and was lost for the season. In the 22 games before Roy was injured Gerbe had a goal and five assists and in the 22 games since he has scored six goals and added six helpers. This is due in large part to his increased power play time and playing with more skilled line mates, where as before Roy’s injury Gerbe was mostly relegated to third or fourth-line duties.

Moving ahead Gerbe will need to continue being a pest to opposing teams by using his speed on the forecheck. He has the upside to be a 45-50 point player in the right situation and he should get the chance to blossom with the Sabres.

9. (20) Marcus Foligno, LW 7.0C
Acquired: 4th round, 104th overall, 2009

There is no question that Marcus Foligno is the most improved Sabres prospect this season. He was ranked 20th on the fall top prospects list for Buffalo and has climbed all the way to ninth in the latest rankings. Were it not for the sprained MCL he sustained on February 4th that has kept him out of action, he may have climbed even higher. Going from a role player with little offensive upside last season to the captain and leading scorer in Sudbury this season, Foligno has far exceeded expectations to this point.
He was the biggest surprise on the Canadian World Junior Team, as he impressed enough to earn a spot and play quality minutes at the tournament. He has become a fan favorite in Sudbury and is a quintessential leader on the ice as he has seemingly willed the Wolves to win at times this season.

With higher expectations comes more responsibility and Foligno seems to welcome it. He will likely play next season in Portland before getting a chance with the big club but because of his determination, don’t count him out as a long shot possibility at a bottom six roster spot next season.

10. (10) Brayden McNabb, D, 7.0C
Acquired: 3rd round, 66th overall, 2009

Perhaps the hottest player on this list lately has been the towering Brayden McNabb. The captain of the Kootenay Ice is third in defenseman scoring in the WHL with 19 goals and 43 assists in 51 games. He is a plus-23 on the season, nearly 28 points better than last year and he has been a vocal leader for the Ice as they have already clinched a spot in the WHL playoffs.

McNabb has really come on since being one of the last cuts on the Canadian World Junior Team. After adding nearly ten pounds to his 6’4 frame, he has been a physical force on the backend for the Ice. He has simplified his game and become a more disciplined defender. In addition he is a better skater than he gets credit for and his shot has improved. McNabb projects as a top four defenseman in the NHL someday but with the logjam of defenseman in the Sabres system, he will likely be relegated to Portland for a couple seasons before he makes the jump up to Buffalo.

11. (9) Corey Tropp, RW, 7.0C
Acquired: 3rd round, 89th overall, 2007

The former Michigan State standout has had a consistent rookie season in the AHL thus far, posting respectable first year numbers with eight goals and 21 assists in 56 games. He has been a difference maker in other areas besides scoring, as he has been a pest to opposing defenseman with his relentless fore check. He is no stranger to the physical part of the game as he has racked up seven fighting majors on the season.

Tropp still hasn’t found the scoring touch he had at MSU but his development has been steady so there is a lot like about his game. He has the potential to be a call up next year as he could be plugged in almost anywhere in the bottom nine forward spots on the roster, as his versatility makes him a valuable commodity. Look for him to make a good impression in 2011-12, as he is a hard worker with enough offensive ability to turn some heads.

12. (15) Marc-Andre Gragnani, D, 6.5B
Acquired: 3rd round, 87th overall, 2005

As the oldest player on this list, Gragnani has really not materialized into the player Buffalo had envisioned when they selected him as a raw offensive talent from the backend in 2005. Offensively he has been consistent averaging 11 goals and 36 assists a season in his four seasons in the AHL. Defensively he has been enigmatic until this season. After going through bouts of inconsistency and poor defensive play during his first three pro seasons, Gragnani has cleaned up his game in the defensive zone. He has made strides this season, of that there is no doubt, but other defensive prospects continue to surpass him on the depth chart, which does not bode well for the blueliner.

He will have to have a stellar camp next season to earn a contract and a spot on the team, otherwise Gragnani could find himself looking for work in September.

13. (NR) Paul Byron, C, 6.5B
Acquired: 6th round, 179th overall, 2007

In his second season in Portland, Byron is on pace to modestly better his totals from last year with 14 goals and 17 assists in 47 games this season. The real growth in Byron’s game has come in the intangible assets he brings every night. He plays with a lot of heart every game and does not back down from anyone despite his diminutive 5’9 160 lb frame.

If nothing else Byron proved that there is a place for him in the NHL in his brief stint as an injury call up this season from Portland. Where he fits will be determined by how well his offensive game develops and how long his smallish body can hold up against the rigors of the pro game. If he can bulk up a little he can probably find a place as a third-line energy player with Buffalo. If his scoring gets anywhere near what is was in junior then the Sabres could be sitting on a gold mine.

14. (17) Alex Biega, D, 6.5C
Acquired: 5th round, 147th overall, 2006

Add Alex Biega to the growing list of injured Pirates blueliners as just four days after Schiestel was sidelined with a knee injury, Biega followed suit. He has not been on the ice since, which is disappointing considering he was having a very productive rookie season. Even being out nearly a month, Biega still leads the team in the plus/minus department with a plus-18. His rapid development has created an even bigger logjam on defense for the Sabres as they now have at least three blue liners who are close to being NHL ready in Marc-Andre Gragnani, T.J. Brennan and Drew Schiestel.

The Sabres have the luxury of time with all of their defensive prospects and will likely let the players compete in camp for NHL minutes next season. Biega should impress with his simplistic game, underrated hockey IQ and exceptional leadership skills. Expect another year of duty in Portland before he is NHL ready.

15. (13) Matt MacKenzie, D, 6.5C
Acquired: 3rd round, 83rd overall, 2010

It came as a shock to MacKenzie when he was dealt from the Calgary Hitmen to the Tri-City Americans at the WHL trade deadline in January. Having captained the last place Hitmen in the beginning of the season, MacKenzie was sent packing to the contending Americans in exchange for Brooks Macek and Spencer Humphries, and a conditional third-round pick in 2012. The marriage with his new club has been rosy so far as the Americans currently sit in fourth place in the WHL‘s Western conference and are poised to make run in the playoffs.

While MacKenzie’s offensive statistics are down, there shouldn’t be much read into it as he played half the season for a very bad Hitmen club. Since joining the Americans, MacKenzie has shown why he was worth two promising young players and a pick by helping to be a positive influence in the locker room and on the ice with his leadership. Along with Brayden McNabb and possibly Corey Fienhage, MacKenzie will join an already defensively stacked Portland team next season. The Sabres will be patient with MacKenzie and give him time to grow in Portland. His coming out party is probably at least two years away.

16. (14) Nick Crawford, D, 6.5C
Acquired: 6th round, 164th overall, 2008

It’s easy to overlook Nick Crawford with all the depth on the Sabres blue line but he has quietly had an effective rookie year. With a modest seven goals and 21 points through 54 games, Crawford has established himself as a very solid all-around defenseman.

When the Pirates lost two defenseman for lengthy periods of time to injury, Crawford was one of the players that was asked to step up his game and he has answered in kind. Since the duo of Biega and Schiestel went down, Crawford has four goals and three assists in 11 games while seeing some time on the power play and penalty kill unit. While there are plenty of players above him on the depth chart right now, it wouldn’t be surprising if we saw a rapid ascension to prominence from the constantly improving two-way rear guard.

17. (NR) Dennis Persson, D, 6.5C
Acquired: 1st round, 24th overall, 2006

It has been a long road for Persson to finally get to a point where he is comfortable with the North American game. While he has probably played well enough in Portland to garner a new short-term deal over the summer, the dreams of him being a good all around defenseman with offensive upside appear to have come and gone. He is more likely a fringe player at the NHL level, especially on a Sabres team with so much defensive depth.

If the Sabres don’t sign him in the off-season he will most definitely head back to Sweden to continue his career. With so many defenseman and only a few spots in Portland, Persson could be the odd man out.

18. (18) Connor Knapp, G, 6.5C
Acquired: 6th round, 164th overall, 2009

The 2010-11 season has been fairly pedestrian for the 6’6 Knapp. Again he has split time with Cody Reichard this season and with the help of a great team in front of him he has put up pretty good stats with a 2.10 goals against average and a .908 save percentage. He leaves people wanting more though. The 20-year-old is huge in the net and takes good angles but he is not overly quick and he gives up more than the occasional big rebound.

As a junior this season he will likely play out next year in Miami, especially if fellow junior Cody Reichard leaves school early and is signed as a free agent by an NHL team. Knapp has a lot of intriguing qualities as a goalie but on a lesser team his weaknesses would show through revealing a marginal NHL talent at best. Having said that, he could put it all together as goalies notoriously take a long time to develop but as of know he has career backup potential at best.

19. (19) Jerome Gauthier-Leduc, D, 7.0D
Acquired: 3rd round, 68th overall, 2010

While he hasn’t matched his goal totals from a year ago, Gauthier-Leduc has put up good offensive numbers and increased his assist totals in 2010-11 with a career high of 33 to date. Touted as a purely offensive minded defenseman coming out of junior, the Sabres have been pleasantly surprised by his improved defensive play as well. While he will never be counted on as a shutdown blue liner at any level, he does at least know that he needs to shore up that part of his game if he ever wants to play in the NHL.
As a prospect there is a lot to like about Gauthier-Leduc, he is very creative with the puck and does well in transition through the neutral zone. He has a very smooth stride and at 6’2 and 194lbs, he has the body frame to be an ideal sized pro defenseman. The Sabres may have an excellent offensive rear guard in the future.

20. (NR) Kevin Sundher, C, 6.5C
Acquired: 3rd round, 75th overall, 2010

Making his debut on this list, Kevin Sundher has earned his place on the top 20 with stellar play of late in Chilliwack. In his last 13 games he has posted 19 points, taking his season totals to 20 goals and 64 points, good for third on the team in scoring. Sundher has deceptive speed and distributes the puck well, as evidenced by his 42 helpers on the season. He has soft hands and isn’t afraid to go to the dirty areas on the ice.

There should be ample opportunity for Sundher on a Sabres team that lacks center depth. Besides Luke Adam he probably possesses the highest ceiling of any center prospect currently in the system. He projects to be a good two-way pivot that can play in a lot of situations and will ultimately be suited for a third line roll in the NHL.