While the last few seasons have seen a slow trickle of prospects into the Buffalo Sabres lineup, the 2015-16 season has ushered in a huge influx of young blood taking over spots.
Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Jake McCabe are just a handful of the youngsters challenging for impactful roles both at the NHL and AHL levels. General Manager Tim Murray has had a specific plan and has not strayed from it since taking over. He is building the core of the roster for the next decade and has made an effort to surround that core with as many solid homegrown talents as possible.
The Sabres have quite the mix of skill sets and frames at the left wing position. Their top prospect at the position, William Carrier, is a former second-round pick with a power forward frame and good offensive skills. He is still acclimating himself to the professional game with Rochester, but has the kind of all-around ability that could be featured in the top six in the future.
Also adding size to the position are Jean Dupuy and Jack Nevins. Dupuy is known for his penchant for dropping the mitts and getting into the muck; he will bring the physicality to the lineup every night of the week. Nevins, meanwhile, is still a bit of a project. He’s got a decent skill set and all-around game, but his skating still needs work and he must find consistency.
On the other side of the spectrum, Daniel Catenacci and Gustav Possler both register under 6-feet-0, but bring plenty to the table. Both are tremendous skaters, featuring good foot speed and quickness. Both have shown offensive ability at their respective levels, though Catenacci has really struggled to find a more prominent role in Rochester. Possler, meanwhile, is still something of an unknown on the whole but has shown a scoring touch while playing with MODO of the SHL.
Another sub-6-foot skater is veteran Jerry D’Amigo. At 24-years-old, D’Amigo is much older than most of the prospects on the list but also seems to have a clearly defined role. He has good speed and strength for his size (5’11, 215 pounds), making him a handful to knock off the puck. He brings good energy to his forechecking and could have a role on the fourth line going forward.
Rounding out the group is Max Willman, a fifth-round pick from 2014. Willman is still a bit of an unknown at this point, having just one year of college under his belt. He will return to Brown University for his sophomore season, looking to develop further and take on a larger role.
This position might be the most intriguing, boom-or-bust group of prospects. A trio of players have the potential to be very good NHL power forwards. Justin Bailey is the most talented of the group, though he doesn’t use his 6-foot-3 frame quite as well as some would like. Still, he’s a good skater for his size and shows tremendous offensive instincts. Hudson Fasching, meanwhile, might not possess the raw offensive skill Bailey does, but he uses his 6-foot-3, 215-pound frame to his advantage. Fasching has great hands and gets them dirty when he needs to. Nicholas Baptiste fits somewhere in the middle. He’s not as big as either Fasching or Bailey, but he’s got the high-end offensive ability to go with a power forward’s mentality. The Sabres appear to want to get a little bigger in the future and they have a lot of size and skill with those three.
The right wing slot also has a pair of players who skew a bit safer, though their ceilings are a bit lower. Colin Jacobs won’t wow anyone, but he has decent size, goes into the dirty areas and plays a solid two-way game. Like him, Vaclav Karabacek has a no-frills game, doing all the little things and chipping in offensively when he can. Both are the type of player that could slot in as a solid defensive option on the bottom six going forward.
Like his counterparts on the left side, Victor Oloffson is on the smaller side at 5-foot-11, 176 pounds, but he brings with him good skating an a somewhat unknown offensive ability. He produced on Sweden’s junior levels, but it remains to be seen if he can do so against the bigger and stronger competition in the SHL.
Judd Peterson is the wild card of the group. He returned to St. Cloud State for his sophomore year this fall as a total project. He’s got decent size for a 5-foot-11 frame and shows good finishing ability. Like most young players, he needs to work on his consistency and could stand to work on his hockey IQ a bit.
If nothing else, the Sabres have premier talent at the center position. Eichel is a franchise player through and through, with dynamic speed, unparalleled scoring ability and sheer electricity. He will lock down the second line center spot in Buffalo for 2015-16 until he’s ready to take over the keys to the franchise.
Reinhart is right behind him, a potential franchise center in his own right. He may not be as dynamic as Eichel, but Reinhart possesses fantastic hockey IQ and playmaking ability. With Eichel taking the heat off, Reinhart could truly shine and show why he was selected second overall, too.
Connor Hurley is arguably the most intriguing player in this position group after Reinhart and Eichel. He’s got good size, though he’s a bit on the lanky side. He uses his size well to keep attackers away from the puck and shows very good offensive instincts. He is still trying to figure it out and put it all together, but he could be a potential second or third center in the future.
Past the big two, there’s a lot to like from the position, especially the mix of size and skill that several prospects possess. Eric Cornel, Tim Schaller and Justin Kea are all over 6-2 with Cornel projecting as a potential top-six forward if he can figure out how to be consistent. He is far too streaky at the moment and needs to refine his defensive game. Schaller and Kea skew more towards the defensive forward role, bringing size and grit to the position.
Hometown boy Sean Malone doesn’t match up with his counterparts size wise, but he brings good leadership and a strong work ethic to the table. He isn’t a skilled offensive player, but he could serve a role as an energy/grinder at the next level.
Phil Varone has had a few cups of coffee at the NHL level, but can’t seem to find the scoring touch he has shown in the AHL. He shows good playmaking ability and a solid two-way game, but with all of the talent surging into the Buffalo lineup, he may not have a spot open up.
A bit farther from reaching their potential are Chris Brown and Giorgio Estephan. Brown played in the USHL last season and is set to make his collegiate debut with powerhouse Boston College in 2015-16. He’s as raw as it gets at the moment, but showed good offensive instincts during his high school career. Estephan, meanwhile, has the makings of a well-rounded player. He’s shown a burgeoning offensive prowess, more than doubling his point totals from 2013-14 in a more prominent role with the Lethbridge Hurricanes. He could stand to fill out a bit more physically as is the case with most young players.
There is little doubt that McCabe is the Sabres’ top defensive prospect. It looked as though he was ready to crack the Sabres’ roster in 2014-15, but spent the entirety of the year seasoning his game in Rochester. Now, the sturdy two-way defenseman looks ready to lock down a top-four spot in Buffalo. He brings intelligence and excellent decision-making to the table as well as the ability to join the rush. He should be a top-four defenseman for a long time.
On the cusp of making the full-time jump to the NHL, Chad Ruhwedel isn’t the biggest or the most talented, but he is a solid two-way defenseman with offensive potential. He’s a quality skater and doesn’t shy away from the rough stuff. High-end, he’s a top-four defenseman, but more realistically he should be a solid addition to the top six.
If there is one constant across the board defensively, it is size. Beyond Ruhwedel, all of Buffalo’s defencemen check in at no shorter than 6-foot-1. The biggest of the bunch is Brady Austin at 6-foot-4. Despite his size, he doesn’t play an overly physical style, instead showcasing a surprising amount of skill with the puck.
Brendan Guhle, the most recent draftee, might have the highest upside of everyone. He has good size at 6-foot-2, 190 pounds and shows tremendous strength for his age. He plays a strong, well-rounded game and shows good offensive ability. He’s still on the project side of things, but the Sabres are very high on him going forward.
Devante Stephens, Anthony Florentino and Will Borgen all have quality size and play solid, no frills two-way games. Florentino and Borgen skew more in the neighborhood of physical, stay-at-home defensemen while Stephens plays more of a heads up game. All three still have development ahead of them, working out the kinks in their defensive game.
The Sabres defensive corps also has a few puck-movers in their midst. Brycen Martin looks to be the best of the bunch so far, playing key minutes in all situations and showing the potential to be a quarterback on the power play. Despite his solid size (6-2 186), he doesn’t play a physical game and needs to refine his defensive game.
The final two defensive prospects find themselves on opposite ends of the timeline. Ivan Chukarov is just beginning his collegiate career, but shows the ability to skate well and has good offensive instincts. He is still very raw, so he will likely need to use most of his college eligibility before he is ready to make the jump to the pros.
Jerome Gauther-Leduc, meanwhile, might be at the end of his rope. He showed good scoring ability in junior, playing at a point-per-game pace for Rimouski of the QMJHL. Since graduating to the AHL, he has struggled. He is still finding his way defensively, but his offensive production has dried up. He did have his best offensive season in 2014-15, but the Sabres are expecting more out of him.
Despite not investing higher than a third-round pick on any of the goaltenders in their system, the Sabres have a number of goalies with potentially bright futures ahead of them. Perhaps none of them has a brighter future than Linus Ullmark. Despite a step back in production for MODO, he’s the best goaltender in the ranks. He has a big frame to go with good athleticism and a calm that most goaltenders seem to lack. He will compete for a spot in Rochester and likely needs a few years before he is ready to make an NHL impact.
Also plying his craft in Europe, Jonas Johansson is still much earlier in his development, but it’s clear why the Sabres like him. He has a big frame at 6-foot-4 and likes to play deep in his net. He still has a few years to work on his technique and refine his game, though, so he still has a ways down the pipeline.
At the collegiate level, the Sabres have a pair of prospects totally opposite of one another. Cal Petersen isn’t the biggest goaltender, but uses his quickness and athleticism to make all the stops. He was outstanding as a freshman for Notre Dame and looks to reclaim his starting gig this season. Jason Kasdorf, however, is a big man’s goalie. At 6-foot-4, he uses his size well to cover the bottom of the net, playing a strong butterfly. He isn’t overly athletic and has struggled mightily with consistency in his time for RPI. If he makes the NHL, it will be due to size and positioning more than anything else.
Finally, the Sabres have a pair of goalies playing at the pro level. Andrey Makarov flew under the radar for most of his early career, but acquitted himself well in his first full year with Rochester. He’s the smallest of the goalies in the Sabres’ system, but he plays well under pressure and shows good reflexes. He has starter potential if he can continue to develop.
The other pro goalie, Nathan Lieuwen, has all the makings of an NHL backup. He has a huge frame at 6-foot-5 and uses his size well to cover the net. He isn’t the most athletic goalie, but he isn’t the least, either. His skills aren’t overwhelming and he needs to find consistency, but Lieuwen should find himself in a backup role in the future.
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