Buffalo Sabres 2011 draft review

By Tony Musso
Photo: Joel Armia should bring a solid blend of size and offensive acumen to the Buffalo Sabres. (Photo courtesy of Holly Gunning/HF)

In the first offseason of the Terry Pegula era, all the talk about change was backed up by actions on draft day. It started with the acquisition of defenseman Robyn Regehr and ended with a draft crop that looks a bit different than those in recent memory for the Sabres.

By taking Finn Joel Armia in the first round, the Sabres ended a four season streak of only picking North Americans in the draft. In addition they addressed the biggest hole in their depth chart by selecting three centers out of the six picks they had in 2011. Defensive-defenseman and Buffalo product Alex Lepkowski represents the only rearguard selected by the Sabres and WHL Championship MVP Nathan Lieuwen was the first goalie selected by the club since 2009.

All in all the Sabres came away feeling much better about their center depth and they were able to take some risks that they wouldn’t have with past ownership regimes.

Joel Armia, RW – Assat (SM-Liiga)
1st Round, 16th overall
Height: 6′ 3 Weight: 187lbs

A quick look at the Sabres prospect depth chart before the 2011 entry draft would have shown a serious deficiency in two particular areas, a lack of centermen in the organization and the absence of any elite offensive talent. The Sabres addressed the latter problem by taking Finnish sniper Joel Armia with the 16th pick.

The skilled Finn rose up the draft boards in 2010-11 as he potted 18 goals with Assat in his first pro season and dominated at the World Junior Under-18 tournament, scoring 13 points in six games. He had a dip in production when pitted against older players at the World Junior Championships in Buffalo but showed some promise as he improved each game.

Armia’s best attributes are his size and his soft hands, which he uses to deftly maneuver in the offensive zone. For such a tall lanky player he has very good control and balance on his skates and he takes the puck to the net well in the offensive zone. That being said, Armia will need to fill out that 6’3 frame as he is only around 185lbs right now.

The forward will play next season for Assat where he should get a ton of ice time and invaluable pro experience. His path to the NHL may be a little shorter than most considering he is already playing in a world class pro league in Finland. If he can fill out a bit and work on playing a more complete defensive game he could be playing in Buffalo before his 21st birthday.

Daniel Catenacci, C – Sault Ste. Marie (OHL)
3rd Round, 77th overall
Height: 5′ 10 Weight: 180lbs

The Sabres were ecstatic when Central scouting’ 37th ranked North American skater fell to them in the third round. The reason for his drop to the third round was a combination of his diminutive size and his questionable NHL caliber offensive instincts. The former first overall selection in the OHL midget draft hasn’t really lived up to the hype since entering Major Junior.

Catenacci has a lot of qualities to his game that translate well at the NHL level, not the least of which being his world-class speed. It has been said that he was probably the fastest skater at the draft and he plays with a high level of intensity every game. He plays a very complete game and is a relentless back checker often at the expense of his offensive game.

All of this will probably help him in getting to the NHL but if he can find a better balance between defensive responsibility and opening up his offensive game by taking more chances he could be a real steal in the third round. He probably projects out as a third line center right now but with improved creativity and vision offensively to go with his speed, he may have a much higher ceiling than that.

Colin Jacobs, C – Seattle (WHL)
4th Round, 107th overall
Height: 6′ 2 Weight: 204lbs

The Sabres continued to add to their stable of big-bodied forwards when they drafted developing power forward Colin Jacobs in the fourth round. The 6’2 pivot hails from Coppell, Texas and represents one of a growing number of elite prospects coming out of the Sun Belt.

Jacobs had a very good year with Seattle of the WHL in 2010 posting career highs of 22 goals and 22 assists. Buffalo will look for him to improve on those numbers, particularly his goal scoring in 2011 as he possesses an NHL caliber shot and has a nose for the puck around the net. It helps that he isn’t afraid to drop the gloves and get his nose dirty either.

Jacobs will need to work on his all around game and improve his skating but all of the tools are there for him to be an impact NHLer someday and he adds much needed quality center depth for the Sabres.

Alex Lepkowski, D – Barrie (OHL)
5th Round, 137th overall
Height: 6′ 3 Weight: 216lbs

The Sabres dipped into the ever growing local prospect pool when they drafted big stay at home defensive prospect Alex Lepkowski of the Barrie Colts. The West Seneca, NY native was traded mid-season to Barrie from Saginaw and provided some much needed physicality to the Colts blue line.

Despite a shoulder injury that caused him to miss 29 games last season, Lepkowski still managed to rack up seven fighting majors in 39 games to go along with 75 penalty minutes. His tough, stay at home style is a good compliment to an already stocked stable of Sabres defenseman that is mostly populated by puck-movers and offensively minded rearguards.

Lepkowski has a long road ahead before he takes the ice for his hometown team as his skating is still a liability. He needs to improve his balance and occasionally has trouble winning wall battles with smaller players. Lepkowski’s intangibles, particularly his leadership qualities and eagerness to get better make him an intriguing prospect to watch in the next few years.

Nathan Lieuwen, G – Kootenay (WHL)
6th Round, 167th overall
Height: 6’ 5 Weight: 192lbs

It was important for the Sabres to add another goalie to the mix through the draft as right now the only real developmental stoppers in the system are Connor Knapp and Bradley Eidsness. Lieuwen is an interesting prospect mostly because of his age and the unfortunate circumstances which led to him being drafted two years after becoming eligible due to injuries.

Lieuwen is a big bodied goaltender who uses his size well but lacks elite quickness. His lateral movement has been questioned but that is often the case with bigger goalies and something he can work on. Along with fellow Sabres prospect, Brayden McNabb, Lieuwen was a driving force on the strong Memorial cup showing of the Kootenay Ice this season and his play in the WHL playoffs earned him MVP honors.

Lieuwen will be a 20-year-old before the start of the 2011-12 season, meaning he can either play as an overager in the WHL or the Sabres could sign him to play in Rochester. The more likely scenario is one final year with Kootenay.

Either way Lieuwen will need to make some big improvements before 2012-13 as competition will be much more intense next off-season with Knapp and Eidsness graduating college and fighting for a contract.

Brad Navin, C – Waupaca (Wisconsin High School)
7th Round, 197th overall
Height: 6′ 2 Weight: 192lbs

In a move reminiscent of the Christian Isackson pick last year, the Sabres used their last pick in the 2011 draft on a raw power forward who dominated his US high school league last year. Navin’s stats at Waupaca are staggering as he posted 52 points in only 14 games, 29 of those were goals.

Navin has really soft hands around the net and the puck always seems finds him down low, he has that natural goal scoring ability that you can’t teach. The question will be if he can translate his game at the college level this season when he suits up for Wisconsin. Navin has steep learning curve of development before he becomes a Sabre regular but he could turn out to be the biggest steal in Buffalo’s 2011 draft class.