Joel Armia new top prospect for Buffalo Sabres

By Tony Musso
Photo: Taken in the third round, Daniel Catenacci was considered one of the best skaters in the 2011 draft. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

The Sabres’ recipe for success has been to build their team through the draft, mostly through the selection of safe picks. All that changed with the arrival of Terry Pegula. Highlighting that change is a new number one prospect, Joel Armia, who is making his debut on this list. Only one other 2011 draftee made the list and Riley Boychuk is the only other newcomer.

1. (NR) Joel Armia, RW, 8.0C
Drafted 1st round, 16th overall, 2011

Based on sheer offensive ability and hockey intangibles, Joel Armia deserves to be at the top of this list. Armia played in the top league in Finland last season and he more than held his own. His opportunity at such a young age came to fruition because he plays for one the smallest clubs in SM-Liiga, Assat. Nevertheless, he was given the opportunity to shine and he did to the tune of 18 goals and 29 points in 48 games last season.

His disappointing World Junior tournament can be chalked up to playing a different role than he was used to as he wasn’t on one of the top scoring lines for the Finn’s in Buffalo. 2011-12 will be an important developmental year for Armia as he will be thrust into all situations playing on such a small club team. He will also have an increased role with the 2012 Finnish world junior team with the graduation of several key members from 2011.

Armia still has a ways to go to silence all of his critics, he is by no means NHL ready. However, there is no denying he has a great set of hands and can dangle the puck. Add his big body and fearlessness on the ice, and you have a very exciting player. He needs to continue to round out his game by becoming a more complete player in all areas of the ice but his gift is his ability to score, a trait the Sabres farm system sorely lacks outside of Luke Adam right now.

Armia’s career path with the Sabres should be clearer at the close of this season. He has a contract with Assat until 2013 so he most likely will stay in Finland for two more seasons. However, if he puts together a huge year offensively and can add some bulk in 2011-12, all bets are off.

2. (3) Luke Adam, C, 7.5B
Drafted 2nd round, 44th overall, 2008

For the third year in a row, a Sabres prospect was named AHL rookie of the year when Luke Adam won the award last season, joining Nathan Gerbe and Tyler Ennis. He was second on the Pirates in scoring behind AHL superstar and new Vancouver Canuck Mark Mancari with 62 points in only 57 games.

There was improvement in his skating which has always been the knock against his game and he managed to look very much at home by his third call up to Buffalo in 2010-11. There is no denying that Adam possesses very good instincts around the net and he should at least be a consistent 20 goal scorer someday in the NHL.

Adam has a legitimate shot at making the Sabres out of camp this year and for some it would be considered a disappointment if he doesn’t. His scoring prowess, size and willingness to do whatever it takes to get better make him an ideal candidate to fill a spot somewhere in the Sabres top nine forwards.

3. (1) Zack Kassian, RW, 7.5C
Drafted 1st Round, 13th overall, 2009

Kassian started off 2010-11 on fire as he posted nearly two points per game for Windsor before the world junior championship in Buffalo. After half a season of finally making headlines for all the right reasons, Kassian’s dark side reared its head as he delivered an open ice hit to Petr Senkerik of the Czech Republic during the world juniors that earned him a two game suspension from the IIHF. He really had a difficult time getting back on track after that and was far less effective when he returned to Windsor.

While his play seemed to taper off after the world juniors last year, Kassian might be primed for a big step up in development in 2011-12. There are many that believe that he became bored last season in the OHL and that he will excel in an environment with players at or above his physical maturity level, making the AHL his likely home this season.

The Sabres have been extremely patient with Kassian as he develops the mental aspects of the game. That will continue in 2011-12 as there is likely to be lapses in judgment based on his track record thus far. Even with the growing pains, Kassian will likely show why there is so much excitement for his debut in Buffalo as he displays a rare combination of power and hockey sense that should make him a Buffalo regular for years to come.

4. (7) Mark Pysyk, D, 7.5C
Drafted 1st Round, 23rd overall, 2010

In his first season as captain of the Oil Kings, Mark Pysyk was able to stay healthy for the whole season and managed a career high of 40 points in 63 games. It helped that the Oil Kings were a better team than in seasons past which contributed to the 48 point positive swing in his plus-minus as well.

One of the most glaring improvements he made over the course of the 2010-11 season and into the rookie development camp with the Sabres this summer has been an added element of toughness to his game. The added grit should complement his already legendary skating ability to make him a possible future top pairing defenseman in the NHL.

Pysyk has always been called a cerebral player and continues to be touted as having very good hockey sense which has sped up his development. Despite that fact, there is still a glut of defensive prospects in the Sabres ranks which will keep him in the WHL for one more year. Expect him to really make a splash in camp this year and turn a few heads, ultimately though he won’t be in Rochester or Buffalo until the 2012-13 season.

5. (10) Brayden McNabb, D, 7.5C
Drafted 3rd Round, 66th overall, 2009

Perhaps no one on this list improved their organizational status more than Brayden McNabb. The only blemish on his career year was that he was not selected as a member of Canada’s World Junior team in 2011. An oversight that won’t matter if continues to play like he did while leading Kootenay to the Memorial Cup finals last year. As a captain of the Ice, McNabb put up 21 goals and 72 points from the back end, good enough for third in the WHL in defensive scoring. He was even better during the playoffs as he amassed 27 points in 19 games, seven points better than any other defenseman in the WHL playoffs.

McNabb has made improvements in every part of his game but one of the most notable has been in his on ice discipline. The captaincy seemed to have a positive effect on controlling his physical play and staying out of the penalty box. Even with the improved self-control, McNabb was still a beast in his own end, living up to his surly reputation. The blueliner added speed, improved his skating, and has grown into his body since he was drafted by the Sabres, which makes him a more projectable top four defenseman at the next level.

McNabb will join a veteran AHL blue line corps this season in Rochester which should help him make the adjustment to the pro game. He should see more time on special teams as the season progresses, especially if there are injury call ups to Buffalo. Because the Sabres have tremendous blue line depth, he won’t likely make his debut with the big club until 2012-13.

6. (2) Jhonas Enroth, G, 7.0B
Drafted 2nd Round, 46th overall, 2006

Last season, Jhonas Enroth may have been the biggest reason the Sabres didn’t fall apart when Ryan Miller went down with injury. With Buffalo needing wins in the last couple weeks of the 2010-11 season, the young goalie put the team on his back and played an inspired game that carried over into the playoffs.

Enroth will be the backup for Miller this coming season and his presence should assure Miller won’t have the massive workload he has in the past. The question will be how well Enroth responds over a full season of backup duty only. It may be a hard pill to swallow for a prideful young goalie to seldom play two games in a row, especially knowing that he is capable of starting on many other NHL teams.

No matter how he feels, Enroth is locked up for the next two seasons in Buffalo and he should be a huge help to the veteran Miller. Expect him to get at least 15-20 games this season, largely depending on the volatile backup-goalie-confidence-meter of Lindy Ruff.

7. (12) Marc-Andre Gragnani, D, 7.0B
Drafted 3rd Round, 87th overall, 2005

Gragnani seemingly did everything right in 2010-11. He had a strong training camp in Buffalo until injuring his knee and ending any hope at making the opening day roster. Instead of complaining about it, he dominated in the AHL. With 12 goals and 60 points, Gragnani led all AHL defenseman in scoring and took home the Eddie Shore award as the AHL’s best defenseman. The Sabres called him up at the end of the 2010-11 season and he rewarded them by leading the team in scoring during their seven game series with Flyers with seven points.

The evolution of his game is obvious when watching his defensive zone play. In the last two seasons with the Pirates, Gragnani has got stronger and smarter in his own zone. He has lessened the amount of defensive zone giveaways and worked on his positioning which has really helped to make him a more complete player.

After signing another one-year deal with the Sabres this summer, Gragnani should have every opportunity to earn a long term deal after this season by securing a spot in the top six. He will likely be fighting for playing time in 2011-12 with Mike Weber and Andrej Sekera, but of the three he is the most complete defenseman and has the most offensive upside.

8. (5) Drew Schiestel, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd Round, 59th overall, 2007

The smooth skating two way defenseman will look to pick up right where he left off last year before his season ending knee injury by leading one of the best defensive groups in the AHL. With the ascension of Marc-Andre Gragnani to Buffalo this season, Schiestel, along with T.J. Brennan and Dennis Persson will be the go to players on the blue line for the Amerks.

Schiestel looked good in the Sabres rookie development camp this summer, his first real action since the injury. While the speed in that camp is considerably slower than the AHL, it was encouraging to see him playing without fear or apprehension. Schiestel will probably make a decent push for a spot at camp this year but the probability of him beating out Gragnani, Sekera, or Weber is not likely. Despite his minimal chance at a roster spot in 2011-12, expect Schiestel to emerge as one of Rochester’s best defenseman this season and further increase his stock heading into the 2012-13 season.

9. (6) T.J. Brennan, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd Round, 31st overall, 2007

Brennan has made steady improvements every year since he signed his entry-level deal in 2009. After two productive seasons in Portland he is knocking on the door to a regular spot in Buffalo. His 15 goals in 2010-11 led all Pirates defenseman and his 39 points was second to only AHL Defenseman of the Year, Marc-Andre Gragnani.

Brennan is not the biggest blueliner but he finishes his checks and has a booming point shot that is arguably his best asset. He needs to continue to work on his defensive positioning, especially his occasional lapses in judgment when pinching on the wall in the offensive zone.

Entering the final year of his entry-level deal with the Sabres, Brennan aims to have an impact by making it difficult for Buffalo’s brass to send him back to Rochester. Unfortunately for him, with the Sabres off-season additions on the blue line, he will likely fill a top pairing role with the Amerks for another year.

10. (11) Corey Tropp, RW, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd Round, 89th overall, 2007

After a slow start in his rookie season with Portland in 2010, Tropp’s game improved at the start of the New Year. His six goals and 20 assists over the final 45 games should set the pace for his sophomore season in the AHL. The Sabres like Tropp’s combination of offensive skill and gritty two-way play. His 113 penalty minutes were good for third on the Pirates last season.

Tropp will be one of the most NHL ready players to suit up for the Amerks this season because of his versatility, toughness and above average skating ability. Unfortunately for him the Sabres are set at right wing in 2011-12 and with newcomer and fellow right winger Zack Kassian fighting for a roster spot in Buffalo as well, it will be particularly tough to get time with the big club this season. Even though it is unlikely Tropp makes an NHL appearance in 2011-12, he could slot into a third line role very easily, he is a low risk, moderate reward type of player.

11. (9) Marcus Foligno, LW 6.5C
Drafted 4th Round, 104th overall, 2009

It’s hard not to be excited about the prospect of Marcus Foligno suiting up in Buffalo’s blue and gold considering the family history. Foligno is not the most offensively talented player on this list but he brings an honest effort every night, a quality which will quickly endear him to Sabres fans. His toughness and checking ability are his best qualities but he has steadily improved his offensive game over the past four seasons in Sudbury as well. His 59 points in 47 games was good for third on the Wolves in 2010-11 and he was instrumental in helping them advance by upsetting second seeded Ottawa during the OHL playoffs.

He has worked out all summer in Buffalo with Kassian and Adam which demonstrates his commitment to getting better going into camp. It should be interesting to see how he fares compared to those two by the start of the season. As a likely fourth liner at the NHL level, Foligno could possibly get a late season call up this year if the Sabres are short on grinders but a more likely scenario would be for him to get a full year of AHL seasoning before becoming a regular with the big club. Look for him to make his Sabres debut in 2012-13.

12. (19) Jerome Gauthier-Leduc, D, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd Round, 68th overall, 2010

For the second year in a row, Gauthier-Leduc was invited to the Canadian World Junior summer camp, a good indication that he is progressing very well in the QMJHL right now. In his first season with Rimouski, Gauthier-Leduc piled on the points and solidified his standing as one of the best young power play defenseman in the Canadian Hockey League. While his offensive game is well documented, it is his improved play defensively that will help him at the next level as he showed that he could be more responsible in his own end while still taking chances offensively.

Gauthier-Leduc will begin his fourth year of duty in the QMJHL as an assistant captain with the Oceanic. He will likely improve on his offensive numbers from last season and should at least be a consideration for the Canadian world junior squad. He still has a lot to learn and because of his late birthday he could possibly spend the next two seasons in the QMJHL. The Sabres are in no hurry to rush him into NHL action considering the log jam that is beginning to develop at the blue line position in the system.

13. (20) Kevin Sundher, C, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd Round, 75th overall, 2010

After a great season in Chilliwack where Sundher centered the first line and collected 52 assists, he will be relocating with the rest of his teammates to Victoria, BC to play for the expansion Victoria Royals. Sundher has all the tools to be an impact player at the NHL level, with stellar hockey sense, a knack for winning face-offs and NHL speed. It will be a huge test this season in Victoria as he will be without his two wingmen, Ryan Howse (CAL) and Roman Horak (CAL). It will be interesting to see if Sundher can continue to put up big numbers and increase his point totals from last year.

Sundher is one of the Sabres most underrated prospects but with another year of increased production that could change. With the likely graduation of Luke Adam to the big club this season, a top line center spot will likely open in Rochester, meaning Sundher could be playing in the AHL as soon as 2012-13.

14. (17) Dennis Persson, D, 6.5C
Drafted 1st Round, 24th overall, 2006

It has been a roller coaster ride for Persson as professional as he has gone from Mr. Irrelevant in the organization to one of its steadiest defenseman in the AHL. At first Persson struggled with the North American game but has begun to simplify his approach by focusing on not over extending himself on the ice and by taking care of the defensive zone first. His resurgence really began last season as he built off of a strong training camp in 2010, which led to him putting up the best offensive numbers of his career in the AHL with 17 points in 64 games.

Gone are the days when Persson was considered a smooth skating offensive defenseman with an eventual strong power play presence. His game now is based around his skating ability and solid two-way play. He is not expected to live up to the hype that made him a first round pick but he could find a spot on an NHL roster some day as a fifth or sixth defenseman.

The Sabres signed Persson to a one-year deal this summer, presumably to see if he further progresses into the player they thought they were getting when they drafted him 24th overall in 2006. If he does not show progress, he could be gone after this season, making room for future Amerks defenseman Mark Pysyk, Matt Mackenzie, and Jerome Gauthier-Leduc in 2012.

15. (14) Alex Biega, D, 6.5C
Drafted 5th Round, 147th overall, 2006

As the smallest defenseman in the Sabres farm system by nearly three inches, Biega needs to use his brain to make up for his relative lack of size. As the former captain at Harvard, he was known as a hard working, smooth skating defenseman that never gives up on a play. It will be those attributes that could someday propel him to the next level.

This season, Biega will be counted on to help get Brayden McNabb on the right track in his first pro season and to provide a solid two-way presence for the Amerks. He is the type of defenseman that you don’t even notice on the ice, as he rarely makes mistakes and his work ethic should rub off on McNabb.

He is entering the final year of his entry level deal with the Sabres and barring any unforeseen problems, he will likely be resigned next summer. Assuming he does resign after this season, expect Biega to be a fill in type of player for the Sabres down the road. He’s not expected to be a top four defenseman in the NHL but won’t hurt a team playing 15-18 minutes a night.

16. (NR) Daniel Catenacci, C, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd Round, 77th overall, 2011

The Sabres know that they may have gotten the steal of the 2011 NHL draft in Daniel Catenacci but he still has a long way to go to earn that title. Catenacci’s fall in the draft can be attributed mostly to his size and lack of offensive production with the Greyhounds. It should be noted that Sault Ste. Marie was one of the worst teams in the OHL last year and Catenacci wasn’t exactly surrounded with NHL caliber talent. This is perhaps one of the reasons the Catenacci camp requested a trade this offseason and was obliged by Greyhounds manager Kyle Dubas by dealing him to Owen Sound just before training camp started.

In Catenacci, the Sabres have a developmental prospect that could be an offensive force in the NHL someday. His 5’10 frame isn’t ideal, but he plays both ends of the ice and he hustles on every shift. His speed is what really sets him apart from his peers and if he can add some creativity to the mix, he could put up some very good numbers. Catenacci will likely spend two more seasons in the OHL barring a huge uptick in production this season. There is no question that Catenacci is an elite skater with the tools to be an effective scoring center in the NHL someday if he can continue to develop the offensive side of his game.

17. (15) Matt MacKenzie, D, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd Round, 83rd overall, 2010

MacKenzie got off to a slow start for Tri-City after he was traded there at the 2010-11 WHL trade deadline from Calgary. He rebounded nicely in the last month of the season with seven points in his final 11 games. MacKenzie will play in his fifth and final WHL season in 2011-12 where he will help to lead the young defensive core for Tri-City.

MacKenzie has a lot of upside at the next level as he is a complete defenseman in every sense. He doesn’t have one quality that stands out, he just doesn’t make a lot of mistakes defensively and he can chip in on offense as well. He has really developed his physical side more in the last two seasons as well which will add to his value at the next level. Look for MacKenzie to join a crowded blue line in Rochester in 2012 and foster more competition at the Sabres deepest position.

18. (16) Nick Crawford, D, 6.5C
Drafted 6th Round, 164th overall, 2008

Crawford will look to surprise people in his sophomore season in the AHL after posting decent offensive numbers last season with Portland. His 31 points in 2010-11 was a respectable number for a player that is known more for his all around defensive play than his offensive instincts. It’s easy to forget about him with so many other blue line prospects ahead of him on the depth chart but his smooth skating and hockey IQ make him a player to watch this year.

Look for Crawford to make an impact on the second pairing this season as the return of Drew Schiestel should help take some of the pressure off and allow him to develop at his own pace. With two more seasons left on his entry-level deal, and a glut of defensive prospects in the system, Crawford should rise up in 2012 with the likely graduation of Schiestel and Brennan after the coming season.

19. (NR) Riley Boychuk, LW, 6.5D
Drafted 7th Round, 208th overall, 2010

Making his debut on this list, in large part because of his superb playoff performance for the Winterhawks of the WHL last season is Riley Boychuk. The gritty winger was a big part the WHL playoff run by a stacked Portland team that also included Ryan Johansen (CLB), Brad Ross (TOR), Nino Niederreiter (NYI), and Sven Bartschi (CAL). He was aggressive on the forecheck, and extremely difficult to move in front of the net, making him an invaluable playoff performer.

His 6’5 frame seems to be completely healed after missing nearly a year and a half with hip problems. He is known as being an intimidator, fighter and all around tough player but he can also chip in offensively as seen last season when he posted career high totals of 18 goals and 35 points in 60 games to go along with his 148 penalty minutes.

Despite his NHL-ready size, Boychuk is still pretty raw. He will need to work on being more disciplined on the ice as he is prone to taking too many bad penalties and needs to be better positionally in the defensive zone. It is still unclear where Boychuk will ultimately be playing this season considering he has one more year of eligibility left in the WHL. Boychuk has yet to sign an entry-level deal with the Sabres and though his presence in Rochester would be intriguing because of his skill set, the better idea may be for him to get second line minutes with Portland for one more season before he embarks on his pro career.

20. (18) Connor Knapp, G, 6.5D
Drafted 6th Round, 164th overall, 2009

Knapp rounds out the list of the Sabres top 20 simply based on his past performance two years ago when he put together the best season of his college career. Unfortunately, Knapp hasn’t gotten better since then, at best hit a plateau and if the pattern of the last two seasons stays the same, he will get even less starts for Miami University as a senior. Cody Reichard has slowly taken over the lion’s share of the starts since joining Knapp as a freshman in 2008. However, Knapp has looked good in workouts this summer, he has improved and simplified his game positionally. He should also be the beneficiary of a veteran core of defenseman in front of him on the Red Hawks.

Knapp must make a statement this season and show the work he has done in the offseason has paid dividends. He will need to make a good impression to earn an entry level deal next season from the Sabres. While he likely won’t ever be a starter in the NHL, he could be a good AHL depth goaltender for Buffalo down the road.