Sabres top-20 flush with complementary talent

By Tony Musso
Photo: Brayden McNabb has emerged this season as an NHL caliber defenseman. He’ll be expected to compete for a regular spot with the Sabres in 2012-13. (Photo courtesy of Jerome Davis/Icon SMI)

After an eventful season that has already seen Luke Adam graduate and two players depart via trade in Zack Kassian (VAN) and Marc-Andre Gragnani (VAN) , the Sabres top 20 looks a little different in 2012. Their strength is still in their tremendous defensive depth, which makes up half of this list. The trio of T.J. Brennan, Joe Finley, and Brayden McNabb have all seen action with the Sabres and could all make a push for a permanent spot with the club in 2012-13.

The Sabres lack many elite offensive prospects. The depth chart is mostly filled with second and third line players with limited offensive upside. There are a few exceptions to that as Joel Armia gives them some great goal scoring potential and Kevin Sundher and Phil Varone have shown their playmaking prowess. Connor Knapp jumped up nine spots after a tremendous second half of the season between the pipes for Miami of Ohio and Nathan Lieuwen graces the list for the first time.

1. (1) Joel Armia, RW, 8C
Drafted 1st round, 16th overall, 2011

With only two goals in his first 20 games this season for club team Assat of the Finnish Elite league, it’s safe to say that Armia started off the season slowly. In mid November and with limited ice-time due to his lack of production, Armia’s game began to turnaround. He scored six goals and 11 points in the following 11 games, taking him into the World Junior tournament with a lot of momentum.

At the World Juniors, he was a force for the Finns, scoring five goals in seven games and recording 16 penalty minutes along the way. The big, strong scoring winger was physical along the wall where he showed that he could do more than score goals, a bonus for the Sabres if he can continue that with any consistency.

Armia rode a good WJC showing into a near point-per-game production for Assat with ten goals and ten assists in 22 games to finish the season. All in all it was a productive season for the Sabres best prospect. Unfortunately Armia’s season ended prematurely after he collided rather innocuously with Sami Vatanen (ANA) during the Finnish Elite League playoffs. While he won’t need surgery, the six weeks of recovery time will effectively end his season. The Sabres have high hopes for Armia and would love to see him playing in North America as early as next season.

2. (5) Brayden McNabb, D, 7B
Drafted 3rd round, 66th overall, 2009

It’s hard not to get excited by the type of defensive game that McNabb plays, he skates well, has an above average shot and is a punishing hitter. He was a casualty of numbers this season with Sabres as he was sent back down to Rochester after playing well throughout December and part of January. All of Buffalo’s regulars were healthy for the first time all season and there was no room for him.

He continued to play well in Rochester and has managed 27 points in 40 games for the Amerks while also leading the teams defense in plus/minus with a +12. McNabb has been the Sabres best call-up on the blue line and should continue to be the go to player for injuries for the rest of 2011-12.

With a good off-season of working on his transition game, McNabb can really raise the possibility of making the Sabres out of camp next season.

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

If you were comparing statistics from last season to this season, Pysyk’s rather pedestrian numbers might seem disappointing, but his consistency is one of his strengths. He has progressed in many of the intangible parts of a defenseman’s game and that is where his real value should be measured. He was named captain of the now regular season WHL champion Edmonton Oil Kings. His patience and skating ability are second to none on the junior circuit and his physical game has come a long way since the Sabres drafted him in the first round nearly two seasons ago.

Though he played limited minutes for the bronze medal-winning Canadian world junior team, he was still one of only seven players in Canada that made up their defensive corps. With the Oil Kings poised for a deep run at the Memorial Cup this season, the Sabres hope Pysyk’s leadership will shine through. His experience during their run should help him prepare for what will likely be his first pro season in 2012-13.

4. (9) T.J. Brennan, D, 7C
Drafted 2nd round, 31st overall, 2007

Brennan continued to progress this season with the Amerks and in his three call-ups with the Sabres. His 15 goals and 29 points in 47 games for Rochester topped defenseman with the club. He plays top pairing minutes for the Amerks and six of his goals have come on the power play but his defensive zone play has been where he has improved most this season. He has been stouter in front of his own net and good positionally below the hash marks in the defensive zone, two areas where he was lacking in years past.

Brennan impressed the Sabres as an injury fill in despite limited minutes. He has perhaps the best shot of any of the Sabres defensive prospects at making the team next year and should be a power play weapon of the future for Buffalo with his cannon of a shot.

5. (11) Marcus Foligno, LW, 7C
Drafted 4th round, 104th overall, 2009

It’s hard to quantify the significance of Foligno’s progression within the ranks of Sabres prospects. As a fourth round pick whose major deficiency was his limited skating ability and an affinity for taking bad penalties, he has come a long way. Obviously Foligno improved on his skating before this season and his days of being undisciplined are way behind him but it is his play with the puck that is most intriguing. Though not an overly creative player, he works hard and protects the puck well. His fore-checking and responsible defensive zone play has given him ample playing time in all situations with the Amerks. His 14 goals and 34 points are good for fourth on the team in scoring.

After playing one game with the Sabres in December, Foligno has been anxious to get back and show how much he has progressed since then. To date, he has six goals and five assists in 12 games. He is making it nearly impossible to send him back to Rochester and Sabres coach Lindy Ruff has steadily increased his minutes every game. His chemistry with Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford has been a revelation and a big part of the Sabres late season success. He is a shoe-in to make next season’s squad out of training camp. Not bad for a player that was labeled as a fourth liner when he was drafted in 2009.

6. (10) Corey Tropp, RW, 6.5B
Drafted 3rd round, 89th overall, 2007

Corey Tropp needs credit for salvaging a season that could have been easily lost due to a concussion he sustained in early December. He was playing very well for the Sabres as a checking line winger, providing energy and attitude to a team that often seemed to lack both. After a successful recovery stint in Rochester where he racked up three goals and 10 points in 10 games, Tropp was summoned back to Buffalo.

While he has been playing mostly fourth line minutes, he has made his presence felt. The departure of Paul Gaustad at the trade deadline left a physical void in the Sabres bottom six group that Tropp has helped to fill. He should stay in the line up during the Sabres push towards the playoffs with his gritty, high energy game and will likely be one of the toughest training camp decisions the Sabres will have to make next season.

7. (12) Jerome Gauthier-Leduc, D, 7D
Drafted 3rd round, 68th overall, 2010

Though he failed to make the cut for team Canada at the World Junior Championships, Gauthier-Leduc more than made up for it with his offensive explosion in 2011-12. He is currently third on his own team in scoring with 28 goals and 74 points in 62 games. He has shown that he can be very effective at quarterbacking the power play and he moves the puck up ice very well, reminding many people of a young Brian Campbell.

Gauthier-Leduc is the definition of an offensive defenseman yet there were times this season and even as far back as training camp in Buffalo that you saw a glimpse of his potential as an asset and not a liability defensively as well. Time will tell if he can cut it in the NHL, but paired with a true stay at home defenseman, Gauthier-Leduc could be an offensive force for the Sabres in the future.

8. (13) Kevin Sundher, C, 7D
Drafted 3rd round, 75th overall, 2010

All seemed to be going well for Sundher leading up to the World Junior Championships and the WHL trade deadline. He was leading his team in scoring and making a strong push to become a surprise addition to the Canadians roster for the World Juniors when the rug was swept out from under him. He was cut from team Canada and a short time after, Victoria traded him to the Brandon Wheat Kings.

From that point on it has been nothing but mediocrity or worse, irrelevancy in his time with the Wheat Kings. Sundher has tremendous offensive talent, particularly as a passer, but he has not adjusted well to the rejection or the trade. He also sustained a concussion on February 14th that has kept out of all but one game since.

The good news is that he is young and sometimes such drastic changes in circumstances can more dramatically affect someone his age. It wasn’t all bad though, as he still managed to finish the season with 75 points in 58 games and he signed an entry-level deal with the Sabres. Next season he will make the jump to Rochester where he will get a fresh start in his first pro season.

9. (16) Daniel Catenacci, C, 7D
Drafted 3rd round, 77th overall, 2011

Catenacci played well in his first season with Owen Sound after being dealt before the season from Sault Ste. Marie. He set a career high with 33 goals, 10 of which came on the power play and he continued to display his tremendous speed and work ethic. He was a key member of the penalty killing unit as well where his relentlessness makes him so dangerous. Catenacci will need to shoulder a bigger load when the playoffs begin for Owen Sound as leading scorer Mike Halmo was suspended for 10 games after a dangerous hit to the head of 2012 draft gem, Nail Yakupov.

As one of the younger players on this list, Catenacci will spend another season playing in the OHL. The Sabres will look for him to improve on his offensive totals in his final season of junior as he will be one of the leaders for Owen Sound next year.

10. (20) Connor Knapp, G, 7D
Drafted 6th round, 164th overall, 2009

Despite getting pulled in a recent semifinal loss at the CCHA tournament, Knapp is arguably the hottest Sabres prospect right now. He started the season splitting time with teammate Cody Reichard, an arrangement that both are accustomed too but he struggled early on, prompting the Miami coaching staff to lean more heavily on Reichard.

In the New Year, all of that changed. Knapp has been a force for Miami, allowing more than two goals just twice since January 10th. His 1.69 goals against average is among the tops in nation and his .933 save percentage is fourth. He has five shutouts and is a big reason why Miami finished fifth in the nation.

Knapp has done exactly what he needed to get the Sabres attention this offseason. He is a big-bodied goaltender who has worked extremely hard positionally. His work ethic is paying off on the ice and he is a strong candidate to receive an entry-level deal with the Sabres this season.

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

As one of only four Amerks defenseman to play more than 50 games this year, Biega was able to solidify his place as one of the rising young leaders on the Rochester blue line. His 21 points eclipses last seasons output but Biega’s biggest strengths are in his intangibles. Obviously his leadership qualities are well known, but his puck movement in the transition game is highly underrated as well. He is one of the more cerebral players on the Amerks squad and his decision-making is second to none.

Biega doesn’t have the raw offensive talent or the brute defensive strength and toughness of some of his peers on this list, but he makes up for it with his extremely high hockey intelligence. He won’t ever be a top-four minute-muncher but should be a solid pro that coaches aren’t afraid to play in any situation.

12. (8) Drew Schiestel, D, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 59th overall, 2007

Last season Schiestel was named to the AHL all-star team one day before sustaining a season ending knee injury. After rehabilitating all summer he came back with renewed vigor, hoping to regain his all-star form from 2010-11. Instead he injured the opposite knee in the Amerks first game and missed the first month of the season.

Schiestel hasn’t been the same player since sustaining both injuries and the Sabres defensive depth hasn’t allowed him to ease back into action. Many of his teammates that aren’t as highly regarded were outplaying him, making him a healthy scratch so the Sabres loaned his rights to the Texas Stars to get him playing time.

Schiestel has a ton of potential if he is healthy so it will be interesting to see how he does with more playing time in Texas. So far he has acclimated well with five assists in his first 12 games. With such a plentiful group of blueliners, the Sabres will have tough choices to make this summer and what to do with Schiestel is sure to be at the top of the list.

13. (NR) Drew MacKenzie, D, 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 209th overall, 2007

Besides Connor Knapp, no player has improved his stock this year more than Drew MacKenzie. He has arguably been one of the best players on a weak University of Vermont team. MacKenzie is a smooth skating defenseman who plays a steady all around game. He has improved his point totals in each season with Vermont and has tremendous confidence and poise on the blue line.

Though MacKenzie’s season was disappointing from a team perspective, personally he did everything right. He established himself as player that the Sabres can’t ignore and he will likely be looking at an entry-level deal this off-season, making the Sabres defensive prospect depth even more inflated.

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

MacKenzie had only played 15 games before sustaining a deep cut above his knee in early December, sidelining him for 34 games. He had acclimated himself well in his rookie season and was quickly restored to the lineup after a one game conditioning stint with Gwinnett upon his return. It should say a lot that he was getting more playing time than some of his more experienced peers. He will be a big part of the Amerks defensive corps moving forward and could be a consideration for one of the top four defensive spots next season.

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

Playing in more games than any other Amerks defenseman this season with 63, Nick Crawford has been a steady presence on an ever-changing Rochester blue line. His five goals and 18 points this season is slightly below his totals from last season but his game as a whole has improved. Crawford is a jack-of-all-trades on the blue line and Rochester coach Ron Rolston isn’t afraid to play him in all situations. He isn’t the most talented defensive prospect in the Sabres system but he limits his mistakes, skates well, and is good in transition, which is why he ranks as high as he does even with his limited upside. He still has one season remaining on his entry-level deal and should figure to continue playing a middle pairing role with the Amerks next season.

16. (NR) Steven Shipley, C, 6C
Drafted 4th round, 98th overall, 2010

Though he has serious deficiencies in his overall game, Shipley has enough skill to warrant his position as one of the Sabres top prospects. His point totals have decreased in each of the last three seasons in the OHL due in part to a role change when he came over to Niagara from Owen Sound at the beginning of the 2010-11 season. With the Ice Dogs he isn’t the top pivot, whereas on a weaker Owen Sound team he had to be.

Shipley stepped in and played well during the World Juniors in the absence of four of his teammates who were representing team Canada. He went on a six-game point streak in which he collected four goals and seven assists, helping to ease the loss of the Ice Dogs other top players.

Shipley has always been labeled as inconsistent and his defensive zone play needs a lot of work but he is an intriguing project player for the Sabres. He has great size at the center position, a commodity the Sabres are lacking and a decent set of hands. With a little more focus he may figure into the Sabres future plans.

17. (NR) Joe Finley, D, 6C
Signed as a Free Agent November 28th, 2011

The Sabres took minimal risk in giving hulking defenseman Joe Finley a tryout contract last summer and he has rewarded them with sound defensive play and a menacing presence on the Amerks blue line. After a stellar training camp and a very good start to the season, the Sabres gave Finley a three-year deal.

Finley has played well for the Amerks, appearing in 50 games this season and leading the team in penalty minutes with 115. He also had two brief stints totaling five games with the Sabres filling in for injured Buffalo blue liners where he played well with limited ice time. Finley is a very good skater for a player of his size and with more AHL seasoning he could develop into a nice bottom pairing defensive defenseman who can be an intimidating player for the Sabres in the future.

18. (NR) Philip Varone, C, 6.5D
Signed as a Free Agent March 19th, 2012

Even though the Sabres will not have a fourth consecutive AHL rookie of the year winner this season, they will take comfort from the play of free agent rookie, Philip Varone. He is leading all Amerks with 38 assists in 67 games and his two shorthanded goals are good indication of the type of responsible all-around player that he is. Varone was a fifth round pick of the San Jose Sharks in 2009 who was not signed by the team last summer. The Sabres pounced and offered him an AHL deal, which Varone has fully capitalized on by playing well and earning a three-year entry-level deal from the Sabres on March 19th.

Varone has good vision and solid puck skills but he may be suited more for a third line role at the next level. He doesn’t overwhelm you with his offensive instincts but he plays with a ton of heart, which along with his strong defensive zone play could be his ticket to the NHL.

19. (NR) Nathan Lieuwen, G, 6C
Drafted 6th round, 167th overall, 2011

Though his play has tailed off quite a bit from earlier this season, Lieuwen still deserves a place on this list. He started the season on fire, leading all goalies in the WHL in nearly every category through the first two months of the season. Even with his numbers nowhere near where they were early in the season, he is still regarded as one of the better goalies in the WHL.

Lieuwen has excellent size and though he isn’t the quickest goalie around he makes up for it with sound positioning. It will be interesting this summer to see if the Sabres sign both Lieuwen and Knapp to entry-level deals or if they elect to sign only one with the other coming in on an AHL deal. All of a sudden the Sabres could have an influx of good young goalies onto the farm.

20. (NR) Cedrick Henley, LW, 6C
Drafted 6th round, 173rd overall, 2010

Henley again missed some time to injury this season but it wasn’t bad enough to stop him from setting career highs in nearly every statistical category. His 13 goals and 39 points in 53 games showed a glimpse of the secondary scoring he can provide. He added 88 penalty minutes as well and ably through his weight around in 2011-12.

Henley is a big power forward who projects out as a third- or fourth-line player as a pro. His considerable size at 6’5 and 205 pounds and his willingness to drop the gloves make him an interesting prospect for a Sabres team lacking toughness moving forward. He still has the "injury-prone" tag, but he has the potential to fill one of the grinder line spots for the Sabres of the future if he can stay healthy. He has the ability to either play an overage season next year with Val d’Or or the Sabres could elect to sign him and stick him in Gwinnett of the ECHL to develop further.