Sabres Report: Centers of Attention

By Ken McKenna

This article will be the first in a series devoted to mid-term progress reports of all the Buffalo Sabres’ prospects, with each article covering a different position.

There are many NHL GMs who stress the importance of being strong up the middle. While Buffalo has been able to draft or acquire some solid talent for the center position in recent years, they have had trouble landing a top-flight pivot who can create offensive opportunities for both himself and the players around him. This isn’t to say that Buffalo doesn’t have some help on the way in their prospect ranks, but it is definitely a position that will need to be addressed in the near future.

Topping Buffalo’s list of prospects at the center position is Kingston Frontenacs star Mike Zigomanis. Mike had an excellent 99-00 season, and he has so far followed up with an equally fine first half to the 00-01 campaign. Ziggy is currently the Frontenacs leading scorer with a total of 60 points (31G, 29A), a point total that places him in the OHL’s top 20 scorers. His goal total has him tied for 6th in the OHL in that category, with 6 of those goals coming on the power play, 2 in shorthanded situations, and 2 markers being game-winners. Mike has been honored as both Player of the Week and Month in the OHL (November), which was no doubt a factor in his being named to the OHL’s Eastern Conference All-Star squad. Zigomanis also was selected to play for Canada in the WJC, which was noted in a previous article.

Kingston is currently in the thick of the race for the OHL’s Eastern Division crown, so this should be a good chance to see how Mike responds to the pressures of a playoff race. Given Mike’s status as captain of the Frontenacs, he will no doubt be expected to show leadership skills expected of that honor. The further Ziggy leads his team, the more his stock will rise in the Buffalo organization.

Buffalo’s 1st round pick in the 2000 Draft, Artem Kriukov, seemingly has all the skills to be a very good offensive center in the NHL- he is a good skater, a nifty puck handler, has a good shot, and has some toughness to go along with his decent size. While this may all be true, so far, at least, Artem has not been able to bring the package together.

Kriukov has spent most of the 00-01 season with Yaroslavl and SKA St. Petersburg of the Russian Superleague. In addition, he also spent some time with Yaroslavl’s tier 2 team, where he experienced the majority of his offensive success this season (5 goals in 9 games). Artem has faced mostly older competition in the top Russian league, which would account for his lack of productivity, but the lack of production has carried over into other situations where he has played against opponents closer to his age group.

While playing for SKA, Artem and his teammates barnstormed through Minnesota and Wisconsin, playing exhibition games against several college teams. While collecting statistics from those games has been difficult (Artem’s name did not appear on the score sheet for the 2 or 3 games where stats were available), the reports I received from those who had seen the games indicated that Kriukov wasn’t much of a factor on the ice. The same could be said for his appearances with Russia in the Four Nations Cup Tournament, where he registered no points in 3 games. In addition to Artem’s lack of production, he also had the added disappointment of not being selected to play for Russia in the WJC.

This is not to suggest that Artem is a flop, but the talent that Buffalo’s scouts saw in Kriukov has yet to make itself obvious. Perhaps playing for one organization in a season, rather than bouncing from program to program (he has played with 5 different groups of players this season alone), will help Artem settle down to a point where his talents will come together.

After Zigomanis and Kriukov, Buffalo’s talent at the center position falls off dramatically. The next best center, Kamil Piros, is a player who may not even be in the Sabres’ future plans. Kamil is a skilled, but passive, pivot currently playing for Litvinov of the Czech League. Piros has put up numbers slightly better than his point totals from his past 2 seasons in Litvinov, so there may be some maturation to his game. In addition to his league play, Kamil also had a strong showing in the Baltica Cup tournament, where he was the top scorer in that tourney. Still, Kamil’s soft play is a feature Buffalo can not afford to add to their team at this time, so it is doubtful that Piros will be coming to America anytime soon.

Francois Methot has been a part of successful Rochester teams the past couple seasons, but his contributions to the success of that team were limited due to restricted playing time. The 00-01 season is crucial to Methot’s chances of making the Buffalo roster, however, other than a hot scoring stretch during late December-early January, Francois has so far not found the consistency necessary for him to receive a serious look from Regier & Co. Creating offense has been Methot’s game in the past, but he has not created enough in the present to have any real shot of playing in a Buffalo uniform.

The remaining center prospects are all playing in the CHL, with the Portland Winter Hawks’ Paul Gaustad being the most intriguing of the three. Paul will probably never be known for his offensive exploits, although he did display some offensive ability prior to playing in the WHL. What Paul does have is good size, decent defensive skills, and a mean streak. Gaustad’s skating ability is adequate, so he could develop into a more sizable version of Mike Peca, minus a little foot speed and offensive ability. Paul’s playing time for Portland this season has been limited due to injuries, but he has nevertheless managed to surpass his point total of last season.

Ryan Courtney began the season with the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires, one of the better teams in that league. Fate dealt Ryan a cruel hand, however, as he was part of the package that was shipped to the OHL’s worst team, Mississauga, in return for scoring star Jason Spezza. Ryan’s status as an OHL “veteran” (this is his 3rd season) means he will be looked to for leadership by some of the less experienced players. Given the motley crew that surrounds Courtney, however, it would appear that Ryan is floundering right along with the rest of the team. As for Ryan’s style of play, it is difficult to assess because there is no one area of his game that stands out. Courtney is not a great offensive center, while his defensive play is about average. He has decent size, but he is not a very physical player, as evidenced by his low penalty totals. Perhaps Ryan can best be described as “Mr. Average”, a player of modest talents who is probably a longshot to ever play in the NHL.

The final player on this list, Brad Self of the OHL’s Peterborough Petes, has seen time at both center and left wing this season. Brad’s most well regarded trait is his defensive play, but this season he also has provided an offensive spark, as he is currently 2nd in scoring for Peterborough. Self has seen time both on the power play and penalty killing units, a tribute to his versatility. Brad is not a big player, nor is he particularly robust, so he will have a tough time making a NHL roster. Ultimately, Self is a player who has a shot at a career in the minor leagues, but little chance of making it to the Big Show.

Buffalo obviously could use a little more quality depth at this position. Zigomanis would appear to be a future NHL player, but after him things get a little murky. The Sabres had a number of good things to say about Kriukov at the NHL Draft, but so far, at least, Artem has not lived up to the hype. Of the remaining centers, Paul Gaustad might have potential as a 4th line center, but the remaining players won’t likely ever wear a Sabres uniform.

Next: Right Wings