Sabres Report: Rights Offering

By Ken McKenna

While Buffalo’s prospect depth at the center position is somewhat weak, they are slightly more blessed with talent on the right side. While there is only one virtual lock to play in the NHL (Norm Milley), there are at least 2 (and maybe 3) other prospects who, should they play to their potential, will have a shot at making the Buffalo roster in the future.

Buffalo’s top prospect at right wing, Norm Milley, is currently in his first pro campaign as a member of the Rochester Americans. Although Norm has not exhibited the goal-scoring prowess that he displayed in the OHL, he has nonetheless been an effective player for Rochester. Norm is currently 5th in scoring for the Amerks, but, more importantly, his +/- ranking is currently a +2. First-year players often sport minus figures, so this is no small accomplishment for Norm.

Norm has proven to be a versatile player for Rochester, as he has spent time on both the power play and penalty killing units. Milley is an excellent skater, an asset that allows him to be solid on both the forecheck and backcheck. And, while Norm may be smaller in stature, he has nonetheless played with some feistiness. As far as Buffalo is concerned, Norm’s best asset might be his right-handed shot, a trait shared by exactly none of the Sabres’ current group of right wings.

Milley had an impressive training camp, and has progressed enough this year that he could land a spot on Buffalo’s roster next season. Given Buffalo’s current depth at the RW position, however, it will be difficult for Norm to crack the lineup without some player movement.

Next in the pecking order is ’99 draft pick Milan Bartovic, who is currently playing for the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL. Heading into this season, it was expected that Bartovic would be a sniper for the Wheat Kings, given Milan’s encouraging performance as a rookie during the 99-00 season. Due to a combination of a shoulder injury and tournament play, however, Milan has had trouble creating offense on a consistent basis.

In spite of Bartovic’s offensive problems, the Brandon coaches continue to speak well of Milan’s overall effort, as he has continued to work hard in spite of his difficulties. This fact, alone, would indicate that Bartovic has matured some this season, since last season he was prone to taking the occasional night off, effort-wise. Milan still displays excellent speed, and, while he may not be scoring goals, he is helping to set some up for his teammates. Perhaps the best indicator of how Milan has played is the fact that he was the only Brandon player to be selected to play for the WHL’s Eastern Conference All-Star Team, which would signify that there are some outside of Brandon who have taken notice of Milan’s skills.

While Milan’s season has been somewhat frustrating, the season Jaroslav Kristek has had has been downright forgettable. Kristek is in his first full pro season as a member of the Rochester Americans, a season that, for Kristek, has been brought to an abrupt finish due to injuries. Jaroslav will have both shoulders surgically repaired, which will keep him out of action for several months. Jaro played with the injuries for many games, but his play was ineffective to the point of his receiving little playing time.

The injuries dampened what looked like a promising rookie season for Kristek, as he tallied most of his points in the early portion of the 2000-01 season. This injury setback must be especially frustrating for Jaroslav, since he suffered through an injury-plagued season last year while playing for the WHL’s Tri-City Americans. Given the fact that Kristek is a player who doesn’t mind going into the corners, it will be interesting to see how this will affect the way he plays the game. The injuries do not appear to be career threatening, but they might affect Jaroslav’s mental approach to the game, which may cause him to alter his style of play.

One thing that is certain, however, is that, between last season and this one, Kristek has missed a fair amount of playing time, which is time that was needed to help Jaro develop his game. Jaroslav will most likely need at least one full season, and possibly two, in Rochester before he makes a push for a spot on the Buffalo roster.

One right wing prospect for Buffalo whose stock may be on the rise is ’98 choice Ales Kotalik. Ales is currently playing for the Budojovice club in his native Czech Republic’s top league, which is the team he has been with the past couple seasons.

Kotalik has steadily increased his offensive production leading up to the 2000-01 season, but he may have exceeded even his own expectations this year. Ales is currently the top scorer for Budojovice, placing 11th overall in league scoring. In addition, he sports a +15 plus/minus rating, which would suggest that Ales is not simply a good offensive player, but is instead a decent all-around forward.

Kotalik certainly has the size to play in the NHL, and his skating ability is good enough for the pro game, but it remains to be seen whether or not he will come to North America to play. He was in Buffalo’s ’99 training camp, but he did not attend the 2000 camp. Ales just turned 22 in December, so, while he is still a relatively young prospect, he is also nearing the point of no return with regards to drawing attention from Buffalo, or any other NHL team.

The Sabres’ remaining prospects on the right side are 2 longshots to ever play for the big club. Bret Dececco, currently playing for the WHL’s Kootenay Ice, is a small but skilled player who possesses some grit. Bret has had a productive junior career, but he is effectively an overage player at this point, which means that his NHL chances are slim. Craig Brunel is an enforcer who began his pro career this season with Rochester, but was recently sent to South Carolina of the ECHL. Buffalo seems intent on trying to turn perennially disappointing LW Andrew Peters into the team’s future enforcer, so for now Craig will have to bide his time in the ECHL.

All in all, Buffalo’s right wing contingent could best be described as skilled forwards with good-to-very good speed who may not possess as much toughness as you would like to see in a NHL winger. There is some grit there, to be sure, but the best of these players will likely make their mark in the goals and assists columns, rather than leave marks on their opponents.