Sabres Report: The Thin Blueline

By Ken McKenna

The building of a strong defensive corps is a never-ending job for a NHL GM. Having a solid group of defensemen coupled with good goaltending will virtually ensure that a team will be competitive in most every game, but getting the right mix of players is truly a challenge.

The recent draft history of the Buffalo Sabres is a perfect example of the difficulties of assembling a solid, cohesive defensive unit. In the NHL drafts of 1989-1999, Buffalo used their top pick in the draft 6 times to select a defenseman (Kevin Haller, Phillipe Boucher, David Cooper, Denis Tsygurov, Jay McKee, Dimitri Kalinin). Of those 6 picks, only McKee and Kalinin have shown better than average ability at their position, with Kalinin being a rookie this year. The only other player from that group to log substantial time in the NHL is Kevin Haller, who would probably qualify as a journeyman defenseman.

Of course, the blueline contingent is rarely built with top draft picks, alone, as a team can find good defensive talent in the later rounds of the draft. This is true in the case of the current Sabres’ defensive group, as Alexei Zhitnik (LA-4th Rd., ’91), Jason Woolley (WAS- 4th Rd., ’89), Richard Smehlik (BUF- 5th Rd., ’90), and Rhett Warrener (FL- 2nd Rd., ’94) were all selected after the 1st round (James Patrick was a 1st rounder for the Rangers in ’81). What this also points out, however, is that building the defense often means having to go outside the organization to fill in the gaps, which is highlighted by the fact that just 3 of Buffalo’s 7 current defensemen were originally drafted by the Sabres.

This brings us to Buffalo’s current crop of defensive prospects, a group of 8 players with varied talents. This group is not as strong as it has been in the past couple years, but there is nevertheless some good talent in the pipeline. There is probably just one prospect from this current group who can step into the NHL next season, so Sabres fans will have to wait at least a couple years to get a look at some of the remaining defensive prospects.

With the graduation this year of Dimitri Kalinin to Buffalo’s lineup, the Sabres’ top defensive prospect is now Brian Campbell. Brian, currently playing for the Rochester Americans of the AHL, has only this season begun to more consistently display the great ability he displayed during his final season in the OHL 2 years ago. Brian’s strong play early in the season earned him a berth in the 2001 AHL All-Star game, where he played for the victorious Canadian contingent. Buffalo took notice of Campbell’s improved play, summoning him on 3 or 4 occasions to take the ride down the I-90 to play for the Sabres. Brian looked most comfortable in his most recent tour of duty with Buffalo, where he showed a good knack for jumping up into the play, and just generally looked more comfortable dispensing with his defensive duties.

The book on Brian hasn’t changed much since he turned pro- he is a small, swift-skating offensive defenseman, who will be most effective from his own blue line out, while being somewhat of a defensive liability in his own end. To be fair, Brian has shown improvement in his defensive play this year, even displaying some physical play in front of the net and along the boards. In spite of the more disciplined play Brian has displayed, he will always have some difficulty against the larger forwards in the NHL. This liability should not keep Campbell out of the NHL, however, as he has abundant skill on the offensive side of the ledger.

With the likelihood of a couple roster spots opening up in Buffalo next season, it would seem to be a virtual certainty that Brian will have a place waiting for him on the Sabres’ roster.

Gerard Dicaire, of the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds, is another prospect in the offensive defenseman mold. Gerard was Buffalo’s 2nd round pick in the 2000 draft, a draft in which Dicaire was the youngest player chosen.

Gerard had a very good year for Seattle, which was evidenced by the fact that he was voted the club’s Defenseman of the Year, as well as their Most Sportsmanlike Player. Gerard’s forte is creating offense, as he is a good skater possessing accurate passing skills and a decent shot. Gerard put those talents on display as the QB of Seattle’s power play, where he scored 11 PPGs while helping to set up several others. Overall, Dicaire finished 6th in scoring for the T-Birds, registering 51 points in 69 games.

Some Sabres fans will groan over the fact that Buffalo has chosen another gentlemanly player, which is understandable given Buffalo’s general lack of toughness at the defensive position. Dicaire certainly has the size to handle the rough stuff (6’2", 190lbs.), but he could use a bit of a mean streak to go with his offensive ability. Still, if Gerard continues to develop next year the way he did this year, he should be amongst the better offensive defensemen in the WHL in the 2001-02 season.

Moving to Finland, we find Buffalo’s only Swedish prospect, Henrik Tallinder, playing for TPS Turku of the Finnish league. Henrik apparently made the move to TPS in search of more playing time, a commodity that was in short supply during his time with AIK Stockholm. Judging by the progress Tallinder that has made this year, it was indeed a very wise move for to make.

Henrik is most noted for being a stay-at-home defenseman with good size and a bit of a nasty streak, but he has shown this year that there is also an offensive component to his game. Tallinder finished the season with 17 points (7G, 10A), which is a career high for him. The improved offensive output did not come at the expense of defense, however, as Henrik was +30 in the +/- category, which tied him for 2nd on the team.

Henrik’s season is not yet complete, as TPS is currently playing in the finals of the Finnish league. Once his season has been completed, however, it is still somewhat unclear as to what Henrik intends to do. Buffalo has sounded hopeful that they will ink Tallinder to a contract, but there have been no definite statements from either side. Should Henrik sign, he will most likely begin his pro career in the minors, where he will be allowed to mature the way other recent Buffalo defensive prospects have developed.

Doug Janik’s season, ended in March, as he and his University of Maine teammates were eliminated from the Hockey East playoffs by eventual NCAA champ Boston College. The Maine defender didn’t come away from the tournament completely disappointed, however, as he was named to the East Regional All-Star team. This award capped off a solid, though unspectacular, junior season for Doug, in what could be his final year of college hockey.

Doug has all the makings of being a solid, versatile defenseman, but it is difficult to say just how good a player he’ll be. Janik did not improve greatly over his 99-00 season, giving one the impression that NCAA hockey is no longer challenging enough for Doug. It’s also possible, however, that what you see is what you get with Janik, which was one of the raps he had against him leading up to the ’99 draft. There is no question that Doug has enough skill (good skater, good shot, solid defensively), size (6’1", 190), and toughness (52 PIMs) to be considered a very good prospect, but it remains to be seen whether or not he can make use of those tools effectively in the pro game.

Doug was a ’99 draft choice for Buffalo, so, should he decide to turn pro, the Sabres will then have to sign Janik by 6/1. Given the fact that Janik has just one year of college remaining, however, it would not be surprising to see him finish out his college career next season.

One Buffalo prospect closing out his junior career this season is Calgary’s Matt Kinch. The 21-year-old offensive defenseman is finishing his career in style, as he topped all WHL defensemen in total points with 84 (18G, 66A). In addition, Kinch finished 2nd in scoring on Calgary’s roster, while also placing in the top 10 in four league categories (assists, power play assists, power play points, +/-).

Matt’s strong season may not guarantee him a long look from Buffalo, as he is a 21-year-old player facing players mostly younger in age. Kinch’s size also works against him (5’ 11"), while his skating is good, but not overpowering. Matt does have some leadership qualities, but physical play is not a part of his leadership skills, which would put his viability as a NHL prospect into question.

Buffalo didn’t sign Matt last year, but he attended Buffalo’s training camp in August. The fact that Kinch was returned to his junior club as an overage player would indicate that Buffalo most likely does not have a great deal of interest in Matt.

Coming into the 2000-01 season, Sabres’ prospect Denis Denisov was considered to be a bit of a sleeper prospect for the Sabres. Denisov was coming off a season in which he had performed particularly well in the 2000 WJC, a tournament that is closely watched by NHL scouts, and no doubt where Denis caught the eye of the Buffalo scouting staff.

Although information on Denisov is hard to come by, it would appear that this season has been the opposite of last year for Denis. Denisov spent the 00-01 season with HC Moscow of the Russian High League (one step below the top league), and was once again a member of the Russian WJC team. Although Denis is not considered a true offensive defenseman, his output for HC Moscow was minimal (3 points in 41 games). Denisov’s performance in the 2001 WJC was just as uninspiring, as he and his Russian teammates struggled badly while finishing out of medal contention in the tournament.

The book on Denis is that he is a solid, steady defender who is slightly better in his own end than he is on offense. Denisov is another of the undersized defensive prospects (6’0", 183lbs.) that Buffalo seems to treasure, but Denis’ size won’t matter much if he doesn’t improve his overall game.

One Buffalo defensive prospect who has had trouble improving his game is Luc Theoret. Luc has been sidelined with injuries or illness the past 2 years, making it difficult to judge whether or not he is a viable prospect. Luc did appear in some games for South Carolina (ECHL) this season, but it was not enough time to judge his progress.

Luc certainly has the size to play in the NHL, and he is said to have skills worthy of a NHL-caliber defenseman, but time is running short for the young rearguard to prove himself. The fact that Theoret was diagnosed with an undisclosed form of cancer earlier in the year only clouds his future further, although he is said to be recovering nicely from his illness. Luc is under contract for one more year, so next season will most likely determine his future in the Buffalo organization.

The final name on Buffalo’s defensive prospect depth chart is Sean McMorrow, the rugged rearguard currently playing for the London Knights of the OHL. Sean’s main attribute is his toughness, which is indicated by the 131 PIMs he racked up in just 49 games. In addition to his fighting skills, McMorrow also has some usefulness as a defensive defenseman, but his average skating ability will probably hamper his chances of making it to the NHL.