Sabres Top 10 Prospects: Dipping into a deep pool of talent

By Ken McKenna

The Lindros family is whining about Eric’s contract, while Dominik Hasek wrapped his sports car around an elm tree, so that can mean only one thing: NHL training camps will soon be opening!

The Buffalo Sabres will begin their formal training camp in Austria on 9/13, with select rookies and prospects travelling to Kitchener, ON for a rookie camp prior to the trip to Austria. With the opening of camp only days away, I thought it would be a good time to offer up my thoughts on the players I consider to be the top 10 prospects in the Sabre organization.

Before listing these 10 players, these are the criteria I used to decide what qualifies a player for prospect status (as opposed to veteran or has-been): · the player must have played in less than 82 NHL games, i.e. a full seasons’ worth of games · the player must be 23 or younger With regard to the game requirement, I came to the conclusion that the vast majority of drafted players that make it to the NHL complete 82 NHL games somewhere between 2-4 years after being drafted. This would put most prospects in the 22-23-age range, which is where my age criteria come into play. Basically, if a player hasn’t had much NHL experience by the time he reaches the age of 23, his chances of making it in the NHL are not very good. There are exceptions, of course, but generally speaking the rule of 23 holds true in most cases.

With that bit of housekeeping out of the way, I now present to you my first list of the top 10 prospects in the Buffalo Sabres organization (keep in mind that, by the end of training camp, this list will have likely changed dramatically):

1) Vaclav Varada (Right Wing)
There are some that will dispute including Varada in this list, but he meets both the criteria I mentioned above. My impression of Vaclav prior to the 97-98 season was that he was a typical European forward, possessing good offensive skills but little grit. Boy, was I wrong! He possesses, instead, a good blend of offensive ability and toughness. He’s not a brawler, but he’ll take a hit to make a play, and he doesn’t mind going into the corners to muck it up with big NHL defensemen.

What Vaclav needs to develop is consistency, the lack of which kept him from making the team until late in the 97-98 season. He’ll have to prove that his strong showing in the playoffs was not a fluke, but there is every reason to believe that he could develop into a 30-35-goal scorer with a fair amount of grit.

97-98 Statistics GP G A Pts PIM
Rochester (AHL) 45 30 26 56 74
Buffalo (NHL) 27 5 6 11 15

Likely destination- Buffalo

2) Cory Sarich (Defenseman)
This D-man made great progress in 97-98, to the point where he is one of the top defensive prospects in the league. He gained notoriety last season for a thundering open-ice hit he placed on an opponent, but he is not a one-hit wonder.

In addition to his hitting ability, he also possesses some offensive skills, as well as leadership qualities. His main failing at this time is his slight build, which would make it difficult for him to stand up to some of the larger players in the NHL. The Sabres will have him bulk up, and will likely let him develop his skills in Rochester this year.

97-98 Statistics GP G A Pts PIM
Seattle (WHL) 46 8 40 48 137

Likely destination- Rochester

3) Dimitri Kalinin (Defenseman)
By virtue of the fact that he was the Sabres first pick this year, as well as the highest-rated European prospect in the draft, I’ve decided to rate Dimitri as the third best Sabre prospect. I’ve never seen him play, but he has been favorably compared to Vlad Konstantinov when he was that age. That isn’t bad company!

His defensive zone capabilities are already well developed, but I’m sure the Sabres braintrust would like to see Dimitri develop his offensive skills. Still, Kalinin is a top prospect who is likely 2-3 years away from donning the Sabre jersey on a regular basis.

97-98 Statistics GP G A Pts PIM
Chelyabinsk (Rus.) 26 0 2 2 24

Likely destination- possibly Moncton (QMJHL)

4) Mika Noronen (Goalie)
Mika was a surprise first pick in the ’97 draft, but he made the Sabres scouting staff look good with a strong performance at the WJC last year, as well as generally good play with Tappara of the Finnish league.

More recently, however, he likely gave the scouts heartburn with his shaky performance at the USA Hockey Summer Challenge last month. He was pulled in one game, and was the losing goaltender in the championship game. The Sabres, I’m sure, are hoping this was just a bump in the road of Mika’s development, and I suspect that will be the case. He plays the position like a North American, and has all the tools to be a top NHL goaltender.

97-98 Statistics GP GAA Save %
Tappara (Fin) 41 2.94 .907

5) Erik Rassmussen (Center)
In the ’97 Future Watch issue put out by the Hockey News, Erik was the top- rated forward amongst the top 50 NHL prospects (3rd overall). In the ’98 issue of FW, he dropped out of the top 10 NHL prospects. The reason for this drop is a prolonged offensive funk that began shortly after his stellar performance at the ’96 WJC, and has continued right through his first year in Rochester.

He has the size and temperament to be a NHL power forward, but his offensive prowess will decide whether he becomes an above average NHLer, or the Second Coming of Norm Lacombe (long-suffering Sabre fans will groan at that suggestion!).

97-98 Statistics GP G A Pts PIM
Buffalo (NHL) 21 2 3 5 14
Rochester (AHL) 53 9 14 23 137

Likely destination- possibly Buffalo, but more likely Rochester to start the season

6) Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre (Defenseman)
J-L is not the most offensively gifted player, but he appears to be developing into a solid, stay-at-home defenseman with a mean streak. He will likely be given every chance to make the team, and he could be the replacement for the departed Bob Boughner should Jay McKee falter. More likely, he will be the 7th defenseman.

97-98 Statistics GP G A Pts PIM
Rochester (AHL) 75 4 6 10 211

Likely destination- Buffalo

7) Alexei Tezikov (Defenseman)
The Sabres are well stocked at the defensive position, with Alexei being the best offensive defenseman of the group. He did not look out of place in the one exhibition game I saw him play last year and, should Alex Zhitnik have a prolonged hold out, Tezikov could see some playing time with the big club in the early season. More likely, he will spend this season developing in Rochester.

97-98 Statistics GP G A Pts PIM
Moncton (QMJHL) 60 15 33 48 144

Likely destination- Rochester

8) Maxim Afinogenov (Right Wing)
The fastest Sabre prospect, Max has drawn some comparisons to Pavel Bure. I suspect he isn’t quite the offensive whiz that Bure is, but he can still be a dangerous threat off the wing. One thing working against Maxim is his lack of size, and there are questions as to how serious he is about playing in North America. The fact that he will be returning to Russia again, rather than play in the CHL or AHL, has led some to question Maxim’s desire to play in the NHL.

97-98 Statistics GP G A Pts PIM
Moscow Dynamo 35 10 5 15 53

Likely destination- Moscow Dynamo, but could be a surprise in training camp

9) Henrik Tallinder (Defenseman)
Still another defenseman on this list, Henrik is a prototypical stay-at-home defenseman that every team needs. He has good size, and rarely takes himself out of position. What he doesn’t have are good offensive instincts, as evidenced by his total of zero points last season. He is said to have a good shot from the point, but so far it hasn’t led to any offensive fireworks. Still, he appears to be a future NHLer, one that could be a rock on the Sabre blue line for 10-12 years.

97-98 Statistics GP G A Pts PIM
AIK (Swe) 34 0 0 0 53

Likely destination- AIK in the Swedish league

10) Francois Methot (Center)
When you get to the 10th slot on these lists, there is any number of players that could occupy this position. In the Sabres case, there are probably 5 or 6 players that could be mentioned at this position. My pick is Francois because I feel he is a sleeper that has been overlooked due to an injury he suffered last year which shortened his season.

Until his injury early in the 97-98 season, Francois was on a scoring pace that would have placed him amongst the top 5 scorers in the QMJHL. As it was, he finished the season with 65 points in 35 games. For a team like Buffalo that is starved for offensive talent, Methot could be the tonic for that problem. He needs to add weight to be able to stand the rigors of being a NHL centerman, and he will likely need some seasoning in the minors. Should Francois show that his offensive skills could carry over to the pro game, the Sabres will likely give him an opportunity to strut his stuff in the NHL.

97-98 Statistics GP G A Pts PIM
Shawinigan (QMJHL) 36 23 42 65 10

Likely destination- Rochester

Some other names to watch are Martin Biron (G), Darren Van Oene (LW), Luc Theoret (D), Jeff Martin (C), and Andrew Peters (LW). One other intriguing player, although he does not meet my prospect criteria, is David Moravec. David is a 25 year-old left wing from the Czech Republic whom the Sabres drafted this year. He put up good numbers in the top Czech league last season (64 points in 51 games), and the Sabres are hoping that he can provide some offense from the left side.

The Sabres have 4 group two free agents (Alex Zhitnik, Miro Satan, Mike Wilson, Donald Audette) that could be potential hold outs, which could give some prospects the chance to show their stuff at the NHL level. A more likely scenario would be the Sabres trading a couple prospects in return for some much-needed offensive help. Regardless, the Sabres have a deep talent pool to draw from, which could result in some interesting position battles in training camp.