Sabres Report: Prospect Update

By Ken McKenna

Welcome to the February edition of the Buffalo Sabres Top 20 prospects. This update features the removal of one name from the prospect list (Erik Rassmussen), the addition of another (Brad Moran) and some general upward or downward movement amongst the other prospects.

The removal of Erik Rassmussen was a tough call on my part. There are those that would insist that Erik, because he has spent a good portion of this season with the Sabres, should now be considered a bona fide big league hockey player. While this is a good point in general, anyone who has seen Erik play over the last month realizes that he is nowhere near being ready for prime time. I would argue, in fact, that the best place for him at this time would be Rochester, where he can better develop his offensive game. My point of view is probably not the popular one, though, so, in the interest of bipartisanship, I am removing Erik from the Top 20.

As for Brad Moran, he is having another great offensive season with the WHL’s top team, the Calgary Hitmen. He has benefited from playing with super rookie Pavel Brendl, so it remains to be seen whether Brad’s point total is an accurate measure of how he is playing. Still, he was a top scorer last year without Brendl, so it seems his offensive prowess is not a flash in the pan. The biggest strikes against Moran are his lack of size, and the fact that he was drafted as a 19-year old rather than in his original draft year. Perhaps Brad is a late bloomer, but it is more likely that he is a very good junior player. Nevertheless, he deserves a spot in the Top 20, so welcome to the club, Brad!

With that bit of business completed, it’s on to the latest edition of the Sabres Top 20!

1) Cory Sarich D 6′ 3″ 182
1) Cory Sarich Cory retains his position at the top of the list. While he didn’t have quite as spectacular a January compared to his play in previous months, he is still playing very well for an AHL rookie. This may be a little overstatement on my part, but I think that Sarich may be the best defensive prospect that the Sabres have ever had. The fact that there are so many teams interested in trading for Cory is proof for this statement. His selection to the AHL all-star game is further evidence of the strides he has made in a few short months. Cory’s arrival in Buffalo could be sooner rather than later, depending on how events transpire over the next few weeks.

Team GP G A Pts PIM +/- GWG
Rochester (AHL) 46 3 21 24 48 N/A 0

2) Martin Biron G 6′ 1″ 160
2) Martin Biron G 6′ 1″ 160 Martin has played so well that he should be considered prospect 1A. He currently leads AHL goaltenders in goals-against average, wins and shutouts, and he is 4th in save percentage. He was named AHL goalie-of-the-month for January and AHL player-of-the-week for the week ending 1/20. Two of his January victories were 40+ save performances. To be sure, Biron has at times benefited from the strong defensive play of his teammates, but this should not overshadow the fact that he is now one of the top goaltending prospects in the NHL.

Team GP Min. Shots GAA Save% SO
Rochester (AHL) 34 2040 1004 1.94 0.934 5

3) Maxim Afinogenov RW 5′ 11″ 176
In an interview that appeared in a Russian paper shortly after the completion of the WJC, Maxim stated that he enjoyed playing for Moscow Dynamo, and that he would like to play with them for 2 or 3 more years. While this is probably just a case of a young man blowing smoke, this news cannot be music to the ears of Sabres’ management. There has been concern that Maxim is not serious about playing hockey in the NHL, and the fact that he hasn’t signed with Buffalo lends credence to those concerns. Nevertheless, Maxim’s play this season has earned him the 3rd spot on this list. Afinogenov’s choice as the best forward at the WJC is his greatest accomplishment this season, but he has also helped lead Dynamo to the final four of the European Hockey League (EHL). The future appears to be bright for Maxim, but it remains to be seen where that future will take place.

Team GP G A Pts PIM +/- GWG
Moscow Dynamo EHL 7 4 5 9 58 9 N/A
Moscow Dynamo Rus 29 6 12 18 14 NA N/A
Rusia (WJC) 7 3 5 8 0 5 2

4) Dimitri Kalinin D 6′ 2″ 198
Dimitri has the 4th slot primarily on potential. He returned from a knee injury in late December, and only recently is getting back to the form he showed prior to his injury. Kalinin picked up a goal and assist in a Moncton victory on 1/29, so it appears that he is regaining confidence in his offensive game. Dimitri will get plenty of playing time with a strong Moncton team, so he should only improve as the season moves along.

Team GP G A Pts PIM +/- GWG
Moncton (QMJHL) 22 4 11 15 34 4 0

5) Alexei Tezikov D 6′ 1″ 198
While there are those that think J.L. Grand-Pierre deserves this spot, I’m giving it to Alexei based on potential. Tezikov has played well for a player that turned pro in mid-season, and he appears to have a lot of natural ability that Grand-Pierre does not possess. The fact that there is a bit of feistiness to Tezikov’s game, on top of his natural ability, is just icing on the cake.

Team GP G A Pts PIM +/- GWG
Moncton (QMJHL) 25 9 21 30 52 12 2
Rochester (AHL) 9 2 1 4 6 N/A 0

6) Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre D 6′ 3″ 207
Jean-Luc appears to be answering the question of whether or not he has NHL ability. Not only was G rand-Pierre’s selection to the AHL all-star game proof of how far he has come this season, but his performance in the skills competition prior to the all-star game should put to rest the notion that physical play is his only ticket to the NHL. J-L turned in the fastest time in the fastest skater contest, and recorded the second-fastest shot in the hardest shot competition. Considering the fact that Jean-Luc is the most physical defensive prospect the Sabres have, it is highly unlikely that he will be involved in any trades that take place before the NHL trade deadline.

Team GP G A Pts PIM +/- GWG
Rochester (AHL) 45 4 3 7 82 N/A 1

7) Henrik Tallinder D 6′ 3″ 194
Henrik is another Sabre prospect who has been bitten by the injury bug. Tallinder sustained a foot injury during the WJC, and has not played since that time. While the injury is not career threatening, Henrik will likely be out of action a couple more weeks. In spite of the injury, Tallinder’s name has popped up in recent trade rumors (as have most of the other top Sabre prospects). The interest that other teams have in Tallinder is a testament to the high regard in which he is held.

Team GP G A Pts PIM +/- GWG
AIK (Sweden) 24 0 0 0 22 -4 0
Sweden (WJC) 3 0 0 0 2 4 0

8) Mika Noronen G 6′ 1″ 191
Mika’s play has improved slightly since the debacle at the WJC, but he has yet to return to the form that he displayed last season. While I’m sure the Sabres’ hockey department is disappointed with the way Noronen has played, the play of Biron has made it less urgent that Mika develop quickly. Assuming Mika signs with the Sabres, his initiation to North American hockey will likely take place next year in Rochester. He’ll receive the proper coaching there, and should have a good chance to turn his game around.

Team GP Min. Shots GAA Save% SO GAA
Tappara (Fin) 26 1605 741 3.44 0.876 1 92
Finland (WJC) 3 159 65 4.14 0.831 0 11

9) Norm Milley RW 5′ 11″ 185
Milley continued his hot hand in January, putting together a 10 game point-scoring streak for Sudbury. Norm is currently 3rd in scoring in the OHL, while he is also 3rd in goals scored and 2nd in power play goals with 16. In addition, Norm picked up an assist in the OHL all-star game. While his size may be a cause of concern to some, there is no question that Milley has taken his game to another level this season. If he can translate his offensive performance to the pro game, he could eventually help ease some of the offensive shortcomings that the Sabres currently have.

Team GP G A Pts PIM +/- GWG
Sudbury (OHL) 49 38 48 86 26 6 3

10) Jaroslav Kristek RW 6′ 0″ 183
Like Norm Milley, Jaroslav also was on a roll in January. Kristek put together a 9 game point-scoring streak in January, which helped him break into the top 20 scorers in the WHL. Jaroslav is currently 2nd in WHL rookie scoring (behind scoring whiz Pavel Brendl), and he is tied for ninth in power play goals. Kristek has maintained a high level of play throughout the season, and he has displayed no ill effects from his initial exposure to North American hockey. This would seem to bode well for his future success at the pro level.

Team GP G A Pts PIM +/- GWG
Tri-City (WHL) 50 27 37 64 37 19 5

11) Brian Campbell D 5′ 11″ 185
Brian has not been scoring at the pace he was prior to the WJC, but he is still the top-scoring defenseman in the OHL. He put together a couple multi-point games in January, and he picked up an assist in the OHL all-star game. There is no doubt that Brian is a heady offensive defenseman, but I remain a little concerned by his lack of size. Campbell is likely to get his opportunity next season to show what he can do at the pro level. In the meantime, he will have the opportunity to help guide Ottawa to the Memorial Cup in front of the hometown fans, as Ottawa has been named the host city for this year’s tournament.

Team GP G A Pts PIM +/- GWG
Ottawa (OHL) 42 8 53 61 15 33 0
Canada (WJC) 7 1 1 2 0 12 1

12) Luc Theoret D 6′ 2″ 197
Luc was traded to the Portland Winterhawks at the 2/1 WHL trade deadline, which is a small step up from playing with Lethbridge. This trade came as no surprise, since Lethbridge is currently in a rebuilding mode, but it was a little surprising that Theoret wasn’t traded to a better team. Luc is currently 4th in scoring amongst WHL defensemen, and he had a 6 game point-scoring streak in January. In addition, he notched a couple assists in the WHL all-star game played 1/20. Prior to the season, Luc was looked upon as a talented-but-lazy player, so it will be interesting to see if this trade has a negative affect on his play. His strong play this season has made him a serious prospect, so hopefully the trade won’t hurt his confidence.

Team GP G A Pts PIM +/- GWG
Lethbridge (WHL) 46 13 39 52 94 3 3

13) Denis Hamel LW 6′ 2″ 205
Denis has been in and out of Amerks coach Brian McCutcheon’s doghouse all season. The coach has openly stated that Hamel’s future is in his own hands, so it will be interesting to see how Denis responds. In a victory over Hershey on 1/29, Hamel picked up a goal and assist and was generally a physical force. There were several NHL scouts at this game that came away impressed, but Denis will have to play like this on a consistent basis to have any real shot at playing in the NHL. The key to Hamel’s game is his physical play, and how he uses it to create scoring chances for himself. If he continues his inconsistent play, it is questionable as to whether he will play in the NHL.

Team GP G A Pts PIM +/- GWG
Rochester (AHL) 42 11 12 23 55 N/A 1

14) Matt Davidson RW 6′ 2″ 190
Matt is in a somewhat similar situation as Denis Hamel, although he has been a more consistent player than Hamel this season. His game appeared to be improving quite a bit heading into January, but his offensive production tailed off during that month. Davidson’s ticket to the NHL will likely be his strong defensive work, which he has displayed on the Amerks 2nd-ranked penalty-killing unit.

Team GP G A Pts PIM +/- GWG
Rochester (AHL) 46 15 6 21 16 N/A 6

15) Mike Pandolfo RW 6′ 3″ 226
Boston University is currently a struggling hockey team, and Mike is struggling right along with his teammates. BU has had to ice a lineup that includes several freshmen (including Pandolfo), so it is not surprising that the Terriers would play inconsistently. As for Pandolfo, he has many attributes that one would like to see in an NHL prospect- hard worker, good size, soft hands, good skater- but the sum of those parts has not yet come together. There is no rush to bring Mike to the NHL, so he will have plenty of time to put his game together in a good hockey program at BU.

Team GP G A Pts PIM +/- GWG
Boston U (HE) 21 8 3 11 N/A N/A 2
USA (WJC) 6 0 1 1 4 -1 0

16) Jeff Martin C 6′ 1″ 177
Jeff’s game has improved as the season has moved along, although the team around him hasn’t. He had 3 multi-point games in January, which indicates that his offensive game is rounding into his form of 97-98. Due to trades, Jeff is now one of the older players on the Spitfires, so he is being depended upon to provide leadership to the younger players. It is doubtful that Windsor will make the OHL playoffs, so it is possible, should Martin sign with Buffalo, that Jeff could see his first pro action in Rochester later in the season.

Team GP G A Pts PIM +/- GWG
Windsor (OHL) 45 21 23 44 30 -30 2

17) Francois Methot C 6′ 0″ 175
Francois displayed some signs during January that he is adjusting to the pro game. He picked up an assist in 3 consecutive games that he appeared in (he sat out a couple games when Erik Rassmussen was sent down). Methot’s offensive skills are his bread-and-butter, so it is important that he contribute in that way. While the assists are a good sign, it would be nice to see Francois score a couple goals, but this is difficult to do with the small amount of ice time he receives. Still, any progress made can only be a good thing, and Methot will eventually receive more ice time as the coaching staff gains more confidence in his play.

Team GP G A Pts PIM +/- GWG
Rochester (AHL) 30 0 7 7 2 N/A 0

18) Darren Van Oene LW 6′ 3″ 207
Like Methot, Darren is slowly adjusting to the pro game. His main contribution is physical play, but Van Oene is not without other skills. His skating ability is NHL-caliber, and he is said to have good leadership abilities. If he is to make it to the NHL, it will likely be as a 4th line forward, or 3rd line at best. Every team could use a player like Darren, so it would seem that he will get his NHL opportunity in the not-too-distant future.

Team GP G A Pts PIM +/- GWG
Rochester (AHL) 39 4 2 6 73 N/A 0

19) Brad Moran C 5′ 11″ 175
Brad is having another great season with a strong Calgary Hitmen team. Moran is currently 4th in scoring in the WHL, 3rd in goals scored, tied for 4th in power play goals, and 2nd in total power play points. Brad put together an 8-game point-scoring streak in January, and he has had several other lengthy point-scoring streaks throughout the course of the season. There is no doubt that Brad has benefited from playing with scoring whiz Pavel Bendl, but he has put up points while playing with other players over the last couple seasons. Brad was drafted as a 19-year old, which is usually not a sign of future NHL success. Still, his performance this season has earned him a place in the top 20, and the possibility exists, however slight, that Brad could end up being a diamond-in-the-rough.

Team GPG APtsPIM“+/-”GWG
Calgary (WHL) 493736 73 60 29 3

20) Kamil Piros C 6′ 1″ 183
I was tempted to remove Kamil from the top 20, since news of how he is playing is so scarce. Piros had a quiet January offensively, partly because he was not in the Litvinov lineup for a couple games (I’m not sure if he was injured or scratched). It must be remembered that Kamil is a 20-year old playing against mostly older competition, so it is likely that he would have a hard time generating offense. The bottom line, should Piros have another down month, is that there are probably a couple other Sabre prospects that deserve this position in the top 20. Kamil is at this position based largely on past performance, but his continued consideration as a top 20 prospect will have to be based on current output. GP

Team GP G A Pts PIM +/- GWG
Litvinov (Cze.) 29 7 5 12 6 N/A N/A
Ltvinov (ECHL) 5 2 1 3 6 1 N/A