Sabres Report: Update of the Top 20 prospects

By Ken McKenna

Spring is in the air, so that means that the 98-99 regular season has ended for most of the Buffalo Sabres prospects. This has been a great season to be covering the Sabre prospects, as there have been several outstanding performances by a number of the Sabre hopefuls. Indeed, the Sabres may well have more quality prospects than those of the other 26 (soon to be 27) NHL teams.

One prospect has moved on since my last update, as Alexei Tezikov was traded to Washington at the NHL trading deadline. While the Capitals will be receiving a quality prospect, this was a move the Sabres could afford to make. Buffalo has great depth amongst their prospects at the defensive position, so it made sense for the Sabres hockey department to deal from strength to try to shore up the teams’ offensive weakness (albeit on a temporary basis). In addition to receiving Joe Juneau from the Capitals, the Sabres also received the Caps ’99 3rd Round pick, which adds to their growing collection of ’99 draft picks (currently at 11 picks, with a possible 12th pick on the way from San Jose).

While Tezikov was a deletion from the prospect list, Erik Rasmussen has returned to the list at the 6th position. I had removed Erik because it appeared he would spend the rest of the season in Buffalo, but he has since rejoined the Rochester Americans for what looks like the remainder of the season and playoffs (Editor’s note- Erik has since rejoined the Sabres for the playoffs). The player making the biggest jump in the ratings was LW Darren Van Oene, who has shown tremendous improvement in the second half of the regular season.

In the past, I have included the most recent statistics for the prospects in my stories, but this will change with this article. I have added the 98-99 statistics to all the player profiles at the Hockey’s Future Sabres page, and I will be updating those on at least a weekly basis. I will, however, include playoff statistics in the body of this article, as there is currently nowhere to place this information in the player profiles. Also, I have updated the Top 10 Sabre prospect profiles (except Rasmussen’s) to be lengthier than they were previously, and I will be doing so for the remainder of the players in the Top 25.

And now, on to the April edition of the Sabres Top 20 prospects.

1. Cory Sarich D 6′ 3″ 182

Cory has had a stranglehold on the top spot since the beginning of the season, and he will likely finish the 98-99 season in this position. He has been a steady player on the best defensive unit in the AHL, while managing to chip in offensively on occasion. While he was not chosen for the AHL First or Second all-star team, he may receive some consideration as the AHL Rookie of the Year. Even without the awards and recognition, Cory has given notice that he will be a force to be reckoned with in the future. THN Future Watch Rating: 19th overall, 3rd amongst Sabre prospects.
2. Martin Biron G 6′ 1″ 160

Martin was recently named the first team goaltender for the AHL all-star team, which is an honor bestowed upon him by the other AHL players and coaches. This award was just further proof of the breakthrough year that Martin has had, as well as proof of the recognition he is receiving outside the Sabres organization. While Biron has benefited from the strong play of the defensemen in front of him, he has also come through with spectacular play when the players in front of him have struggled. He is deserving of the honors he has received (and will receive), and he has reassumed his position as the Sabres top goaltending prospect. THN Future Watch Rating: 17th overall, 2nd amongst Sabre prospects.
3. Maxim Afinogenov RW 5′ 11″ 176

Maxim could have rested on his laurels following his great performance in the ’99 WJC, but his performance in the Russian Hockey League playoffs gave the impression that he is looking for new worlds to conquer. Although his team, Moscow Dynamo, lost in the RHL finals to Magnitogorsk, Maxim tallied 16 points (10 Goals, 6 Assists) in 16 playoff games. Afinogenov also played well in helping Dynamo to the European Hockey League finals, where they lost in the championship game to, ironically, RHL final opponent Magnitogorsk. Maxim’s career is clearly in an upward trend, but there remains a question as to when he will come to North America to play. The Sabres obviously hope it will be next fall, as they are in need of some offensive excitement. THN Future Watch Rating: 9th overall, 1st amongst Sabre prospects.
4. Dimitri Kalinin D 6′ 2″ 198

Dimitri’s first season in the QMJHL ended on a sour note, as he and his Moncton teammates were unceremoniously bounced out of the playoffs by Rimouski in 4 straight games. Kalinin managed just 2 points (1 goal, 1 assist), and was a –5 for the series. On the bright side, the Sabres are eager to get Dimitri some pro playing experience, and are looking to insert Kalinin into the Rochester line-up in some of the remaining regular season games (he is not eligible to play in the AHL playoffs). Overall, Kalinin’s first season of junior was a success, as he generally was one of the better players on the Moncton team. He could be ticketed for a spot in the Rochester lineup next season, but it would not hurt him to spend another year in juniors. Regardless, Dimitri should be a mainstay on the Sabres blueline in future years to come. THN Future Watch Rating: 30th overall, 4th amongst Sabre prospects.
5. Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre D 6′ 3″ 207

Jean-Luc has had an up-and-down season- up and down between Buffalo and Rochester, that is. His most recent call-up to Buffalo has likely been a frustrating experience, as he has spent most of the time in the press box as a healthy scratch. He has shown flashes of the good things to come- fast skating, hard hitting- but he has also displayed signs of his inexperience, which is to be expected. He will likely see more playing time as the regular season winds down, but the playoffs may see Jean-Luc’s return to the press box. It is very likely that Grand-Pierre will be wearing a Sabre uniform on a regular basis next season, so this season should be chalked up to learning and improving.
6. Erik Rasmussen C 6′ 2″ 207

Erik, like Grand-Pierre, has spent the season travelling the I-90 between Buffalo and Rochester. Rasmussen has shown flashes of being the kind of player that the Sabres could use, a tough forward with decent skating and offensive skills. The problem for Erik is that these qualities only appear every so often, rather than consistently. He looks unsure of himself when in the offensive zone, and he does not consistently take the body. Rasmussen just turned 22 at the end of March, so next year’s training camp will be a crucial one for him. Erik’s career could go either way- either he becomes the player that the Sabres envisioned when they drafted him in ’96, or he becomes another first round bust. I believe he has the talent to be a good (but not great) NHL power forward, which is why I have him rated at this position.
7. Henrik Tallinder D 6′ 3″ 194

Henrik has completed his season in the Swedish League, as his team (AIK) did not make the playoffs. Tallinder is a player valued for his size and smarts, rather than for his offensive prowess (he had no points). He will likely be the steady, stay-at-home defenseman that every NHL team needs, although there are those that believe that Henrik could eventually display decent offensive skills. He is said to be a hard-working, conscientious player possessing leadership qualities, which was evidenced by his being chosen the captain of the Swedish WJC team. His arrival in North America won’t likely be until 00-01, so he will have plenty of time to develop his game. THN Future Watch Rating: 9th amongst Sabre prospects.
8. Mika Noronen G 6′ 1″ 191

Mika struggled early on in the season, right on through to the WJC tournament. The last couple months, however, have seen Noronen return to the form that he displayed last season, when he was a highly rated prospect. Mika’s season has ended with Tappara’s 9th place finish in the Finnish League, but his strong play late in the season nearly helped Tappara sneak into the playoffs. Noronen’s strong late-season play should be a good springboard to a pro career in North America, but it is still somewhat uncertain when that career will begin. Mika has a contract with Tappara through next season, but he is free to sign with the Sabres if he chooses. It has been said that he is waiting to see if Tappara signs a veteran goalie, a move that would lessen Mika’s playing time. Regardless, Mika is likely to end up in North America next season (early or late in the season), so Sabre fans will get a first-hand look at another excellent goaltending prospect. THN Future Watch Rating: 47th overall, 5th amongst Sabre prospects.
9. Norm Milley RW 5′ 11″ 185

Milley had a great season that ended on a down note, as the Belleville Bulls swept him and his Sudbury Wolve teammates out of the OHL playoffs. This result should not, however, detract from the fine season that Milley turned in, a season which saw him finish 2nd in scoring in the OHL. Some other categories where Milley placed highly were Goals (3rd), Assists (4th), Power Play Goals (2nd), Power Play Assists (7th) and Power Play Points (3rd). Norm’s great season has earned him a nomination for the OHL Player of the Year award, a trophy that would likely validate Milley as a top prospect. Milley is said to be a hard-working player who is strong on both offense and defense, with his lone negative attribute being his lack of great size. If Norm continues to manufacture points the way he did this season, Milley will put the size matter to rest, and instead have observers marveling at what a great prospect he is. THN Future Watch Rating: 7th amongst Sabre prospects.
10. Jaroslav Kristek RW 6′ 0″ 183

Jaroslav’s season appeared to be in high gear in early February, as he had just been named the WHL Western Conference Player of the Month. Kristek’s play since then, however, has tailed off a bit. This is likely due to the fact that Jaroslav is not used to the longer grind of the WHL season (he has played in twice as many games this year as last season). Another reason for his lessened production is that he is likely receiving more attention from opponents as word of his talent spreads around the league. Currently, Kristek and his Tri-City teammates are battling Kamloops in the WHL semi-finals. Jaroslav has 7 points (4 G, 3 A) in 12 playoff games, so his playoff production is clearly not as prolific as was his regular season output. In spite of Kristek’s point fall off, he is still a good prospect, and he will likely spend another season in the WHL honing his craft. THN Future Watch Rating: 10th amongst Sabre prospects.
11. Brian Campbell D 5′ 11″ 185

Brian is another Sabre prospect who has been nominated for OHL Player of the Year. In addition to this potential honor, Campbell has been named both the OHL’s Most Gentlemanly Player (which may or may not be good news to Sabre fans) and the OHL’s Best Defenseman. Clearly, Brian has had a standout season, as he was the top-scoring defenseman in the OHL. He was also 2nd in Assists, 2nd in Power Play Assists and 5th in Power Play Points. While Brian’s less physical nature might not be welcome by some Sabre fans, his prowess on the power play should excite fans used to watching Buffalo’s second-rate power play. Campbell is, at this time, on an unwanted break, as he and his Ottawa teammates were knocked out of the OHL playoffs. The 67s season isn’t over, however, as they are the host city for the Memorial Cup, which means an automatic berth for Ottawa in that tourney. Campbell’s’ playoff output has been similar to his regular season performance (9 GP, 2 G, 10 A, 12 Pts), so he will have the opportunity to add to those totals. THN Future Watch Rating: 8th amongst Sabre prospects.
12. Luc Theoret D 6′ 2″ 197

There is little to report regarding Luc’s play since I last wrote about him, due to the fact that his season was ended by a knee injury. He played in just 3 games for the Portland Winter Hawks, the team that acquired Luc at the WHL trading deadline. Theoret was having a fine season until his injury troubles, so he remains a good defensive prospect for the Sabres. Theoret is likely to be offered a pro contract after the season, as he has reached his junior age limit. If Luc isn’t signed by the Sabres, he would likely return to the WHL as an overage player, which is generally the kiss of death for most hockey careers. It is felt by most observers, though, that Luc has the talent to be a good NHL player, so I expect that he’ll be in a Rochester uniform next season.
13. Darren Van Oene LW 6′ 3″ 207

Darren is perhaps the Sabre prospect that has improved the most since the start of the season. The first half of Van Oene’s season was fairly unproductive, as he was being brought along slowly by the Rochester coaching staff. Over the past couple months, however, Darren has improved to the point where he is playing regularly and contributing offensively, while remaining a physical force in the Amerks lineup. While Van Oene will never be an offensive force, the fact that he is displaying some offensive ability has to make the Sabres very happy. The Sabres will almost certainly be looking to add size to their lineup next season, so, should Darren have a strong training camp, it is possible that he could land a spot on the Sabres 4th line.
14. Matt Davidson RW 6′ 2″ 190

Matt has played well for Rochester this season, combining timely scoring (6 game winners) with solid defensive play. Davidson was a player who needed to improve his game this year, and, after a slow start to his season, Matt has shown improvement at both ends of the ice. In particular, Matt has shown himself to be an able penalty-killer, a skill that has carried over from his junior days. Davidson has, at times, displayed a sniper’s scoring ability, but he should not be mistaken for the next Mike Bossy; his forte will instead be his defensive play, with the occasional contribution on offense.
15. Mike Pandolfo RW 6′ 3″ 226

Mike has completed his freshman season at Boston University, as he and his Terrier teammates were ousted from the Hockey East playoffs by Providence. As would be expected of a first-year player, Mike’s game was inconsistent. Pandolfo at times displayed the toughness and scoring ability that the BU coaches expected from him, but more often he looked like a player trying to adjust to a higher level of competition. Mike is most effective when he uses his size to create scoring chances (usually in front of the net), but he did not play physically on a consistent basis. Pandolfo clearly has the size and skating ability to become an effective power forward in the NHL, but he first needs to get his game in order at the collegiate level before he makes the move to the pro game.
16. Denis Hamel LW 6′ 2″ 205

Hamel, not unlike Amerk teammate Matt Davidson, needed to show improvement this season. Unlike Davidson, however, Denis improved little from his play of last season. Hamel possesses good size and a decent scoring touch, but he did not put either of those qualities to use on a consistent basis this season. Hamel is most effective when he plays a robust style of hockey, which means he must use his size and strength to create scoring chances for himself and his teammates. Denis could still redeem himself with a strong playoff performance, but he will have to have a strong training camp next season to have any chance of remaining a viable prospect.
17. Brad Moran C 5′ 11″ 175

Brad put together a fantastic season for the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL, so one would think that he would be more highly rated than this. The knocks against Moran are his lack of size and his average skating ability, but those negatives did not hinder him during the 98-99 season. He placed 2nd overall in scoring in the WHL, where he was also 2nd in goals, 9th in assists, 2nd in power play goals, 3rd in power play points and 2nd in +/- rating. Moran has not let up in the WHL playoffs, either, as he is currently 2nd in playoff scoring (15 GP, 13 G, 20 A, 33 Pts), 2nd in goals, 1st in assists, 1st in power play points and 2nd in +/-. It is quite possible that the Sabres may have themselves a diamond-in-the-rough, but the more likely result will be Brad going on to have a great minor pro career.
18. Jeff Martin C 6′ 1″ 177

Jeff and his Windsor teammates had a largely forgettable 98-99 season. Martin’s primary role this season was to be the wily “veteran” on a team full of young players, and, to a certain degree, he succeeded in this role. Jeff’s scoring totals were off a bit from the 97-98 season, but he still managed to score at a point-a-game pace. One attribute Martin possesses that should interest the Sabres is his ability on face-offs. Martin was a nominee for the OHL’s best face-off man (he didn’t win the award, however), an aspect of the game where the Sabres could use some help. Ultimately, Jeff will need to bulk up to be able to withstand the rigors of the NHL, with his most likely destination next season being Rochester.
19. Francois Methot C 6′ 0″ 175

Francois has shown flashes this season of the player he can be, but he simply has not had the opportunity to do it on a regular basis. Unlike fellow Amerk rookie Darren Van Oene, Methot has spent the entire season as a 4th line player, where he has chipped in with the occasional goal or assist. Methot has also seen a bit of time on the Rochester power play unit, but only when the outcome of a game is no longer in doubt. Francois will never put opposing players through the boards, as he is strictly a finesse player. Should Methot raise the level of his game sufficiently next season, he could eventually make a push to join the big club, but his immediate future remains in the AHL.
20. Aaron Goldade C 6′ 0″ 180

This is Aaron’s first appearance in the Top 20, which is an indication that his stock has risen ever so slightly in the past couple months. Goldade is primarily a finesse hockey player, although he is not gifted with great offensive skills. Aaron’s point totals for 98-99 were his best in the WHL, as he scored at roughly a point-a-game pace. Goldade’s coach at Brandon stresses good defensive play from his forwards, so Aaron’s defensive awareness has improved this year. Goldade has played with a little more consistency this season than he has in the past, and he will likely be considered a go-to player next season for Brandon. Ultimately, though, it is safe to say that Aaron will need plenty of seasoning before he is ready to step into the NHL.