Sabres Report: The Mid-Season Rankings

By Ken McKenna

"The more things change, the more they stay the same."

That timeworn phrase is appropriate in describing the mid-season rankings of Buffalo’s prospects. Sure, there have been a few minor changes to the top 15, but there has been very little real movement up or down by any one player since the list was last updated.

Holding down the top spot, albeit somewhat shakily, is ’97 top pick Mika Noronen. The only change to the top 5, in fact, was Norm Milley taking back the #5 slot from Ales Kotalik (now #6). Gerard Dicaire showed the only significant movement, dropping 4 slots to #14. Perhaps the change of scenery, from Seattle to Kootenay, will help Gerard’s game.

Of the remaining prospects outside the top 15, the only one who received serious consideration for inclusion with the "Fab 15" was Boston University LW Mike Pandolfo. Mike, a co-captain for the Terriers, is currently that team’s leading scorer.

The "non-15" will be dealt with in articles to come, so the main focus for this article will be the top prospects. Overall, Buffalo seems to have a solid group of prospects, with their top 10 comparing favorably to most any team in the league. Even the players in slots 11-15 have some merit as solid NHL prospects.

Two players no longer on the prospect list are LW Darren Van Oene and C Francois Methot. The two ’96 draft picks have played enough professional games to no longer meet the requirements for prospect status that have been set by Hockey’s Future. While both players would appear to have a cloudy future in the Buffalo organization, they are young enough to possibly catch the eye of another, less talented NHL team.

And so, on to the somewhat tardy mid-season edition of the Sabres’ prospect rankings!

  1. Mika Noronen, Goaltender
  2. Mika seems to be pacing his season the same way that former Buffalo backstop and current Red Wing Dominik Hasek seems to pace himself. In each of his 2 previous seasons in Rochester, Noronen had started the season slowly, only to get stronger as the season progressed. Mika has been named the AHL’s 2nd Team All-Star goaltender the past 2 years, so clearly his early season slumps haven’t stopped him from becoming one of the best in the AHL by the end of each campaign.

    This year was no different, with Mika getting off to a rocky start in Rochester following a somewhat disappointing preseason. His save percentage was below .900 through the early portion of the schedule, but it has since risen to a fairly respectable .907, while his 2.46 GAA has Mika in the middle of the AHL goaltending pack in that category. In recent games, Noronen has been Rochester’s best player, which is an indication that the 21-year-old goalie is over his early season funk. While he may not pull down a 3rd straight AHL All-Star nomination, Mika’s recent solid performances are enough to keep him atop Buffalo’s prospect list.

    Honors: Named to the PlanetUSA squad for the AHL All-Star Game taking place on Feb. 14th.

  3. Ryan Miller, Goaltender
  4. The 2001 Hobey Baker winner is having another excellent season for the Michigan State Spartans. In some ways, Ryan has had to play better this year because the team in front of him is not as adept defensively as they were in Miller’s first 2 seasons. Ryan has turned in a couple 40+ save performances in games that the Spartans would otherwise have lost, and in general Ryan is facing more shots-per-game than he has in previous seasons. Miller has been named the CCHA’s Defensive Player of the Week twice (11/19/01, 12/10/01), and he is a finalist for the Sullivan Award, an award that is the highest honor in amateur athletics. In addition to these accolades, Ryan is currently the top goaltender in the NCAA.

    MSU began the season with a #1 ranking, but they have since fallen back to #5. The drop in the polls isn’t Ryan’s fault, as he has maintained the stellar production that has been his hallmark since he played his first game for the Spartans. While I was tempted to move him into the top spot, it would not be a stretch to think of Ryan as #1A on Buffalo’s prospect list.

    Honors: As mentioned above, Ryan is a Sullivan Award finalist. Also, he was named the CCHA’s Defensive Player of the Week twice.

  5. Jason Pominville, Right Wing
  6. Jason got off to a blazing start this season, and the momentum of that hot start has carried on to the present. Pominville is 2nd in scoring in the QMJHL, totaling 101 points in 50 games, while his 51 goals is tops in that league. His 16 PPGs place Jason in the top 5 in that category, while his 10 GWGs ties him for 1st in the "Q". Pominville is, of course, the Shawinigan Cataractes leading scorer, with his offensive ability being a major reason for the Cataractes #4 ranking in the CHL.

    Although he was a fairly high draft pick (late 2nd round), Pominville’s rapid rise is still somewhat surprising. He had a strong camp with Buffalo, and Jason has done nothing since then to make observers think that he won’t get to the NHL sooner rather than later.

    Honors: Named to the Lebel Division team for the CHL’s Hershey Cup series (Jason scored a goal in that game).

  7. Henrik Tallinder, Defenseman
  8. Henrik was a highly touted prospect coming into the 01-02 season. A knee injury during training camp delayed the start of Henrik’s season, and, after a quiet start, Tallinder is now steadily becoming the player that many had envisioned. Due to injuries to veterans Doug Houda and Mike Hurlbut, Henrik was given an opportunity to play extensively, an opportunity that the big Swede has taken on with gusto. In some of these recent games, Henrik has logged nearly 30 minutes a game, including time on both the PP and PK units. Tallinder can play a physical game, and he has been fairly solid defensively in his own end. Henrik isn’t necessarily a stay-at-home defenseman, as he has displayed some puck-rushing skills, while his increased point totals in recent games would seem to indicate that he has some offensive ability.

    Henrik should have an excellent chance of making the Buffalo roster next season, but a call-up this season might not be out of the question should Buffalo run into injury problems on the blueline.

  9. Norm Milley, Right Wing
  10. Norm had a good camp, but he and Taylor Pyatt were the final cuts from Buffalo’s roster prior to the beginning of the 01-02 season. The disappointment of being sent to Rochester dogged both players in the early going, but Pyatt has since turned his game around and is a regular with the Sabres. Milley struggled offensively through the first 15-20 games, although the effort was there on most nights. During a recent 16-game stretch, however, Norm’s scoring touch seemed to re-emerge, as he logged 11 points in that interval. His improved overall play earned Norm his first NHL call-up, with Buffalo tapping Norm to replace the injured Erik Rasmussen during a recent 3-game stretch.

    The elements of Norm’s game that made him a promising prospect coming into this season are still there- he’s a good skater with a hard shot, he’ll go into the corners, he’s good at using his body to control the puck, and he’s responsible defensively. Milley has received his first taste of NHL action (he was sent back to Rochester yesterday), so he should be sufficiently motivated towards landing a permanent spot on the Buffalo roster.

  11. Ales Kotalik, Center/Right Wing
  12. Ales arrived in Buffalo’s training camp following a breakout season in the Czech Elite league. The 21-year-old forward continued to impress during the preseason, but was sent to Rochester to continue his development. Through the early portion of the 01-02 season, Kotalik was the Amerks best offensive forward, and on many nights was Rochester’s best all-around player. Ales has been rewarded for his efforts with 2 promotions to the Sabres, where he showed glimpses of the game that he was playing in Rochester.

    Kotalik’s level of play has tailed off a bit since his strong start, but he is still Rochester’s most talented forward on many nights. He possesses good passing and skating skills, which have been put to use on the Amerks PP, with Ales playing the point from time-to-time. Kotalik isn’t afraid to go into traffic, due mainly to the fact that he possesses the size and grit necessary to handle the more physical style of play preferred in North America. Ales’s versatility is also a plus, since he can play both the wing and center, although his main role for Rochester has been at center. Overall, the Sabres seem to have found a NHL-caliber player with a late (6th Rd.) draft pick, with Kotalik’s possible arrival in Buffalo coming as soon as next season.

  13. Jiri Novotny, Center
  14. Novotny, Buffalo’s top pick in the 2001 NHL Draft, did not make the trek to North America to attend Buffalo’s training camp, but instead remained in his native Czech Republic to play for Budejovice in the Czech Elite league. Jiri has been used mostly as a 3rd or 4th line player this season, which means that he has seen somewhat limited playing time. Novotny has played enough to place 3rd in rookie scoring in the top Czech league, but his 13 points (8G, 5A) are way behind that of rookie scoring leader Jiri Hudler’s 40 points. A hat trick in a recent game might be a sign that Jiri’s offensive game is moving to another level, however, although he is known more for his playmaking than his goal scoring.

    Jiri was a member of the Czech Republic’s entry in the 2002 World Junior Championships. He and his teammates were not able to repeat that country’s gold medal success of the previous two years, but Novotny had a good enough showing to be named one of the Czech Republic’s three best players for that tourney. In general, Jiri appears to be developing into a solid checking, or perhaps 2nd line, center. His arrival in Buffalo will most likely take place in 2003 at the earliest, so he’ll have plenty of time to improve his game in the Czech Republic.

    Honors: Named to the Czech Republic squad for the 2002 World Junior Championships.

  15. Brian Campbell, Defenseman
  16. Brian was once a high-flyer on Buffalo’s prospect list, but there is a sense his star may have fallen a bit within the organization. Campbell has flashed some of his offensive potential, mostly when wearing a Rochester uniform, but his recalls to Buffalo have been mostly forgettable. Brian did look more comfortable in his most recent call-up to the big club, but he was returned to Rochester once the Sabres’ defensive corps was injury-free.

    Brian’s game is offense, but so far, at least, the statistics he’s put up in the pros don’t suggest he’ll be anything more than a poor man’s Brian Rafalski. Given the fact that Campbell is 22, and plays a position that takes some time to learn, it is possible that he could blossom in the next couple of years. Whether that blossoming takes place in the Buffalo organization remains to be seen, however.

  17. Derek Roy, Center
  18. The Kitchener Rangers are having their best season in a few years, with one of the main reasons for their success being their leading scorer, and Buffalo prospect, Derek Roy. Derek, an alternate captain for the Rangers, had his season slowed early on by a six-game suspension that resulted from a major stick infraction. Since his return, Derek has steadily crept back into the OHL scoring race, to the point where just a few points separate him from the top ten scorers. It isn’t just that Roy is a good offensive player, but that he also generates that offense in various game situations. Derek’s statistics- 10 PPGs (7th in OHL), 3 SHGs, and 5 GWGs (tied for 5th in OHL) –are truly indicative of his versatility. In addition, his 32 goals tie him for 8th in the OHL, which is an indication that he is one of the better goal scorers in that league.

    Roy relies on speed and his talent for anticipating a play to generate his offense. He seems to have a knack for being around the puck, and he isn’t afraid to shoot when he has the biscuit on his stick. Derek’s defensive skills are adequate, but there is always room for improvement in this area for young players like Roy.

    Honors: Selected to play for the OHL’s Western Division squad in the CHL’s Hershey Cup tournament (he picked up an assist in that game, as well as 2 PIM).

  19. Doug Janik, Defenseman
  20. Following a memorable career at the University of Maine, Doug signed his first pro contract with the Sabres during the summer of 2001. Janik has started his pro career in Rochester, where he has quickly shown that the Sabres were wise to select him with a 2nd round pick back in ’99. Doug has continued the "defense first" approach that was successful for him in college, mainly concerning himself with taking care of business in his own end before joining the rush. This doesn’t mean that the former Black Bear has been an offensive liability, however, since Doug has tallied 13 points (3G, 10A) in 43 games. A further sign of Doug’s versatility is his presence on the Amerks’ PP and PK units, although being a member of Rochester’s weak PP unit may not be much of a feather in his cap.

    Doug is a good skater who can play a physical game, and he is not afraid to take a hit to make a play. While he isn’t the classic puck-rushing defenseman, Janik will join the rush when the situation is to his liking. Doug can sometimes be caught out of position in his own end, but this is a flaw that can be overcome with more practice and experience. Along with teammate Henrik Tallinder, whom Doug has been paired with on many occasions, the Sabres would appear to have two more solid additions to their defensive corps waiting in the wings.

  21. Milan Bartovic, Right Wing/Left Wing
  22. Milan began his pro career late last season, but he is getting his first real taste of the pro game this year. So far, at least, Bartovic’s 2001-02 season has been an up-and-down affair. Milan got off to a good start, generating offense and using his speed to his advantage. Two of his early goals were game-winners, so it appeared the young Slovak was gearing up for a successful rookie season. More recently, though, Milan has had trouble generating offense, as he went through a 12-game scoreless drought.

    Milan has been used mostly at LW on the 3rd line, so he doesn’t get an extraordinary amount of playing time. He has also been used on the PK unit, so the coaches have some confidence in his defensive play. One thing that Bartovic has in abundance is speed, which is an asset that should serve him well once he gets the rest of his game in order. Given the fact that Buffalo presently has some depth on the wings, it’s a safe bet that Milan will spend another season developing in Rochester.

  23. Paul Gaustad, Center
  24. Seemingly overnight, Paul last season went from virtual unknown to playoff stardom for the Portland Winterhawks. For the most part, Paul has continued the high level of play that began in last year’s WHL playoffs, so he is at least proving that he was not a one-shot post-season wonder. Paul is currently 2nd in scoring for the Winterhawks with 61 points (28G, 33A), a total that also places him amongst the WHL’s top 15 scorers. His 14 PPGs tie him for fifth overall, and he has also chipped in 1 SHG and 5 GWGs.

    Paul is just an average skater, but he has a good work ethic, and enough size and toughness to be an intriguing prospect. His offensive totals may not follow him to the pros, but Gaustad still has potential as a solid 3rd or 4th line center. Buffalo will have to decide by June 1st if they want to sign him, but it would be somewhat surprising if they didn’t.

    Honors: Named to the WHL’s Western Conference squad that will take part in the CHL’s Hershey Cup series.

  25. Chris Thorburn, Center
  26. When considering the performance of North Bay Centennial center Chris Thorburn this season, it is difficult not to take into consideration events surrounding the team. For starters, the Cents traded away their top scorer, Jeff Doyle, to Erie at the OHL trade deadline, and in return received 3 young players and 2 draft picks. For a team that was already weak offensively, this had to be a hard pill to swallow. To make matters worse, the franchise itself is on life-support, as it appears that the Cents will be moving to Saginaw, MI next season. The OHL has not yet approved the relocation of the team, but media reports suggest that the chances for the team returning to North Bay next season don’t appear to be very good.

    As for Chris, he is now North Bay’s leading scorer (11G, 26A) following the Doyle trade. Thorburn started the season with a bang, picking up 12 points in his first 8 games, but his production then fell to just 1 point in the next 11 contests. Chris will probably never be a sharpshooter, but he can be an effective playmaker with some size and a bit of a mean streak. He appears to be another candidate to center the checking unit or 4th line, but he will almost certainly spend another year in the OHL before turning pro.

  27. Gerard Dicaire, Defenseman
  28. Gerard was having an average 01-02 season while playing for the last place Seattle Thunderbirds. His fortunes may have changed at the WHL trade deadline, when he was dealt to the Kootenay Ice to help bolster that team’s playoff chances. Perhaps the move to a playoff contender will reinvigorate the somewhat listless play that Dicaire displayed while playing for the T-Birds. Gerard still has not added a physical approach to his game, nor has he displayed his ability to jump into the offensive rush, an attribute that is certainly a part of his reputation as an offensive defenseman.

    To be fair to Gerard, he was hobbled in the early going by a foot injury, which would have an effect on his above-average skating ability. He is still productive on the PP, generating offensive chances with both a good shot and a decent passing touch. The biggest factor in Dicaire’s favor is his age, since he won’t turn 20 until September. This means that he’ll likely have another 2-3 years to bring his game to the level of a bona fide NHL defenseman.

    Honors: Named to the WHL’s Western Conference squad that is taking part in the CHL’s Hershey Cup series.

  29. Artem Kriukov, Center
  30. Getting a fair read on Artem’s ability probably won’t happen until he comes to North America. He played just 3 games for Yaroslavl this season before suffering a knee injury that kept him out of the lineup for a couple of months, with some of his rehab work taking place in Buffalo. Kriukov has since returned to the Locomotive lineup, having played in 9 more games for the Russian Superleague’s top team. Artem has posted 2 assists in the 12 games he has played for Yaroslavl.

    Thanks to Gene Hartman (Gaustad, Dicaire), Robert Neuhauser (Novotny) and Todd Diamond (Kriukov) for providing information on some of Buffalo’s prospects.