Sabres Report: Pugilistic Prospects Parade Punching Prowess

By Ken McKenna

Back in 1988, in the 5th round of the NHL Draft, the Buffalo Sabres drafted a player out of the OHL by the name of Rob Ray. Rob had totaled 590 penalty minutes during his junior career, so it was clear that the Sabres were looking to add some muscle to a team that had developed a reputation for being soft.

Fourteen years and 3000+ penalty minutes later, Rob has shown that a little bit of talent can go a long way in the NHL, if you work hard enough. The man known as “Razor” has won the hearts of a generation of Sabres fans while simultaneously pummeling a legion of NHL tough guys. There is little doubt, then, that Rob will be crowned Buffalo’s all-time enforcer once he decides to hang up his skates, a possibility that grows greater with each passing day.

Ray will turn 34 in June, an age that often signals the end of a professional hockey player’s career. While Rob may not yet be contemplating retirement, the day is surely not far off, which means the Sabres will have to find a worthy replacement for their all-time penalty minute leader. Luckily for Buffalo, there are a few candidates waiting in the wings, with no one player having a definite advantage over the others.

The obvious choice to replace Ray would be current Sabre LW Eric Boulton. Eric has earned his place in the NHL the hard way, coming up through the ECHL and AHL to surprisingly land a spot on Buffalo’s roster last season. The Nova Scotia native is now in his 2nd NHL season, but he has seen limited playing time (54 GP) throughout the 00-01 and 01-02 campaigns. Through those 54 games, Eric has registered just 5 points (3G, 2A) while tallying 136 PIMs.

Eric appears to have adequate foot speed, and he may, in fact, be a better skater than Ray. He has the stockiness (6’1″, 215 lbs.) to handle the physical play in the NHL, but his skill level is about what you’d expect from a 4th line player. All in all, Eric should certainly be considered the frontrunner to be Rob’s immediate replacement, but he may not necessarily be the long-term answer.

Moving down the I-90 to Rochester, the Americans have one, or perhaps two, candidates who could eventually fill the enforcer’s role for the Sabres. LW Andrew Peters was the player Buffalo drafted with the pick received in the Pat Lafontaine trade, while LW/D Mario Larocque was signed as a free agent in the off-season.

Prior to signing his first pro contract, Peters’ main claim to fame was his holdout from Oshawa, which eventually led to his being traded to Kitchener during the 99-00 season. A holdout by almost any junior player is a rarity, particularly by those as modestly skilled as Andrew, so the St. Catherines native may have entered the NHL with some unwanted baggage.

There is no question that Andrew has some tools that make him an intriguing prospect- he has good size, and he skates well for a big man (6’4″, 218 lbs.). To this point, however, the rest of his game has not come together, which has put Peters in the position of having to literally fight his way to the NHL. When Rochester is in need of a momentum change, Peters is usually the player that comes off the bench to battle the opposition’s tough guy. While Andrew didn’t necessarily take a liking to this role last season, he seems to have realized that being the enforcer may be his best route to the NHL, a realization that has led him to embrace this role more fully this season.

A player who could be a bit of a dark horse candidate to succeed Ray is defenseman-turned-forward Mario Larocque. Mario was drafted in the 1st round of the ’96 NHL Draft by the Tampa Bay Lightning, but he was never quite able to catch the eye of the Lightning’s management. He played a physical game, but the knock on Mario was that he didn’t have the needed bulk to play that type of game (he was listed as being 6’2″, 182 lbs. two seasons ago).

Larocque seems to have grown in the past year, however, since Rochester lists him as being 6’4 and 205 lbs. He was signed to add some defensive depth to the organization, but a need for some size in Rochester’s forward ranks has led to Mario being used at LW on a regular basis. Mario seems to have taken to his new role quite well, as he has provided some much-needed muscle up front, while also chipping in with some offense. The added bulk may have affected Larocque’s foot speed somewhat, but he has made up for that by providing an intimidating presence to an otherwise smallish forward unit.

Buffalo’s most intriguing candidate for the role of enforcer could be another defensman-turned-forward, RW Sean McMorrow of the OHL’s Oshawa Generals. Sean’s nickname should be “Suitcase”, since Oshawa is his 6th OHL team in 3 years. While his penchant for being traded could be a worrisome sign, it appears that Sean’s services have been most valued by teams looking to add to their lineup a player that some believe to be the best fighter in the OHL.

McMorrow (6’4″, 210 lbs.) was Buffalo’s 8th round choice in the 2000 NHL Draft, with defense being his main position at the time. Sean probably doesn’t have the speed or skill to make it as a NHL defenseman, but his pugilistic prowess might well be his ticket to the NHL. There is even talk that McMorrow could be Buffalo’s version of Georges Laraque, Edmonton’s linebacker-on-skates. McMorrow may not be quite as bulky as the Oiler’s Laraque, but Sean’s fighting skills apparently rival that of Georges.

The final nominee for enforcer-to-be also comes from the junior ranks, and, like a couple of the players mentioned above, he has also seen time at both defense and forward. D/LW Ryan Jorde, Buffalo’s 9th round choice in the 2001 NHL Draft, spent most of his junior career bouncing between Tri-City and Lethbridge, but is now a member of the Moose Jaw Warriors following a January trade from Tri-City.

Jorde (6’3″, 225 lbs.) will never dazzle fans with slick playmaking or end-to-end rushes, but will instead supply workmanlike defensive play in his own end, as well as a mean streak that will keep the opposition on edge. Ryan isn’t afraid to drop the gloves, as his 479 career PIMs indicates, but he might have a little more going for him than simply being a good fighter.

Thanks to Gene Hartman for providing background on Sean McMorrow and Ryan Jorde.