Sabres Report: The Mid-Season Player Rankings

By Ken McKenna

By the time the 2002-03 regular season is completed, the Buffalo Sabres’ prospect listing is likely to look a bit different than it does at the midpoint. Some of the top prospects, such as goaltender Ryan Miller, defenseman Henrik Tallinder and right wing Ales Kotalik will have played in enough NHL games to move on to graduated status.

For now, though, the top 15 remains status quo, with some slight upward or downward movement amongst the prospects. The top 3 remains unchanged, with Miller, center Derek Roy and Tallinder more often than not showing why they are such highly regarded young players. Others, like Jiri Novotny and Jason Pominville of the Rochester Americans, have not on a regular basis displayed the talent that made them high draft picks.

This current crop of Sabres’ prospects possesses a fairly good mix of talent, with the main weaknesses being a lack of both quality defensive depth and first line offensive talent. There are some grinders, enforcers and defensive specialists that are needed on every NHL roster, and there are a couple players that could develop into offensive threats at the forward and defense positions. All told, while Buffalo may not have the best list of prospects in the NHL, they certainly have enough depth to be considered amongst the top 10 in that category.

As for this top 15 list, it is a snapshot in time, and is based largely on the performances of players in this current season. Other factors, such as draft position, age and future potential, have been taken into account, which makes this list more than just a barometer of the kind of season a particular player is having.

Here, then, is the midseason review of the best (and the rest) of the Buffalo Sabres’ prospects!

  1. Ryan Miller, Goaltender

Aside from a handful of shaky performances, Ryan has more than lived up to his billing as the top prospect in the Buffalo organization. He was a main reason for Rochester’s surge following their poor start, while Miller, along with Ales Kotalik, were the players most responsible for snapping the Sabres out of their 3-month funk. Ryan still looks a little awkward at times. But, given his solid work ethic and natural talent, it seems only a matter of time before Ryan surpasses Martin Biron to claim the #1 position in Buffalo’s goaltending rotation.

Honors: AHL Rookie of the Month, December 2002…Selected to play in the Young Stars Game during the 2003 NHL All Star Weekend.

  1. Derek Roy, Center

Derek turned in a very good performance for Buffalo in the preseason, but was returned to Kitchener for another year of development. Rather than let the disappointment over his return to the OHL get the best of him, Roy has instead been one of the top players in that league this season. He is currently 15th in scoring in the OHL (20G, 41A), with his excellent two-way play being a major reason for Kitchener’s #2 ranking in the CHL’s top 10. Derek’s strong performance did not go unnoticed, as he was selected to play for Canada at the 2003 World Junior Championships. With the Rangers being one of the top teams in all of junior hockey, Roy may also get the opportunity to display his talents (as well as enhance his value for contract negotiations with Buffalo) at the 2003 Memorial Cup tournament. As for his future potential, Roy appears to be a good candidate for 2nd-line duty, with an outside shot at becoming a #1 center.

Honors: Won a silver medal with Canada at the 2003 World Junior Championships…Named captain of the OHL’s Western Conference All Star team that took part in the CHL’s Hershey Cup series…Named OHL Player of the Week for the week ending January 19th, 2003.

  1. Henrik Tallinder, Defenseman

Henrik got a small taste of the NHL at the end of the 2001-02 season, appearing in two games for the Sabres. From the start of training camp this year, though, Tallinder has left little doubt that he intends to stay in Buffalo for the duration of the season. For the most part, the big Swede has fit right into Buffalo’s top 4 grouping of defensemen, providing steady play in his own end while also chipping in with some offense. Henrik tended to favor a more defensive style earlier in the season, but has more recently shown a willingness to join offensive rushes up the ice. Tallinder has struggled defensively in recent games, but he has also displayed a hard, accurate and low shot from the point on power plays, an element that Buffalo has generally lacked in recent years. Henrik probably won’t be a candidate for the Calder Trophy this season, but the Sabres should have a solid, all-around defenseman for many years to come.

Honors: Selected to play in the Young Stars Game during the NHL’s 2003 All Star Weekend.

  1. Ales Kotalik, Right Wing

After a workmanlike start to the 2002-03 season, Ales has recently caught fire, offensively speaking. The young Czech winger went on an offensive tear during the month of January, collecting 7 goals and 11 assists in 13 games. For most of the early part of the month, Kotalik WAS the offense for the Buffalo Sabres, including one stretch where he scored 2 goals in each of three consecutive games. For his efforts, Ales was named the NHL’s Rookie of the Month for January. The former sixth round pick has bulked up in the past couple of seasons, adding twenty pounds to his 6’1" frame to weigh in at a solid 220 pounds. The combination of Kotalik’s size, speed and shot make him a potential power forward candidate with intriguing possibilities, as well as a definite candidate for the Calder Trophy this season.

Honors: Named the NHL’s Rookie of the Month for January, 2003.

  1. Daniel Paille, Left Wing

The Sabres traded up on Draft Day 2002 to have a chance at landing Dan Paille, a grinding forward from the OHL’s Guelph Storm. The move has looked like a smart one so far, with Paille having a memorable 02-03 season up to this point. His offensive exploits early in the season led to Daniel being named to the OHL’s Western Conference All Star Team that took part in the CHL’s Hershey Cup series. Shortly after that, Paille won silver as a member of Canada’s World Junior team, where Daniel’s role, along with linemates Jay McClement and Jordin Tootoo, was to set the tone for the game with some physical play. Daniel took to this role early on, putting a major hit on an opponent in a game vs. Sweden. The season has been a frustrating one for Paille and his Guelph teammates, however, with the team recently changing coaches. Dan’s offensive production has tailed off recently, with the likelihood being that he’ll equal, or only slightly surpass, his point totals of last season. Still, the Sabres seem to have landed a big, grinding winger with some speed who could chip in some offense along the way, maybe along the lines of a Kirk Maltby.

Honors: Selected to play for the OHL’s Western Conference All Star squad in the CHL’s Hershey Cup series…Played for Canada at the 2003 World Junior Championships.

  1. Keith Ballard, Defenseman

Like fellow 2002 first rounder Dan Paille, Keith’s early season offensive highs have flattened out in the last month or so. Ballard, of the defending NCAA-champion University of Minnesota, started the 2003-03 season with 15 points in his first nine games. In his last 16 games, however, the stocky rearguard has just 7 points, including 5 assists in his last five games. In spite of the offensive woes, Keith contributes in other ways, particularly through his physical play. His 46 penalty minutes is second on Minnesota’s roster, which is a fairly large total for the more wide open style of play in the NCAA. Ballard would seem to be a candidate to eventually replace Alex Zhitnik, maybe as soon as next season.

  1. Paul Gaustad, Center/Left Wing

On a Rochester roster loaded with young prospects, Paul has been the most accomplished of the bunch. The Fargo, ND native has been ‘Mr. Everything’ for the Amerks this season, contributing in all situations while displaying a determination rarely seen in many prospects drafted by the Sabres. The fact that he was a draftee who had been completely overlooked by Central Scouting makes Paul’s story all the more intriguing, and also is a feather in the cap of the oft-maligned Sabres’ scouting staff. There are some who think that Paul’s average skating ability will keep him from being more than a fourth-line player, but the big center/left winger has overcome this type of criticism in the past, as he is right now with Rochester. While Gaustad may never be an offensive star, there are many more ways in which he can contribute to a club’s success.

  1. Jason Pominville, Right Wing

Jason slides into the top 10 based more on potential than actual output. The offensive touch that was much in evidence during Pominville’s days in the QMJHL has yet to emerge in the AHL. Jason’s speed, ability to get open, and quick release are the attributes that have most contributed to his past success, but he has only shown flashes of that ability in Rochester. During the month of December, it looked as if Jason might be warming to the competition a bit, as he picked up 8 points in a 14-game stretch. But that short outburst was more a case of the "one step up, two steps back" syndrome that many young players experience in the first couple years of their pro careers. With the depth the Sabres have at right wing, though, the team can afford to wait for Jason to hit his stride.

  1. Jiri, Novotny, Center/Left Wing

Like fellow first-year Amerk Jason Pominville, Jiri owes his place in the top 10 more to potential than performance. Due to limited ice time and absences, the former first round pick has yet to make an impact in his first season of pro hockey. Novotny played for the Czech Republic entry at the 2003 WJC, where he collected just 1 assist in six games. In that tournament’s first two games, Jiri was paired with flashy center Jiri Hudler and top 2003 prospect Milan Michalek on the Czech’s first line, but spent the final four games on the third line with Petr Taticek and Tomas Fleischman. There is little in Novotny’s background to suggest that he will generate offense on a regular basis, with his main capabilities instead being his strength, puck handling skills, and skating. He is hard to knock off the puck, which is a quality that could eventually make Jiri a good candidate for checking line duty. For now, though, he has a good deal more developing to do in Rochester.

  1. Norm Milley, Right Wing

Norm Milley must feel like his 50-goal seasons with the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves took place eons ago in light of his current production in Rochester of just 7 goals in 38 games. Milley simply hasn’t been able to recapture the offensive magic of his junior days, but he still can be an effective grinding winger on a third or fourth line in the NHL. The North York, ON native is tough to knock off the puck whether in open ice or along the boards, and he rarely takes a night off. Norm’s future may be with another organization, unless the Sabres move a right wing currently on their roster to make room for Milley.

  1. Jaroslav Kristek, Right Wing

As recently as late November, Jaroslav Kristek’s hockey career appeared headed for oblivion. The young Czech had barely produced in two previous injury-shortened seasons, and through 17 2002-03 games, Jaro had registered just 1 assist for Rochester. Then, as if someone had turned on a light bulb, Kristek began scoring like he had in his junior days with Tri-City, including a run through December where he picked up 20 points in 15 games. Jaroslav was rewarded for his efforts with his first call-up to Buffalo, where he played in his first six NHL contests. Although he did not pick up a point, Kristek nevertheless did not look out of place, playing with a lot of energy and creating scoring chances for himself and his teammates. Jaro is in the final year of his first contract, but if he continues his strong play of the past couple of months, it would be surprising not to see him re-signed by the Sabres.

  1. Chris Thorburn, Center

Chris was having perhaps his best OHL season as a member of the Saginaw Spirit (formerly North Bay), contributing both offense and hard-nosed play to a team that will have better days down the road. Thorburn’s effort did not go unnoticed, as the Plymouth Whalers, one of the top teams in the CHL, traded for the big center in early January. The Sault Ste. Marie, ON native has been an instant favorite with the Whalers’ fans, with Chris continuing to chip in offense and hard hits. Chris seems to have taken his game up a notch this season, with his combination of size, surliness, and scoring being an intriguing package that may be tough for Buffalo to overlook when it comes time to offer Thorburn a contract.

  1. Doug Janik, Defenseman

Rochester defenseman Doug Janik had a solid rookie season in 01-02, receiving that club’s Rookie of the Year honor. This season seems to have been a little more of a struggle for Doug, due in part, perhaps, to the large number of first-year players on Rochester’s roster. While he isn’t a small defender, Janik is sometimes overmatched against bigger forwards, which is probably a contributing factor to his –13 plus/minus rating. On the plus side, Doug rarely takes a night off, and he has a bit of an edge to his game, as evidenced by his 89 penalty minutes this season. Janik may have a future as a #6 or #7 NHL defenseman, but he has a good bit of developing to do yet in Rochester.

  1. Denis Denisov, Defenseman

If Doug Janik doesn’t pan out, perhaps Russian defenseman Denis Denisov can fill the role of depth defenseman. Denisov doesn’t have quite as much size as Janik, but his talent may be a little more advanced at this time. Denisov moved over to Salavat from the Soviet Wings at the beginning of the season, where he has spent time on that team’s 2nd defensive pairing. Denisov is said to provide sound defensive play in his own end while at times contributing to the offense. Denis is probably best thought of as a defensive defenseman, but he may lack the size to be an effective one in the NHL. (Editor’s note- the D. Denisov currently on the Soviet Wings squad is not Buffalo’s prospect)

  1. Milan Bartovic, Left Wing

Milan is an interesting combination of skills who has yet to turn those skills into a cohesive package. Bartovic came into the AHL with a reputation for being a sniper with great wheels. But, while his speed is often on display, the goal-scoring touch has yet to appear. The speedy Slovak does contribute in other ways, though, as he takes a regular turn on Rochester’s penalty-killing unit, while also seeing occasional duty on the power play. Bartovic can be a bit of a disturber, as well, which is a part of his game that could get him noticed if his goal-scoring touch doesn’t return. Given the breakthrough Jaroslav Kristek has experienced in his third season, it’s certainly too soon to write off the second-year Bartovic as a bust, particularly since his speed and defensive play are attributes that all NHL teams look for.