Sabres Top 20 prospects

By Kristofer Baker

Under the guidance of GM Darcy Regier and Coach Lindy Ruff, the Buffalo Sabres have made their mark as a defensively oriented hockey club. You wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at their draft history, though.

Since the two jumped on board during the offseason in 1997, they have used only two of eight first-round draft picks on defensemen, and only six of a possible 24 picks in the top three rounds on blueliners. This deficiency is evidenced by the new Sabres top 20 prospect rankings, where you won’t find a defender in the top 10. To stunt the development process of defensemen even more, the Sabres two highest-rated blueliners are both 18 years of age, being products of the most recent selection process.

Here’s a quick look at the new top 20:

1. Thomas Vanek
2. Ryan Miller
3. Derek Roy
4. Jason Pominville
5. Drew Stafford
6. Daniel Paille
7. Clarke MacArthur
8. Milan Bartovic
9. Paul Gaustad
10. Chris Thorburn
11. Andrej Sekera
12. Michael Funk
13. Branislav Fabry
14. Denis Denisov
15. Michael Ryan
16. Denis Ezhov
17. Artem Kryukov
18. L.P. Martin
19. Thomas Morrow
20. Michal Vondrka

1. Thomas Vanek, LW, 6’2, 200 lbs.

After a few years of sketchy first-round draft choices, it looks as if the Sabres front office got it right by selecting Thomas Vanek fifth overall in the 2003 Draft. A pure goal scorer with superior hands and deceptive speed, the Austrian-born winger led his University of Minnesota Golden Gophers with 31 goals and 31 assists in 45 games en route to a NCAA championship in 2003. While the Gophers failed in their bid to repeat as NCAA champs in 2004, Vanek again displayed his fine offensive tools with 26 goals and 25 assists in seven fewer games. His finishing ability and all-around offensive flash are enough for the veteran of several international tournaments to solidify his spot as the Sabres top prospect and future first-line winger.

Vanek signed a three-year, entry-level deal with the Sabres in September 2004 after a summer-long staredown, and is expected to immediately contribute to an offensive unit that will more than welcome a natural, clutch scorer. Because of his domination of the American collegiate ranks for the past two seasons, all eyes will be on the star of the Austrian hockey program as he dons the Sabres colors for the first time in 2004-05.

2. Ryan Miller, G, 6’2, 175 lbs.

Ryan Miller has been a victim of the Sabres goaltending situation. Before turning pro, the sky was the limit for the former Hobey Baker Award winner who rewrote the Michigan State and CCHA record books during three stellar seasons in Lansing. Enter Sabres management who, after being spoiled between the pipes during the era of Dominik Hasek, have employed a revolving door in the crease, virtually mishandling Miller in the process. After being named Buffalo’s starting goaltender to open the 2003-04 season, Miller found himself toiling down on the farm in Rochester for the balance of the season while Martin Biron and Mika Noronen again manned the net for the Sabres.

Regardless of what has transpired with the big club, there is still much hope for Miller to reach his full potential in the near future. The lanky netminder possesses sharp reflexes, quickness in the crease, and a top-notch glove hand that make him a world-class goaltending prospect. These attributes, coupled with his net-covering size make him a formidable keeper. Although his demotion to the AHL led him to briefly lose his mental edge, Miller was able to rebound in time to make the most of the situation. After being named to the 2004 AHL All-Star Classic, Miller and his offensively challenged Amerks teammates turned it up a notch late in the year, pushing themselves into the conference finals where they fell short against the eventual Calder Cup champs, the Milwaukee Admirals.

It is expected that Miller will again return to battle for a full-time spot with the top club. As of press time, Miller is without a contract as a restricted free agent.

3. Derek Roy, C, 5’9, 188 lbs.

After leading the OHL Kitchener Rangers to a Memorial Cup championship in 2003, the diminutive Roy came to the Sabres training camp looking to make a splash just as he did the year before prior to being sent back to the OHL. The pesky sub-six-footer got off to a blazing start with Rochester, earning himself a December call-up. Playing most of the time on a line with speedster Maxim Afinogenov, Roy compiled a respectable nine goals and 10 assists in 49 games with the Sabres, and was the primary factor to Buffalo parting ways with longtime forward Curtis Brown at the trade deadline. His performance led him to being selected for the NHL Young Stars game held in Minneapolis during All-Star weekend.

Roy tallied 26 points in 26 regular season games for the Rochester Americans prior to his call-up to the Sabres, then continued his dominating play at the AHL level by scoring 14 points in 16 postseason games.

There is no question that Roy will be a full-time member of the Sabres forward corps in 2004-05, as he is considered a key to their future plans as top-6 playmaker.

4. Jason Pominville, RW, 6’0, 180 lbs.

Hoping to develop a true scoring threat down the right side, the Sabres signed Pominville after back-to-back 100+ points seasons in major junior. After a one-year adjustment period to the pro game, Pominville blossomed into that offensive force with Rochester in 2003-04. The former QMJHL star scored 34 points in his rookie season in 2002-03, then took it to the next level with 34 goals and 30 assists in 66 games in 2003-04. Much of Pominville’s damage with the Amerks was done on the power play, where he lit the lamp 22 times on the way to leading the AHL in that category. With the continued development of Pominville, the Sabres organization is looking at a solid top-6 forward and quality point producer for their future.

Slight in stature, Pominville lacks an aggressive dimension and, like many natural scorers, is by no means a defensive stalwart. Regardless, aside from Vanek, Pominville represents the best scoring option for the Sabres future with his quick shot and excellent playmaking abilities. His offensive package should allow him to make a strong push for a spot on the Sabres roster in 2004-05, but it is likely that he will again begin the year with the Amerks.

5. Drew Stafford, RW, 6’2, 205 lbs.

With their top pick in the 2004 draft the Sabres grabbed Drew Stafford, a gritty forward with some offensive polish. Stafford picked up 11 goals and 32 points during his freshman year with a strong University of North Dakota squad. Noted for his checking ability, leadership, speed, and effort in the corners and along the boards, the selection of Stafford further solidifies the Sabres’ prospect strength down the wings. Regarded as a safe selection amongst the 2004 class of forwards, the Sabres top 5 prospects is rounded out rather nicely with a player who can wreak havoc opponents defensively as well as dazzle with the puck when confronting an opposing defenseman.

The grinding Stafford is a shoo-in for a leadership role on Team USA for the 2005 World Junior Championships, building upon his role as a speedy fourth-liner on the gold medal winning squad in 2004. It is expected that he’ll return to skate for the WCHA’s Sioux for at least one more season before reassessing where his game stands in relation to a pro career. His work ethic is the one thing that will lead to Stafford’s emergence as a top forward in the Sabres organization within the next three to four seasons.

6. Daniel Paille, LW, 6’1, 200 lbs.

That thunderous sigh of relief you may have heard in late May of 2004 was the collective celebratory exhalation of Sabre fans as the team came to last-minute terms with former OHL stand-out and 2002 first-round pick Daniel Paille. The Welland, Ontario native is coming off a junior career that was capped by his captaincy of Team Canada at the 2004 WJC in Finland, and his Guelph Storm advancing to the Memorial Cup in Kelowna, British Columbia.

A hard-working winger with above average offensive skills at the junior level (he scored 247 points in 239 OHL games), Paille is expected to be an impact player in the NHL with his tight defensive style accented by his thunderous body checks and intensity on the penalty kill. Much like Drew Stafford ranked just before him, Paille will also be counted on for his superior leadership skills at the next level. It is all but certain that Paille will benefit from some seasoning in the AHL before becoming a second- or third-line regular for the Sabres, and a potential perennial candidate for the Selke Trophy.

7. Clarke MacArthur, LW, 6’0, 185 lbs.

MacArthur, a sniper with the WHL’s offensive powerhouse in Medicine Hat, is a prospect whose stock keeps rising. Coming off a WHL regular season campaign that saw the winger put up 35 goals and 75 points, the Lloydminster, Alberta native capped off his year by being named to the Memorial Cup All-Star Team after notching four points in as many games. His excellent hands, good speed, improved all-around game and added bulk make him a legitimate candidate to crack the lineup for the Canadian entry in the 2005 World Junior Championships. He recently made waves at Team Canada’s August preliminary evaluation camp, where he made nifty offensive plays and was all-around pain to play against. This is good news for Sabres fans who like the mix of offense and the ability to agitate.

With the Sabres having quality depth at the forward positions, it is likely that MacArthur will be returned to Medicine Hat after training camp this fall to resume his place as a key component to the Tigers run at another WHL championship. Although the necessary skill set is present, it is assumed that MacArthur’s lack of size will be the only possible deterrent to his becoming an everyday NHL forward.

8. Milan Bartovic, LW, 6’0, 195 lbs.

Anchoring the eighth spot on the Sabres prospect chart is the speedy Milan Bartovic. The hustling Slovak had a breakout year of sorts in 2003-04, earning AHL Player of the Week honors in January in the midst of a 10-game scoring streak. While he seemed to hit his offensive stride at the AHL level by scoring 18 goals for Rochester, his scoring success never translated to the NHL as he scored just once during a 23-game call-up with the Sabres. Despite the lack of goals, Bartovic’s forechecking effort and use of speed to accumulate loose pucks earned him much praise from the Sabres coaching staff, and nearly 13 minutes of ice time per game as part of a sparkplug triumvirate with Maxim Afinogenov and fellow prospect Derek Roy.

With his offense yet to turn the corner, Bartovic is leaving the door open for more forwards in the system to leapfrog past him on the depth chart. Until the goals come, Bartovic figures to become a solid fourth line forward in the NHL.

9. Paul Gaustad, C, 6’5, 240 lbs.

The hulking Gaustad has progressed into a solid leader for the Sabres AHL club in Rochester since leaving Portland of the WHL. The gritty Fargo, ND native has amassed over five hours in the penalty box in his two professional seasons. Don’t be misled, though, for the huge centerman packs some valuable offensive punch, as well, as evidenced by his 84 points in the same timeframe. Despite his regular season point total tapering off to 31 from 53, the gritty Gaustad increased his output with three goals and 10 assists in 16 playoff games in 2004 to go along with 30 penalty minutes.

Entering the professional ranks at 195 pounds, Gaustad’s overall value has steadily increased as his playing weight has increased. While his skating ability needs some work and his offensive production seems to be making a downward turn, the blue collar, space-creating pivot is slowly emerging as a bona fide bottom line prospect for the organization. Gaustad’s chances of joining the NHL should increase if he’s able to demonstrate the ability to become a regular “plus” player.

10. Chris Thorburn, C, 6’3, 220 lbs.

The smooth-skating Thorburn had a fine rookie campaign in 2003-04 with Rochester, tallying six goals and 16 assists in 58 AHL games. Early returns show that the 2001 second round pick has the speed and ability to develop into a checking forward at the next level with another season or two in the minors. He excels in the corners and likes to hit the net hard. Bundling those attributes with his growing frame renders a welcome breath of fresh air to the Sabres depth chart at the center position. Unquestionably the better skater of the two, the difference between he and Gaustad is the one extra season of development. Both players projected ceiling is no higher than that of a third line center.

11. Andrej Sekera, D, 6’0, 187 lbs.

Selected in the third round of the 2004 draft, the smallish Sekera is the top-rated Sabres defensive prospect. While another rearguard was taken by Buffalo one round before the choice of Sekera (Michael Funk), Sekera currently possesses the heart, leadership, determination, and physical play that gives him the inside track at a NHL career. There are currently fewer question marks on his resume than some of the other blueline prospects in the Sabres stable.

A natural leader, Sekera stands at 6’0 but plays with a physical tone more akin to a player three to four inches taller. He executes with confidence at both ends of the ice, and has shown the necessary skills to adapt to varying styles of play. He has the offensive tools of a finesse player in his arsenal, but can hit the switch to a more aggressive defensive player when the situation dictates. Barring any impediments to his growth and progress as a North American player, Sekera could realistically become a top-4 defenseman for Buffalo.

Sekera is expected to join Owen Sound for the 2004-05 OHL season. It is also anticipated that he will be a member of the Slovakian squad that will compete in the 2005 World Junior Championships in Grand Forks, ND and Thief River Falls, MN.

12. Michael Funk, D, 6’4, 200 lbs.

Needing to address the dearth of defensive prospects in their system, the Sabres selected
17-year-old Michael Funk of the WHL’s Portland Winter Hawks with their second choice in the 2004 draft. Tall and lanky, Funk is a positional defender with decent offensive skills. He can quarterback a power play, use good vision to start a breakout rush, and find the net with his point shot. He scored 28 points in his sophomore season in the WHL, up from his rookie total of 16.

If the NHL season is played, Braydon Coburn will graduate to the professional ranks and Funk will be the top man on the blueline for Portland. He is diligently hitting the weights in preparation for the 2004-05 season, hoping to add the necessary muscle mass to become a more physically assertive player. The Abbotsford, British Columbia native has yet to demonstrate the ability to consistently use his large frame to dish out punishment to the opposition. Improving this aspect, as well as his puck play when under pressure in his own end will certainly lead to him moving up within the rankings of the Sabres top prospects. Until then, Funk will remain at No. 12 while the organization and fans eagerly wait for him to further prove himself.

13. Branislav Fabry, RW, 6’0, 185 lbs.

Fabry, another Slovakian prospect on the Sabres list, is an offensively gifted winger with a bit of an aggressive side to him. Fabry has been a dominant force with Bratislava’s junior squad over the past few seasons, notching eight goals and 14 points in 2003-04 with the Bratislava Juniors. He didn’t fare as well during his time with HC Slovan Harvard Bratislava’s top club of the Extra League, scoring just seven points in 49 games as a 19-year-old. Still, his complete game improved over the previous season’s totals of 11 (junior) and four (elite) points.

Fabry is another prospect with potential for upward mobility on the Sabres prospect list. The single most contributing factor towards gauging his growth and making him less enigmatic would be a move to North America to better prepare for a shot at a NHL career. For now, he is slated to return to the Slovakian Extra League with HC Slovan Harvard Bratislava. He is also eligible to again skate for Team Slovakia at the 2005 World Junior Championships, where he will look to eclipse the success he had at the 2004 event that saw him score three goals and an assist in six contests.

14. Denis Denisov, D, 6’0, 190 lbs.

Denisov, the Sabres fifth round pick in 2000, is another prospect on the rise in the Sabres system. The undersized, two-way defenseman has been making a name for himself as one of the more offensively capable blueliners in the Russian Super League. In the 2003-04 season for Ak Bars Kazan, Denisov scored four goals and 11 assists in 51 games as a 22-year-old. He is a smooth, fluid skater with average speed who is comfortable carrying the puck and joining the rush. Although he is generally regarded as a responsible positional defender adept at blocking shots, he is often seen as too offensively minded and overzealous at times.

Denisov would benefit from signing a contract with Buffalo to develop his defensive skills, improve his strength, and work towards a NHL career utilizing his puck skills and hard slapshot as a potential power play defenseman. Denisov signed an extension with Ak Bars Kazan in May 2004, so any deal with the Sabres would require financial compensation to the RSL club.

15. Michael Ryan, C, 6’1, 190 lbs.

The speedy, agile Ryan battled the injury bug during his inaugural campaign with Rochester of the AHL, causing his development to suffer, as well as a drop in the Sabres prospect rankings. Ryan did garner 12 points in 45 games in 2003-04 while amassing 31 penalty minutes. Staying healthy in 2004-05 should contribute to him again climbing the Sabres rankings, putting himself in a position to become a solid second- or third-line player for Buffalo in two to three years’ time, or at least to keep pace with the influx of talent entering the Sabres’ pipeline. He was able to show marked improvement through each collegiate season at Northeastern University, so expect the Sabres to be patient with Ryan as long as he steers clear of injury.

16. Denis Ezhov, D, 6’0, 200 lbs.

Another defenseman who lacks top-end size, Ezhov is on the bubble for developing into a NHL player. Regarded as a finesse stay-at-home defenseman, Ezhov is smart, cool, and calm under pressure. Despite good puck-handling skills, he is not inclined to take part in the offensive game, but rather is more interested in low risk play and preserving the safety of his own zone. A superior conditioned athlete with a wide body, Ezhov has excellent speed and is difficult to knock off of the puck, but is by no means a physical force on the back end.

Considered a fourth round steal at the time of his drafting, Ezhov has yet to step up his game enough to warrant a shot at becoming a key cog in the Sabres system. He played in 19 games with Metalurg Novokuznet in 2003-04, notching just one assist. Ezhov will play for CSKA Moscow of the RSL in 2004-05, and is eligible to take part in his third Under-20 World Junior Championships this winter, where he did not register a point in 12 games in 2003 and 2004. It is uncertain whether Ezhov will ever make the jump to North America, but if or when he does, he should amount to a lower-pairing, depth defenseman.

17. Artem Kryukov, C, 6’4, 195 lbs.

Detractors of GM Darcy Regier are quick to refer to Kryukov as the poster child for the current front office regime in Buffalo. After being selected 15th overall in the 2000 Draft, the lanky center with a touch of a mean streak has yet to gain the chance to display the skills necessary to defend his being chosen so high in the draft. Concussion symptoms that dogged the forward early on have subsided, yet he has had a difficult time finding the ice for Yaroslavl of the Russian Super League. He has scored just four points in only six games over the past two seasons and is in danger of joining another former first round pick, Jiri Novotny, on the outside of the Sabres top 20 prospects.

After impressing many within the Sabres organization at the 2003 training camp (the main reason that he holds this spot), it looked as if the pick was finally going to pan out. However, negotiations hit a snag when IIHF rules determined that he had to be returned to his parent club in the RSL. Regier would still like to save face and sign Kryukov if possible, but for now he’ll remain a disappointment and perhaps the biggest bust in franchise history.

18. Louis-Philippe Martin, RW, 6’0, 175 lbs.

One of the more intriguing prospects in the Sabres stable is Drummondville Voltigeurs high scoring winger, L.P. Martin. After leading the Voltigeurs 2003-04 edition in scoring with 23 goals for 79 points, he suffered a shoulder injury in the playoffs and did not return to action. The ninth round pick in 2003 has demonstrated the capacity to make plays, gathering 76 points in 2002-03, and 62 points as a rookie in 2001-02. Making things more interesting is that he racks up nearly as many penalty minutes as he does points, with 66, 63, and 75 in his three seasons in the QMJHL.

Adding a few pounds to his slight frame while keeping pace with his career production could lead to a dramatic rise in his stock, and a subsequent higher ranking on the list of Sabres’ forward prospects. The question now is whether he’s more along the lines of a Donald Audette or a Claude Verret.

19. Thomas Morrow, D, 6’6, 210 lbs.

From the Land of 10,000 Lakes comes perhaps the tallest defensive draftee in team history. Thomas Morrow overcame a shaky start in 2003-04 to turn in a respectable freshman season with Boston University in the highly competitive Hockey East conference. A solid positional defender, the usually safe Morrow has a long skating stride that allows him to recover in the event he gets caught out of position. He uses his long stick and angular execution to force opposing forwards to the outside. Morrow gained valuable experience while being paired up with top Penguins prospect Ryan Whitney for much of last season, so this experience should serve him well as he continues his development with BU.

It is expected that Morrow will work on the physical aspect of his game, for it’s been a non-existent attribute up to now. Morrow’s lack of a physical game, coupled with his lack of high-end offensive skills (3 assists in 34 games in 2003-04) leaves his projected ceiling no higher than that of a bottom-pairing rearguard.

20. Michal Vondrka, LW, 6’0, 185 lbs.

Rounding out the Sabres top 20 prospects is Michal Vondrka of the Czech Republic. Vondrka is a shifty forward with decent offensive upside who doesn’t mind bumping around in traffic. The 22-year-old blossomed after a trade from Ceske Budejovice to Slavia Praha of the Czech Extraleague. After scoring just one goal and compiling a -6 rating in eight games for Budejovice, Vondrka scored six goals and seven assists in 37 games for Slavia Praha. Vondrka made good in his 2003 training camp experience with the Sabres, but it is unclear if he will ever make the leap towards a career as a professional player in North America. His creative ability combined with the Sabres’ need for any offensive pop they can get allowed Vondrka to occupy this spot ahead of fellow countryman and Sabres disappointment, the aforementioned Jiri Novotny.

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