Sabres 2005 draft preview

By Ken McKenna

Sabres Top 10 Prospects

1.Thomas Vanek, LW
2.Derek Roy, C
3.Jason Pominville, RW
4.Drew Stafford, RW
5.Daniel Paille, LW/C
6.Clarke MacArthur, LW
7.Paul Gaustad, C
8.Chris Thorburn, RW
9.Nathan Paetsch, D
10.Denis Ezhov, D

Team Needs

The NHL’s brave, new era will leave several teams scrambling to assemble a roster prior to the start of their respective training camps. Not so for the Buffalo Sabres, however, as their contract situation is relatively settled compared to that of other NHL clubs.

This does not mean that Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier has no work ahead of him, though, as he has a list of 15 restricted free agents he needs sign to new contracts. In addition, there are two unrestricted free agents that Regier will attempt to sign, defensemen Alexei Zhitnik and James Patrick.

Assuming that most of the free agents are signed, the team entering the 2005-06 NHL season should not be greatly altered from the one that finished the 2003-04 campaign. Of course, that club failed to make the playoffs for a third year in a row, so some change is needed to finally get the Sabres over the hump and back into the playoffs.

Some of the new blood will no doubt come from the Sabres AHL affiliate in Rochester. The Rochester Americans finished the AHL’s 2004-05 regular season as the league’s top point-getters, and they did so with a relatively young squad. It’s a virtual certainty that center Derek Roy and left wing Thomas Vanek will secure roster spots with the Sabres come opening day. Other Amerks to watch include goaltender Ryan Miller, right wings Jason Pominville and Chris Thorburn, center Paul Gaustad, and defensemen Nathan Paetsch and Doug Janik.

In the forward ranks, the Sabres would appear to have a solid collection of talent, but they lack the true superstar talent that the rosters of the NHL’s better clubs inevitably sport. Winger Miro Satan is the closest the Sabres have to a scoring star, but his return is not certain. In addition, while the center contingent of the club is solid, it is also diminutive. Pivots such as Chris Drury, Daniel Briere, Roy and Tim Connolly all have their strong points, but all can be overpowered by some of the larger centers that populate the NHL’s Eastern Conference.

On defense, the situation seems to be a bit more unsettled than in the forward ranks. The loss of Zhitnik to free agency would mean that the Sabres would enter the new season without their most accomplished defenseman. A top four without Zhitnik would consist of the emerging Dimitri Kalinin, veteran Jay McKee, developing Henrik Tallinder, and one of Brian Campbell, Brad Brown or Rory Fitzpatrick. Jeff Jillson’s performance in Rochester this past season did not leave any tongues wagging, while the grizzled veteran Patrick needs to show that he can keep up with the younger legs.

In goal is where the Sabres would appear to have their greatest strength, but that is only on paper. One of Martin Biron, Mika Noronen or 2004-05 AHL Outstanding Goaltender Ryan Miller must step up to become the clear-cut, No. 1 goaltender for the Sabres. Anything less will keep the Sabres out of the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season.

Organizational Strengths

At this time, the Sabres greatest organizational strength would appear to be on the wings. At right wing, the team has crafty scorer Jason Pominville, workmanlike 2004 first round pick Drew Stafford, and bruising center-turned-winger Chris Thorburn. Along the left side are pure scorer Thomas Vanek, plugger and 2002 first rounder Daniel Paille, and potential scorer Clarke MacArthur.

Another strength of the Sabres prospect ranks is the versatility of some of those prospects. As already stated, winger Chris Thorburn can play the center position, while hulking center Paul Gaustad can play the left side if needed. Paille is another winger that has spent some time at center, as has winger MacArthur. Defenseman Nathan Paetsch also has seen time as a forward while playing in Rochester.

Organizational Weaknesses

The Sabres appear to have more question marks than answers on defense and at center, while they could also stand to add another highly regarded goaltender in their prospect ranks.

There are some that speak well of Sabres defensive prospects like Nathan Paetsch, Russian rearguards Denis Denisov and Denis Ezhov, and collegian John Adams. But none of these prospects appear to have the true impact potential that the club needs along the blueline. Indeed, with the trade of collegian and former 2002 top pick Keith Ballard back in 2003, the Sabres would appear to be overdue in their need to address their defensive deficiencies.

While not as weak at the center position given the presence of Roy and Gaustad on the prospect list, the Sabres still need to address their lack of a true, top-flight center with some size. There is some talk that the rule changes could help open up the game for smaller players such as Roy or Briere. But, particularly in the Eastern Conference where there are several top pivots with good size, it is still necessary to have that dominant offensive player that can wear down the opposition. Gaustad does not represent this kind of player, nor does 2000 first round selection Artem Kriukov.

And in goal, while the Sabres appear set at the upper levels of the organization, there could be a need for the team to keep the system stocked by selecting a top goaltending prospect. Slovakian prospect Michal Valent appears to have some potential to become a contributor, but he still has much to prove.

Draft Tendencies

Prior to the ratification of the new CBA, much of the Sabres drafting of the past seven or eight years had been dictated by the bottom line. Many of their top selections came from the college or European ranks, which virtually ensured that the player would not have to be signed to a contract as quickly as would a player from the junior ranks.

While there may still be some of that past strategy in the Sabres approach to their first round selections in the post-CBA world, the more even financial landscape should allow Darcy Regier and the Sabres scouting department to focus more fully on all prospects available. The rules for signing both collegian players and Europeans have been altered to narrow the time frame allowed to sign those players, while a rookie salary cap should make the drafting of top junior prospects less daunting.

Looking at specific trends in the Sabres drafting, the club seems to favor college players from the WCHA and Hockey East while focusing primarily on European players from the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Russia. In the junior ranks, the Sabres have favored players from the OHL and WHL, while focusing less on the QMJHL. Leagues like the USHL, BCHL, AJHL and the U.S. high schools have been virtually ignored, as have countries like Sweden, Finland, and Germany.

Player most likely to be taken with the first selection: (Hockey’s Future staff mock draft result): Ryan Parent, D, OHL Guelph Storm.

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