Sabres Top 20 prospects

By Ken McKenna

With goaltender Ryan Miller’s long run at or near the top of the Buffalo Sabres prospect rankings now at an end, the upper portion of the Sabres prospect ranks is now dominated by a good mix of young forwards. In fact, of the top 20 prospects in the current rankings, 14 of the players are forwards, with the list being rounded out by five defensemen and one goaltender.

Sitting at No. 1 is rising star Thomas Vanek. Vanek has shown in his brief pro career that his offensive exploits in college weren’t a fluke. The Sabres 2003 first round selection is joined in the top five by three more No. 1’s, including 2002 first Daniel Paille, 2004 selection Drew Stafford and 2005 pick Marek Zagrapan. Center Derek Roy rounds out the top five.

Key: Current Rank (Previous Rank) Name, Position

1.(1) Thomas Vanek, Left Wing
Height: 6’2, Weight: 208, Current Team: Buffalo Sabres (NHL)

Following a rookie season in the AHL that was worthy of Rookie of the Year honors, winger Thomas Vanek is taking the next step to what should be a successful NHL career. The former University of Minnesota star was the Sabres leading scorer in the 2005 preseason, notching five goals and three assists in six games. The chemistry that Vanek has developed with Sabres center Daniel Briere should help the Austrian contend for the Calder Trophy this season. Vanek has displayed the scoring touch that most expect from him, but he has also shown excellent passing skills that have come as a surprise to some observers. The bottom line is that Vanek is the package of offensive skill that the Sabres have lacked for many a year, a fact that should cheer Sabres fans that have suffered through some mediocre hockey since their last appearance in the playoffs in 2001.

2.(-) Marek Zagrapan, Center
Height: 6’0, Weight: 195, Current Team: Chicoutimi Sagueneens (QMJHL)

Although the Sabres had an obvious need for a top flight defenseman going into the 2005 NHL Draft, they instead chose to select skilled center Marek Zagrapan with their first pick. Zagrapan filled a need for an offensive pivot with enough size to work in traffic. Although the Slovakia native is built solidly, he isn’t a player that will throw his body around. Instead, he’ll be responsible for setting up linemates or scoring goals himself, which are two skills that come to him very naturally. Zagrapan showed flashes of his ability during his time in camp, but he clearly requires more time to develop in the junior ranks.

3.(2) Derek Roy, Center
Height: 5’9, Weight: 190, Current Team: Rochester Americans (AHL)

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the Sabres 2005 preseason was the demotion of center Derek Roy to Rochester during the final cuts. The former Kitchener Rangers standout was viewed as an almost certain member of the Sabres 2005-06 roster, but his performance in camp was not quite good enough to help him secure that roster spot. Roy’s mediocre preseason performance, combined with his sometimes lackadaisical play in Rochester during the 2004-05 season no doubt has the Sabres concerned that the talented center is resting on past laurels. If the demotion can shake Roy out of his comfort zone, then it will be viewed as a smart move.

4.(5) Daniel Paille, Left Wing
Height: 6’0, Weight: 197, Current Team: Rochester Americans (AHL)

Winger Daniel Paille had only a brief chance to show his stuff during the preseason due to a broken jaw suffered during a scrimmage. Paille did manage to impress some observers with his speed and effort, but his overall game is not yet to a point where he could push for a NHL job. Once recovered from his injury, the former Guelph Storm star should receive plenty of ice time in Rochester, where he can continue to build on the progress made he made in the 2004-05 season.

5.(4) Drew Stafford, Right Wing
Height: 6’2, Weight: 204, Current Team: University of North Dakota (WCHA)

Given the Sabres depth at right wing, there is no need to rush University of North Dakota star Drew Stafford to the pro game. Stafford turned in a solid 2004-05 season for the Fighting Sioux, helping to lead his team to the 2005 Frozen Four championship game. In addition to his success in the college ranks, the big winger also shone at the 2005 World Junior Championships, as he was one of the top scorers in that tournament. While possessing some offensive ability, Stafford’s main attributes are his skating and consistent effort from game to game.

6.(3) Jason Pominville, Right Wing
Height: 6’0, Weight: 178, Current Team: Rochester Americans (AHL)

Despite a solid performance during the 2005 preseason, winger Jason Pominville was one of the final cuts from the Sabres roster. While a somewhat risky move by the Sabres due to the fact that Pominville had to clear waivers, the nifty forward safely returned to Rochester to begin his fourth season with that club. It would seem that Pominville has NHL ability, but it remains to be seen if his road to the NHL will run through Buffalo. There may simply be too much quality in front of him, as well as a few up-and-comers behind him, for Pominville to make his mark in this organization.

7.(6) Clarke MacArthur, Center/Left Wing
Height: 6’1, Weight: 191, Current Team: Rochester Americans (AHL)

Following a strong junior career with Medicine Hat of the WHL, versatile forward Clarke MacArthur signed his first pro contract with the Buffalo Sabres this past summer. MacArthur made a good impression during his brief stay in the Sabres training camp (he had a tryout with the Amerks last season, as well), but like all first-year players will need some time in the minors to become acclimated to the pro game. The Lloydminster, Alberta native is a good skater with a deft scoring touch, but his overall game needs refining before he is ready for the next level.

8.(7) Paul Gaustad, Center/Left Wing
Height: 6’4, Weight: 217, Current Team: Buffalo Sabres (NHL)

For a player who was not even ranked in his draft year, forward Paul Gaustad has managed to make the most of the opportunities he has been given. The former Portland Winter Hawks star has developed his game over the past three seasons with the Rochester Americans, where he built his game around continuous effort and taking the body. Gaustad also has improved his skating to the point where he is now a bona fide NHL player who could eventually be a solid checking-line center. The Fargo, North Dakota native will never be an offensive star, but he could develop into one of the better role players in the NHL.

9.(11) Michael Funk, Defenseman
Height: 6’4, Weight: 208, Current Team: Portland Winter Hawks (WHL)

The Sabres may have had some good fortune at the draft table in 2004 when defenseman Michael Funk fell to their pick at No. 43 in the second round of that draft. Funk had been considered a bit of a disappointment leading up to that draft, but he worked hard in 2004-05 to earn back some of the respect he had lost. The towering rearguard played well enough last season to earn an invite to Team Canada’s World Junior Development Camp this past summer. Funk also made a good impression at the Sabres camp in September, appearing in one NHL preseason game before returning to Portland. Funk has added muscle to his once skinny frame, and has improved his physical play in the past year. He is a good skater for his size, and has some offensive ability, so he has definite top-4 potential if he can put it all together.

10.(8) Chris Thorburn, Right Wing
Height: 6’3, Weight: 220, Current Team: Rochester Americans (AHL)

Big winger Chris Thorburn is entering his third year as a member of the Rochester Americans. The Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario native showed much improvement as the 2004-05 season progressed, and he’ll need to continue that progress in 2005-06 to take the next step. Although he has been described by some as having power forward potential, Thorburn’s offensive game may not be up to the level of the prototypical power forward. Instead, the former Plymouth Whaler star could become more of a role player who could be effective on the third or fourth line.

11.(15) Andrej Sekera, Defenseman
Height: 6’0, Weight: 200, Current Team: Owen Sound Attack (OHL)

Slovak defenseman Andrej Sekera turned in a solid rookie season in the OHL in 2004-05, where he was named to the OHL All-Rookie Team. The stocky rearguard also represented his country at the 2005 WJC, where he turned in a decent performance for a club that struggled throughout that tournament. Sekera received his first taste of a NHL camp in September, where he made a good first impression during the early portion of the Sabres camp. While not possessing what was considered ideal size for a NHL defenseman in the pre-lockout days, the new NHL may work in Sekera’s favor. He has the skill and enough stockiness to handle the rigors of the NHL game, but it remains to be seen if he can handle on a nightly basis some of the bigger forwards at the pro level.

12.(-) Mark Mancari, Right Wing
Height: 6’3, Weight: 225, Current Team: Rochester Americans (AHL)

The selection of hulking winger Mark Mancari was almost an afterthought at the 2004 NHL Draft, but the Sabres may have found a special player in the former Ottawa 67’s player. Mancari turned heads with his hitting and overall effort in the Sabres camp last month. Those efforts earned Mancari a pro contract and a ticket to Rochester, where he will begin his pro career. Mancari is a good skater for his size, and he isn’t afraid to take the body. He displayed a scoring touch in the OHL, but it remains to be seen if he will be able to produce at the pro level. If Mancari can develop into a complete player in Rochester, he could make some noise at the NHL level.

13.(12) Denis Denisov, Defenseman
Height: 6’0, Weight: 180, Current Team: Ak Bars (RSL)

Every year, he appears on this list, and every year Denis Denisov remains in Russia. It is hard to say if the Sabres still consider Denisov a viable NHL prospect, but he could certainly have a place in the new NHL. The former 2000 draft choice appeared to take a big step in his career when he was named to Russia’s national team for the 2005 World Championships. For his part, Denisov did not look out of place playing against world-class talent in that tournament, so he could be NHL-ready at this time. But when or even if this two-way defenseman is coming to North America is a question that is difficult to answer given the state of relations between the NHL and the Russian hockey federation. For now, Denisov will play for Ak Bars in the Russian Superleague.

14.(13) Artem Kriukov, Center
Height: 6’4, Weight: 187, Current Team: Yaroslavl Lokomotiv (RSL)

If the question regarding Denisov is focused on when he can come to North America, the focus on 2000 first round selection Artem Kriukov may be on whether he should come across the pond. Kriukov managed to stay relatively injury-free last season, which led to his most extensive playing time in the RSL. His primary role up to this point has been as a role player with more of a checking role. Playing behind many veterans has dictated Kriukov’s role with Yaroslavl, but, having been a relatively high pick by a NHL club, it is surprising that he hasn’t asserted himself beyond being a checking forward. Kriukov will be a free agent after the 2005-06 RSL season, so Sabres fans may finally get their first lengthy look at this mysterious prospect come next season.

15.(-) Patrick Kaleta, Right Wing
Height: 6’0, Weight: 198, Current Team: Peterborough Petes (OHL)

If down the road the Sabres are looking for a leader who isn’t afraid to sacrifice his body for the good of the team, then they might already have their man in Western New York native Patrick Kaleta. Kaleta caught everyone’s attention last month with his crashing-and-banging performance in the early portion of camp. He has since returned to the Peterborough Petes, where he will be a leader on a team that is expected to be one of the better clubs in the CHL in 2005-06. The Sabres have been making more of an effort to draft players from the Buffalo area in recent drafts, with Kaleta having the potential to one day wear the uniform of his hometown team.

16.(-) Marc-Andre Gragnani, Defenseman
Height: 6’1, Weight; 180, Current Team: PEI Rocket (QMJHL)

The 2005 NHL Draft may end up being a good one for the Sabres, at least when it comes to their selection of defensemen. QMJHL rearguard Marc-Andre Gragnani could be one of the Sabres finds for their defensive corps, as he has the ability to one day be an effective offensive defenseman at the pro level. Gragnani currently toils for one of the lesser clubs in the QMJHL, but the upside of that downside is that he has received plenty of ice time playing for the PEI Rocket. The Ile-Bizard, Quebec native’s efforts in 2004-05 did not go unnoticed, as he was invited to take part in Team Canada’s World Junior Development Camp back in August. Gragnani certainly has the ability to some day play in the NHL, but he will need to bulk up a bit to handle the bigger NHL forwards.

17.(-) Viacheslav Buravchikov, Defenseman
Height: 6’1, Weight: 189, Current Team: Khimik (RSL)

Another of the Sabres defensive finds at the 2005 NHL Draft is Russian rearguard Viacheslav Buravchikov. Like a few of the better Russian prospects he was passed over until the Sabres selected him in the sixth round. Buravchikov is making his debut in Russia’s top league this season while playing with fellow Sabres prospect Denis Ezhov. describes him as being “a very good skater with above-average straightaway speed and a smooth stride.” Buravchikov has the ability to one day become a top-4 defenseman, and could be an effective point man on the power play for the Sabres. Given the current state of relations between the NHL and Russian Hockey, however, getting this talented defenseman out of Russia may be easier said than done.

18.(17) Michal Valent, Goaltender
Height: 6’2, Weight: 185, Current Team: HC Sparta Praha (SVK)

Goaltender Michal Valent turned in a strong performance in Slovakia’s top league last season, making a strong case for his being the top, young goaltender in that country. Another performance like last year’s should make him a viable candidate to one day play in the NHL. The next step for Valent is to begin his pro career in North America, but that won’t happen until next season at the earliest.

19.(16) Michael Ryan, Left Wing
Height: 6’1, Weight: 191, Current Team: Rochester Americans (AHL)

Speedy winger Michael Ryan didn’t turn in a stellar performance in 2004-05 due in part to injuries. But the former Northeastern University star did manage to catch the eye of the Sabres braintrust during the 2005 preseason, so Ryan may yet live up to some of the potential he displayed during his college career. While he is looked to for his offensive ability, he can also use his speed effectively in shorthanded situations. At 25, the clock is ticking on Ryan’s time in the Sabres organization, but he still can salvage his standing in the organization by turning in a strong performance this season.

20.(18) Dylan Hunter, Center
Height: 6’0, Weight: 196, Current Team: London Knights (OHL)

Like fellow 2004 draftees Patrick Kaleta and Mark Mancari, forward Dylan Hunter made a good impression in his first camp with the Sabres. Of course, Hunter is coming off of a season to remember, as he and his London Knights teammates turned in one of the most dominant seasons in the history of the CHL. Hunter himself had his best junior season, finishing second in scoring in the OHL. The son of former NHL superpest Dale Hunter is not quite a chip off the old block. But Hunter plays the game hard the way his father did, which helps to make up for deficiencies in his game. Hunter’s performance in the preseason was not quite good enough to earn him a pro contract, but he still could have a future in the Sabres organization.

Missing the Cut

Other players considered for this list were defenseman Denis Ezhov, currently playing for Khimik in the Russian Superleague; 2005 defensive draftee Chris Butler, who will be playing for the University of Denver this season; center Jiri Novotny, who could be down to his last chance in Rochester; German draftee Philippe Gogulla of Dusseldorf in the DEL; and Amerks defenseman Nathan Paetsch.

Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.