The Buffalo Sabres have eight prospects playing in the CHL, including Quebec Remparts center and 2012 first round pick Mikhail Grigorenko. Only Grigorenko, Daniel Catenacci, and Andrey Makarov are under contract with the organization. The others will be using the rest of the season to showcase their skills. While the most recent draft picks have a little more time to spare, others like Colin Jacobs are playing in their last year of eligibility with the Sabres.
Mikhail Grigorenko, C, Quebec Remparts
Acquired: 1st round (12th overall) in 2012
The cream of the crop of Buffalo's pipeline, Grigorenko is continuing where he left off last year after being named the league's top professional prospect. He has been an absolute force for the third-place Remparts, currently sitting second in the QMJHL in scoring.
Last year, Grigorenko was criticized for lazy and inconsistent play, but he has escaped such criticism through a third of the season. He was strong in his two games representing Russia at the Subway Super Series, with two points in the first game of the series. In the nine games since his return, he has amassed 12 goals.
Daniel Catenacci, C, Owen Sound Attack
Acquired: 3rd round (77th overall) in 2011
When last year's leading scorer Mike Halmo (NYI) left, there were questions whether Catenacci could spearhead the Owen Sound offense. Those questions have been answered with a resounding yes. Catenacci is leading the team in points has kept them in the race for first place in a tough Midwest Division.
With 16 goals in 26 games, Catenacci is on pace to score 40 goals this year, which would represent a career best and the fourth consecutive year in which he has improved his goal total. His scrappy game has not come at the expense of his offensive numbers and he is once again expected to crack the 100 penalty minute barrier. Though Catenacci is a key cog for the Attack, he was not one of the marquee forwards for Team OHL in the Super Series and still projects to be a two-way player in the NHL.
Justin Kea, C, Saginaw Spirit
Acquired: 3rd round (73rd overall) in 2012
Considered a long-term checking forward with limited offensive ability, Kea has been a rock for the Spirit. Through 24 games, Kea has already set career highs with seven goals and 19 points, but his most impressive feat is posting a plus-rating on a team that is fourth for most goals allowed in the league.
One thing to watch as the season goes on is Kea's physical play. At 6'4, his size is a huge asset, but he will not be able to help his team if he gets tossed from games or finds himself in the box. His 51 penalty minutes lead the team and he has already three fights under his belt. Given the OHL's new rule on fighting and an automatic suspension after a player's 10th fight, it will be interesting to see how Kea responds. He is looking better every year and may carve a niche out for himself at the NHL level as a defensive specialist. He has also been one of the Spirit's best players on the road.
Brady Austin, D, Belleville Bulls
Acquired: 7th round (193rd overall) in 2012
If there is a player who epitomizes what the Bulls are trying to do this year, Austin fits the bill. The Bulls are the most goal-starved team in the OHL, but they're also the league's best defensive team. Austin has one goal and just seven points through 26 games. Having posted six goals and 26 points last year, Austin's offensive decline would be alarming only if offense was part of his game.
A stay-at-home defenseman known primarily for his size, Austin has been a rock on the Belleville blue line. Unranked by most scouts heading into the 2012 draft, the Sabres took a flyer on Austin, who was one of Belleville's most improved players in the second half of the season last year, when he had to take on more puck-carrying responsibilities. Wearing the "A," for the Bulls, Austin is a pillar for their defense and has excelled so far for the East Division leaders.
Alex Lepkowski, D, Barrie Colts
Acquired: 5th round (137th overall) in 2011
Much like Austin, Lepkowski is concentrating on become a defensive stalwart for the Colts, who are one of the favorites to win the OHL title. While Barrie's high-octane offense and goaltending Mathias Niederberger are taking center stage, Lepkowski's contributions to the team are flying under the radar. The Colts are counting on Lepkowski's experience, having one of the youngest blue lines in the OHL, including Aaron Ekblad, only the second player granted "exceptional player status" by the league.
Lepkowski's play has been solid thus far. Because he plays on a stronger team than Austin, he has had more opportunities to showcase his skills, but has yet to stand out enough to warrant a pro contract. His play is also prone to numerous peaks and valleys, so playing at a high level more consistently should help.
Logan Nelson, C, Victoria Royals
Acquired: 5th round (133rd overall) in 2012
The Royals went 24-41-3 last year, largely because of a porous defense. They were a young team, however, and they were expected to be much better this year with more experience under their belts. Though the team has been in a slump, they flew out of the gates to begin the season and at one point were sitting near the top of the Western Conference. A big reason for that has been the play of Nelson, the team's de facto center after fellow Buffalo Sabre Kevin Sundher was traded to Brandon late last year.
As a 17-year-old, Nelson finished third in team scoring with 62 points in 71 games, doing much of it without any significant help. Now with Alexander Gogolev, Nelson is scoring at a point-per-game. That is not taking anything away from Nelson, who recently scored a hat trick, but playing with better talent could translate to better numbers. When the Sabres took Nelson in the fifth round, he was considered a project, and this certainly is a sign that he is on the right track. Considered a wild card to make the U.S. National Team for the World Juniors at the beginning of the season, Nelson's continued strong play will make him hard to ignore for head coach Phil Housley.
Colin Jacobs, C, Prince George Cougars
Acquired: 4th round (107th overall) in 2011
Jacobs had a promising start to his junior career in his first two seasons with the Seattle Thunderbirds, but his development has slowed due to various bouts of injuries. His trade request was granted this year when he was traded to Prince George, where he is expected to be a mentor to the Cougars' young prospects.
He is excelling in that role. The Cougars are not expected to win many games, but Jacobs is scoring at the best point-per-game rate of his career and leading the team in scoring, something he has never done in three years with Seattle. He is doing all he can to keep the team competitive until highly touted prospects Alex Forsberg, Jordan Tkatch, and Jarrett Fontaine come of age. Even in the midst of a career year, Jacobs still projects to be a depth player in the AHL. He simply does not have a standout skill or the resume to earn an NHL contract yet. He is facing an upward climb to earn a contract with Buffalo, who are flush with forwards in the system.
Andrey Makarov, G, Saskatoon Blades
Acquired: Signed as free agent September 14, 2012
The Blades are second in the Eastern Conference in goals allowed, but it is not Makarov's fault. The poor play of backup Alex Moodie means Makarov has had to shoulder most of the load to start the season. Endurance does not seem to be an issue so far for Makarov, at one point starting three games in as many nights. After being tabbed as the starter for both games in the Super Series, Makarov returned to Saskatoon and posted 42 saves for a shutout.
Undrafted and signed as a free agent by Buffalo, Makarov projects to be a depth goalie in the future. He has the athletic ability and the talent, and getting lots of starts does not hurt his development, but he is considered a few years away from making the pros, and will be behind Nathan Lieuwen and Connor Knapp on the depth chart. Makarov's stats have looked pedestrian so far, but the Blades allow a lot of shots and in reality the goaltender has kept the Blades in a lot of games. Whether or not Makarov has the physical and mental endurance to keep this up for the rest of the season is something to watch.