Mikhail Grigorenko remains top prospect for Buffalo Sabres

By Jason Chen

Mikhail Grigorenko - Buffalo Sabres

Photo: Mikhail Grigorenko remains the top prospect for the Buffalo Sabres. Drafted 12th overall in 2012, Grigorenko has played 17 games in the NHL this season. (courtesy of Cliff Welch/Icon SMI)

The Buffalo Sabres prospect pool is in a state of transition, with many of their top prospects, such as Mikhail Grigorenko and Marcus Foligno, now contributing to the NHL roster. Many of the Sabres other prospects, such as Andrey Makarov and Daniel Catenacci, are dominating their respective competition levels and appear poised to move on to the professional level next year. In general, the Sabres have good depth at every position, though they are deepest at center and on defense.

1. (1) Mikhail Grigorenko, C, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 12th overall, 2012

Even when Mikhail Grigorenko made the right move or said the right things, there was always an unusual amount of mystery surrounding the former Quebec Remparts star. Most scouts felt like the Russian center had the ability to anchor a first line in the NHL, but rumored character issues and conflicting scouting reports meant there was a certain amount of risk with Grigorenko. Nevertheless, the Sabres weighed all the options and chose to burn the first year of Grigorenko's entry-level contract in a shortened season.

Though most scouts still feel Zemgus Girgensons' game is better rounded, there is little doubt now that Grigorenko is a full-time NHL player, and certainly one who can skate in a top six role. For now, Grigorenko can hide behind Tyler Ennis and Cody Hodgson, but when the time comes, he may end up being on top.
2. (4) Brayden McNabb, D, 7.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 66th overall, 2009

With Buffalo's blue line depth, Brayden McNabb stays with the Rochester Americans for one more year. McNabb got a 25-game audition with the Sabres last year and would have made the team this year if not for the lockout. With T.J. Brennan moving on to the Sabres and Mark Pysyk still adjusting to the AHL, McNabb is the Amerks' go-to defenseman and power play quarterback.

The Sabres have Robyn Regehr, Jordan Leopold, and Alexander Sulzer's contracts coming off the books next year and McNabb will slot nicely into the team's cap structure for the foreseeable future.

3. (8) Jake McCabe, D, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 44th overall, 2012

The Wisconsin hockey program is developing a reputation for churning out some of the NHL's best defensemen. Jake McCabe is following the footsteps of Jake Gardiner (TOR) and Justin Schultz (EDM), and his stock is skyrocketing after being named to the All-Star team at the 2013 World Juniors.

McCabe is not projected to a top pairing defenseman, but he certainly has cemented his status as a top four rearguard. His greatest strength remains in the offensive zone, where he often plays a hybrid mix of point man and rover, often jumping into the slot for a slap or wrist shot. The Sabres have traditionally done very well with defensemen. There is still no word on whether or not McCabe will turn pro after the 2012-13 season, but another season under Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves will not hurt.

4. (2) Joel Armia, C, 7.0B
Drafted 1st round, 16th overall, 2011

Joel Armia will have to continue filling Finnish nets until next year when he moves overseas and joins the Sabres. The story with Armia, that of a young Finnish power forward with a knack for the net is playing and, at times, dominating against men, has not changed much over the past two years. His numbers this year have slipped a little and he is only on pace to match last year's total, but that could be due either his supporting cast, or general boredom playing in the Finnish league.

The Sabres are holding their breath when it comes to Armia. The closest comparable would be Victor Rask (CAR), a Swedish center with a similar nose for the net who opted to play in the WHL and is currently one of the league's top scorers. There will be an adjustment period with Armia when he comes overseas, but Rask's track record in North America so far bodes well for Armia.

5. (5) Mark Pysyk, D, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 23rd overall, 2010

The Sabres knew Mark Pysyk was a project and are perfectly happy bringing him along at his own pace. An undersized puck-moving defenseman with good skating ability, Pysyk's development is slow and steady. After four years with the WHL's Edmonton Oil Kings, his transition to the AHL has been smooth. Through 49 games, he has 13 points and leads the team in plus-minus.

Pysyk's numbers look good, but he is also getting dominated by the AHL's bigger, strong forwards. Playing in the WHL certainly helps with the transition, but as it stands, the young defenseman is at least another two or three years away from full-time NHL duty. 

6. (6) Marcus Foligno, LW, 6.5A
Drafted 4th round, 104th overall, 2009

There are no doubts Marcus Foligno is an NHL player. Drafted as a grinding, energy winger, Foligno has shown enough offensive flashes at both the NHL and AHL level to be considered a second line forward. At just 21, he has shown that he can be a point-per-game player, even if only for stretches. Foligno plays with a lot of grit and sandpaper and is a true Swiss Army knife-type of player who can be employed in all situations of the game.

A lot of Foligno's offensive production will depend on who he plays with. In Rochester, he averaged nearly a point-per-game playing alongside Cody Hodgson. On the Sabres, Foligno will not be expected to be quite as productive, but given Foligno's gift for giving any line a jolt of energy, he will have plenty of opportunities to play with Hodgson or Ennis.

7. (3) Zemgus Girgensons, C, 6.5B
Drafted 1st round, 14th overall, 2012

Zemgus Girgensons did turn pro before Grigorenko, but will most likely be plying his craft in the AHL for another two years. Taken just one pick apart, Girgensons and Grigorenko turned pro in the same season but took drastically different routes to get there. With Girgensons, the Sabres had more options, but decided he was mature enough on and off the ice to skip playing amateur hockey altogether, either for the WHL's Kelowna Rockets or the University of Vermont.

Girgensons can be protected in the AHL with Kevin Porter and Philip Varone ahead of him on the depth charts, but he will get more important minutes as the season progresses. So far, he has not looked out of place, and no doubt playing in the AHL as the league's youngest player is a commendable feat. But he is not yet NHL ready and remains a few years away from being the shutdown center scouts predicted he would be.

8. (13) Dan Catenacci, C, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd round, 77th overall, 2011

Questions were abound at the beginning of the season with the Owen Sound Attack's offense and whether or not Dan Catenacci can spearhead it. Without the help of Mike Halmo (NYI) or Joseph Blandisi (COL), Catenacci is leading the Attack to a better record and a playoff performance. With 72 points and 109 penalty minutes, Catenacci is leading the Attack in both categories. Catenacci is the only player on the OHL's top 20 scoring list who has over 100 penalty minutes.

Catenacci is already under contract with the Sabres and after a one-year entry-level slide, his three-year pact will begin in the 2013-14 season. Catenacci is an energy player who plays with good aggression and physicality, but there are legitimate questions about his size and whether or not he can handle hits from NHL players. After what will hopefully be a lengthy playoff run with Owen Sound, Catenacci will most likely join the Rochester Americans for at least one season.

9. (7) Jerome Gauthier-Leduc, D, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 68th overall, 2010

After three outstanding offensive seasons in the QMJHL, many scouts were intrigued with how those 176 points will translate to the pros. Jerome Gauthier-Leduc's performance so far has been underwhelming. Once considered a potential power play specialist like a Marc-Andre Bergeron-type player, there are now questions about Gauthier-Leduc's future. Through 29 games with the Amerks, Gauthier-Leduc has six points, but he has been used sparingly and even at 6'2, sometimes has trouble battling for position with the league's stronger forwards.

It is still too early to write off Gauthier-Leduc and that he has already supplanted other young defensemen in Buffalo's system bodes well, but his production and play have not lived up to the billing. The good news is that Gauthier-Leduc can take his time with Buffalo's glut of defensemen, but it is bad news if he cannot get consistent ice-time.

10. (10) Corey Tropp, RW, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 89th overall, 2007

This was the season for the Sabres to see what Corey Tropp can really do, but Tropp's season ended prematurely in the season opener, but not before he potted two goals. Tropp, like Foligno, was penciled in as a Sabres regular, although as a bottom six, grinding forward. How Tropp recovers from his knee injury will determine how quickly he returns to the NHL, but he will most likely get an AHL conditioning stint of some sort when he returns.

11. (9) T.J. Brennan, D, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 31st overall, 2007

T.J. Brennan spent three full seasons in the AHL before he got his first taste of the NHL. With the NHL lockout this past fall, Brennan returned to the AHL, where he has proven he is a legitimate top four defenseman with good offensive upside, and played at a point-per-game pace before being named to the Sabres roster in January.

Thus far, Brennan has only played in seven games, registering zero points. He was signed to a one-year contract following the expiration of his entry-level contract, and though he has been a standout in the AHL, it is unlikely that Brennan will be kept around beyond this season given Buffalo's depth on the blue line. Brennan is still a serviceable depth defenseman, but his inability to play consistently and age work against him as a prospect. 

12. (14) Nick Crawford, D, 6.5C
Drafted 6th round, 164th overall, 2008

Slow and steady is the name of the game for Nick Crawford. Like Brennan, Crawford is considered an offense-first defenseman with the ability to rack up points in a hurry. Two things work for Crawford against Brennan: his age and a better overall game, giving Crawford the chance to stay in the lineup consistently. Crawford's AHL numbers are not as impressive as Brennan's and he did struggle a little in his sophomore season, but he bounced back nicely this season and though he has not drawn in as many games as he would like, he does have 12 points in 29 games.

Crawford is playing out his entry-level contract and it will be interesting to see what the Sabres decide to do this off-season. The Sabres may opt to qualify Crawford and keep him around as a depth player with the potential to fill in as a number six or seven defenseman as needed. They may also choose to let him go, seeing as how their patience with Brennan has not paid off as the Sabres had hoped. Crawford's development has not featured any big setbacks so it is likely the Sabres will be patient and keep him around awhile longer.

13. (NR) Andrey Makarov, G, 7.0D
Signed as a free agent, September 2012

The Sabres inked Andrey Makarov in September to bolster the depth in their pipeline, and lo and behold, Makarov is now Buffalo's main prospect between the pipes. Makarov played in 54 games for the Saskatoon Blades after the Lewiston MAINEiacs folded and then played in three spectacular games for the Russian junior national team, posting a miniscule 0.88 goals against average and sparkling .979 save percentage. He was ranked as one of the top 10 goalies in the 2012 draft but no team called his name. The Sabres expressed interest in Makarov previously, invited him to camp, and signed him just before the previous CBA expired.

This year, Makarov has been a workhorse for the Blades yet again. He is ranked among the top five in appearances and his 34 wins currently leads the WHL. Long-term, Makarov has the ability to be a number one goalie like WJC teammate and first round pick Andrey Vasilevskiy (TB), but needs much more seasoning. He is certainly one of Russia's goalies of the future.

14. (NR) Brian Flynn, C/RW, 6.5C
Signed as a free agent, March 2012

An undrafted player coming out of the University of Maine after four years, the undersized winger joined the Amerks late last year when the Black Bears' season ended. Brian Flynn registered one assist in five games and did not show any indication that he would go on to become one of the Amerks' top forwards this year.

With 32 points in 45 games, Flynn is proving that that signing undrafted college players is not a bad way to stock up the pipeline. It is harder to unearth gems, but the NCAA is churning out players like never before, giving teams the chance to plug holes and add extra depth. Flynn's NHL prospects are limited, given his age (24), but he is playing well enough to at least earn a second contract from the Sabres.

15. (12) Logan Nelson, C, 7.0D
Drafted 5th round, 133th overall, 2012

After a solid WHL debut with the Victoria Royals, Logan Nelson's numbers were expected to jump up after the Royals bulked up their roster with more talented players. Instead, the Royals' second-leading scorer last year is struggling to produce at a point-per-game pace and sits eighth in team scoring. Expected to be the team's number one center this season, Nelson is slowly getting buried on the Royals depth chart.

As a fifth round pick, Nelson's prospects of turning pro are pretty slim. Last year, he stood out from the rest of his abysmal Royals team with good numbers, but this year he has not distinguished himself in any form. As an 18-year-old, Nelson has a few more years in the WHL, but that he is being supplanted by newer players who are his age or younger does not bode well for his future. The Sabres are always short on centermen and may take a chance with Nelson, but that decision will not have to be made for at least another year.

16. (19) Justin Kea, C, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 73rd overall, 2012

Drafted primarily to be a shutdown center, Justin Kea is finding his offensive groove in the OHL after two seasons. With 45 points in 60 games, Kea is reaping the benefits of extra ice time, especially with Vince Trocheck (FLA) now with Plymouth. Kea is currently fifth on the team in both overall scoring and goals scored.

Do not let the offensive production fool you. Most major junior players put up good offensive numbers as they mature. Next year, Kea may put up point-per-game numbers, but that does not mean this offense will translate at the pro level. A big-bodied center, Kea still has to work on his skating. If he wants to produce offensively in the pros, he will have to work on his puck skills too. However, Kea has shown enough to start turning heads and climb up the Buffalo depth chart. Though Kea's skill level may leave a little to be desired, he is one of the few big forwards in the Sabres system.

17. (NR) Christian Isackson, RW, 6.5D
Drafted 7th round, 203rd overall, 2010

Christian Isackson was always considered a project, a player with raw immense skill who needed at least a couple more years to gauge what kind of ceiling he had. After appearing in just 11 games as a freshman with the Minnesota Golden Gophers, Isackson's role in his sophomore season expanded significantly. This year, he has suited up for the Gophers 32 times, putting up 16 points. He is reaping the benefits of playing alongside Kyle Rau (FLA), Nick Bjugstad (FLA) and Zach Budish (NSH), skilled players who opted to stay another year in Minnesota.

When the Gophers' offensive stars graduate, Isackson will be one of the key players moving forward for head coach Don Lucia. Never mind Isackson's status as a seventh round pick, he is one of Buffalo's most intriguing prospects going forward.

18. (17) Philip Varone, C, 6.5D
Drafted 5th round, 147th overall, 2009

The little center who always wants to have the puck on his stick during key moments is failing to re-capture the magic he had last year. After a lengthy OHL career with three stops in-between, Varone's rookie season in the AHL was a smashing success despite standing just 5'10. With 24 points in 49 games this year his production has fallen off a cliff.

Varone was buried early this year with the lockout but has not played well enough to be considered part of the top six again. The former San Jose draft pick already finds the odds stacked against him due to his small stature, and if Varone fails to put up numbers good enough to turn heads, he will have a much harder time getting contract offers and playing in the NHL.

19. (15) Kevin Sundher, C, 6.5D
Drafted 3rd round, 75th overall, 2010

Sundher did not finish his WHL career on a particularly high note and was not expected to play a big role with Rochester this year either. Through 38 AHL games, Sunder has 13 points, four of them goals.

The Amerks were short on forwards for a couple games this year, especially when they were struggling. On a deeper team, Sundher would probably not play as many games as he has this year. He is currently spending most of the time playing on the bottom two lines, sometimes with a defenseman playing as a winger on his line. There are good signs with Sundher though, mainly that he has the strength and smarts to play center and managed to stay in the lineup. He does however have issues with his defensive game and overall consistency.

20. (11) Connor Knapp, G, 6.5D
Drafted 6th round, 164th overall, 2009

With David Leggio manning the pipes for the Amerks, playing time was going to be hard to find. There was a chance that Connor Knapp would be able to squeeze in a few games here and there, especially when Leggio was not playing particularly well. However, through seven appearances, Knapp is posting a 3.34 goals against average and .893 save percentage. Failing to impress would be an understatement.

Knapp won the backup role out of training camp but has lost his foothold and since demoted to ECHL Greenville. Nathan Lieuwen, who was demoted to the ECHL to start the season, has taken Knapp's place as Leggio's backup. Knapp has seemingly rediscovered his confidence through two solid games with Greenville, but how soon he gets a call-up back to Rochester may also depend on how well Lieuwen fares.