Defense prominently featured in Buffalo Sabres HF Prospect Awards

By Jason Chen

Brian Flynn - Buffalo Sabres

Photo: Brian Flynn has been one of the few pleasant surprises for the Buffalo Sabres this season. An undrafted free agent, Flynn managed six goals and five assists in 26 NHL games this season. (courtesy of Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

It is an ongoing process for the Buffalo Sabres as they patiently wait for their prospects to develop. Most of their young players are already playing for the Sabres or their AHL affiliate in Rochester, and the ones still in college have improved by leaps and bounds. Below are the winners of the Buffalo Sabres Prospect Awards.

Most Improved: Christian Isackson, RW, Minnesota Golden Gophers (WCHA)

It will be interesting to see how the slick puck handler and former Mr. Hockey finalist will adjust without the luxury of playing with centers Nick Bjugstad (FLA) or Erik Haula (MIN). The Golden Gophers were one of the highest scoring teams in the WCHA, and though Isackson contributed just four goals this year, his ceiling is much higher. Isackson was limited to just 11 games last year as a freshman but appeared in all 40 games this year and was featured significantly in scoring roles. Isackson even made the SportsCenter top 10 highlight reel in early January when he corralled a loose puck near the Notre Dame goal line and then went forehand-backhand in Patrick Kane-like fashion before roofing it on a backhand over Irish goalie Steven Summerhays from in close.

Head coach Don Lucia's squads tend to feature upperclassmen in roles with bigger responsibilities, which means that heading into his junior season, Isackson will be counted on to make significant contributions on offense. The forward finished the 2012-13 season with 20 points in 40 games and is slotted to play on the first line next year, most likely with Kyle Rau (FLA).

Best Defensive Prospect: Jake McCabe, D, Wisconsin Badgers (WCHA)

Heading into the World Junior Championships camp in early December, Team USA was highlighted by an incredibly strong blue line, headlined by Jacob Trouba (WPG) and potential first overall pick Seth Jones. Connor Murphy (PHX) and Brady Skjei (NYR) were two other names which were buzzing before camp, but none of them made bigger contributions than Jake McCabe. A surprising choice by head coach Phil Housley for captain, the smooth-skating Wisconsin Badger defenseman led the team in plus-minus and chipped in with three goals, including the two opening goals that buried Canada in the semifinal, before being named to the tournament all-star team. Drafted in the second round in 2012, McCabe has seen his stock skyrocket since the tournament. With the on-going success of former Badgers defenseman Justin Schultz (EDM), who plays a comparable, offensively-inclined game, the expectations are getting higher.

Prospect of the Year: Jake McCabe, D, Wisconsin Badgers (WCHA)

The Sabres have plenty of other prospects to choose from, such as Joel Armia, who has continually dominated in the Finnish league, or Zemgus Girgensons, who played in the AHL as an 18-year-old. But it has been Jake McCabe making the headlines all season, and though he was never seriously considered to be Buffalo's best prospect on the blue line, the same conversation cannot happen without mentioning the Badgers defenseman. McCabe's ability to jump up in the play and read offensive zones, especially on the powerplay, has been exceptional this season. While not possessing the swiftest of feet or softest of hands, McCabe is a future top four defenseman who is versatile enough to play in all situations.

Fastest Skater: Mark Pysyk, D, Buffalo Sabres (NHL)

The Sabres were once considered one of the fastest teams in the NHL, the golden standard of how teams should be built on quickness and speed in the new CBA-era of hockey. The team still packs tons of talent and still undersized compared to the rest of the league, but the same kind of breakneck foot speed from players like Danny Briere and Maxim Afinogenov is not present in Marcus Foligno, Cody Hodgson, or even Tyler Ennis. Mark Pysyk will not be backing down the opposition with his speed, but he is a smooth skater who can skate pucks out of bad situations and make a good, clean, first pass.

Starting closer to the bottom of the depth chart when the season began, Pysyk's strong play with the puck led to a late season call-up with Buffalo where he has stayed ever since, logging regular minutes with the second powerplay unit. The drawback with smaller, skating defenseman is their difficulty with handling bigger, stronger forwards in the defensive zone, and Pysyk is no exception. With Tyler Myers taking a step back and Christian Ehrhoff struggling under the pressure of having to live up to a $40 million price tag, the Sabres are hoping the next wave of young defensemen can provide a little more help for Ryan Miller.

Hardest shot: Brayden McNabb, D, Rochester Americans (AHL)

The hardest shot competition at the 2013 AHL Skills Competition was not even a contest. Brayden McNabb was the only player to hit triple digits on the speedometer, registering 101.8 mph, becoming the first player in three years to do so after Blair Jones did it in 2010. The booming shot and McNabb's penchant for open-ice hip checks have drawn comparisons to Shea Weber, though more for style of play than potential. After scoring eight points in 25 games for the Sabres last year, McNabb was expected to make the NHL roster out of training camp, but was cut and stayed with the Amerks all season. With just five goals, McNabb's goal output has been disappointing, but he has been a strong player for Rochester for most of the season. Pysyk has leapfrogged McNabb on the depth chart, but there is no doubt that both will end up on the Sabres in the near future.

Overachiever: Brian Flynn, RW, Buffalo Sabres (NHL)

After finishing four years with the Maine Black Bears, Flynn appeared in five games for the Amerks, registering just one assist and a minus-two rating. This year, when Flynn reported to Rochester for his first full AHL season, nobody expected him to become an NHL regular by the end of the year. Flynn flew out of the gates with a hot start, reaping the benefits of playing alongside Marcus Foligno and center Kevin Porter. After scoring 16 goals in 45 games for the Amerks, Flynn was called up to replace the injured Thomas Vanek in early March and stayed in the lineup for the rest of the season. After describing himself as "not very good" after being passed over in two consecutive drafts, Flynn has improved every year. The Sabres committed big money to Flynn as an undrafted collegiate player, but he has made his mark on the Sabres with 11 points in 26 games.

The ceiling for Flynn is not very high, but it is commendable whenever a player, especially one who was undrafted, to move from college hockey to the AHL to the NHL in less than one calendar year.

Underachiever: Jerome Gauthier-Leduc, D, Rochester Americans (AHL)

Considered one of the best puck-moving defensemen in the QMJHL, Jerome Gauthier-Leduc was the Rimouski Ocean's best defenseman. The Sabres blue line features plenty of guys who can skate, pass, and shoot the puck, but Gauthier-Leduc was seen as a pure powerplay specialist, a smooth skater who can move the puck with ease and put pucks on net.

Gauthier-Leduc has been disappointing in his first professional season. Though he has stayed in the lineup for most of the season, he has just seven points through 48 games this year. The bright side is he has picked up his play late in the season with a Rochester blue line decimated by injuries. The Sabres have been incredibly patient in developing defensemen in the past, and with McNabb and Pysyk ahead of him, there is no hurry with Gauthier-Leduc.

Highest Risk/Reward: Johan Larsson, LW, Rochester Americans (AHL)

There are numerous ways to look at this award. Isackson presents the highest risk, in that there is a chance that his skill level will not translate to the NHL at all. In terms of highest reward, Johan Larsson, the price the Minnesota Wild had to pay to land captain Jason Pominville, could make the most contributions as a top six forward. A hard-working, two-way forward with the versatility to play either wing like Martin Erat, there is no doubt Larsson will play in the NHL – the only question is in what role and to what capacity. Larsson was competing for Vasteras in Sweden's second tier league during the lockout before moving on to Houston, where he scored 15 goals in 62 games. Through seven games with the Amerks, Larsson has registered four points.

There is relatively little risk with Larsson making the NHL, but the Sabres will want to maximize his abilities and potential to see how they can best use him. He has to find his niche before scouts can get a better read, but the inclusion of Larsson has boosted Buffalo's pipeline and will undoubtedly be a part of the Sabres future.

Hardest Worker: Marcus Foligno, LW, Buffalo Sabres (NHL)

A player who is only effective when he is playing with an edge, Marcus Foligno has made his career with his "extra effort" shifts. Never the fastest, smoothest, or skilled player on the ice, Foligno makes things work in his favor by constantly driving to the major traffic areas. He works tirelessly in the corners and will always be found at the bottom of the heap during scrums in the crease. Foligno's method works for him because his big body can take the punishment and he has managed to stay remarkably healthy despite his playing style. When the pucks are bouncing for him, he can score in bunches. The problem with spark plug players is that it is difficult to maintain that emotional and physical intensity every night. Foligno was a healthy scratch in a late February match against Florida and bristled under Ron Rolston for a short while, but upon his return was re-inserted into the Sabres top six.

Breakout for 2012-13: Mikhail Grigorenko, C, Buffalo Sabres (NHL)

A highly-touted offensive wizard who excelled under the tutelage of the fiery Patrick Roy, Grigorenko looked lost in his 22 games with Buffalo. Though he was not given much ice time, Grigorenko was used as a third or fourth line center. As a testament to how overwhelmed Grigorenko looked on the ice, he finished with just five points and won only 35 percent of his faceoffs. He looked steadily worse as time went on, his confidence slowly starting to erode, the speed and physicality of the NHL a little too much, too soon. His time on ice was erratic, playing 17 minutes in just his fourth NHL game, then 10 minutes the next game, and finally just 4:51 against the Rangers before being sent back to the Remparts. Though his talent is undeniably NHL-level, Grigorenko has not grasped the mental aspect of the pro game quite yet. With the Quebec Remparts season over after bowing out to Rouyn-Noranda in five games, Girgorenko has returned and appeared in three of Buffalo's final games this season. He is expected to compete for a spot in the NHL out of training camp next year.