Sabres Top 20 prospects

By Kristofer Baker

With a new bounty of talent from the 2006 NHL Entry Draft comes another round of movement within the Buffalo Sabres prospect ranks. The talent stable in Buffalo runs very deep, and this edition of the Top 20 includes five new faces while placing some accomplished resumes on the outside looking in. When looking at the skill level among the entire group of players, it is very possible that the bottom part of the Top 20 will be a revolving door for the next couple of seasons.

The Sabres depth at the skating positions is fairly balanced with 11 forwards and eight defensemen composing the bulk of the list. Just one goaltender cracks the top 20.

Top 20 at a glance

1.Marek Zagrapan
2.Drew Stafford
3.Jason Pominville
4.Dennis Persson
5.Daniel Paille
6.Andrej Sekera
7.Clarke MacArthur
8.Jhonas Enroth
9.Marc-Andre Gragnani
10. Michael Funk
11. Jiri Novotny
12. Nathan Paetsch
13. Chris Thorburn
14. Mike Weber
15. Chris Butler
16. Patrick Kaleta
17. Mark Mancari
18. Philip Gogulla
19. Felix Schutz
20. Alex Biega

The Top 20 ranking is based on long-term impact on the hockey club and is not a reflection of who is closest to making the NHL. Players are assigned a grade per HF Criteria. Other factors that help determine ranking order to varying degrees include: player age, draft position, current league and team quality, location (North America or Europe) and foreseeable opportunity.

Key: Rank (former rank), name, position, age

1.(1) Marek Zagrapan, C, Age: 19
Acquired: 1st Round, 13th overall, 2005
Grade: 8C

The Sabres top playmaking prospect, Zagrapan enters his second professional training camp holding the answers to many questions. Can he play with enough intensity through the course of an entire year? Did a season that revealed a strained relationship with the Chicoutimi coaching staff hinder his development? Until his play suggests otherwise, the nifty Slovakian pivot is a player with first-line offensive skills and vision as evidenced by back-to-back seasons of 50 assists and 80 points. Currently unsigned, the 6’1, 190-pound Zagrapan is expected to work and develop with Rochester for a full season before pressing for a roster spot in Buffalo.

2.(2) Drew Stafford, RW, Age: 20
Acquired: 1st Round, 13th overall, 2003
Grade: 7B

Right on Zagrapan’s heels is perhaps the most complete package of all the Sabres prospects – Drew Stafford. A hard-working winger with scores of international experience, Stafford excels at most facets of the game. The Minnesota native scores and checks with equal proficiency, and is expected to be an integral, middle-line cog at the professional level. The 6’2 Stafford left the University of North Dakota after leading the Sioux in scoring as a junior with 24 goals and 47 points, and is poised to work his way into a Sabres sweater in the very near future.

3.(3) Jason Pominville, RW, Age: 23
Acquired: 2nd Round, 55th overall, 2001
Grade: 7B

The sharp-shooting Pominville has already shown his value as an NHL commodity with an 18-goal output for Buffalo last season. Despite being a certain roster player for the 2006-07 Sabres, he is still considered a prospect on grounds of age, and because he is eight regular season games shy of the 65 that are required by the Hockey’s Future prospect criteria.

The Repentigny, Quebec native gained valuable experience during the Sabres’ 2006 run to the Eastern Conference Finals. His electrifying short-handed goal to eliminate the Ottawa Senators put Pominville on the map as a bona fide NHL performer. A key member to the Sabres special teams units, the crafty six-foot winger should settle in as top-six forward for years to come.

4.(NR) Dennis Persson, D, Age: 18
Acquired: 1st Round, 24th overall, 2006
Grade: 7B

The Sabres snared another promising defenseman with European roots when they selected Persson with their first round selection in 2006. A heady playmaker and fluid skater from the back end, the Swedish product possesses the skills and smarts of a top-four defenseman. Persson will remain in Sweden for another season with the Djurgarden hockey club looking to get stronger and faster, and is considered a lock to represent his country at the upcoming World Junior Championships.

5.(4) Daniel Paille, LW, Age: 22
Acquired: 1st Round, 20th overall, 2002
Grade: 6A

The Sabres close out their top five with the well-rounded Paille. Known for his hustle and checking ability, 2005-06 saw the Welland, Ontario native improve his points-per-game output and overall play despite being hampered by an assortment of injuries. The Guelph Storm product is the ideal third-line forward with his mix of two-way intelligence, strength, and work ethic, and should have little trouble adding to his total of 15 career NHL games. It’s not a matter of “if” with Paille, it’s “when”.

6.(5) Andrej Sekera, D, Age: 20
Acquired: 3rd Round, 71st overall, 2004
Grade: 6.5B

Exciting Slovakian rearguard Andrej Sekera enters the pro ranks after ending his junior career by being named the Best Offensive Defenseman and Best Skater in the annual OHL coaches poll. Smooth in both zones, the strong six-footer has the potential be a No. 4 defenseman with his puck skills and ability to handle physical play. The Sabres aren’t short on quality defenders, so he’s penciled in for a tour of duty with Rochester in year one of his first pro contract.

7.(6) Clarke MacArthur, LW, Age: 21
Acquired: 3rd Round, 74th overall, 2003
Grade: 7C

The 6’1 MacArthur progressed as expected in his rookie season with Rochester in 2005-06. The Alberta native plays with a gritty edge, and his twenty goals as a first-year pro prove him to be an offensive threat. A player who has shown improvement over every season since age 16, the natural left wing gives the Sabres a rising prospect at a position of relative need. Keys to his development moving forward will be achieving a level of consistency and maintaining his defensive awareness.

8.(NR) Jhonas Enroth, G, Age: 18
Acquired: 2nd Round, 46th overall, 2006
Grade: 7C

Buffalo addressed a need for an elite young goaltender by tabbing Enroth in the second round of the 2006 draft. Quick and agile, the 5’10 Swede has consistently displayed the ability to someday be a top goalie for an NHL club. He’ll have a great opportunity to add some luster on the international stage when Sweden hosts the 2007 World Junior Championships. Enroth will remain overseas for the foreseeable future, hoping to gain valuable experience playing in the Sodertalje (SEL) pipeline.

9. (8) Marc-Andre Gragnani, D, Age: 19
Acquired: 3rd Round, 87th overall, 2005
Grade: 7C

The smart, offensively gifted Gragnani returns to the PEI Rocket of the QMJHL with high expectations for the 2006-07 season. After finishing fifth in scoring among “Q” defenders last season, the 6’2 left-hander will be counted on even more thanks to the off-season trade of leading scorer Slava Trukhno to Gatineau. A player with top-four NHL potential, Gragnani’s improved strength has helped balance out his game defensively as he prepares for the next level.

10. (7) Michael Funk, D, Age: 20
Acquired: 2nd Round, 43rd overall, 2004
Grade: 7C

The smooth-skating Funk went through the ups and downs of the maturation process over his four years with Portland of the NHL, showing steady statistical improvement from season to season. Solid in his end and unafraid to join the rush, the 6’4, 200-pound Funk has the skill set to crack a defensive top-four. He signed an entry-level contract with Buffalo in June, and will likely require some developmental time in the AHL before forcing the issue with the top club.

11.(10) Jiri Novotny, C, Age: 23
Acquired: 1st Round, 22nd overall, 2001
Grade: 6B

Novotny’s dramatic all-around improvement in 2005-06 was perhaps the most surprising development among Sabres prospects last season. The Sabres former first-round pick led Rochester in scoring and assumed an important leadership role once veteran AHLer Chris Taylor suffered a serious leg ailment. He proved serviceable in limited regular season call-up duty in Buffalo, and went unnerved when his number was called for action in four playoff contests against Ottawa and Carolina. Currently not under contract, Novotny projects to be in the mix for a NHL roster spot in 2006-07.

12.(13) Nathan Paetsch, D, Age: 23
Acquired: 7th Round, 202nd overall, 2003
Grade: 6B

The 2005-06 season in Rochester saw the rangy Paetsch elevate his game, earning AHL All-Star and Amerks MVP honors in the process. The 2003 seventh round pick emerged as a power play threat at the AHL level, using his skating and passing ability to quarterback a unit short on experience. Steady in his end, the Saskatchewan native has the size and skill to be bottom pair defender at the NHL level and should press for that role from here on in.

13. (11) Chris Thorburn, RW, Age: 23
Acquired: 2nd Round, 50th overall, 2001
Grade: 6B

The 6’3, 220-pound Thorburn will enter his fourth pro season with his future in the Sabres organization uncertain. Despite a year that saw him post career offensive stats with Rochester, the gritty wing may be a victim of the numbers game as the Sabres pool of prospects is becoming crowded with those that fill a similar role. The scrappy Thorburn is currently unsigned, and the 2006-07 will prove pivotal to the direction of his career moving forward.

14.(NR) Mike Weber, D, Age: 18
Acquired: 2nd Round, 57th overall, 2006
Grade: 6.5C

The last of Buffalo’s two second round picks in 2006 draft, the Pittsburgh-born Weber is a physical, stay-at-home presence for Windsor of the OHL. The 2006-07 season should the see the 6’2 defender continuing to lead by rugged example while working diligently on his skating, puck-moving skills, and discipline. He projects to be a middle of the pack defenseman, and is at least two years away from making a significant professional contribution.

15. (12) Chris Butler, D, Age: 19
Acquired: 4th Round, 96th overall, 2005
Grade: 6.5C

Butler was among the better players making their NCAA debut in 2005-06. Entering his sophomore season in Denver, the American-born defenseman banks on his strength, skating ability, and vision to make effective plays at both ends of the rink. With Hobey Baker winning rearguard Matt Carle (SJ) exiting to the NHL, 6’1, 190-pound blue liner will look to fill that gap by manning a slot on the top pairing and driving the Pioneers power play from his point position.

16. (15) Patrick Kaleta, RW, Age: 20
Acquired: 6th Round, 176th overall, 2004
Grade: 5.5B

The hard-hitting Kaleta joins the professional ranks looking to inject the Sabres organization with his high-energy brand of hockey after four years of OHL action with Peterborough. Just when it looked as if his stock was starting to slip in 2005-06, the 6’1, 200-pound wing elevated his offensive production with 18 points in 19 games during the Petes’ playoff run to the Memorial Cup tournament. Kaleta’s pesky style and modest offensive skill level makes him fit to be a bottom-six agitator and potential fan favorite after a period of seasoning in the minors.

17. (9) Mark Mancari, RW, Age: 21
Acquired: 7th Round, 207th overall, 2004
Grade: 6C

Mancari’s frame, mucking ability, and hands around the net offer the Sabres organization an intriguing package for the future of their bottom lines. Signed and placed in Rochester out of his first training camp in 2005, the London, Ontario product was nearly a point-per-game player through the first quarter of his rookie year. However, consistency and confidence issues dogged the 6’3, 225-pounder as the season wore on. The 2006-07 schedule will be an open test to see to see if he can keep a high level of intensity and physical play on a regular basis.

18. (14) Philip Gogulla, RW, Age: 19
Acquired: 2nd Round, 48th overall, 2005
Grade: 6C

The 2006-07 season will see Gogulla return to Cologne of the DEL looking to become a more valuable contributor to the Sharks after posting a 20-point improvement in his second season of professional hockey. A mainstay on German national teams, the 6’2 left-hander can position himself nicely for the jump to North America by asserting himself even more offensively and continuing to develop his physical play along the boards.

19. (NR) Felix Schutz, C, Age: 18
Acquired: 4th Round, 117th overall, 2006
Grade: 6C

A speedy forward with a style similar to that employed by current Sabre Derek Roy, Schutz will again be counted on to lead the forward attack for the Saint John Sea Dogs after finishing as the team’s leading scorer in their inaugural QMJHL campaign. With one season of North American hockey under his belt, the feisty German is looking to step-up as a leader and further his status as a go-to guy for the young franchise. The 5’11 Schutz projects to be a middle-line player at the professional level, and should build upon an already impressive international resume this winter as German hockey continues to improve its developmental program.

20. (NR) Alex Biega, D, Age: 18
Acquired: 6th Round, 191st overall, 2006
Grade: 7D

The talented 5’10 defenseman was a dominant player in his New England prep career with The Salisbury School, and will carry on in the NCAA with Harvard of the ECAC. One of the more intriguing prospects in the Sabres pipeline, the stocky Montreal native has plenty of pop in his game, and will have little trouble ascending future Top 20 rankings if his package of skating, shooting, and leadership translates favorably to a higher level of play.

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