Buffalo’s new strength – its defensive pipeline

By Stuart McDonald

Hockey’s Future rankings of Buffalo defensive prospects

3. Andrej Sekera, D
5. T.J. Brennan, D
7. Marc-Andre Gragnani, D
8. Michael Funk, D
10. Dennis Persson, D
12. Mike Weber, D
13. Vyateslav Buravchikov, D
14. Chris Butler, D
15. Drew Schiestel, D
20. Mike Card, D
NR. Alex Biega, D

When Clarke MacArthur was sent to the Rochester Americans this fall, he said that only in Buffalo would he have gotten cut. MacArthur’s comment on the Sabres’ offensive depth is startling considering that Buffalo lost Daniel Briere, Chris Drury and Dainus Zubrus to free agency over the summer. To emphasize his point; MacArthur currently leads the AHL in goals and points with eight goals and 18 points in 14 games. MacArthur, 22, would be a perfect candidate for top-six duty on most other NHL clubs considering he lacks neither size (6’0, 190) nor speed. The Sabres have developed so many forwards that they can afford to keep the AHL‘s leading scorer on the farm despite all their offensive losses this summer.

The list of forwards drafted and developed by the Sabres is impressive: Tomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Jason Pominville, Ales Kotalik, Drew Stafford, Paul Gaustad, Max Afinogenov, Dan Paille and Andrew Peters. With three full lines of homegrowns not including MacArthur, the Sabres have been able to tap their farm system for forwards repeatedly over the last few years.

The Sabres changed their focus at the 2006 draft, taking defensemen Dennis Persson and Mike Weber in the first and second rounds respectively. They have continued to focus on defensemen since then and with 10 defensemen among their top 20 prospects, the Sabres have incredible depth waiting in the wings once the new crop gains some minor pro experience. One look at the Rochester defense shows what you can expect defensively from the Sabres for the next decade.

Andrej Sekera, 21, the OHL‘s Most Outstanding Defenseman in 2005-06, appears to be the second NHL regular among the new wave behind Nathan Paetsch as he was called up to the big club Oct. 17. Sekera has coach Lindy Ruff’s backing and has seen between 17 and 19 minutes a game for the last seven games. After being the last defenseman cut by the Sabres, it looked like Sekera was in for more seasoning in the minors, but injuries to Jaroslav Spacek, Dimitri Kalinin and Teppo Numminen gave Sekera an opportunity he hasn’t relinquished. After scoring four points in six AHL games, Sekera has one assist in seven NHL games and is a -5.

Despite his poor plus/minus, Sekera is still seeing quality ice time unlike that given to Mike Weber, promoted on Oct 25 when Kalinin went down. Weber, who unlike Sekera is a first-year pro, was used sparingly averaging just over 10 minutes of ice time in two games before he was sent back to Rochester. Weber’s no-nonsense, play it safe, defensive game appealed to the desperate Sabres despite the fact that Weber had less than a dozen games of pro experience when they called him up. The 19-year-old blue liner is +6 with three assists and 30 PIMs in 15 games for a young Rochester team which is flirting with .500 early in the 2007-08 season.

The most offensive defenseman in the system is speedster Marc-Andre Gragnani. For the last two years, Gragnani finished fifth in scoring among QMJHL defensemen. Unfortunately, coming from the offense-first QMJHL, Gragnani needs defensive work and has struggled mightily in the AHL in 2007-08. Having to learn the defensive game at the pro level has proven to be an early challenge for the speedy 20-year-old. In 15 games, he has a respectable eight points, but is -13. Gragnani is going through what might well be the most frustrating period of his young career, but he has more than enough talent and time to turn things around.

T.J. Brennan scored 16 goals and 41 points in 68 games and won the Raymond-Legace Trophy as the QMJHL‘s top rookie defenseman in the 2006-07 season. The Sabres first pick in 2007 (31st overall), Brennan wants to focus on his defensive game this season which he admits needs work. Brennan, 18, has become the defensive leader on the St. John’s Fog Devils this season, matching up against the other team’s top players. Brennan is holding his own with an even plus/minus on the mediocre Fog Devils while scoring 10 points in 17 games. Brennan is still managing to contribute significantly on offense as his 53 shots are the fifth most among QMJHL defensemen. 

If Gragnani is the speedster among defensemen in the organization, then Funk is the giant. Funk, 6’4, 210 pounds, came to the 2007 training camp 10 pounds heavier than he was in 2006-07. Funk, 21, played 61 games with Rochester last season. He can skate and handle the puck but has been roundly criticized for not using his huge frame to its full advantage. After 12 games in 2007-08, Funk has three points and is -3, but if he can learn to use his size better he will be an extremely important piece of Buffalo’s future.

Dennis Persson finally broke through this season. After spending 2006-07 traveling back and forth between the Swedish Elite League (SEL) and two Swedish junior teams, Persson made Djurgardens in 2007-08 at the tender age of 19. Djurgardens, Mats Sundin’s former Swedish club, is currently fifth in the SEL after 17 games. Persson has only one assist but has played in all of Djurgardens’ games this season despite playing on a veteran defense whose other six blue liners average 31 years of age.

Another European, blue chip, defensive prospect, Vyateslav Buravchikov is having a much tougher campaign than his Swedish counterpart. Buravchikov, 20, the captain of Russia‘s 2006 U20 World Junior Championship team, has played in only 13 of AK Bars Kazan’s 24 games this season. Ak Bars, runner-up in the Russian Super League in 2006-07, is struggling in 15th place and have less patience for developing players, especially as Buravchikov is -5 so far in 2007-08. Despite the slow start, Buravchikov is still considered a top prospect and has almost as much offensive upside as Gragnani. 
Chris Butler is the leading Sabre defensive prospect in the NCAA. Butler, 20, leads Denver Pioneer defensemen with four points in eight games this season after scoring 27 points in 39 games in 2006-07. Butler’s 27 points were seventh among WCHA defensemen and third among WCHA sophomore defensemen. Butler is the one true all-around defenseman in the Sabres system as his defensive game is considered as good as his offensive game. If Butler can transfer his stellar collegiate play to the pro ranks he has a rare, albeit unlikely opportunity to become a true No. 1 NHL defenseman.

A surprise second-round pick in 2007, Drew Scheistel has played up to expectations in his first real test as a top-four junior defenseman. With four goals and nine points in 18 games, Scheistel, 18, is 23rd in scoring among OHL defensemen and second on his team in blue line scoring.  Only four Ice Dogs defensemen have logged more than eight games so far as the back end is loaded with rookies. This partially explains Scheistel’s mediocre -4. He started the season slowly, going -4 in four September games but has played even hockey since then. Scheistel was a big part of a recent fight-filled, 10-2 rout of the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors, notching three assists, finishing +2 and earning second star of the game.

Alex Biega, 19, and Mike Card, 21, continue to contribute offensively while toiling in very different developmental environments. Biega, a fifth-round pick in 2006, is a sophomore at Harvard while Card, an eighth-round pick in 2004, is in his second pro season with Rochester. Card has one goal and four points in 15 games this season but has struggled defensively at -11. Biega finished his freshman year with six goals and 18 points in 33 games, good enough to lead Crimson defensemen in points. Biega has only played twice this season in the ECAC, an NCAA conference known more for its prolific production of lawyers than NHL hockey players. For different reasons, both Card and Biega have a harder road to the NHL than the other nine defensive prospects, but each have the good fortune to be playing for an organization that drafts and develops players as well as any other in the NHL. They hope to be part of the next wave of NHL players to wear the blue and gold of the Buffalo Sabres.  

Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future.  Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.