Sabres Prospects Top 20 Rankings - Spring 2008

It's late March, and the birds outside are whistling "Sabre Dance". This usually means one thing - that it's again time to rank the current crop of Buffalo Sabres prospects. With the deck being shuffled with another season of play, the Spring 2008 edition of the Sabres Prospect Rankings features some fresh faces at the top, while familiar names like Clarke MacArthur, Andrej Sekera, and Patrick Kaleta are no longer being ranked. MacArthur has played a total a 56 NHL games, and with his roots going all the way back to the 2003 draft, the soon-to-be 23 year old has graduated from the rankings exercise. Along similar lines, Sekera, a potential top-pair defender, and bottom-line agitator Kaleta have seemingly graduated to full-time status with Buffalo. The Top 20 isn't a points competition, nor is it a measuring stick to see who's the closest to playing in the NHL. The list is constructed by slotting players by their overall potential impact, then moving them up and down based on their long range likelihood of reaching it. Inside of 100 days until the 2008 NHL draft, the list is designed to serve as a needs assessment when building the Sabres selection strategy. The current top 20 features two goaltenders, eight defensemen, and ten forwards. Here's the list at a glance: 1 - Jhonas Enroth 2 - Nathan Gerbe 3 - Chris Butler 4 - Philip Gogulla 5 - Marc-Andre Gragnani 6 - T.J. Brennan 7 - Mike Weber 8 - Tim Kennedy 9 - Drew Schiestel 10 - Marek Zagrapan 11 - Dennis Persson 12 - Paul Byron 13 - Corey Tropp 14 - Brad Eidsness 15 - Jean-Simon Allard 16 - Benjamin Breault 17 - Mike Funk 18 - Felix Schutz 19 - Alex Biega 20 - Vjacheslav Buravchikov 1) Jhonas Enroth, G, Sodertalje (SEL), 2006 2nd round (46th overall) The 19-year old Enroth recently capped a strong rookie year in Elitserien that supports his status as a future NHL starter. Manning the pipes for a SSK club in its first season back in the top league, the agile netminder lead all regular starters with a 2.13 GAA and .932 save percentage while fending off SEL vet Bjorn Bjurling for total crease autonomy. The Stockholm native also pitched two shutouts in his 27 appearances. Sandwiched in between the SEL action was the World Junior Championships, where Enroth backstopped Team Sweden to a silver medal after an exciting overtime loss to Canada in the finals. His tourney numbers (2.33 GAA, .905 sv%) weren't as strong as his SEL numbers, yet did not nothing to disprove the notion that he can be a prime time professional in North America. With SSK failing to qualify for the playoffs, it is believed that the Sabres are talking contract with Enroth's camp. Jocelyn Thibault has been a sub-par backup, and Adam Dennis isn't quite ready for NHL pucks. It all adds up to Enroth offering a competitive nudge to Ryan Miller as the incumbent enters the final year of his deal. 2) Nathan Gerbe, LW, Boston College (Hockey East), 2006 5th round (142nd overall) The diminutive left wing continued to do what he has always done throughout his hockey career - erase doubts about his size by dominating the opposition with explosive skating and offense. The Oxford, MI native piled up 57 points this season for Boston College, including a sensational, Hobey-propelling stretch in December and January than saw him churn out 27 points in nine games. Entering the NCAA Tournament, Gerbe leads the nation in points, and is a top-10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Award. Some suggest his Hobey aspirations were tarnished when he was suspended for a butt-end earlier in the season. Whatever the case, Gerbe has accomplished loads this season while being the main focus of opposing checkers. He was the national leader in shots on goal, and a productive third-best in even-strength goals. Gerbe stands 5'5, but plays with enough heart, attitude, and skill to suggest that size doesn't matter. One might even argue that his smaller frame makes him harder to catch. As he moves up a level in talent and gains more space, expect the shifty forward to continue shedding detractors like has has Hockey East defenders the past few seasons. 3) Chris Butler, D, Denver (WCHA), 2005 4th round (96th overall) An excellent, all-situations defenseman, the 6'1, 190-pound junior anchored the back end for a Pioneers squad that iced only eight upperclassmen for most of the year. His solid season wearing an "A" was rewarded as the St. Louis native was named to the All-WCHA second Team. Entering college with the tag "offensive-minded", Butler has indeed been an effective puck mover while leading all Pio defenders in points the past two seasons. With all that in mind, his defensive work ethic has emerged as perhaps his best attribute. Butler has lead the team in blocked shots over the same span, all the while dictating an edgier physical game. Butler notched 49 points over his first two collegiate seasons, but increased leadership responsibilities in his own end have contributed to a decline in offensive production this season (3-14-17). He's the consummate team guy, and his consistent brand of hockey makes him a virtual lock to forego his senior NCAA season to instead head to his first NHL training camp in the fall. 4) Philip Gogulla, LW, Kolner Haie (DEL), 2005 2nd round (48th overall) Signing with Buffalo in June yet electing to head back to Europe, the 6'2, 198-pound wing asserted himself as a main cog in the Kolner Haie offense this season. He was the team's third-leading scorer, more than doubling his previous season's 21 point output, with 11 goals and 44 total points. In International action, he had three assists in three games for Germany in the Skoda Cup against Swiss, French, and Slovakian entries. The Dusseldorf native gets the puck deep, and has good control on the boards. Many of his points are assists generated from sheer effort. It's unclear at this time whether or not he'll move to North America in the second of his three-year deal, but his steady, three-year ramp-up in the DEL is indicative of a player ready to make the jump. 5) Marc-Andre Gragnani, LW, Rochester (AHL), 2005 3rd round (87th overall) The Gragnani blueline experiment that began back in the QMJHL is officially over. Drafted as an offensive defenseman, Gragnani moved to left wing midway through his first pro season and quickly ascended the ranks of developing Sabres forwards. The Montreal native has scored 11 goals and 34 assists with Rochester while still seeing time at the point on the power play.. Lacking the defensive strength necessary to handle aggressive AHL forwards, Gragnani soon abandoned his spot as the league's worst plus/minus rating once he switched positions. His talent and vision are well-served up front, as Gragnani quickly leapfrogged the team's leading scorer, Mark Mancari, to earn a brief February look with Buffalo. In two games, he revealed very little as a -2 with 4 PIM. With consistent hustle and better familiarity with the Sabres' system, Gragnani's skill set has the makings of a creative, middle-line forward. 6) T.J. Brennan, D, St. John's (QMJHL), 2007 2nd round (31st overall) The 6'0, 200-pound defenseman used a late-season surge to identically match his 16-25-41 stat line of a year ago with St. John's (QMJHL). Brennan carries the puck with energy, and often opts out of his defensive posture to go hard at the net. On the back end, he plays a physical game with an increased sense of defensive awareness. The New Jersey native closed well, scoring six goals and running up a +6 in the final eleven games. At one point a lowly -23, Brennan dug himself out to finish the regular season -15. Brennan has been very effective on the Fog Devils power play, using a well-controlled shot assortment to score nine of his 16 goals. For his efforts, he was twice rewarded with QMJHL Defensive Player of the Week honors, and should be a top-five defenseman in the league when the franchise moves to Montreal in 2008-09. 7) Mike Weber, D, Buffalo/Rochester (NHL/AHL), 2006 2nd round (57th overall) The first-year pro emerged as one of the few bright spots of a forgettable Rochester season before going up to Buffalo in March. A rugged defender who makes the simple play, Weber flexed his leadership muscle immediately at the AHL level by jumping out to the team lead in plus/minus and penalty minutes through January. He's proven effective during his two Buffalo call-ups, handling the game speed while racking up +12 in nine NHL games. His first NHL point, an assist, came on 3/12 in his hometown of Pittsburgh when he flicked a simple wrist shot at the Penguins net. The difference between Weber 'the pro' and Weber the 'OHL junior' is his improved footwork. When he keeps them moving, he's a rock in his own end. Weber projects to be a 4-5-6 guy at the NHL level, and is currently ahead of the curve in terms of reaching that potential. 8) Tim Kennedy, LW, Michigan State (CCHA), 2005 6th round (181st overall by Washington) The crafty Kennedy has been a point-per-game fixture on the left side of Michigan State's top line all-season long. After failing to hit the score sheet in the first two skates of 2007-08, the Bishop Timon (NYHS) product uncorked 13 goals and eight assists over his next 16 games to vault into the national scoring race. The well ran a little dry after his torrid run, as the junior went 13 games (12 in conference) without scoring a goal. His drought ended with a flood though, as the Buffalo native started clicking with C Justin Abdelkader (DET), notching a goal in six of seven games heading into NCAA tourney action. To date, he leads the Spartans with 40 points, three short-handed goals, and a +15 rating. Kennedy does his best work around the net with accurate shooting and passing skills. He projects out to a middle line contributor, and will need to execute with strength and speed to compete with players of equal skill at the professional level. 9) Drew Schiestel, D, Niagara (OHL), 2007 2nd round (59th overall) The steady Icedogs defenseman shook off a bumpy start to put together an impressive season with Niagara of the OHL. A quiet puck mover who gets the job done, Schiestel took control of his game in November and didn't look back. Rated a team-low -6 through November 1st, the Hamilton native ran up a +20 over the following four-plus months, paving the way for career offensive totals (8-29-37) in the process. He was one of only two IceDogs to play in all 68 regular season games. At 6'2, 190 pounds, Schiestel already has the strength and skating ability to suggest he'll be a bona fide NHL defenseman. He passes well, likes to start the rush, and effectively uses his long reach to keep his zone clean. Another season of steady OHL play makes his signing with Buffalo a no-brainer one year from now. 10) Marek Zagrapan, C, Rochester (AHL), 2005 1st round (13th overall) In his second professional season with Rochester, the Slovakian pivot continues to show flashes of the player the Sabres were hoping for when tabbing him with the 13th pick in 2005. Offensively skilled with a good burst, Zagrapan scored a goal and flipped a nice assist to Philip Gogulla in the Sabres preseason before being sent down to Rochester to start the year. At one point the Amerks leading goal-getter, the QMJHL product has lit the lamp 16 times in 65 games this season. He displayed his best hockey during a 19-game stretch in December and January when he scored 16 of his 33 total points to date. His scoring has since tapered though, with just six points in the following 30 games. Zagrapan was pegged as a forward in need of developmental patience, and the lack of veteran leadership with the Amerks this season underlies what could easily be perceived as a flat year for the former first-rounder. Still only 21 years of age, achieving consistency in both ends will go a long way towards Zagrapan elevating his game and getting a serious look from the Sabres brass. 11) Dennis Persson, D, Nykoping (HockeyAllsvenskan) 2006 1st round (24th overall) Persson started the season as a fringe player with Djurgardens of Elitserien, registering a point while seeing limited minutes in 21 games. With former NHLer Ossi Vaananen joining an already-crowded Djurgarden blue line, Persson moved down a level to HockeyAllsvenskan, skating with brother Robin for hometown club, Nykoping. Manning the second pair, the 6'1, 187-pound Persson started to spread his wings from the backend, posting one goal, three assists, and 14 PIM in 21 games. Persson, 19, hasn't had the best of luck since leaving the Vasteras program two years ago. Ice time has been hard to earn, minor injuries have been battled, and he was left off Sweden's entry in the 2008 World Juniors. A mobile rearguard who makes simple plays, the left-hander still has middle pair potential. He'll need to be signed this summer, and it's possible the Sabres retain his rights and keep him overseas for another season while they sort out their AHL affiliation agreement. 12) Paul Byron, C, Gatineau (QMJHL), 2007 6th round (179th overall) The dazzling Gatineau center has displayed equal parts skill and heart in the 2007-08 QMJHL season. Despite missing 18 games due to wrist and thigh injuries, the Ottawa native completed the regular season with 37 goals and 68 points in 52 games. An excellent finisher, Byron's .71 goals-per-game ranked second overall, while his 21.8 shooting percentage was seventh among the top-100 QMJHL scorers. The great thing about Byron's goal total is that 30 of his 37 markers came at even strength. Byron is speedy in transition, using an extra gear to find seams on the ice. With the up-tempo style, his 5'10, 140-pound frame often initiates contact with and without the puck. In fact, his thigh injury reportedly stemmed from a charley horse earned while delivering one of his 50 hits. He doesn't shy away from stepping in front of shots either, which further accentuates a workmanlike mentality. Byron has been a benefactor of playing roughly 30% of his games with touted prospect Claude Giroux (PHI), but he's clearly earned his own stripes all season long. He'll be counted on to be a go-to guy for Les Olympiques in 2008-09, a season that should tell a more compelling story of what are perhaps the best set of hands in the Sabres prospect stable. 13) Corey Tropp, RW, Michigan State (CCHA), 2007 3rd round (89th overall) The product of the USHL's Sioux Falls Stampede arrived at Michigan State this past fall, immediately displaying his touch around the net in early practice sessions. Coming off a 62-point junior campaign, Tropp began his freshman year at right wing with seniors Bryan Lerg and Chris Mueller, eventually spending time with the other set of Spartan guns, Tim Kennedy and Justin Abdelkader, at various points throughout the year. A frequent flyer in coach Rick Comley's line juggling routine, the 6'0, 185-pounder finished his collegiate entrance with six goals and 11 assists. Tropp is as gifted a passer as he is a finisher, making him a player with scoring line potential. He's projected to be a forward on the rise once he gains more strength and experience with another year of CCHA action. 14) Brad Eidsness, G, Okotoks (AJHL), 2007 5th round (139th overall) The Chestermere, AL native capitalized on his opportunities in 2007-08, leading all AJHL goaltenders in wins (29) and save percentage (.933), while missing the triple crown by .01 in the GAA category (2.12). Manning the pipes in just four regulation losses, Eidsness helped propel a deep Okotoks team into the AJHL playoffs, where a second-round goal shortage resulted in defeat at the hands of upset-minded Drumheller. The dominant season is appreciated even more when considering a two-week spat with mononucleosis that reared its ugly head at the onset of training camp. Standing 5'11, Eidsness uses supreme reflexes to play a tight butterfly style in the crease. His glove is quick, and like fellow Sabres prospect Jhonas Enroth, he has a penchant for the big save. With a World Jr. "A" Challenge gold medal, league MVP award, and dominating junior numbers in tow, Eidsness will enter the wild WCHA next season as he continues his development with a six-digit scholarship to the University of North Dakota. Chosen 139th in 2007, Eidsness marks the second time this decade that the Sabres used a fifth-round pick on a Junior "A" goalie on his way to the college game. Back in 1999, Ryan Miller was chosen 138th overall out of the NAHL. 15) Jean-Simon Allard, C, St. John's (QMJHL), 2007 5th round (147th overall) The 6'3, 192-pound center started the year strong for St. John's of the QMJHL. At one point on-pace for an 80-point season, Allard saw his production taper a bit during the final quarter of the year when he went 15 games without a goal. A two-way center who sees the ice well, Allard still finished as the Fog Devils second-leading scorer with career-high 60 points, including a team-best 44 assists. His greatest improvement came in the plus/minus department, where he topped St. John's with a +15 after a 2006-07 net of -30 (fourth to the last overall). The Quebec native employs a smart work ethic while using his teammates well, but could stand to get his nose a little dirtier. To be an effective mid-line player at a higher level, the big pivot should more than double the 25 hits produced this season. He wears #4 like his favorite player Vincent Lecavalier, and he has the skills to quickly ascend the prospect ranks once he develops an on-ice moxie similar to the Lightning's perennial All-Star. 16) Benjamin Breault, C, Baie-Comeau (QMJHL), 2006 7th round (207th overall) Breault recently completed his fourth QMJHL season with Baie-Comeau, posting totals of 36 goals and 41 assists. Centering the team's top line, he combined with one of the league's most prolific scorers, Francois Bouchard, to lead the Drakkar to a 2nd place regular season finish. Breault ended the season particularly strong, scoring 10 goals and nine assists in a nine-game stretch to boost his career point total to an even 265. Recently turning 20, Breault showed adequate playmaking skills last training camp to support his peers at the AHL level. Not known as a leader, the 5'11 Ontario native must continue to make plays with the puck and hold his own defensively in order to support his middle-line potential. 17) Mike Funk, D, Rochester (AHL), 2005 2nd round (43rd overall) The mobile defenseman rebounded from a November shoulder injury to help a struggling Amerks club stay afloat on the back end. A net of -11 in 50 total games for Rochester, Funk was getting some wind to his AHL sails before earning a mid-March call-up to the injury riddled Sabres. In four games with Buffalo, Funk made good first passes and stayed deep while rating -3. Near completion of his second pro year, the lanky Funk could stand to add 10-15 pounds of mass - even better if it comes in the form of a weighty fire in his belly to spike his physical game. He skates well, and is best when he plays within himself. The former Portland Winter Hawk doesn't have top-end potential, but looks to be serviceable depth defender with a little more seasoning. 18) Felix Schutz, C, ERC Ingolstadt (DEL), 2006 4th round (117th overall) The pesky forward with knack for making plays returned to Germany for his first professional season in the DEL, scoring 12 goals, 13 assists for a mediocre Ingolstadt club. The gritty Schutz was 8th in team scoring, while leading all forwards with 91 PIM. Standing 5'11, 187 pounds, Schutz was named DEL Rookie of the year as a 20-year old after two seasons of North American junior hockey in the QMJHL. Schutz plays a "pro style" game, using speed and physicality to get to the net. He plays like a third-liner, and will need to jump back over the pond once the space is available to start creating some upward pressure on the current Sabres crop. 19) Alex Biega, D, Harvard (ECAC), 2006 5th round (147th overall) A preseason all-conference pick by the media, the stocky Biega helped lead a late-season surge for the Crimson, scoring 13 points in their final 13 games. It was a welcome turnaround after starting his sophomore year with just nine points through his first 21 outings. Biega is an excellent skater with a big shot, and he uses good leverage to effectively play the body. Biega was the Crimson's fourth-leading scorer en route to being placed on the All-ECAC Third Team. Biega could be a dangerous weapon when paired with a stay-at-home type. It's safe to think that Biega returns to Harvard in 2008-09 to pursue his education, and more points from the Crimson blue. 20) Vjacheslav Buravchikov, D, Ak-Bars Kazan (RSL), 2005 6th round (191st overall) Drafted with an offensive reputation, the 6'1, 190-pounder has slowly patched the positional holes in his defensive game with Ak Bars of the RSL. The 20-year old got off to a bumpy start in 2007-08, but reacted to an October benching with improved poise, and his confidence took over from there. Buravchikov stepped up his game down the stretch and into the playoffs, moving the puck, creating opportunities for Kazan forwards, and continuing his responsible play in his own end. He had one point, a goal, in 46 regular season games, and has posted a goal and an assist in six playoff games to date. Rounding into form, Buravchikov remains the biggest question mark in the Sabres prospect stable. Missing The Cut Nick Eno, G, Bowling Green (CCHA), 2007 7th round (187th overall) A late-summer commitment landed Eno in Bowling Green, where he put forth solid numbers while enduring a year of "on-the-job training" in the competitive CCHA. Drafted by Buffalo out of Green Mountain in the EJHL, the Howell, MI native began the season 4-0 while splitting time with junior Jimmy Spratt (CAL). Earning the most wins and total playing time of nine freshman netminders in the CCHA, Eno was named to the conference All-Rookie team. His goals against average (2.79) ranked seventh in the CCHA, while his save percentage (.905) placed sixth. Eno compiled a 12-10 record to earn 70% of the Falcons' 17 wins, yet was just 4-7 against teams .500 or better. Covering a lot of space with decent glove work, the 6'3, 190-pound goalie would benefit by working on his puckhandling skills in the offseason. Dylan Hunter, LW, Rochester (AHL), 2004 9th round (273rd overall) Hunter has scored an impressive 18 goals this season, with just five of those coming on the power play. With NHL bloodlines (his father is former NHL pest Dale), Hunter has always had playmaking eyes, and was generally a one-weay offensive performer. He's gaining consistency in his third AHL season, but his speed is average, and he'd benefit by tapping deeper into his father's nasty side to garner more respect on the ice. As a professional under Randy Cunneyworth, the former London Knight has rounded out his game defensively to the point where he has positioned himself in a small cluster of players who can keep some of the greener Sabre forwards honest. Mark Mancari, RW, Rochester (AHL), 2004 7th round (207th overall) Despite being the Amerks leading point-getter with 48, the 6'4, 225-pound wing has plateaued a bit in his third AHL season. The points come for the AHL All-Star, but the overall effort has been somewhat inconsistent. The Sabres would no doubt like to see Mancari raise his physical play and develop into a power forward type. A little more vigor may have earned Mancari a better look when guys like MacArthur, Kaleta, and Gragnani were getting dialed by Buffalo. Mancari made waves by shattering the AHL skills competiton record for a 102.8 MPH slapshot, but has rarely been able to fire his rocket in normal game speed. To date, he has just three goals in his past 24 games while being the only Amerks player to appear in all 69 contests. Just 22 years of age, Mancari's case is far from closed, but for now it appears to be an uphill battle to the NHL for the former Ottawa 67's star. Matt Generous, D, St. Lawrence (ECAC), 2005 7th round (208th overall) The smooth-skating junior turned in another solid season for St. Lawrence of the ECAC. Producing 15 point of offense (3-12), the New England native also posted a team-leading +12 on a club with a .405 winning percentage. A steadying force on the Saints' blueline, Generous' size and skating ability were sorely missed as injuries derailed the defender on two separate occasions. It's likely the Sabres stash him in the NCAA for another season before deciding his future fate. Adam Dennis, G, Rochester (AHL), 2005 6th round (182nd overall) The former London Knight has gotten better as his second professional season has progressed, but still has more to prove before making a run at an NHL backup gig. Being a goaltender on the league's worst team is never an easy task, yet Dennis has posted three shutouts and .903 save percentage in 39 starts for Rochester while earning 16 of the team's 20 wins. Andrew Orpik, RW/C, Boston College (Hockey East), 2005 7th round (227th overall) The Boston College forward has proven his value as an effective checker in the competitive Hockey East rotation. A former high school defenseman, Orpik provides uses a bangers mentaility up front to impose his large frame around the opposing net. His style has generated six goals and six assists this season, while spending much of his time on an energy unit with Kyle Kucharski and Matt Lombardi. The brother of Penguins defenseman Brooks, the younger Orpik will likely finish his bachelor's with the Eagles next season. Drew MacKenzie, D, Waterloo (USHL), 2007 7th round (209th overall) Signed to attend the University of Vermont in 2008, the 19-year old Connecticut native packed up his gear and headed to the defensive-friendly system of Waterloo for the 2007-08 season. A steady performer in his own end, MacKenzie mixes a welcome element of toughness to his mobile style. At various points in the season, the 6'2, 200-pound rearguard has lead the Black Hawks in both plus/minus and penalty minutes while producing two goals and 12 assists in 51 games. With an extra year of Jr. "A" under his belt, MacKenzie will turn 20 during his freshman year in Hockey East. Mike Card, D, Rochester (AHL), 2004 8th round (241st overall) A product of the rugged WHL, the Amerks defenseman looked to be positioning himself beneath Andrej Sekera and Mike Weber on the re-call totem pole before getting rocked by a pair of serious concussions. After missing over a month due to his initial blow, Card had his head smashed against the glass on January 4th against rival Manitoba in just his second game back and has been out of action since. To that point, Card was -8 with a goal and four assists in 23 games. The 6'1, 190-pounder is currently undergoing rehabilitation treatment, with his playing future currently unknown.
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