Sunday, March 8, 2009

UFA chatter: Irwin emerging? Pio near ready

The college game is developing more and more NHL-ready prospects, and with undrafted players dotting their summer conditioning camp rosters of late, it's easy to think the Sabres are always combing the campuses looking for the next late-bloomer. Get a guy who's 23-ish, coming into his own right out of school, and he's just about ready to go. Mike Kostka and Derek Whitmore are two examples of players to go through the process as the Sabres round out their AHL depth. With vicinity to Buffalo, you can bet the Sabres kicked the tires with Jesse Winchester last season while at Colgate. The 6'1 pivot entered the Hamilton, NY country club as a 21-year old freshman in 2004-05, and exited as a balanced, seasoned contributor. A native Ottawanian, Winchester was a late-March signing with his hometown Senators a year ago, jumping right on to their 2008-09 roster as a 25 year-old rookie. While names like Mitch Ganzak, Jack Downing, Bryan Lerg, and Jake Cepis have come and gone from the Sabres NCAA radar in recent years, there is one past invite that is still looming as a viable signing for Buffalo. It's just hard to say when. Vermont's Brayden Irwin is a skilled forward who, despite being snake-bitten statistically this season (6+5 in 31 games after years of 19 and 18 pts), could remain in the future mix as a key component to the #7 Catamounts. Currently there are eight Vermont forwards with more points, but the hard-working Toronto native has untapped offensive potential that could come to fruition as a pro. In 103 NCAA games, he's 48 points and 107 PIM. With the Sabres system craving bigger forwards, the 6'5, 215-pound Irwin becomes relevant with the upcoming NCAA tourney providing a great gauge of seasonal growth. Irwin looked good over the summer, and if the loaded Catamounts put together a run to the Frozen Four, the swift skating wing could emerge as a big reason why. The question is, if the Sabres interest somehow peaks, would they watch him return to UVM as a senior or jump the gun and sign him for Portland? A return to school seems logical pending the return of fellow underclassmen, but it's worth keeping an eye on since stats aren't telling the whole story, and it's easy to see him skating in the AHL. Irwin will turn 22 on March 24th, exactly one year to the day that Winchester signed his deal with Ottawa. Regardless, the Brampton Batallion property (OHL) and former St. Michael's Buzzer is a classic case of a prospect using the collegiate ranks to gradually grow in his game. Across the country, a previous hot commodity is on the verge of reasserting himself as perhaps the #1 collegiate free agent this season. A delight to the rumored 26 teams interested in signing him, Denver's Tyler Bozak is back skating with a return to game action coming in about two weeks. It's a fair assumption that the Sabres have already probed former Pio Chris Butler about the soon-to-be 23-year old, and are likely keeping tabs on his progression after December knee surgery. An energy player at both ends of the ice, the 6'1, 180-pound Saskatchewan native is a great skater, with solid hands and toughness. After posting 128 points in the BCHL while waiting for a scholarship, Bozak scored 18 goals and 34 points last season in Denver. This season, Bozak shot out to a point-per-game pace (18GP 7+14-21 +14) before tearing a meniscus against Minnesota State on December 12th. Pending a sound return from injury, Bozak could immediately hop on to a team's third line. Buffalo fans shouldn't get their hopes up though, as it's thought that the Western Canadian product may have a preference to play close to home, especially if a rookie max contract comes calling.