Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Buffalo Sabres Spring 2011 Prospect Rankings

The Buffalo Sabres enter the 2011 offseason with the excitement of a new ownership group and promises of one thing – winning. With that in mind, I can't think of a better way to assess the future than an extensive look at the prospect ranks.

Much like the new ownership, the Sabres future forwards will also have a new look. It hasn't been difficult to see the new attitude brewing, with size and team toughness being two key areas addressed by Kevin Devine's team over the past three drafts. A quick view of the depth chart reveals a dearth at center and a glaring need for more goal scoring punch, but moving forward Darcy Regier's coaching staff will have more intimidating options to sprinkle amongst the forward lines.

The Sabres cupboards are most stocked on the blueline, where a mobile fleet of rearguards may soon force some tricky roster discussions and perhaps an opportunity to sweeten deals from a position of strength.

Goaltending is going to be another area to target over the next couple of drafts, as the rankings reveal another compelling question – who's next after Enroth? That's something I'll be keeping in mind when organizational needs are addressed in the draft preview.

With that, I'll cut the preamble short.

So the disclaimer is this: The Spring 2011 Rankings are not a list of who is closest to playing in the NHL. Each player is initially slotted based on their top-end potential, then moved up or down based on their likelihood of achieving it. This is the only fair way to assess a group of players ranging in age from 18 to 23.

The Spring 2011 Buffalo Sabres Prospect Rankings

  1. Zack Kassian
  2. Luke Adam
  3. Mark Pysyk
  4. Brayden McNabb
  5. Jhonas Enroth
  6. Marcus Foligno
  7. Drew Schiestel
  8. Jerome Gauthier-Leduc 
  9. T.J. Brennan
  10. Kevin Sundher
  11. Corey Tropp
  12. Matt MacKenzie
  13. Paul Byron
  14. Dennis Persson
  15. Connor Knapp
  16. Nick Crawford
  17. Riley Boychuk
  18. Alex Biega
  19. Steven Shipley
  20. Shawn Szydlowski
  21. Corey Fienhage
  22. Jacob Lagacé
  23. Brad Eidsness
  24. Christian Isackson
  25. Justin Jokinen
  26. Gregg Sutch
  27. Cedrick Henley
  28. Mark Adams
  29. Drew MacKenzie
  30. Maxime Legault
Graduated: Marc Andre-Gragnani, Felix Schutz, Marek Zagrapan, Vyacheslav Buravchikov, Phillip Gogulla, Nick Eno

Ranking Profiles

1) Zack Kassian, RW, Windsor Spitfires (OHL), 2009 1st round (13th overall)

At 6'3, 215-pounds and strong as an ox, Kassian is considered the prime-time power forward in the Sabres developmental ranks. After winning a Memorial Cup and getting his first taste of NHL preseason play, the Windsor native returned to his hometown Spitfires in 2010-11, cruising to an impressive 20 points in 11 games before signing his entry-level deal with the Sabres on November 1st. Kassian, who also scored three points in five games as Canada won silver at the World Junior Championship, finished the season with 26 goals and 77 points in 56 outings (2nd on team).

Kassian has the soft hands and edge to someday drive second-line minutes, but work needs to be done towards achieving night-to-night consistency. The bullish forward gets around well with a long skating stride, yet the key to unlocking the good in his game (his vastly underrated passing ability, heavy one-timer, and ability to hit like a truck) lays in keeping his feet moving in all zones. He did it often along the way to averaging 1.92 points-per-game prior to playing for Canada. He did it less when averaging just .94 points-per-game upon his return. Kass continued his hit-or-miss ways in the playoffs, collecting six goals and 10 assists in 16 games before a suspension caused a premature end to his junior career.

Of course, the aggressive component to Kassian's mix makes the conversation interesting. Often compared to his idol Todd Bertuzzi in terms of frame, skill set, and OHL production, the 20-year old has shown a propensity for high hits that will need to be smoothed out. It's OK to have a short fuse as long as you can control when it ignites. Bob Probert was a mix of skills and aggression who sometimes spun out of control, and he too was a 6'3, 220+ pound Windsor-born forward with similar OHL statistics.

It's obvious that once Kassian gains the proper focus, he'll immediately add toughness and touch the Sabres' core forwards, taking confidence and space away from the opponent while elevating the play of his line mates. In a nutshell, it's that blend that places him at the #1 spot. After a brief playoff extension in Portland to gather his summer takeaways, expect Kassian to make waves in training camp and possibly cause interesting roster conversations at the start of the year, but ultimately spend the majority of his first professional season in the AHL. Anything more would be an over achievement.

2) Luke Adam, LW/C, Portland Pirates (AHL), 2008 2nd round (44th overall)

The 2010-11 AHL Most Outstanding Rookie, Adam entered the pro ranks on the heels of a prolific QMJHL campaign that saw him fall one goal short of the magical 50 mark. The big-bodied Newfoundlander quickly emerged on the farm, scoring 11 goals and 19 points in his first 17 games with Portland before making his NHL debut in late November. Over the course of multiple stints, Adam notched three goals in 19 NHL games played before his 21st birthday at the same time finishing tied for points among AHL rookies with 62 (29+33).

The heavy-footed Adam has made improvements to his skating, but still needs to work on his puck handling skills before securing a steady spot on the top roster. His defensive play has proven adequate (he's gotten less sleepy away from the puck since turning pro), while on the offensive side he remains solid at chipping the puck deep, protecting it with his body, and swooping into scoring areas.

Entering year two, the Sabres have themselves a versatile forward who will score loads of goals within a 15-foot radius of the net. The next question regarding Adam's future is where do you put him? Luke is the type of player who will skate wherever it most helps the team. His feet make him a better wing, but an improved handle could see the Sabres plug a center need and use his big body in front of the net until other options force him back to the boards.

3) Mark Pysyk, RHD, Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL), 2010 1st round (23rd overall)

Smart and steady, Pysyk lands on his first rankings list at the #3 spot after a solid post-draft campaign that saw him score 40 points as captain of the WHL's Oil Kings.

At 6'1, 174 pounds, the smooth-skating Pysyk cleans up well in his own zone without being overly physical. His two-way development was augmented this year on special teams, where he gained power play experience while proving extremely valuable on the penalty kill.

The overall package saw Pysyk earn huge minutes for the Oil Kings, a major factor to his impressive turnaround from a minus-19 to a plus-29 rating. He's not flashy and he shouldn't be defined as an "offensive defenseman". He simply reads the play well, makes a good first pass out, and supports the play up ice in a rather fluid manner.

Much has been made of Pysyk's skating ability. His effortless stride is great to watch, as his feet allow him to jump into spots to add offense while keeping him in good position defensively. He's already showing the ability to make veteran plays at a young age which allows for long-term projection as a safe and consistent top-4 defenseman. The only areas to look at moving forward would be durability and upping his physical play. Like so many prospects at his stage, the addition of upper body strength will help him absorb the "give and take" at the next level.

The Oil Kings came up short in the first round of the playoffs, but with Pysyk's guidance look to be a serious player when the puck drops in 2011-12. After remaining as one of Canada's final cuts for the 2011 World Juniors, expect the dynamic defender to not only wear the Canadian jersey in 2012, but possibly even wear the "C" as the tournament kicks off in his hometown of Edmonton. When I think of where this kid is going to be with two more years of maturation and how important steadying defensemen are to a hockey team, it's easy to rationalize an even higher rank.

4) Brayden McNabb, LHD, Kootenay ICE (WHL), 2009 3rd round (66th overall)

A 2009 third rounder who has performed like a player befitting a higher pick, McNabb has logged major minutes with the Ice over the past two seasons, playing as physical as his 6'4, 218-pound frame suggests while finishing among WHL blue line scoring leaders (6th in 2009-10, 3rd in 2010-11).

After getting preseason NHL exposure this past fall, the ICE captain returned to set single-season and all-time franchise marks in goals, assists, and points for a defenseman while earning a spot on the WHL's Eastern Conference First All-Star Team. He took his game to a different level in the playoffs, shutting down the likes of Brayden Schenn, Curtis Hamilton, Linden Vey, and Emerson Etem while setting even more franchise offensive marks including a solid 11-game point streak to lead the Ice to the league finals. His 24 points in the 2011 postseason were the most for a Sabres prospect since Paul Byron ripped off 21-11-32 in 19 games back in 2007-08.

A bona fide point machine at the junior level, the economy-minded McNabb provides offense by making good pinches,
finding sticks with slap-passes, and most importantly by getting lots of shots to the net. He's best when keeping it simple and limiting the chance for a turnover. Not possessing a quick first step, he may see spots to lug the puck up ice here and there as a pro (by comparison though, Mike Weber is probably the better skater at this stage), but his impact will be that of a point-contributor who block shots and plays tough in front of his goalie. 

Expect McNabb to be signed and off to Portland next season where he can ease his way in. If his feet adjust quickly to the AHL pace, it's fair to think he could position himself for a stop-gap call-up by Christmas. Until that happens, becoming a stronger skater should remain the focal point of his development.

5) Jhonas Enroth, G, Portland Pirates (AHL), 2006 2nd round (46th overall)

Technically now a graduate of the prospect ranks, Enroth locks down the #5 spot following a solid performance in the final year of his entry-level deal. The athletic 5'11 netminder battled through early parts of the AHL year to elevate himself to the role of competent #2 NHL goaltender by holding down the fort when Ryan Miller recovered from fatigue and injury. 

And so the love affair has begun. If you don't believe me, go pound "Enroth" into Twitter anytime Miller let's in three or more goals.

The Swede has grown year-over-year in a North American game dominated by down-low paint pressure. He still doesn't always appear in control of his swift movements, but he keeps himself in the play and makes saves. His composure in the crease has been helped by a more aggressive approach to challenging shooters. This has been vital to his development, as atackers naturally see a lot of net up high once his knees start to bend. That's the book. Watch the tape.

Enroth appears finished at the AHL level, so the writing is on the wall for him to start earning big-boy dollars behind one of the top #1's in the league. A note for those clamoring for a "sell high" deal: successful NHL franchises have two capable goaltenders. The Sabres are just now catching up with the Jones'. Miller is locked up until 2014, so look for the Sabres to extend Enroth a multi-year bump to lock the position down, keep Miller fresh (and of course challenged), and focus on building the rest of the roster.

6) Marcus Foligno, LW, Sudbury Wolves (OHL), 2009 4th round (104th overall)

Foligno broke out as a prime power forward talent in 2010-11, leading all Sabres prospects in power play goals (11), short-handed goals (5), and hat tricks (3) en route to posting a career-best line of 23-36-59 as captain of the OHL's Wolves. 

A natural leader, the hard-hitting Foligno uses smart routes on the forecheck to generate the majority of his offense. As many saw while he gathered 2+2 in seven games at the 2011 World Juniors, Foligno's presence around the net allows him to tip shots, bury rebounds, and generally stay in the faces of the opposition on a nightly basis.

The 19-year old's offseason work in Buffalo has clearly paid off. His improved leg strength, which has created a powerful stride with tighter pivots, has led to him closing quicker and hitting more targets. While there is still room to become a better skater, the gear grinding behind his physical game has actually evolved into one of his strengths. That tracking ability took a hit late in the year though, as Foligno missed 10 games in February due to a knee injury after getting twisted on a hit. The effects lingered into the playoffs, where the Wolves leader still exhibited his hack and whack tactics but was clearly slowed. He would register just two goals, one assist, and a depressed -10 rating through two rounds, and did not report to the AHL when his season concluded.

I see Foligno as a middle-line banger for the Sabres down the road, with all the makings of a future captain. He stuck around deep into the Sabres training camp last fall, but no one should confuse a reward for hard work with "almost making the team". His bloodlines are brewed for the next level, but the development plan sees him spending time grinding on the farm before being cut loose on the NHL.

7) Drew Schiestel, LHD, Portland Pirates (AHL), 2007 2nd round (59th overall)

Schiestel blossomed in his second professional season, using his excellent wheels to open the ice up for the AHL's Pirates and boost his offensive numbers. At this stage of development, you just need to see guys getting better. Watch them control their gaps, make better decisions, see them stronger on the puck, assert themselves more physically, carry the puck more confidently. Schiestel did all that, using his pass-slinging ability and big shot to amass 23 points (5+18), a team-high +15 rating, and an AHL All-Star selection before suffering a season-ending knee injury against Norfolk on January 25th.

Readers of this site know I have been a huge fan of Schiestel's skating and shooting. It's what he's been able to do in his own end that is most remarkable just two years removed from a depressing -29 rating with the Niagara IceDogs. I used to frequently question his smarts, thinking he was a player who was good at beginning a thought but not so strong at completing it. The coaching and confidence have eliminated those concerns, so now we sit and wait to see how he recovers from the first major injury of his career. 

8) Jerome Gauthier-Leduc, RHD, Rimouski Oceanic (QMJHL), 2010 3rd round (68th overall)

The youngest player in the Sabres stable, the gifted 6'1 righty has the offensive skills and two-way mobility to develop into a Kris Letang-type defenseman by the time he turns 21 years of age. The first step of his maturation into the Sabres future power-play quarterback took place when he arrived in Rimouski last fall at a sturdy 194 pounds, nearly 15 pounds heavier than his weigh-in at the NHL combine.

Growing pains were endured early this past season, as the more talented Nics forwards seemed to wait for the play to come to them, relying heavily on others to do the grunt work. The team eventually corrected itself when key members of the team, Gauthier-Leduc included, started to work harder in their own end creating better flow as a five-man unit.

Gauthier-Leduc comfortably steered the freewheeling Rimouski style from there, limiting the adventurous defensive shifts while clicking as a legit offensive weapon. After scoring four goals in his first 32 games, the puck-carrying rearguard collected 12 goals and 36 points in his final 29 including a 10-game point streak to finish the season as the league's #2 defensive scorer with 56 points. Even more impressive was the way his +/- was controlled down the stretch, going from a -10 in early February to a net finish of -1 at season's end. By comparison, post-draft QMJHL seasons by recent Sabres draft picks included T.J. Brennan (-15, 2007-08) and Marc-Andre Gragnani (-23, 2005-06).

Keep an eye on this emerging talent. Fundamentally sound with a very hard shot, it's a safe bet that the Quebec City native will join Pysyk as a serious contender for Canada's 2012 World Junior entry.

9) T.J. Brennan, LHD, Portland Pirates (AHL), 2007 2nd round (31st overall)

The mission for Brennan since entering the Sabres system has been to become a dependable, consistent defensive player. Packing a well-rounded set of tools highlighted by his mobility and ripping shot, Brennan made progress on that end all the while continuing his offensive bloom. 

After posting nine points in the 2010 portion of the schedule (.32 p/g), the athletic rearguard doubled his production after the new year with 30 in his final 44 games (.68 p/g) to finish in the top-20 in scoring among all AHL defenders (19th) and edge closer to becoming a big league contributor.

Standing 6'0, 205 pounds, added strength and leverage to his lower center of gravity have increased his effectiveness, but it seems that a brief mid-season stint at forward simplified the game and perhaps offered a different perspective regarding the responsibilities of a blueliner. Brennan was especially sharp in March with back-to-back game winning goals early, and a five-game point streak a couple of weeks later. 

There's still some mistakes to eliminate, but with currency built up with the Pirates coaching staff in the form of offense, all signs point to an expanded veteran role on the farm in 2011-12, and a competitive battle with McNabb and Schiestel for first call-up position.

10) Kevin Sundher, C, Chilliwack Bruins (WHL), 2010 3rd round (75th overall)

Readers of this site knew who Kevin Sundher was before this season. Listed in the 2010 Draft Preview as my second option for the Sabres at #75, and seeing how my primary option (Minnesota C Max Gardiner) went at pick #74, it's safe to say I was happy when the Sabres landed Sundher with the 75th pick.

A highly touted player coming out of the bantam ranks, the 6'0, 193-pound pivot skated with a target on his back for two seasons for the sub-.500 Bruins, racking up 44 goals and an even 100 points before the Sabres even drafted him. The Surrey, B.C. native continued his trend in 2010-11, overcoming a slow start to finish 3rd in scoring for the Bruins with 24 goals and 52 assists (t15th in WHL). 

Sundher really turned it on from late-October through early December, amassing 24 points in a 15-game stretch. In February, he collected points in 11-straight games to tie Kassian and McNabb for the longest streak of the season. With the year's momentum carrying into the postseason (3+4 in 5GP), it's reasonable to suggest that a quick start next season sees the playmaker become the third member of the class of 2010 to earn Team Canada consideration.

Sundher, who will skate for the relocated Victoria franchise in 2011-12, rates well in four key competencies required of a successful NHL forward – strength, smarts, skill, and determination. He is a gifted passer and an above average stickhandler, so now what you need to see is more tenacity. This isn't to say he's "passive", but given the Sabres need for natural centers to develop quickly, playing with more fire in his belly will accelerate his progress as he moves up a level against bigger players of equal talent.

11) Corey Tropp, RW, Portland Pirates (AHL), 2007 3rd round (89th overall)

A gritty forward with a scoring touch, Tropp left Michigan State a year early to get his pro career going in 2010-11 with the AHL's Pirates. The six-foot wing is a productive gamer, fearlessly entering the mix to make plays and willing to escalate the physical forays to make a point. Posting four fighting majors in Sioux Falls (USHL) before his three-year stay in E. Lansing, Tropp led all Sabres prospects this past season with nine scraps while contributing a clutch 10 goals and 30 assists in 76 games.

By no means is Tropp's value to the Sabres as a pugilist, but the willingness rounds out a balanced middle-line package that isn't too far off from getting a crack. Tropp, who also cashed four game winning goals in the shootout (tied for the AHL lead), continued his rookie ramp-up in the first round of the playoffs, scoring seven points (2+5) while the Pirates main cogs (Mark Mancari and Gragnani) were up in Buffalo.

The Detroit-area product likely has a few more goals in his stick (20 in 2009-10 as Spartans MVP), so expect his quick-release offense to keep gaining traction while adding to the overall team toughness shift-by-shift. Realistically Tropp is a year away from campaigning for a full-time gig, but don't be surprised if he makes some noise as camp battles heat up this fall. He's an underrated effort guy whose talent can take on many different roles.

12) Matt MacKenzie, RHD, Tri City Americans (WHL), 2010 3rd round (83rd overall)

A seasoned veteran of 225 WHL regular season games and 55 more in the playoffs, there's plenty of reason to believe that the 6'2 MacKenzie will be a polished two-way rearguard by the time he hits the AHL circuit. The Calgary native, who as captain of the Hitmen did a little bit of everything from burning both ends of special teams to playing against the opposition's top line, brought his puck-moving experience to the Ams at the trade deadline, adding five goals and 10 assists to his finishing line of 7-31-38 for the Western Conference semifinalist.

MacKenzie has shown he can add to the offense, but his catalyzing efforts are rooted in his defensive work. He skates and communicates well, and has a high level of awareness that allows him to block passing lanes and step up physically as needed. He's not the most gifted fighter but has gone on occasion. 

With a strong platform to build off of and an excellent body of work in juniors, I honestly see MacKenzie as a guy who will make it as a #4/#5 guy with a few years of farming. An October-born outlier of the 2010 draft, there's a chance MacKenzie has a good training camp showing and forces the Sabres into a tough re-assignment call this fall.

13) Paul Byron, C, Portland Pirates (AHL), 2007 6th round (179th overall)

Speedy, slippery, and possessing an excellent set of hands, the smallish Byron maintains his spot as a solid second tier player in the Sabres developmental ranks. The QMJHL product enjoyed a healthy 2010-11 campaign, gradually building a slick offensive resume en route to earning his first NHL re-call in January. Byron played quick-paced, mistake-free hockey in his Sabres debut, earning an assist before scoring his first NHL goal in his second game against his hometown Senators. He'd return to Portland before become coming back for another six games in which he saw shorter minutes.

A seam-splitting creator on the farm, Byron twice put together six-game scoring streaks to help pile up 53 points (26+27) including team-bests in power-play goals (10) and short-handed goals (3). It's especially worth noting how he made the most of his shots on goal, firing at a sniping percentage of 21.1%.

With the Sabres low on centers, yet already employing skilled forwards of a similar build, the 5'9 featherweight will spend another year of showcase minutes in Portland to prove himself as a sparkplug for the big club. When he gets the call, he must continue to initiate contact and keep his hands in scoring position by not getting forced to the outside.

14) Dennis Persson, LHD, Portland Pirates (AHL), 2006 1st round (24th overall)

The former first rounder made some headway in his second AHL season, scoring 10 more points (4+13) than he did as a rookie while improving his plus/minus rating by 15 goals (+5). Quietly a veteran of over 200 professional games (SEL and AHL combined), Persson is a mobile body who has gotten better at manning-up in his own zone while gradually getting more involved offensively. To best sum it up, his opportunistic two-way game is beginning to take shape as he generally looks more comfortable with the puck.

The 6'2 Swede has still been prone to his share of miscues, but you can see him turning the corner. With Gragnani expressed to Buffalo late in the year, Persson emerged as one of the Pirates stronger blueliners on a pair with Alex Biega. And just when many fans were ready to write him off, the Sabres rewarded his growth by shuttling up back and forth in an emergency manner during their first round series with the Flyers. An RFA heading into the offseason, it's expected that Persson will be tendered and back in North America next season for another stint in Portland. Either way, this is the last you'll see of his name on the prospect list.

15) Connor Knapp, G, Miami University RedHawks (CCHA), 2009 6th round (164th overall)

At 6'6, 220-pounds, Knapp represents an interesting prospect for a professional goalie coach. The big, athletic freak seems to be the new NHL model (see Pekke Rinne, current student of Knapp's former goalie coach, Mitch Korn), yet Knapp doesn't have the quickness or natural acrobatic flow like the flashy Preds keeper. Instead he has slowly worked through his clumsy moments in the crease, becoming a tighter butterfly goaltender that steers rebounds and smothers down-low pucks. The biggest indicator of his technical development is that he has gradually spent less time on his backside over the course of his three years in Oxford.

2010-11 was another dogfight for time in the Miami nets, with Knapp splitting time with Cody Reichard for the third straight season. The York, NY native didn't exactly get into rhythm, earning eight wins in 17 appearances while seeing a slight dip in goals against average and save percentage. In a reversal of the previous post-season when he stole the playoff job en route to a 55-save performance in the Midwest Regional Final, Knapp would eventually give way to Reichard once the RedHawks hit the CCHA tourney.

What's next for Knapp should be settled in the coming months. There is a job opening in Portland with Enroth graduating, but the Sabres would prefer he had more than 60 starts under his belt before turning him out. By comparison, 6'6 project Ben Bishop played in 98 games at Maine before signing with St. Louis after his junior year. It may be worth bringing him in to work with Jim Corsi, but I won't at all be surprised if he goes back to Miami for his senior year and a kick at a National title with one of the best recruiting classes in the country.

16) Nick Crawford, LHD, Portland Pirates (AHL), 2008 6th round (164th overall)

A shutdown defender, power-play QB, and OHL First-Team All-Star at the major junior level, Crawford posted excellent numbers as an AHL rookie in 2010-11, notching seven goals and 24 assists in 76 games as part of the young Pirates blueline. 

The 6'1 Crawford is disciplined and workmanlike, excelling in a conservative style role while taking very few stick penalties on the job. His duties start with good positioning and crisp passes out of the zone. Once up ice he employs good eyes, directing low pucks deep towards the net or smartly to a corner. A classic case of production through simplicity, Crawford's 31 points as a rookie are no surprise considering how he stacked up 70 the year before in Saginaw and Barrie.

Crawford is an average skater and he's not going to overwhelm anyone with aggression, but he's smart with the puck and knows how to add motion to a power play. With the Sabres having a fleet of rearguards that every now and then will leave the coop for an offensive excursion, Crawford's steadiness becomes a welcome element to the Sabres pipeline. With little pressure on him to spike his development, it's fair to assume that Crawford will spend the balance of his entry-level deal on the farm.

17) Riley Boychuk, LW, Portland Winterhawks (WHL), 2010 7th round (208th overall)

An aggressive third-line agitator who can win one-on-one battles, Boychuk demonstrated many of the qualities that made him the 10th pick in the 2006 WHL Bantam draft this past season, grinding his way to 18 goals and a Sabres prospects best 148 PIM for the 50-win Winterhawks. 

The 6'5 Abbotsford, B.C. native is somewhat of a late-bloomer, having missed nearly a year-and-half after undergoing corrective hip surgery as a 17-year old, but thanks in large part to his being a notorious gym rat (Boychuk won PDX's "Paul Gaustad Fitness Award" two years in a row), has been able to catch up to his peers and position himself as a viable power forward prospect.

Boychuk looks to be a pro-style player, possessing the skills, attitude, and of course frame to line up on an NHL fourth line. He's chippy (15 fights the past two seasons), has a rifle of a slapper, and can fill it up near the crease. A slight concern exists with the number of minor penalties he takes, but it's also worth noting that many of his trips to the box were the result of him defending teammates. A similar concern may reside on the neuro side, as a February concussion sidelined the banging forward for a few weeks. It's expected that Boychuk will take his big, tough style to the opposite coast Portland next season where he'll likely settle in a crash and bang role similar to one currently held by Maxime Legault.

18) Alex Biega, RHD, Portland Pirates (AHL), 2006 5th round (147th overall)

The 5'11 defenseman parlayed a four-year career at Harvard into a solid rookie campaign, recording three goals, 18 points, and an impressive +18 rating (4th among AHL rookies) in 61 games in Portland.

Not the biggest guy on the roster, the quick-footed defenseman is very calculated on the ice, using smarts and patience in the corners to gain control and make a crisp pass out of the zone. On the other end, the Salisbury prep product can skate it and shoot it, setting him up to be more involved on special teams as his career progresses.

Biega suffered the first injury of his career (knee) right before the All-Star break, causing the former Crimson captain to miss 14 games through March. Upon his return (with Schiestel finished and Gragnani in Buffalo), he quickly found himself performing well while playing bigger minutes. The increased role should prove valuable with Biega slotted for another AHL assignment in the final year of his entry-level deal.

19) Steven Shipley, C, Niagara IceDogs (OHL), 2010 4th round (98th overall)

The past season started on a negative note for Camp Shipley, with the fourth-rounder refusing to report back to Owen Sound before showing up a day late and hurting his hand during a fight in an intrasquad scrimmage. Before you knew it the disgruntled distraction received his walking papers, getting bounced south to St. Catharines to skate for the up-and-coming IceDogs.

Part of Shipley's beef with the Attack was that he didn't want to be a #2 guy behind Joey Hishon (COL), but it didn't get any better in Niagara as he was floated out to left wing before ultimately settling as the #3 pivot. In the end it added up to 18 goals and an even 50 points in his third OHL year, a 13-point regression from the 63 he put up in his draft year, and a feeling of disappointment all the way around.

At 6'3, 212 pounds, Shipley has a professional body and good two-way sense of the game but needs to up his compete level if he wants to follow in the footsteps of his idol, Joe Thornton. Simply put, it's time to dig a little deeper and take hits to make plays instead of lacking inspiration and waiting for the game to come to him. Niagara hasn't seen the best of what Shipley has to offer, and it's clear that he can get on pace quickly once he takes more initiative.

20) Shawn Szydlowski, RW, Portland Pirates (AHL), signed as undrafted free agent

Sure to be the top selling jersey in Cheektowaga if he ever makes it, Szydlowski enters the Sabres system with expectations of being a responsible depth scorer down the wing. At 6'2, 208 pounds, the much-improved Michigan native drove hard and fired regularly en route to 41 goals and 78 points with Erie Otters (OHL) before getting scooped up after the season as an undrafted free-agent.

Szydlowski is strong on the puck but he's also very smart with the space he's given, springing linemates with a board pass or taking it hard to the post at the slightest opening. It's that ability to dig in and get shots on goal that makes him an interesting prospect on the upswing. The Sabres were addressing a scoring need when they signed the veteran of over 250 OHL games, and now it's on them to find some centers to get these guys the puck.

21) Corey Fienhage, RHD, Kamloops Blazers (WHL), 2008 3rd round (81st overall)

The 6'4, 221-pound "Moose", who played the 2010-11 year in the WHL after two years of limited duty with the NCAA's North Dakota Fighting Sioux, is a rugged, athletic defender with limited offensive upside. Fienhage has good agility and is very strong on his skates, and it's easy to see that competing against older, skilled athletes the previous two seasons made for a relatively quick transition to juniors. Just as it was coming out of Apple Valley (MN-HS), his play was hallmarked by physicality.

The biggest thing I was looking for this season with increased reps was quicker decisions when he got the puck on his stick. When grooming yourself as a stay-at-homer with limited handling skills, it is paramount to make simple plays up the boards and out. Through the season, he became steadier in that regard.

Despite his raw athleticism, the big defenseman still can be challenged by smaller, quicker forwards who want to take him on the edge. I've seen him successfully lean-in and swallow the rush, but shifty puckhandlers can leak past him as he's going backwards. It's not a huge concern, but it's something I noted more than once this season. With more reps he can improve, making Fienhage the poster child for the Sabres having deeper ECHL roots.

22) Jacob Lagacé, RW, Portland Pirates (AHL), 2008 5th round (134th overall)

With decent hands and shiftiness in juniors, the 5'11 Lagacé is a classic example of a player who quickly realized that he'll need to work harder as professional. His offensive instincts allowed him to produce in the QMJHL, but advancing up a level where he's competing against bigger, stronger players who are just as skilled proved to be a challenge, resulting in a month-long demotion to the ECHL. The message was sent. In 29 games after his return for the stretch run, Lagacé scored eight goals to finish the year with 10-13-23 in 58 games.

The Beloeil, QC native will return to Portland in 2011-12 where he'll be relied on to supply depth scoring while continuing to show improvement away from the puck. His skating, which was formerly accented by wider turns, will need to be more "straight lined" when hitting the offensive zone if he wants to leverage the skills that got him noticed. Many guys can finish plays, but the Sabres player development team needs to see Lagacé bust it harder in all three zones before moving him up the ladder.

23) Brad Eidsness, G, North Dakota Fighting Sioux (WCHA), 2007 5th round (139th overall)

The only netminder to start at least 40 games in his first two seasons at North Dakota, and one of just two to earn 20 wins in each of his first two, Brad Eidsness saw his stock plummet in 2010-11 when he was relegated to back-up duty behind sophomore Aaron Dell after just four starts. Positioning, puckhandling, and rebound control proved to be Eidsness' weaker points, and the Sioux never looked back, riding a rock-solid Dell into the NCAA tournament. And so much like Knapp, he wasn't afforded key developmental time behind a strong club.

What's next for Eidsness remains to be seen. Once Dell announced that he'd be returning to Grand Forks in 2011-12, Eidsness stated that he'd make a decision based on what is best for his hockey career. The former AJHL MVP is on schedule to earn his degree after three years of study and likely wants to leave school, but where does he fit for the Sabres? Like Fienhage, is he a classic example of why the Sabres should sink their teeth deeper into an ECHL affiliate? Sure, he wasn't happy losing his job coming off a season that saw him on the All-WCHA 2nd All-Star Team, but there's always the possibility that he returns if Dave Hakstol is committed to giving him a shot at earning his job back. (EDIT: Just days after the rankings were released, Eidsness announced that he'd be returning to the Sioux in 2011-12.)

24) Christian Isackson, C, Sioux Falls Stampede (USHL), 2010 7th round (203rd overall)

An all-around horse as a Jr. "A" rookie, Isackson rode a strong mid-season surge to lead the USHL's Herd in scoring with 44 points (17+27). The West St. Paul native, who is taking the Vanek path to the University of Minnesota via Sioux Falls, is a hard-working playmaker with great vision and determination who scores the majority of his goals from the slot. Well-rounded offensively with average speed and strength, the puck seems to find him and he knows what to do with it when it hits his stick. Defensively he has proven hard working and responsible.

The crafty Gopher recruit first popped on to the radar after a heady performance at the 2009 Ivan Hlinka tourney (the same event that also provided Sabres amateur scouts an opportunity to watch fellow 2010 classmates Pysyk and Gregg Sutch) and now looks to be solid late-round find that can pay off with patience. Heading back home as freshman with the Gophers should be a good situation for the skilled pivot, as he'll be presumably closer to his mother who he lists as the greatest influence on his career while having time to work his way into his professional aspirations. His stats weren't as gaudy as Vanek's (46-45-91) or Tropp's (26-36-62) during his time with the Herd, but the drive is where it needs to be to make an early impression in the WCHA.

25) Justin Jokinen, RW, Minnesota State Mavericks (WCHA), 2008 4th round (101st overall)

After a slow start to his NCAA career, the 6'4 Jokinen used a rigorous offseason regimen to get off to a quick start as a junior, notching eight points before December en route to tripling his previous career highs in goals (9) and assists (8) for the improved Mavericks. Jokinen, whose flat development was due in large part to him going directly to the WCHA from the Minnesota HS ranks, faded down the stretch with just one point in his final ten games to finish the year with a team-low -10 rating.

Still trending upward despite the finish, the 21-year old Jokinen will be expected to use his increased strength and comfort to launch a senior season breakout in 2011-12. He's long and speedy with the tools to finish, so it's clear that intensity and physical involvement (like peeling off fewer hits to generate turnovers) can be a key to his success. The Sabres will likely want to see a more attacking one-on-one dimension with the puck as well, with less stickhandling and more drive around the edge. The frame and hands are present and the off-ice commitment seems energized, so it's on him to rise above the other seniors looking for deals and simply shoot his way to a contract.

26) Gregg Sutch, RW, Mississauga St. Michael's Majors (OHL), 2010 5th round (143rd overall)

The 6'2 forward upped his production this past season as a member of the loaded Memorial Cup hosts, but he'll never be considered an "offensive" player. Sutch, who was instead drafted for his ability to work and hit, is a penetrating grinder who makes his mark with an intense forecheck and strong cycle work. He's solid on his skates and does a good job using his body to protect the puck. 

After showing improvement in the first half of the year, Sutch experienced a slow reset from a January concussion that served as the first sign of a developmental flatline. As the Majors were getting greased for the deep playoff year, Sutch shuffled in and out of the lineup before eventually fading into a pressbox mainstay. Not a particularly good sign after the previous year saw him miss time due to an ankle sprain, staph infection, and separated shoulder.

Sutch, who naturally has his head up at all times due to his severe hearing impairment, will return to the OHL in 2011-12 where he'll look to a) stay healthy, and b) get back on plan with his pesky, power forward game that made him the 11th overall pick in the 2008 bantam draft. He's persevered through every level of hockey, making him one to root for as his career plays out.

27) Cedrick Henley, LW, Val d'Or Foreurs (QMJHL), 2010 6th round (173rd overall)

The Val-d'Or, Quebec native couldn't ride the momentum of his first NHL training camp, returning to his hometown Foreurs for just 14 games before shutting it down for four months to heal from wrist surgery. The procedure, done to correct a congenital defect, was performed two years after having his opposite wrist operated on in the same manner. In total, the 6'5 project totaled five goals and 17 points in 22 regular season games including a goal and seven assists in the Foreurs final seven.

A big name and a big frame entering the 2009 Bantam Draft, the 6'5+ Henley is a raw talent with a good work ethic to build off of. He has a decent handle in open ice, cycles well along boards, and battles for position in front of the net. Perhaps there is some Eric Daze in his game, except Henley embraces the physical play more than Daze ever did. Expect 2011-12 to be a considerable growth year for Henley statistically. Whispers may arise of a potential overage season in the Q given how he was redshirted most of the year, but for now let's monitor his progression next winter and go from there.

28) Mark Adams, RHD, Providence College Friars (Hockey East), 2009 5th round (134th overall)

After a strong close in his USHL tune-up in Chicago, the 2009 fifth-round pick and Massachusetts native jumped back to New England to begin his NCAA career at Providence College of Hockey East. The Friars, who suffered a key defection at the Christmas break when sophomore rearguard Alex Velischek left for the USHL, were overmatched on many nights this season en-route to an 8-18-8 finish, but Adams was able to show improvement in his freshman year while adjusting to the quicker pace and more physically mature competition. Velischek leaving hurt the team but probably helped get Adams going.

Adams, who possesses good mobility in his 6'3 frame, will gradually start spreading his wings moving forward. The puck advancing skills are present (he'll eventually be asked to push the pace more to spark an undermanned Friars club), but he may be better served by continuing to build his game from his own zone out as sophomore. Keep playing the man, lessen the need for stick penalties, and stay strong in the corners and in front of the net. I want to place him higher but I need to see a little more first. He has three more years of Hockey East play to show the Sabres that he's worthy of an NHL contract.

29) Drew MacKenzie, LHD, University of Vermont Catamounts (Hockey East), 2007 7th round 209th overall)

The 6'2, 203-pound MacKenzie is best described as an offensive-minded defenseman who holds up well in his own end. Mobile and aggressive, the NE prep product passes well, can leg it out of trouble, and likes to jump into the slot to get shots to the net. Midway through the 2010-11 season, MacKenzie's o-zone awareness prompted coach Kevin Sneddon to move him up to wing to help jumpstart the lowly Catamounts first-string power-play. MacKenzie ended the year with a career-high five goals and 12 assists to finish fourth on the team in scoring.

MacKenzie may find himself in a bit of no-man's land with the Sabres when his collegiate career ends, and not because of anything he has or hasn't done. This isn't to say that he can't earn an assignment, but as of now the number of quality defensemen in the pipeline creates few openings on a club that rarely uses the AA ECHL for development. Expect the Connecticut native to return to Burlington in the fall of 2011 with his chances of getting a deal increasing if defensive prospects ahead of him are moved, or if the Sabres' developmental philosophy changes to the point of pressing up towards the 50-contract maximum.

30) Maxime Legault, RW, Portland Pirates (AHL), 2009 7th round (194th overall)

The 22-year old Legault has earned Dineen's trust this season, settling in as a tenacious lower-line checker to earn a full-time AHL deal. Clearly defined as a role player, Legualt's assignment is chip the puck deep, follow it in hard, and wear down the opposing defensemen.

Much like Riley Boychuk, he's a physical guy who can create just by knocking guys off the puck. His agitating style and ability to produce in front of the net led to 12 goals and 12 assists this past season, including a January cluster that saw him gather 5-2-7 over a six-game streak.

Legault plays big and he's not afraid to drop the gloves as evidenced by his six majors this season. The more balance and vocal leadership he continues to provide, the more he'll assert himself as foundational farm element moving forward. It's hard to peg him as a legit NHL prospect at this point, but that could change with more experience as he has the style and game to compliment a club with small, speedy forwards.

2010-11 Statistics