Sunday, June 24, 2012

Nuthin' But a "G" Thang: Sabres add size, balance down middle

Grigorenko tries on the colors for the first time.
"Now it's time for me to make my impression felt... so sit back, relax, and strap on your seat belt"

The Buffalo Sabres made great strides in their quest to get bigger and more talented down the middle Friday, selecting Quebec Remparts leading scorer Mikhail Grigorenko (12th overall) and Dubuque Fighting Saints power froward Zemgus Girgensons (14th overall) in the first round of the NHL draft.

In all it was a successful opening night for the Sabres. They nabbed the most gifted player available at their original spot, and then acted swiftly with Flames GM Jay Feaster for the second straight draft by bundling the 21st and 42nd picks in exchange for #14 to close out their round earlier than scheduled.

I mentioned in the draft preview how many top-end Europeans are now playing in North American in their draft years. Rated the #3 North American skater by Central Scouting, Grigorenko is the first Russian-born player drafted by Buffalo since 2005, while Girgensons, who was ranked 18th, becomes the first-ever Latvian to be selected in the first round of the NHL draft.

For those wondering, there are no language issues whatsoever with either player. Girgensons is 100% fluent after spending three years in the U.S., while Grigorenko picked things up rather quickly despite living in a city dominated by en francais. Kevin Devine dropped the line of the weekend by joking that Grigorenko already speaks better than (Sabres amateur scout) Iourri Khymlev.

With Grigorenko, the Sabres pick up a highly-skilled center with excellent offensive sense and balance. He has great hands around the net but it's his passing and vision that really stand out. The 6'3, 200+ pounder controls the offensive tempo, a trait that causes many to believe that he's close to NHL ready with a future as a #1 pivot. From a skill standpoint, Devine thinks he could good to go as early as this fall. I fully expect the Sabres to act quickly on a contract but time will tell on that front.

After accumulating four goals and 18 points at the 2011 U18s, Grigorenko was an instant North American hit with 85 points (40+45) to be an easy choice as the CHL's Rookie of the Year. Despite the sparkling results, his will to compete was often questioned, but his coach with the Quebec Remparts, Patrick Roy, always spoke glowingly of his Russian rookie and recently suggested that it has simply been an issue of stamina at the root of the chatter. I'm no doctor, but it makes you wonder about his spring bout with mononucleosis and the impact of its onset.

After listening to Kevin Devine and Darcy Regier speak after Friday's first round, it appears that Roy's input heavily influenced their decision. Grigorenko has informed the Sabres that he'll return to Quebec City next season if he is unable to crack the NHL roster.

The pick worked out the way it should have - don't chase him but don't let him pass by. I'm glad the Sabres agreed that you couldn't pass up a potential Malkin clone with the 12th pick in the draft.

Girgensons: fit for duty in a blue collar town
With Girgensons, the Sabres nabbed a well-rounded center with high character who plays the game hard. He'll hound the puck. He'll slide to block a shot. He'll stand in the crease and push back after the whistle. Simply put, the 6'2, 198-pounder is a natural leader who goes in straight line with a bit of a chip on his shoulder.

While some speculated on Grigorenko's work ethic, no one ever questioned Girgensons'. Devine remarked about his no-quit attitude at the World Juniors when he sacrificed his body late in a blowout loss to Russia. He even kept chugging for a few shifts after breaking his jaw in an April playoff game on a play that saw him lay a hit.

And by the way, Girgensons can score. His aggressive style led to 45 goals through 100 USHL games over the past two seasons. While a very capable offensive player, the best seems yet to come as his hard working style should see him create a little more on his own as he develops. The blend of skills combined a very high effort level makes perfect sense after picking a dominant offensive talent two picks earlier.

While the Kelowna Rockets maintain his WHL rights, Girgensons is expected to honor his early commitment to the University of Vermont, where he'll be skating over the next two weeks in preparation for the upcoming Sabres d-camp.

Ironically, Calgary ended up nabbing Girgensons' replacement on the Dubuques roster with the pick they got from the Sabres, selecting Providence commit Mark Jankowski at #21.

The Sabres began day two by selecting American-born defenseman Jake McCabe out of the WCHA's Wisconsin Badgers. From the draft preview:

Jake McCabe – LHD, 6’1”, 200 lbs., Wisconsin (WCHA)

Many of the defenders in this draft bring a strong two-way skill set to the table, and McCabe’s total package could be considered among the best. The Wisconsin native played in the WCHA as a true freshman in 2011-12, using smarts and excellent mobility to score three goals and 12 points while getting PP time alongside points machine Justin Schultz on the Badgers top PP unit.

It’s not all offense though. McCabe has a mature body and good shutdown skills that could make for a nice #4 defenseman after his days in Badgerland. A product of the U.S. NTDP, McCabe’s history with Amerks bench boss Ron Rolston could lend to some valuable input on draft day as the Sabres re-load youth on the blueline.

McCabe rebounded well after missing some time thanks to a cut tendon courtesy of a teammate's skate. While pegged in the preview as a third, the pick in the second makes sense given the relationships and overall skills of the player. Needless to say, I really like McCabe as quality two-way defensemen are always welcome in the NHL.

3rd round (73rd overall): Justin Kea - C, 6'4", 211 lbs.

Happy with their organizational skill and speed at the center spot, the Sabres used their third round pick on another big body that more likely projects to checking line duty.

A former first-rounder in the 2010 OHL draft (13th overall), the 6'4, 211 pound Kea employs a hard-working power forward style that sees him strong on the forecheck, valuable on the PK, and a willing pugilist as evidenced by 14 scraps through his first two years of major junior. Moving forward, many expect the lanky forward to get more opportunity to show his offensive side while filling out his frame.

The Sabres brought the big pivot in for their combine and certainly thought highly enough of his make-up to produce the third round investment. Per Kevin Devine, they think he could be Paul Gaustad type with better skating.

 5th round (133rd): Logan Nelson - C/W, 6'2", 188 lbs.

Yet another Sabres combine visitor, the Minnesota native is a strong, skilled forward who compiled 23 goals and 62 points this past season in Victoria while playing parts of the year alongside fellow Sabres prospect, Kevin Sundher. Naturally a center, Nelson plays with an edge, using his big body to make plays around the net.

Passed over in his first draft year as a member of the USHL's Des Moines Buccaneers, Nelson moved to the WHL where he emerged as a more complete player. His production did not go unnoticed by USA Hockey, who invited the talented Nelson to their U20 Evaluation Camp later this summer. He'll turn 19 in September, giving him one more year of junior to become a stronger skater before hitting the AHL.

Nelson notched his first WHL hat trick back on January 3rd in a 9-4 loss to Calgary. All three goals can be seen below.

6th round (163rd): Linus Ullmark - G, 6'3", 198 lbs.

I thought that perhaps the Sabres would stop their "every other year" trend and add a goalie to build more top-to-bottom depth, and they did just that. We'll go back to the draft preview for the goods on the big Swede who the Sabres had good intelligence on thanks to the January hiring of former MoDo GM Fredrik Andersson as a professional scout.
Linus Ullmark – G, 6’3, 198 lbs., Modo (SWE Jr)

Big and raw, the talented Ullmark enters his second draft year after an excellent season with Modo’s J20 squad that saw him post a solid 2.76 goals against average and .918 save percentage with the storied franchise. Ullmark’s play steadily improved throughout the season and into the playoffs, where he sparkled with a 2.24 GAA, .927 sv%, and one shutout in five starts.

Growing up dreaming of playing for Modo’s top club, Ullmark got his wish at the Christmas break when he was called in to back up Mikael Tellqvist while Anton Forsberg was away at the U20s. When Telllqvist fell ill, Ullmark was thrust into his first start as an 18-year old on two hours notice and held up well in an OT loss to Lulea.

While the bottleneck kept him buried most of the year, we’re still giving Ullmark a good shot to be drafted by the Sabres and an equally good chance to earn a larger SEL role with Modo before coming to North America.

7th round (193rd): Brady Austin - LHD, 6'4", 234 lbs.

The Sabres continued their run of three straight players in their second year of eligibility with the selection of Austin. The mammoth rearguard flourished this past season after an offseason trade to Belleville, leveraging his past experience as a spot-duty forward to score six goals and 26 points while developing his stay-at-home game under the guidance of former Edmonton Oilers bench boss George Burnett. Named the Bulls' Most Dedicated player, the steady improvement and overall package including a strong shot and a nice set of feet for a big man make him a smart pick late in the draft.

One Austin's season highlights came as he showed his mobility up-ice to score the overtime game winning goal in game #4 of the Bulls' first round playoff series against Ottawa (below).

7th round (204th): Judd Peterson - C/RW, 6'0, 190 lbs.

Developing just up the road from Sabres amateur scout Keith Hendrickson, Peterson enters Sabreland following a prolific high school season that saw him rack up 47 goals and 83 points with Duluth-Marshall (MN) High School. Peterson's offensive package, which includes a nice burst and sniping accuracy, along with his relationship earned him an up-close audition at the Sabres pre-draft combine, where he confirmed his standing as a deeper day two option and potential depth scorer.

Native Minnesotan Brian Burke was also said to be interested, but the Sabres acted before the Leafs final pick to snatch up the 2012 Mr. Hockey Finalist. Peterson will play for the Cedar Rapids Rough Riders in 2012-13 before entering the WCHA ranks with the St. Cloud State Huskies.

Peterson ( gold #18) opened the 2011 scholastic season with a hat trick and an assist. You can see the points below.


Sabres Development Camp is scheduled for July 8th-14th. (So just chill 'til the next episode).