Bigger. Stronger. Faster. Meaner.
The Sabres did some early shopping in the beef aisle on Sunday, adding a pair of hulking defenders with 6-foot-4 Rasmus Ristolainen at 8th overall and even larger physical spe
cimen Nikita Zadorov (6'5") with their second pick at the 16th spot. If you like big guys who hit and have a good knack for the offensive side of things, you have no problem at all with how the Sabres opened the 2013 draft.
Let's start with Rasmus Ristolainen. There really isn't much to not like. He's a coveted right-handed shot who has played a tight defensive style on the large European rinks. The North American game should come easy to him when he gets here.
#8 Rasmus Ristolainen - RHD, TPS Turku (SM-Liiga)
6'3" | 203 lbs.
Ristolainen is a confident, consistent right-hander who has already logged two years of professional experience with TPS. A powerful skater with good range, Ristolainen has made a mark with two-way intelligence and an imposing physical style in the mold of Flyers captain Chris Pronger. He makes quick, decisive plays with the puck on his stick, and lines up the big hit without it.
The rugged veteran of two World Junior Championships can also bring the heat on the power play, using a low, hard shot to get pucks through to the net with regularity. There is little doubt that his complete set of tools will quickly translate to NHL success, and he could actually be eyeing immediate North American duty. He has the size and strength to make an impact right away, and since he was selected out of Europe, could play in the AHL if both parties felt that it made sense for his development.
With a talented Finnish winger already on the books (Joel Armia), the Sabres strengthened the future core with his World Junior teammate. Ristolainen makes the future D corps bigger and meaner while giving Sabres assistant coach Teppo Numminen a young countryman to share his 1,372 games of NHL experience with.
#16 Nikita Zadorov - LHD, London Knights (OHL)
6'5.5" | 226 lbs.
A massive skater with upside as huge as his wingspan, Zadorov is a hard-hitting motor with good sense for the offensive game. The bruising Russian gradually worked his way into big minutes on a stacked blue line this past season, posting 25 points (6+19) and a sturdy plus-33 rating for the OHL champion Knights.
Zadorov enjoyed a rise in stock during London’s playoff run, demonstrating poise, toughness and skilled offensive instincts in pressure situations. He'll need to be coached into stronger positional play moving forward (less chasing), but with many questions about his potential answered, the Sabres couldn't pass up the physicality and blistering point shot that Zadorov brings when on patrol.
Where Ristolainen represents a "now" asset, I see Zadorov's value residing in his value down the line. The size and raw talent is firmly in place, but there is much to be gained by returning to London for another deep playoff run and guaranteed place in the 2014 Memorial Cup with the host Knights.
Looking at the rest of the draft, the Sabres were clearly looking to better their overall work ethic. Despite a need for pure scoring down the wings, they didn't go fishing for the one-trick offensive pony. The skaters selected all show three-zone awareness with varying degrees of physcial play as well as a little nastiness.
#35 J.T. Compher - LW, U.S. NTDP (USHL)
6'0" | 170 lbs.
With a nice balance of grit and skill, the Illinois product gives the Sabres a hard-working role player to fill out their future middle lines. Sabres fans are really going to enjoy watching Compher buzz around the ice, bring pressure on the forecheck, and compete hard in all three zones. Compher's high-energy style makes him a quality agitator, while his skating and skill at reading plays puts him in the right spots offensively.
I was very impressed with his back pressure and smarts away from the puck at the All-American Prospects Game, but Compher also shines with a clear offensive knack. He recorded 15 goals and 42 points in USHL action last season before notching 3+4 while logging over 20 minutes per game at the 2013 IIHF U-18 World Championship. He simply lifts his team when they need it most. Property of the Saginaw Spirit but committed to the University of Michigan (first Sabres prospect at UM since Steve Shields - 1991), Compher will likely play at least two seasons in the B1G before contemplating next steps.
#38 Connor Hurley - LHC, Edina Hornets (MN HS)
6'1" | 175 lbs.
Committed to Notre Dame for 2014, Hurley is a playmaking forward who dominated the Minnesota high school ranks with 43 points in 25 games en route to leading Edina to the state title. Hurley is a natural centerman who plays a power game in the mold of a Rick Nash type. At the NHL Combine, Hurley showed his strength and endurance by finishing seventh in peak power output and fifth in push-ups. Scouts love his hard-driving skating game, and those combine results become all-the-more appealing with Hurley's 9/15/95 birth date making him the youngest player in the draft. He'll play a developmental season with Muskegon (USHL) before heading to South Bend the year after.
#52 Justin Bailey - RW, Kitchener Rangers (OHL)
6'3" | 183 lbs.
As written in the draft preview, we kind of saw this one coming a mile away. The Sabres were in need of scoring depth down the wings, and here is big local guy with hands who worked hard at the both the NHL and Sabres draft combines. Bailey adjusted well in his first season of major junior, combining a long reach, heavy shot, and powerful skating stride to secure 17 goals for Steve Spott's Rangers.
A learning curve and mid-season spike in production were expected, as was the slight dropoff as the long junior season raged on. Regardless, all the power forward tools are in place, so now it's just a matter of bringing it all together with added strength, conditioning, and consistency. The skill and character foundations are in place. With more ice time in Kitchener and a world junior spot on the line, scouts are expecting Bailey to show a major leap in production next season.
#69 Nicholas Baptiste - RW, Sudbury Wolves (OHL)
6'1" | 201 bs.
Terry Pegula was touting hard workers in his most recent interview. That's what they're getting with Baptiste, a versatile forward with good size who can grind on a checking line or step into a more offensive role as needed. Baptiste blends a raging competitive spirit with nice power forward elements. He digs in and takes the puck hard to the crease and can certainly finish plays down low. The Wolves forward rode a solid second half of the OHL year into a strong showing for Canada at the 2013 IIHF U18 World Championship, where he scored three goals and eight points through the seven-game march to gold.
#129 Cal Petersen - G, Waterloo Backhawks (USHL)
6'1" | 175 lbs.
It's easy to think how young American goalies idolize Ryan Miller, and Petersen is no different. A scrappy battler, Peterson played for his hometown Blackhawks in 2012-13, amassing a respectable 21-11-1 record, 2.97 GAA and .906 save%. The grinding competitor is a rare southpaw, giving him an ability to confuse shooters when he squares up with his right-handed catching glove. Off to the University of Notre Dame in 2014, Petersen will have plenty of developmental time to dial-in his aggressiveness while rounding out his technique.
#130 Gustav Possler - LW, MODO (SEL)
6'0" | 183 lbs.
We have a major sleeper alert here with the young opportunistic producer. Possler is an average-sized winger with a well-above average release. More of a finisher than a set-up man, the goal-scoring Swede first popped on the radar with an excellent showing at the 2012 U18s, where he used good speed, hands, and an ability to capitalize off the rush to collect eight points in seven games. He's a right place/right time type of player who buries rebounds as well. Heading into the season, I felt that Possler would garner late-first, early-second round consideration. Really solid potential is in play for a team needing scoring from its natural wings.
#143 Anthony Florentino - RHD, South Kent School Selects Academy (NE HS) 6'1" | 227 lbs.
A mean, hard-hitting defender from the Selects Academy program at the South Kent School, Florentino is just solid all the way around with virtually no weaknesses to his game. He is an excellent skater who locks in defensively while using good vision and a heavy shot to be a consistent offensive catalyst. On top it all is his vocal leadership skills and passion for the game. No one questions Florentino's effort. The fact that he's committed to Nate Leaman's rising program at Providence College makes him even more attractive to the Sabres.
#159 Sean Malone - LHC, U.S. NTDP (USHL)
5'11" | 183 lbs.
The quick and agile Malone broadened his horizons with the United States National Team Development Program in 2012-13, including 13 points (5+8) in 15 games of USHL action, while also gaining valuable international experience. A product of Nichols School, Malone has carved out a reputation as intense competitor at both ends of the ice, combining excellent edge speed and puck control skills with a sound back-checking game. Malone, whose package of skill and character could fill an energy role as a pro, will have his work ethic tested off the ice as well when he enrolls at Harvard University this fall.
#189 Eric Locke - LHC, Saginaw Spirit (OHL)
5'10" | 183 lbs.
I saw Locke quite a bit this season while keeping tabs on his Saginaw teammate, 2012 third-rounder Justin Kea. An undersized speedy playmaker who will turn 20-years old this fall, Locke re-emerged on the scouting scene in 2012-13, producing nearly 100 points of offense while showing a clear dedication away from the puck. His combination of energy and offense earned him the Most Improved Player in the OHL's Western Conference coaches poll. His complete game is coming around at just the right time, making him (at the very least) a candidate to be a scorer at the AHL level with plenty of NHL sleeper potential.