Buffalo Sabres February 2014 Prospect Rankings

Written By Kris Baker on Wednesday, February 5, 2014 | 2/05/2014

It's not exactly news that the Buffalo Sabres pipeline is front loaded with a European flavor. That's what happens when you spend your last five first-round picks on players from Finland, Latvia, and Russia. It's a development worth calling out considering the franchise went though four drafts (31 selections) from 2007-2010 without picking a player born outside of North America. Now, six different countries are represented in the top 10.

As always, the rankings exercise provided several tough decisions, not only with slotting players in various segments, but also when coming up with listed positions for guys like Girgensons, Catenacci, and Sundher. All three played the center position in junior (and all three have seen some time there as pros), but numbers have pushed them to the left side at times this year. With left wing depth lacking, it made sense to list them there for the sake of balance. For the record, all three, especially Catenacci, are most comfortable down the middle. But still, it doesn't really matter where you put Girgensons.

We're cutting the preamble short this year. With that in mind, let's get to it.

Building the list is not about slotting players based on who is closest to appearing in the NHL. The rankings are constructed by identifying a player's top end potential (assigning each an upside grade), and then moving the assets up or down based on the likelihood of achieving. It's the fairest way to assess a group of players between the ages of 18-23.


FEBRUARY 2014 TOP 25 RANKINGS

1 - RISTOLAINEN, Rasmus
2 - GIRGENSONS, Zemgus
3 - ZADOROV, Nikita
4 - GRIGORENKO, Mikhail
5 - ARMIA, Joel
6 - PYSYK, Mark
7 - COMPHER, JT
8 - MCCABE, Jake
9 - LARSSON, Johan
10 - ULLMARK, Linus 
11 - HURLEY, Connor
12 - BAPTISTE, Nick
13 - MCNABB, Brayden
14 - BAILEY, Justin
15 - CATENACCI, Daniel
16 - POSSLER, Gustav
17 - HACKETT, Matt
18 - PETERSEN, Cal
19 - KEA, Justin
20 - LIEUWEN, Nathan
21 - FLORENTINO, Anthony
22 - RUHWEDEL, Chad
23 - VARONE, Phil
24 - MACKENZIE, Matt
25 - MALONE, Sean
-- - GAUTHIER-LEDUC, Jerome
--  - SUNDHER, Kevin
--  - SCHALLER, Tim
--  - AUSTIN, Brady
--  - LOCKE, Eric
--  - NELSON, Logan
--  - MAKAROV, Andrey
--  - PETERSON, Judd
--  - CRAWFORD, Nick
--  - KNAPP, Connor
--  - JACOBS, Colin
--  - PARKER, Jonathan
--  - NAVIN, Brad
--  - ISACKSON, Christian
--  - ADAMS, Mark
--  - SZYDLOWSKI, Shawn

For definition, a "prospect" is judged to be a player who begins a post-draft season between the ages of 18-23, whose NHL rights are owned by the Buffalo Sabres, and who has played fewer than 65 NHL games.

Note: Girgensons (NHL games), Pysyk (NHL games), Hackett, Ruhwedel, Crawford, Knapp , Szydlowski all set to graduate prospect status.

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1 - Rasmus Ristolainen
RHD | Rochester Americans (AHL) | 6’4”, 207 lbs. | 10/27/94 | 2013, first round (8th overall)

Preseason rankings: "The big-bodied Finn has all the makings of a "can't miss" player, including two key tools that cannot be taught -- length and patience" 

With or without the golden goal at the 2014 World Junior Championship, early returns suggest that Ristolainen has the requisite goods to become a 24 minutes a night, top-pair NHL defender. The mobile, right-handed shot can move the puck, add motion on the power play, and play big physically. It all presents a well-rounded mix worthy of the top spot on the 2013-14 rankings list.

Ristolainen exhibits the qualities you want to see in a young defender. He steps in front of shots, goes down to a knee to close off passing lanes, and uses his size to cancel bodies down low. He's a very fluid backwards skater for a big man, and his timing when executing the classic hip check rivals a 10-year vet. Offensively, he's calm when transitioning the puck up ice with the sense to know when to stay back and when to pinch. He has a heavy slap shot, but he does a good job sacrificing power for the sake of pitching one to the net front.

The highly developed blend of skills comprises the difference making package to get to the top of the list. Fully recovered from a late-fall concussion, Ristolainen will continue gaining quality AHL reps for the balance of the 2013-14 schedule before ascending to full-time NHL duty in 2014-15. 




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2 - Zemgus Girgensons
LW/RW | Buffalo Sabres (NHL) | 6’1”, 188 lbs. | 1/5/94 | 2012, first round (14th overall)

Preseason rankings: "He stands out with a mature frame and effort, headlined by a consistent desire to get the puck to the net, and he's a tough competitor on the boards at both ends of the ice."

The fearless poster child for the new look Sabres, Girgensons' hard-driving engine provides everything a coach could ask for. He pressures the puck, finishes his hits, wears defenders down, and on top it all, possesses adequate yet underrated offensive skills. With little flash, the Latvian's desire to do the grunt work and lead with a winning attitude presents a sure-fire top-six forward prospect regardless of he lines up at center or along the boards.

Note the term "top six forward". Girgensons isn't only the symbol of the future, but he's also the example used to just call guys who play up front "forwards". He can play all three positions with ease. For the sake of these rankings, and despite liking him very much on the off-wing, he's slotted down the left side for a few reasons. A) He's played there this year. B) He looked good there in Traverse City. C) He's needed there. The depth on the right side is much better than that on the left.

Peaks and valleys are to be expected, but it's clear that playing in the AHL as an 18-year old (as opposed to entering college at the University of Vermont) has paid immediate dividends. With the ceiling established, it really doesn't matter if he's on the top line or the third. You know what you're going to get with his edgy no-quit style, and it should add up to a consistent 25/35 player down the line with the team's offensive cast certain to improve around him.



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3 - Nikita Zadorov
LHD | London Knights (OHL) | 6’5”, 221 lbs. | 4/16/95 | 2013, first round (16th overall)

Preseason rankings: "Once the package is refined, Zadorov will mix with Myers, Ristolainen, Pysyk, McCabe, and McNabb to compose perhaps the league's deepest and most balanced fleet of defenders under the age of 25."

Some prospects remain flat in their first year of post-draft development. Some even go south. Others, like Zadorov, shoot straight north. With major minutes awaiting him down the stretch of his second OHL season, it's abundantly clear that Zadorov will be much further down the course of becoming a top-four NHL defenseman than he would have been had he remained in Buffalo.

After displaying calmness in seven NHL games, the 18-year old Zadorov rode his confidence to a dominating return to junior highlighted by a four-goal performance at the World Junior Championship. The increased production is nice, but his skating work has been the main driver to the marked improvement in the last 12 months. He's smoother and stronger, and it's all led to him becoming more explosive in his hitting game while maintaining positional responsibility. The improved footwork has translated up ice as well, with Zadorov gaining more opportunities to break a game open with his puck carrying ability and hard, accurate shooting.

Zadorov's junior season will last into May with London hosting the 2014 Memorial Cup. The key minutes should provide a nice springboard into his second NHL training camp, where his package of size and raw talent could be too much for Sabres brass to ignore.


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4 - Mikhail Grigorenko
LC | Quebec Remparts (QMJHL) | 6’2”, 191 lbs. | 5/16/94 | 2012, first round (12th overall)

Preseason rankings: "The key for both Grigorenko and the Sabres' coaching staff will be getting the will to match the skill, all the while building a balanced two-way game."

There has never been a more polarizing Sabres prospect than Grigorenko, and with that, it seems wise to reset expectations for the big centerman. Well, immediate expectations anyways. The fact that there's even a hullabaloo about a 19-year old taken 12th overall in the draft is somewhat bizarre.

There is little question that the talented Russian has the vision and stick skills to succeed as a top-line NHL forward. His two-goal game at Anaheim hinted that good things could be around the corner, and while his footwork has improved over the past 18 months, questions still remain whether or not his skating and overall intensity will be up for a featured role at the world's highest level. It's a reasonable concern, but there is time to groom him with AHL work regardless of two years already being "burned" off his entry-level deal.

The World Junior Championship showed Grigorenko to be very good at times, and at others merely pedestrian. The NHL demands that he be very good every night. The points will come in his return to the QMJHL, but Grigorenko's consistency and play away from the puck will further his development. Replacing stick checks with a few more strides could go a long way in the eyes of coaches.

Rumors of his wishes to complete his 2013-14 with Finnish club Tappara were certainly disappointing, but it's on the Sabres to keep regular communication between he and his agent as the development process continues. It's also on the core group of vets, both in Buffalo and Rochester, to foster a strong work environment to help it all come together.




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5 - Joel Armia
RW | Rochester Americans (AHL) | 6’3”, 203 lbs. | 5/31/93 | 2011, first round (16th overall)

Preseason rankings: "It's fair to think that the well-rounded tool kit can immediately translate, but the determining factor for success will be consistency."

With a long stride, slick handling skills, and an accurate shot, the scoring line forecast for the right-wing package remains unchanged. Time and patience are needed when adapting from Europe, and Armia's rookie North American year has been met with the expected flashes of offensive brilliance but otherwise inconsistent results.

Following a championship run in Finland and an offseason spent in Buffalo, Armia was a focal point of attention entering the NHL Prospect Tournament. He was kept off the scoresheet at the event, but his quickness, underrated vision, and basic level of engagement were positive signs entering his first NHL camp.

It's not uncommon for first-year pros to need time to get into a groove (see: Pominville, Jason), and it should be noted that a preseason hand injury delayed Armia's start until mid-November. In the small sample size, Armia has had spurts where he'll leverage his speed and puck skills in traffic, both to gain the zone and work it downhill in the slot. On the lower end, uneven use of linemates and less-than-peak effort resulting in stick infractions have provided valuable coaching moments that he's sure to benefit from.

It's hard to suggest that Armia will be a great scorer, but the tools are present to be a very good one. With a strong dose of offensive upside in play, the Sabres will be happy to exercise patience while the reps sink in. Aside from a key offseason of strength and conditioning work, on-ice items like competing harder for loose pucks and finding regular space in the slot will dot the agenda as the Sabres work to develop the pipeline's top shooter.




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6 - Mark Pysyk
RHD | Rochester Americans (AHL)/Buffalo (NHL) | 6’2”, 188 lbs. | 1/11/92 | 2010, first round (23rd overall)

Preseason rankings: "Veteran contracts could present a challenge in year two of his entry-level deal, but there is little question that he'll play top-four minutes and a leading penalty killing role when he sticks for good."

Steady and simple with a high panic threshold, Pysyk is a great skating defender with veteran-like smarts. He keeps his gaps tight and communicates well with his partner, while his anticipation, effective stick checks, and quick outs spark the transition game. Set to exit prospect status, the former WHL captain has done nothing but fortify his projection as reliable top-four minute eater, with plus value coming on the penalty kill and a secondary power play units.

A second-year pro, Pysyk's long-term value will only increase with added reps. He has displayed good vision at both ends of the ice while keeping his mistakes to a minimum through his first 60 NHL games. He's never going to blow guys up with big hits, and frankly he doesn't have to as long as his footwork and discipline remain at a high level.



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7 - J.T. Compher
RC | University of Michigan (B1G) | 5’11”, 184 lbs. | 4/8/95 | 2013, second round (35th overall)

Preseason rankings: "Compher blends right into the attitude and work ethic that the Sabres are aiming to install in their re-vamped core."

A hard-nosed leader with elements of speed and agitation, Compher rounds out the efficient package with keen two-way instincts. More often than not, his hard work defensively leads to success at the other end of the ice. The mix has made an immediate impact as a true freshman in Ann Arbor, helping cement his spot as a top-two centerman and power play point man. He was already garnering strong consideration for a ranking in the top five, and he'll get there once Girgensons and Pysyk graduate with the requisite NHL games.

The way you practice is the way you play, and that credo held true when Compher, who between his hot collegiate start and strong August showing in Lake Placid was set to be a World Junior shoo-in, injured his foot while blocking a shot in a training camp practice and was forced to miss the event. It's a virtual lock that he's wearing red, white, and blue when the tourney shifts to Toronto/Montreal in 2015.

Compher's intensity, versatility and attention to detail can be put in the same bucket with names like Ryan Callahan and Girgensons. Patience should pay off down the line, as Compher's battle skills and timely offense from the tough areas are sure to find a home on the NHL roster in short order after a couple years of maturation at the NCAA level.



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8 - Jake McCabe
LHD | University of Wisconsin Badgers (B1G) | 6’1”, 205 lbs. | 10/12/93 | 2012, second round (44th overall)

Preseason rankings: "A mobile warrior on the backend, McCabe's two-way proficiency projects to a versatile, dependable pro."

A scrappy high-level competitor, the third-year Badger does a little bit of everything. He can move the puck and score, he thrives on contact, and he can manage a power play. McCabe is at his best when he's jumping into the offense, be it flashing into the high slot or following the play deep into the zone, but his calm defensive acumen is nothing to sneeze at either.

McCabe is solid all the way around, and when you add hints of leadership to his strong work ethic, you have a player who is poised to make a significant contribution at the NHL level once he adjusts to the upped pace. It's fair to compare his trajectory to a former prospect like Chris Butler. While different players, both were good enough to turn pro after their junior years of college, and like Butler, McCabe will likely be ready for recall midway through his first season on the farm.




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9 - Johan Larsson   
LC | Rochester Americans (AHL) | 5'11", 198 lbs. | 7/25/92 | 2010, second round (56th overall - MIN)

Preseason rankings: "Larsson's leadership pedigree along with his strength around the net should go a long way towards firming up the Sabres' middle-line depth."

"The Bull" is a smart, two-way forward prospect who can be effective both down the middle and on the wing. His low center of gravity keeps him competitive along the boards, and his calmness and poise make him a simple, effective distributor. Whether it's in motion through the neutral zone or stationary while parked in front, Larsson's stick is always on the ice ready to make a play. Bonus points are earned for his smart work on the penalty kill and at the faceoff circle.

Larsson has the look of a solid 3C but has the two-way smarts to work as a viable 2C as well. He doesn't have that top-line speed burst, but he can be aggressive with his powerful north/south style and he does a nice job supporting his defensemen in a shutdown role. Getting the puck deep and continuing to provide a net front presence will make him an NHL mainstay, perhaps as soon as the 2014-15 season.



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10 - Linus Ullmark
G | MODO Hockey (SEL) | 6’3”, 198 lbs. | 7/31/93 | 2012, sixth round (163rd overall)

Preseason rankings: "The 20-year old Ullmark will be put the test this season with a full-time role for MODO in Sweden's top division."

Ullmark has enjoyed a steady rise among Swedish goaltending prospects over the past two years. Playing his first full season in Sweden's top league, Ullmark has occupied half of a "two in, two out" time share with Columbus prospect Anton Forsberg. Both have performed well, but it is Ullmark who has consistently been among the league leaders in both save percentage and goals against average, forcing the MODO staff to ride the hotter hand as the year progressed.

Ullmark has proven to be a solid first-save goalie, supporting good puck tracking skills with a wide butterfly. The next steps in his development will aim to make his his feet quicker, while achieving better balance to keep him from falling on his backside.

No one should over-react to sparkling SHL stats, as there's plenty of work ahead of Ullmark to achieve his full potential as a starting NHL netminder. For now, though, it's easy to appreciate his post-draft resume, which has seen him represent Sweden at the Channel One Cup and position himself as a favorite for SHL Rookie of the Year honors. There is one year remaining on his SHL deal, but the Sabres will need to sign Ullmark this summer to retain his rights and continue building his game.


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11 - Connor Hurley
LC | Green Bay Gamblers (USHL) | 6’2”, 174 lbs. | 9/15/95 | 2013, second round (38th overall)

Preseason rankings: "The youngest player taken at the 2013 draft, Hurley's hard-driving, playmaking skills would likely have earned a legitimate first-round grade for 2014 if he was born one day later."

The youngest prospect in the Sabres' stable, Hurley's combination of size, vision, and passing skills has the makeup of a scoring line distributor. His ability to run the point with the extra man and his subtle shooting skills make him a compelling 18-year old player, and his dominance at the World Junior A Challenge (4gp 3-7-10) provided signs that his talent was emerging, and more importantly, that his development was heading in the right direction.

The Muskegon Lumberjacks planned to rely heavily on Hurley this season, but with the Notre Dame commit hitting a rough patch of zero goals in a 14-game stretch, a trade sent him across Lake Michigan to Green Bay, where he immediately got his offense back on track. With more experience and strength development to come, the Sabres could have themselves a consistent, high end playmaker following his tour of Hockey East. For now, though, patience will be required as he keeps building his game.


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12 - Nick Baptiste
RW | Sudbury Wolves (OHL) | 6’1”, 191 lbs. | 8/4/95 | 2013, third round (69th overall)

Preseason rankings: "Baptiste has all the tools to be a dominant player at the junior level."

Baptiste has been a steady riser since midway through the 2012-13 year thanks to his breakaway wheels, strong physical game, and knack for hitting the goal mouth. The work ethic and skill blend of an effective NHL third-liner are in place, but his scoring instincts (shown at development camp and Traverse City) provide traces of 2RW upside as well, leaving his energetic style creeping up on the top 10. His game isn't always pretty, but it gets the job done.


Baptiste is good at finishing off the rush, with many of his points resulting from the aforementioned speed and work. His speed applies pressure, and once he cancels out his check, he quickly finds his way to the front of the net where he employs a good set of hands. The Ottawa native will return to the OHL in 2014-15, where he's expected to ramp his consistency and production will making a charge to represent Canada at the 2015 World Junior Championship.


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13 - Brayden McNabb
LHD | Rochester Americans (AHL) | 6’5”, 212 lbs. | 1/21/91 | 2009, third round (66th overall)

Preseason rankings: "The simpler the better, as playing big versus the rush, clogging lanes, and getting the puck to safety will allow him his share of both minutes and point opportunities."

Once considered a can't miss top-four defender, McNabb remains in line to challenge for those coveted minutes despite getting knocked down a few pegs by the influx of higher rated prospects. The size, reach, and physical game is present, and while he's worked hard at becoming stronger with his four-way mobility, you can't help but think that he'd be an excellent 5D when it's all said and done, and that's not a bad thing as he clearly has more to offer than being an AHL All-Star defender.

While others show more polish, McNabb's steady development gives the Sabres a second wave of no-nonsense toughness that will serve well in a support role. Consistency is always key, but we're going to stick with the plan and suggest that standing up against the rush, playing the puck safely off the glass, and getting his big shot through from point will be keys to keeping him at the NHL level. Stay rugged and stay simple.



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14 - Justin Bailey
RW | Kitchener Rangers (OHL) | 6’3”, 186 lbs. | 7/31/93 | 2013, second round (52nd overall)

Preseason rankings: "Moving forward, it's all about staying aggressive with the puck on his stick and unleashing a more assertive physical style."

A burgeoning power forward, Bailey's development is on the right track in his second OHL season despite playing for one of the conference's weaker clubs. He's skating hard to the net, using his size and reach to protect the puck in traffic, and showing a consistent work ethic away from the puck and on the penalty kill. Package in a good set of hands and quick release off his stick, and good things should be on the horizon once another offseason of strength building takes hold.

The second-youngest forward to audition for Team USA U20 over the summer, Bailey has himself in position to make an excellent impression when the USAH decision makers come calling again in the summer of 2014. The offensive foundation is firmly in place, sothe  turning point of his pro development will come when he consistently asserts his physical dominance to win battles. All signs point to a raw, talented player with the willingness to put in the work to achieve his goals. Bailey will be back in the OHL in 2014-15 with a World Junior spot there for the taking.


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15 - Dan Catenacci
LC/W | Rochester Americans (AHL) | 5’10”, 186 lbs. | 3/9/93 | 2011, third round (77th overall)

Preseason rankings: "Add in the willingness to toss his weight around to compete for loose pucks, and the Sabres have a legitimate middle-line prospect who can do a little bit of everything."

Catenacci's acceleration out of the blocks and two-way smarts make him a very versatile prospect. Aside from finishing plays at a high rate of speed, Catenacci has the wheels to back defenders off the line and pressure the opposition into turnovers. Twice a 30-goal man in the OHL, Catenacci's finishing skills have slowly translated while getting acquainted to the pro game, but the numbers are sure to come as the experience builds.

Even if his offensive polish doesn't fully translate to the NHL level, it's fair to think he'll be able to plug into a pesky third-line support role given his speed and work style. He's a committed forechecker who keeps building more and more defensive value given his smart stick. Some players just have the look of an NHLer, and Catenacci gives that vibe. It will take some time to come to fruition, but he should be well positioned by the close of his entry-level contract.



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16 - Gustav Possler
RW | MODO Hockey (SHL) | 6’0”, 183 lbs. | 11/11/94 | 2013, fifth round (130th overall)

Preseason rankings: "a right place/right time sleeper who gets four years to refine his craft before the Sabres have to pull the trigger on a contract."

A good shooter with a knack for sliding into open space, Possler emerged as a go-to player for MODO's top club before sustaining a season-ending knee injury before the holiday break. The injury derailed his World Junior aspirations but shouldn't impact his long-range plan to become a Jason Pominville-esque NHL player somewhere down the road.

A consistent producer in the J20 ranks, Possler followed up an excellent summer performance with Sweden's national junior team by quickly working his way into a key role with MODO thanks in part to a seven-game goal streak. He performed extremely well on the penalty kill, plugged shooting lanes, and showed quick-strike ability off the rush. We'll want to see a clean rebound from knee surgery before elevating his stature, but as of now there's little doubt that he'll exceed expectations of his fifth-round draft position.



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17 - Matt Hackett
G | Rochester Americans (AHL) | 6'2", 179 lbs. | 3/7/90 | 2009, third round (77th overall - MIN)

Preseason rankings: "His side-to-side quickness has improved since arriving in the AHL, so it's up to him to provide a consistent backbone for the Amerks in 2013-14 to start working his way into NHL duty."

An athletic butterfly goalie, Hackett has the size and tool kit to succeed at the NHL level. His balance and recovery are where they need to be make second and third saves, so it's a matter of dialing in consistency entering an important evaluation period. The OHL product put together a nice NHL preseason for the Sabres before meeting an up-and-down start with Rochester. With goaltending being 90% mental it's imperative to maintain composure for a full sixty minutes, and that was part of the challenge early on.

With Ryan Miller's long term status with the Sabres in question, Hackett (RFA) will need to elevate his game down the stretch of his first full season with the organization to not only hold off Nathan Leuwen from grabbing a greater share of minutes, but to also earn a more secure contract. The situation in Buffalo gives him more room than he had in Minnesota when he was battling Darcy Kuemper and Johan Gustaffson for "next one" status, so backstopping an average Amerks club into the playoffs seems like the best way to earn his next promotion.




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18 - Cal Petersen
G | Waterloo Blackhawks (USHL) | 6’2”, 183 lbs. | 10/19/94 | 2013, fifth round (129th overall)

Preseason rankings: "It takes a lot to handle the pressure-cooker of an NHL crease, and the Sabres have the luxury of patience (five years) when it comes to developing the Notre Dame commit." 

It's hard to remember a more talented 18th-ranked prospect in the Sabres system.

Petersen is an aggressive goaltender with good quickness, technique, and reflexes that allow him to put together crisp move-to-move sequences. Perhaps his best quality, though, is his competitiveness. Whether it's in practice or a game, the Notre Dame commit hates to get scored on. This trait drives his passion to improve en route to meeting his goals to be the top goaltender at whatever level he is competing at. The talent is in place to skyrocket up the rankings, but for now traveling to more shots on his feet and holding firm in the face of down low pressure will be keys to advancing to the next level.

The Sabres are in a great spot with the 19-year old. He's currently dominating in his second USHL season, and with the current starter set to graduate in South Bend, Petersen should immediately see a lot of pucks in a very competitive conference. Whether it's three and out or a stay for all four years, the Sabres should have a polished, mentally tough goaltender when his time with the Irish is done.


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19 - Justin Kea
LC | Saginaw Spirit (OHL) | 6’4”, 206 lbs. | 2/7/94 | 2012, third round (73rd overall)

Preseason rankings: "Kea's game isn't about dazzling with the puck, but more about flipping it deep, dominating the boards, and creating traffic around the goal mouth."

The defensive-minded Kea is a grinding power forward with excellent skating and the ability to win key draws. Elements of toughness and self sacrifice are in play, giving the Sabres a solid fourth-line prospect following some years on the farm. Some behind him may have more offensive potential, but Kea's rank remains high thanks his size and consistent work on the penalty kill.

Per Judge Smails of Caddyshack fame, "the world needs ditch diggers, too." Kea can do that for his teammates, using his feet and power to win 50/50 battles, work the cycle, and work the puck to the front. Dependable unsung players round out playoff teams, and Kea is one guy who has that look.



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20 - Nathan Lieuwen
G | Rochester Americans (AHL) | 6’5”, 191 lbs. | 8/8/91 | 2011, sixth round (167th overall)

Preseason rankings : "Focusing on technique while improving his footwork and lateral movement will be keys moving forward in order to shorten what many feel could be longer road to the NHL."

Lieuwen has taken nice strides since turning pro, being more patient when waiting out shooters, improving his agility, and maintaining better position when challenging in the white ice. Building blocks installed at development camp were carried into a strong Traverse City showing. Lieuwen has done a good job all year seeing the puck, and it's all led to better results for the second-year pro, and an able challenger to Hackett for stretch run minutes in the Amerks crease.

With long limbs and loads of athleticism, Lieuwen was never a goaltender who'd sink into his net, but relying on his size and economical movement has kept him more compact and composed off the first save. Continued work and skill development (like handling the puck, for example) over the next one-to-two seasons could get the big goalie further along in achieving his top end as a reliable NHL option.



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21 - Anthony Florentino
RHD | Providence College Friars (HE) | 6’1”, 210 lbs. | 6/30/95 | 2013, fifth round (143rd overall)

Preseason rankings: "A mean, hard-hitting defender from the Selects Academy program at the South Kent School, Florentino is very raw yet competent."

A thick body with excellent skating and a robust hitting game, Florentino has the strength and tools in place to blossom into a legitimate NHL prospect following his NCAA playing days. He plays at a good pace and can pound the puck, so the next few years should see him look to become more consistent with his decision making and limit his turnovers in the face of pressure.

The true freshman got off to a quick start with the Friars, netting seven points in his first eight games before recording just one in his next 10. An upper-body injury in mid-January provided a minor setback in his development, but the New England native has clearly staked a claim to big collegiate minutes moving forward which should afford him plenty of opportunities to polish off his raw skill set under the guidance of Providence coach Nate Leaman.


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22 - Chad Ruhwedel
RHD | Rochester Americans (AHL) | 5'11”, 183 lbs. | 5/7/90 | free agent (signed 4/13/13)

Preseason rankings: "Ruhwedel isn't the biggest skater on the blueline, but he has good core strength and is calculated in his ability to make the safe play as evidenced by his brief audition at the close of the 2013 schedule."

A simple defender with a excellent ability to move the puck, Ruhwedel overcomes a lack of size by being smart in his positioning and smooth in his execution. His skating ability is excellent and his passing is sharp, making him a reliable #6/#7 organizational depth defenseman who can chip in on the power play. Ruhwedel isn't going to wow anyone with one standout skill, but he stays engaged and does most things well. He could probably get a decent payday in Europe, but for now we should expect to see him maintain his support role in the Sabres organization for the next few years.



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23 - Phil Varone
LC | Rochester Americans (AHL) | 5’11”, 186 lbs. | 12/4/90 | free agent (signed 3/19/12)

Preseason rankings: "While not the biggest or fastest player on the ice, Varone can get space for himself and make nifty passes that bring out the shooting skills of his linemates."

A crafty distributor with a mature work ethic, Varone's offensive skill and three-zone dedication make for a compelling depth candidate down the road. He lacks ideal size, but he skates with a purpose and has the smarts to plug NHL minutes when called upon. (At the time of these rankings, Varone earned his first NHL call.)

Varone's long range NHL prospects remain tough to forecast. He has proven to be a consistent playmaker through the life of his entry-level deal, and he is a very smart player in all three zones without the puck, so the Sabres will likely pursue a second contract to provide organizational forward depth while other talent matures.


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24 - Matt MacKenzie
RHD | Rochester Americans (AHL) | 6’2”, 198 lbs. | 10/15/91 | 2010, third round (83rd overall)

Preseason rankings: "MacKenzie's mission is to simply earn a regular AHL workload and start getting the pieces in place to press for an NHL look."

Perhaps lost in the mix of more highly-regarded defensive prospects is the fact that MacKenzie has emerged as a full-time AHL defenseman in 2013-14. It's a noteworthy leap in his development considering inconsistent use over the first two years on the books. The bulk of of his rookie year was an injury washout. Year two again saw him again battle injuries while trying to work his way into a crowded blueline. The 2013-14 season has seen him step into regular minutes and perform quite well.

The WHL product blends physical play and toughness with solid own-zone mobility. He's not built to take the puck coast-to-coast, but he'll get shots through from the point and selectively use space jump in from his point position to keep the puck deep. A bold proclamation was made years ago that MacKenzie would be an NHL defender, and we're sticking to it even if takes two more years for it to come to fruition.


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25 - Sean Malone
LC | Harvard University Crimson (ECAC) | 5'11”, 183 lbs. | 4/30/95 | 2013, sixth round (159th overall)
  
Preseason rankings: "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."

When developing a draft strategy, it's wise to consider average-sized players late who not only compete and score, but who also get bonus developmental years in the college game. Enter Sean Malone, who emerged as a speedy, high-character prospect after broadening his skill set as a member of the U.S. National Team Development Program.

With good wheels and an equally strong work ethic, Malone has the two-way foundation in place to be an impact layer at the pro level. He'll frustrate defensemen with his feet and jam, and he can quickly convert turnovers into offensive opportunities. Hard work and instincts are a good combo, and with a few years to beef up his frame, he'll remain in contention as a dark horse NHL prospect.



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NR - Jerome Gauthier-Leduc
RHD | Rochester Americans (AHL) | 6’1”, 192 lbs. | 7/30/92 | 2010, third round (68th overall)

Preseason rankings: "At the top of the list is showing the coaching staff that his strength and conditioning is up for grinding battles in the pressure areas while being quick and decisive with the puck."

A mobile, offensive-minded defender, Gauthier-Leduc's ceiling as bottom-pair defender remains unchanged. He's a fluid puck rusher with good vision and an ability direct lasers from the point. With a power play pedigree in place but results not quite where they need to be, simply upping his defensive consistency will be the main ingredient to get him a shot at the next level in one-to-two years time.

After appearing in 48 AHL games as a pro rookie, Leduc showed plenty of promise in Traverse City when he stepped into a larger role with Ruhwedel getting dinged. He played at a good pace, looking confident starting the transition game while doing a good job tying up sticks in front of his net. Continuing to build his game out from the defensive zone, including a ramp-up on the physical side of things, will be key over the next calendar year.





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NR - Kevin Sundher
LC/W | Rochester Americans (AHL) | 6’0”, 177 lbs. | 1/8/92 | 2010, third round (75th overall)

Preseason rankings: "He's got the pace of play down, so now it's about added strength helping him absorb more hits and leading to more impact minutes."

After an injury riddled rookie season, the former 250-point scorer at the junior level is slowing starting to find his groove as a sound checker and secondary scorer in year two of his entry-level deal. The minutes have been regular, and as the experience builds it's fair to think that modest production will develop.

The Surrey, BC native has come a long way since his WHL days in terms of playing with more fire. With that in mind, Sundher's long term ceiling appears to be third/fourth line energy with speed and subtle playmaking. The package should lead to increased opportunity down the road.



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NR - Tim Schaller
LC | Rochester Americans (AHL) | 6'2", 205 lbs. | 11/16/90 | free agent (signed 3/28/13)

Preseason rankings: "Bringing a player of Shaller's makeup into the mix strengthens the team's blue-collar foundation, and allows them to find more skilled scorers to run up and down the wings."

A worker bee who has the size and discipline to plug grind-line minutes, Schaller can safely be slotted into an organization depth role similar to the former NCAA UFA signings like Ruhwedel, Mike Kostka, and Brian Flynn. You're never going to count on Schaller for steady offense, but you can look to him for smart execution in a shutdown role as he continues to build his professional resume.

The Providence grad gets by on effort and detail, applying pressure on the opposition with a high level of defensive aptitude. He'll dig in and get to the net and win some key draws, with the total package offering NHL upside as a fourth-line character player.



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NR - Brady Austin
LHD | London Knights (OHL) | 6'4", 220 lbs. | 6/16/93 | 2012, seventh round (193rd overall)

Preseason rankings: "Austin is somewhat buried with 14 defensemen under contract ahead of him, but he's one to watch this season given his all-around tools."

Following a stint as a forward/defenseman tweener in his initial draft year, Austin has blossomed into a mobile shutdown blueliner through his time in junior. He uses his great size and reach to seal off the rush, and gets the puck safely out of his zone either by legging it out or sending crisp passes. Big, steady rearguards are always worth a look at the professional level, so the Sabres could realistically employ his services in Rochester if they're able to clear out some defenseman from the current crop of contracts.


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NR - Eric Locke
LC | Saginaw Spirit (OHL) | 5'8", 182 lbs. | 11/21/93 | 2013, seventh round (189th overall)

Preseason rankings: "Undersized but scrappy enough to get to the net, Locke's complete game is coming around at just the right time."

A proven scorer at the junior level thanks to his speed and fantastic release of the puck, Locke has transformed his game over the past two OHL seasons to become a multi-dimensional player. A two-way consistency has developed, and when blended with his scoring hands and detailed checking game you have a prospect who should be able to contribute at the AHL level.

A model for his long range upside would be a player like Varone - an undersized forward who will need to skate hard and regularly stack points to get a look. Continued puck pressure, three-zone diligence, and finding space for himself to operate offensively will get him moving in the right direction when he transfers to the pro ranks.



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NR - Logan Nelson
RC | Victoria Royals (WHL) | 6’2”, 187 lbs. | 9/9/93 | 2012, fifth round (133rd overall)

Preseason rankings: "Nelson has the energy and skill to produce points but will need to show a full two-way improvement to give the Sabres confidence in punching his ticket to Rochester."

A offensive producer in the WHL, Nelson plays an up-tempo style and isn't shy about initiating contact to make a play. He has nice breakaway speed and is good at finishing plays with his excellent backhand deke, but his defensive dedication remains the main area of focus that will take his game to the next level.

Nelson's size, quick-strike offense, and all-around playmaking provide elements that could be worth developing when considering the organization's dearth of offense. With the Sabres packing nine top-60 picks over the next two drafts while managing a 50-contract limit, though, the decision to sign Nelson to an NHL deal or AHL-only arrangement represents one of the more intriguing secondary challenges that the new regime will face.


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NR - Andrey Makarov
G | Fort Wayne Komets (ECHL) | 6’1”, 178 lbs. | 4/20/93 | free agent (signed 9/14/12)

Preseason rankings: "Along with smoothing out some consistency issues, improving rebound control and balance coming off the first save will be keys to success moving forward."

A streaky hybrid goaltender with a load of talent, Makarov has been receiving a solid coast league workload in year one of his entry-level contract. The Russian proved to be a big game goalie at the international level as a junior player, so with a new challenge ahead of him in the pros, it's on the youngster to respond to coaching by putting together consistent stretches of play.

Better body control and limiting the "overplaying" are at the top of the to-do list as he zeros in on becoming a solid minor league contributor. If anything about his game was revealed in Traverse City, it was that he's challenged by quick side-to-side play. He'll need to track better and get across in time while maintaining his position for the second stop. Overall though, Makarov has excellent athleticism and does a good job handling the puck. He seems to play better when he sees a lot of shots, and that's a good quality to have.


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NR - Judd Peterson
RC/W | Cedar Rapids Roughriders (USHL) | 6’0”, 190 lbs. | 9/27/23 | 2012, seventh round (204th overall)

Preseason rankings: "Peterson, who can play center but likely projects as a winger at the next levels, has a solid frame, good speed, and an ability to make tough plays."

Playing his second ramp-up season of Jr. A hockey, Peterson's acceleration and highly efficient shooting will keep him in the mix as a long range prospect when he enters St. Cloud State University in the fall of 2014.

His complete game has rounded out over his time in Cedar Rapids. He's learned defensive subtleties and he's a proven battler against bigger competitors. Embracing the dirty areas should allow him to immediately compete for collegiate minutes as strength and quickness are added to the compelling package.


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NR - Nick Crawford
LHD | Rochester Americans (AHL) | 6’1”, 191 lbs. | 2/23/90 | 2008, sixth round (164th overall)

Preseason rankings: "Crawford has settled in as a shutdown blueliner who executes with patience and steadiness."

A safe, sure-handed defender who will occasionally step into the play to add offense, Crawford has proven to function well in a secondary role at the AHL level. His patient, steady play through his entry-level contract earned him an extension in 2013-14, and while he is set to exit prospect status (24 years old/five post-draft season), it's fair to think he'll be in the minor league depth mix moving forward as the Sabres groom the next wave of young defenders.


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NR - Connor Knapp
G | Florida Everblades (ECHL) | 6’6”, 225 lbs. | 5/1/90 | 2009, sixth round (164th overall)

Preseason rankings: "The final year of Knapp’s entry-level deal will best be spent looking  to become a consistent, competent, and quicker pro netminder."

The biggest goalie in the Sabres ranks has performed well at the ECHL level in the final year of his entry-level deal, but with Lieuwen snatching the backup role in Rochester, you have to wonder if he'll be shifted to a minor-league contract moving forward.

Knapp gets by with his size, displaying adequate post-to-post coverage and a big upper frame that sees his head peak above the cross-bar when down on his knees. However, the quickness needed to make a dent at the NHL level, specifically the "twitch" that results from quick reflexes, has yet to emerge. That could be a determining factor as the Sabres evaluate their offseason goalie outlook.



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NR - Colin Jacobs
RC/RW | Rochester Americans (AHL) | 6’2”, 207 lbs. | 1/20/93 | 2011, fourth round (107th overall)

Preseason rankings: "He'll need to improve his acceleration with the puck to unlock his potential at the pro ranks, all the while showing dedication to the defensive system."

A big body with soft hands when given space, Jacobs is a project forward who will need to keep working on his overall speed and acceleration as he adapts to the professional game. Jacobs likes to handle the puck, but for now playing a simpler chip-and-charge north/south game while bringing out the aggressive physical tendencies that he displayed in his WHL days will keep him in the hunt as he focuses on limiting rookie mistakes.

As things take shape for the Texan, keep an eye on his shootout skill. He generally executes with one move (come in slow, stickhandle to get the goalie moving, shoot high forehand), but it's a successful one. Jacobs was also one of the Sabres' better faceoff performers in Traverse City, and while the efficiency could come in handy down the line, it's likely that he'll stay on the boards when with the Amerks to simplify his assignments.


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NR - Jonathan Parker
RW | Rochester Americans (AHL) | 5’10”, 195 lbs. | 9/25/91 | free agent (signed 10/6/11)

Preseason rankings: "His standout skill is his release of the puck, but bigger, quicker pro defenders have presented a challenge when finding opportunities to fire."

Parker was signed as free agent primarily due to his ability to shoot the puck. There's no question he can pump it, but finding space at the pro level to release it with authority has been a steady challenge for the third-year pro. His ECHL work has been noted, but his AHL contributions have been limited, causing many to believe he'll be relegated to a minor league deal in 2014-15 as the Sabres start clearing room for the next batch of forwards to enter the system.

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NR - Brad Navin 
 LW | University of Wisconsin Badgers (B1G) | 6’3”, 200 lbs. | 6/5/92 | 2011, seventh round (197th overall)

Preseason rankings: "He has average playmaking ability, instead relying on athleticism and power to work his assignments on every shift."

A prolific scorer in the Wisconsin high school ranks, Navin has settled into the role of checking winger through his first three years with the Badgers. He plays the game hard on the wall and in the corners, and uses his frame create traffic in front of the net. Midway through year three, you could see Navin turning the corner and earning a greater role for Mike Eaves' squad. It's all but a lock that Navin will return to Madison for his senior season. A strong finish could see him carve a minor league niche among a crowded group of prospects.


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NR - Christian Isackson
RW | University of Minnesota Golden Gophers (B1G) | 6’2”, 190 lbs. | 1/20/92 | 2010, seventh round (203rd overall)

Preseason rankings: "Strong on his skates with good playmaking skills, Isackson works hard to create, excelling when using his body to protect the puck and finding teammates with short passes."

Isackson is a crafty forward with good hands around the net, and despite having size and skill, finding consistent time in a loaded Gophers lineup has been a challenge through the first three years of his collegiate run. The third-year player has committed turnovers and 

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NR - Mark Adams 
RHD | Providence College Friars | 6’3”, 210 lbs. | 5/23/91 | 2009, fifth round (134th overall)

Preseason rankings: "Adams has played a simple all-around game since joining Hockey East, using his above-average size and skating to chip the puck to safety while adding basic offensive elements from his blueline post."

A big stay-at-home defender, Adams' development has been stifled by injuries since arriving in Hockey East. With reps limited and the Sabres accumulating a serious stash of talented defenders, it's difficult to see the Friars' senior advancing his career in Buffalo.

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NR - Shawn Szydlowski 
RW | Fort Wayne Komets (ECHL) | 6’0”, 208 lbs. | 8/5/90 | free agent (signed 4/8/11)

Preseason rankings: "Szydlowski has been mostly looked to as a foot solider, using his skating and checking blend to produce a dependable two-way game."

Signed as a 20-year old free agent after a four-year OHL stay, Szydlowski has played the role of foot solider through the course of his three-year contract. Grit has been evident but goals have been hard to come by for the Michigan native, and it appears that he'll be looking for a minor league deal following the 2013-14 campaign.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sean Malone stats seem off....

Anonymous said...

Thanks Kris for always doing such awesome work and giving us something to look frwd to.

-JP-

Thomas said...

Excellent work!! Greetings from Germany

Anonymous said...

Understanding your rating system, my only real "beef" with this ranking is your assessment of Ruhwedel. I can't believe he is below Florentino. Now, granted I have not seen Florentino in action but all indicators are that he is pretty far away and needs further refinement. Not a bad prospect and plenty of skills in the toolbox there. Chad is skating at the NHL level, shows good skills in all three zones and seems to have room to grow his game. He wont ever have the size, but he should be a consistent #4-5 d-man at the end of the day, which should slot him around #9 on your list. I would love to hear your take.

As always, you put together a great report that was an enjoyable read.
-Will

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