Baker's Dozen: The Rise of Risto and those that got away

Happy December. We're approaching the halfway pole of the NHL regular season chase. The World Junior Championship is just around the corner. And just wait - in a few short months we'll be knee deep in draft drama. Until then, here are some thoughts to hold us over...

1) A few weeks back, I posted a Twitter poll asking fans if they thought that, when all was said and done, Rasmus Ristolainen would be thought of as the greatest defenseman in Sabres history. Over 500 votes were tallied, with 56 percent of them saying "yes".

The rise of Ristolainen has been perhaps the most remarkable development in a year that has seen the Sabres' triumvirate of recent top-10 picks prove their worth as the future of the franchise. With his hat trick in Thursday's loss to Calgary followed by assists in wins over Los Angeles and Detroit, Ristolainen is on pace for a 60-point season. And while Sabres' brass is excited about where Ristolainen is taking his game, no one is more excited than his agent.

After all, it's a contract year for Ristolainen. As his resume grows, the Sabres have every reason to want to buy a few years of unrestricted free agency. That will no doubt drive up the average annual value of that next deal, but it's looking like that'd be money well spent. You need defense and goaltending to win in the NHL, and there aren't many rearguards going better than the young Finn is right now.

Heck, I'll even listen to the argument that Ristolainen is as much of a key to the Sabres' future success as that Eichel kid. Sounds crazy, but I'm not sure how far off that thought would be.

However the next deal shakes out, it seems fair to expect something similar to Tyler Myers' second pro contract when the ink eventually hits the paper.

2) It was with great pleasure that Sabres fans saw Will Borgen's name Team USA's preliminary roster for the upcoming 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship. The 18-year-old defenseman has been excellent with St. Cloud State University as a true freshman, using his mobility and engaged physical style to make a seamless transition to the elevated NCAA pace. I hesitate to call him a revelation, yet I wasn't expecting him to make the immediate impression that he has.

Aside from his all-around comfort level and decision making, Borgen has stood out with his escapability when carrying the puck. He's not an end-to-end guy, but his confidence when legging it into space to make an accurate pass up ice has been a key piece to the Huskies' early season success.

Regardless of whether or not Borgen makes the team this year (he is not eligible for the 2017 event), the former Minnesota high school standout is already positioning himself as key defensive piece down the road for Tim Murray's Sabres. The addition of another 10-15 pounds over the next few seasons will only help his cause.

3) Baie-Comeau forward Vaclav Karabacek left North America Thursday to join his Czech mates in preparation for the World Juniors. Karabacek, who is holding his own on one of the worst teams in all of junior hockey, is a good example of goals and assists not always telling the entire story of how well a guy is playing. He's competing hard in a bad situation while launching a high rate of shots as he looks to earn his first professional contract from the Sabres.

With a very good chance of making the team, the key to his tourney success will be finding chemistry with New Jersey prospect Pavel Zacha. A year ago, the pair roomed together at training camp and it didn't end well, with Karabacek oversleeping for a video session that ultimately led to him being the final forward cut from the squad. The Sabres are hoping that he provides a better example for his teammates this time around, which could lead to good things on the ice.

And who knows - maybe Karabacek even finds himself with a new team when he returns from Helsinki as QMJHL front-runners shop for scoring at the league's trade deadline.

EDIT: It has been revealed the Karabacek has a broken thumb, and thus will not be available to play for the Czech Republic. (

4) Speaking of World Junior experience, have you been keeping tabs on two-time Team USA rep Hudson Fasching? I'm not trying to stoke the hype fire by any means, but if you like big, hard-working bodies who like to plant in front of the opposing goal and make sacrifices in the defensive zone, then you're going to like Fasching.

In a season that has seen Sabres fans wait for Jack Eichel to find chemistry with his wingers, Fasching becomes an interesting name to watch next fall (if he leaves school a year early like the hockey world expects him to). He has eight goals and 14 points thus far with the University of Minnesota, and with added quickness has become a force on both sides of the special teams coin. His 45 shots on goal leads the Gophers.

Size, scoring and athleticism can get you to the NHL, but you having character beneath it all can sustain a long career. Fasching has been showing that he has what it takes.

5) Depending on trade deadline activity and how the Sabres use their early picks at the 2016 draft, Fasching's continued development could potentially have an impact on fellow right-wingers Nick Baptiste and Justin Bailey. Both are toiling away down on the farm in their natural positions, but for the sake of organizational balance, I wouldn't be shocked if one of them is tried at their off-wing in the near future.

6) The Sabres received some good news this week with Robin Lehner returning to the practice ice after being out since Oct. 8 with a high-ankle sprain. The Sabres made a significant investment into the goaltending position when acquiring Lehner, so his return and performance will remain major stories as the rebuild continues.

I'm not in any hurry to quickly judge a trade involving young players, but those who are might become a bit unnerved if they peeked into the "What Could Have Been" file.

When the Sabres traded the 21st pick in the 2015 draft for Lehner and David Legwand, pundits knew they'd be giving up a chance at a tantalizing prospect. The thing is, I'm not sure how many knew just how quickly those prospects would develop into difference makers at their respective levels.

Bryan Murray's Ottawa Senators used that 21st selection to grab Colin White, a highly skilled forward who has emerged as one of the most dangerous players in all of college hockey as a true freshman with Boston College. A clutch leader with the U.S. Under-18 squad in his draft year, White has made a consistent three-zone impact while cranking out a team-leading 23 points (8+15) in his first 16 collegiate tilts.

Granted the conditions aren't quite the same, but White's output far exceeds that of Dylan Larkin's first 16 games played last season at Michigan (4-14-18). His point total currently ties for seventh in the nation, giving him a load of momentum as he aims to become a key piece to USA's World Junior roster. 

Chosen by Washington with the 22nd pick, goaltender Ilya Samsonov has done well in guarded minutes for Magnitogorsk Metallurg of the KHL, posting a 5-2-1 record, 1.87 GAA and .929 save%. He's made two appearances with their MHL squad, posting a 2.00 GAA and .920 save%.

The Sabres were keen on Samsonov leading up to the draft, and the 18-year-old has no doubt been a pleasant surprise for a Capitals organization that has done well with Russian players in the past. They'll take their grand old time developing him, but it has to be comforting having both Samsonov and 2013 second-rounder Vitek Vanecek set to play in the World Juniors with Holtby and Grubauer in firm control at the NHL level.

And then there's Brock Boeser, who was scooped up by Vancouver with the 23rd pick. Boeser has been nothing short of a goal-scoring machine as a freshman at North Dakota. Part of a crazy creative line with Nick Schmaltz (CHI) and Sabres 2014 Development Camp attendee Drake Caggiula, Boeser has displayed a laser-like release of the puck on his way to 13 goals, which ties Caggiula for second in the country after his first 20 NCAA games.

Team USA needed more firepower against elite opponents at last year's World Juniors. It's clear that Boeser, who entered the holiday break with goals in five straight games and points in 10 straight, has as good a shot as any to crack the USA's final roster for Helsinki, and from there take another step towards advancing to the pro level.

Every good trade hurts a little. There are no guarantees that those three will pan out as big time NHL producers, but for now their development seems on track for success. Meanwhile, Lehner getting back into game shape and performing like a modern NHL netminder can make people forget about them. We'll see how it goes.

7) On Caggiula, the senior forward is currently third in the nation in scoring (13-14-27) and will undoubtedly be dealing with a long line of NHL suitors at the end of the year. Maybe his agent takes note of the recruiting tools wearing 15 and 23, and then takes a look at the Sabres' left-wing prospect depth...and agrees with me that Buffalo would be a good fit for a shifty kid with a marvelous set of mitts.

Caggiula isn't the only Sabres development camp veteran among the national scoring leaders. At the top of the NCAA leaderboard is Jr. Sabres product Andrew Poturalski, who has 16 goals and 16 assists in 16 games with New Hampshire. The sophomore skated with the Sabres in July.

8) The topic of the Q4 birth date makes for a fascinating Sabres discussion with top 10 picks Sam Reinhart, Jack Eichel and Rasmus Ristolainen all showing to be quick NHL studies. It has become part of the scouting strategy in junior hockey circles, so it's worth noting that the top two forwards in the 2016 draft, Auston Matthews (9/17) and Matthew Tkachuk (12/11), are both late-year birth dates that will quickly become impact players. There is way too much hockey left to engage in draftmania, but as of now the Sabres are hovering around a guaranteed top-five pick.

9) Avon Old Farms goaltender and Getzville native Matthew Ladd is making noise as a compelling 2016 draft prospect, but sometime between now and then he might want to choose a school.

Ladd was previously aligned with Niagara University, but the Buffalo Regals product is uncommitted with his options wide open as the New England Prep Division I season gets underway. Ladd is solidly built at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, and has the athleticism and demeanor that coaches crave. He's expected to play with Cedar Rapids (USHL) for a year before entering the NCAA ranks, potentially with a high profile program. He made 23 saves in his first start last week in a 4-2 loss to Cushing Academy.

10) Buffalo's other 2016 draft eligible goaltender with a Regals pedigree, Stephen Dhillon of the OHL's Niagara IceDogs, has appeared in 12 games, posting a 5-4-1 record with a 2.87 GAA and .890 save%. Both Dhillon and Ladd are rated as "C" prospects on NHL Central Scouting's Players to Watch list.

They're not the only draft prospects with WNY ties. Another is East Aurora native Austin Osmanski, who has worked his way into an important defensive role for a Mississauga Steelheads squad loaded with top-heavy draft talents Alexander Nylander, Nathan Bastian and Michael McLeod. Playing with that trio can only help scouts get more acquainted with the budding 6-foot-4, 196-pound rearguard. Osmanski currently has five points (2+3) and a team-leading plus-12 rating for the Central Division-leading Steelheads.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention how Amherst native and Brown University commit Chris Berger is on pace to crush his previous year totals with 14 goals and 34 points through 27 games with the OJHL's Buffalo Jr. Sabres.

11) You may have previously read in this space how Notre Dame sophomore Cal Petersen needs to beat Thatcher Demko (VAN) of Boston College in a big game to be "the man" in Hockey East. It wasn't what I'd classify as a "big game", but Petersen nonetheless out-dueled Demko on Thursday as his Fighting Irish hit the break with a 4-3 win over the Eagles. So far in his career, Petersen is 2-1 with a 2.03 GAA and .949 save% when facing Demko.

12) Sabres defensive prospect Brycen Martin was traded to Everett from Saskatoon earlier this month as the Silvertips look to maintain a high level of play not only into the playoffs, but also in the immediate term as they expect to be without Montreal prospect Noah Juulsen for a month while the two-way force aims to earns a spot on Team Canada at the World Junior Championship.

Martin saw his season take off last year following a trade from Swift Current to Saskatoon, but it'd be hard to top that spike with the fourth-year man already using his smarts and mobility to take on the league's top forwards while maintaining a top-10 spot in scoring among league defenders.

13) The consensus top defenseman available for the 2016 draft, Jakob Chychrun of the Sarnia Sting, was among the first cuts from Canada's National Junior Team Selection Camp on Sunday. Things can obviously change between now and June, but this could be just the third time since 2006 that the first D off the board did not play at the World Juniors in his draft year.

2015 - 5th overall, Noah Hanifin (CAR) -- played in WJC
2014 - 1st overall, Aaron Ekblad (FLA) -- played in WJC
2013 - 4th overall. Seth Jones (NSH) -- played in WJC
2012 - 2nd overall, Ryan Murray (CBJ) -- played in WJC
2011 - 4th overall, Adam Larsson (NJD) -- played in WJC
2010 - 3rd overall, Erik Gudbranson (FLA) -- did not play
2009 - 2nd overall, Victor Hedman (TBL) -- played in WJC
2008 - 2nd overall, Drew Doughty (LAK) -- played in WJC
2007 - 4th overall, Thomas Hickey (LAK) -- did not play
2006 - 1st overall, Erik Johnson (STL) -- played in WJC

For what it's worth, London Knights defenseman Olli Juolevi is expected to play for Finland at the tourney. He's currently forecasted as a top-15 pick, so his work is cut out for him if he wants to catch Chychrun. Juolevi could actually end up being the third Finnish player picked in the draft, as his projected World Junior mates Patrik Laine (RW) and Jesse Puljujarvi (RW) have been knocking at the top-five all season long.


That's it for now from the prospect bunker.

I'd like to wish you and yours a very safe and joyful holiday season. Thanks as always for following along.
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