Buffalo Sabres April 2016 Prospect Rankings

Welcome to another edition of the Buffalo Sabres Prospect Rankings. Let's get to it, but first the usual disclaimer:

The rankings are not an exercise in determining who is closest to appearing in the NHL. Players are initially slotted by their top-end potential, and then moved up or down based on their likelihood to achieve. This is the most practical way to construct a list when evaluating players between ages 18 and 23.

The depth in the prospect ranks is thinner in higher end talent compared to recent years, but that will happen when names like Eichel and Reinhart ascend quickly to the NHL along with recent U23 graduates Ristolainen, McCabe and Larsson.

Still, plenty of good players remain in the pipeline, making this edition of the rankings just as difficult as all others before it.

For all the visual learners out there, the below depth chart tells a very compelling story: the Sabres clearly need to add a few young defensemen to the stable, particularly those with a right-handed stick. You can never have enough quality rearguards, and with the top club on the rise, the organization would do well to add to the competition over the next three years with special attention given to finding a a natural puck mover. If anything, Rochester Americans fans would certainly appreciate the gesture.

Despite not having a clear-cut stud, goaltending has become a quiet strength of the pipeline. With that said, I'd still look to use one of their 2016 draft picks on the position to build greater strength in numbers.

Up front, the Sabres are looking strong down the right side and could use some help down the left side. I still believe that a right-wing talent may need to be tried at the off-wing in the next 12 months as the Sabres put a focus on adding some natural left side scoring punch. Two of the Sabres best playmakers in Eichel and Reinhart are right shots so an efficient left-wing scorer is the greatest pipeline priority outside of another top flight defender.

*With his 24th birthday coming up a few weeks after the 2016 draft, Casey Nelson is not part of the rankings.

Player Rankings:

1 - Brendan Guhle - LHD, 6'2", 189 lbs., Prince Albert Raiders (WHL)

Sometimes we measure a player as being X years away from NHL duty. With Guhle, I'm measuring him as being X pounds away. The magic number right now is 15. Based on his fluid stride, he can add that mass up top and not lose a lick of his skating ability, all the while generating more power playing at 204.

Like Mark Pysyk, Guhle represents the new school NHL defenseman with his average size and well-above-average skating game. Like Pysyk, he hails from Sherwood Park, Alberta, totes a very smart defensive stick, and serves as a top-pair anchor for a WHL Eastern Conference club. Where he differs from Pysyk is his projection as a more natural puck mover and rush-joiner with a greater physical dimension that will truly be leveraged once that strength comes.

Smart money had Guhle getting a look in NHL games before getting wiped out by a clean hit by Toronto's Dion Phaneuf in a preseason tilt. That collision no doubt served as a learning tool for a kid who was earning a reputation as one who surveys the ice at a high level while maintaining an elevated pace. Regardless, Guhle will be better because of it, as he returned to where he belonged, back in junior playing a shutdown role against the opposition's top lines while conservatively picking his spots to jump up ice as a fourth forward.

We can talk about Guhle's ability to skate the puck at speed and look off defenders before dishing. He continues to rush the puck deep, but the most savory traits from 2015-16 have been his impressive battle skills used to take away pucks and his positive level of intensity. He does a good job maintaining his composure and channeling his energy properly like a mature veteran.

You don't want to put too much on a kid too soon, but Guhle's development appears on track towards becoming a future top-four horse with power play upside, potentially opposite Rasmus Ristolainen.

2 - Justin Bailey - RW, 6'4", 206 lbs., Rochester Americans (AHL)

The Sabres have been accumulating "athletes" over the past few drafts, and even though he wasn't a product of the current staff's draft regime, Bailey's performance and pedigree may very well make him the poster child for what's being branded as a new Murray-minded movement.

Bailey has been enjoying a positive developmental spike over the last two seasons with his determined forecheck, speed when taking it wide, and quick, accurate shot. It's all about patience and reps from here as Bailey builds off an impressive second half of his first AHL campaign that made him one of the most productive first-year players in the league. The effort earned the team's Rookie of the Year honor. 

He will be expected to finish more plays as he trudges forward at the NHL level, but hey, let's not forget that it took Thomas Vanek until his 15th NHL game before getting his first goal. All you really want to see is him taking the reigns with the consistent realization that his size and strength are assets in all areas of the ice, regardless of whether or not he has the puck.

In a world where size, speed and reach are great tools to have, Bailey brings it all, putting him on the cusp on taking a run at a full-time NHL job within the next 12 months, especially if he repeats the Darryl Belfry-led offseason work regimen that made him a more explosive skater. The next two training camps should see him right in the mix of some key roster battles. Expect Bailey to keep exceeding expectations and battling his way up the depth chart while he waits his turn for that coveted permanent role at the top level.

3 - Hudson Fasching - RW, 6'2", 216 lbs., University of Minnesota Golden Gophers (Big Ten)

In his third and final season of NCAA hockey, Fasching proved his worth as a legit NHL prospect. This isn't a flashy player who posts highlight reel plays, but what the Sabres have in Fasching is a smart, diligent worker at both ends of the ice who executes in a manner very similar to St. Louis captain David Backes, just without the consistent snarl.

Not one to over-handle the puck in open ice, Fasching has the frame and skating game that's tough to defend when moving north/south. He's a beast beneath the goal line and a major goal-area presence, especially on the power play, but he'll also kill penalties with his blue collar mentality. And while he isn't "mean", Fasching competes hard every single shift.

Fasching endured a bit of a sophomore statistical sump in 2014-15, but still showed plenty of positive developmental signs. particularly with his quickness. That work paid off as a junior, with his strength on the puck and sharper movements giving him more power around the edge. He can get from beneath the goal line to his spot at the edge of the crease. His stops/starts and long reach prove efficient in the defensive zone. He's just a hard working, effort player who can finish around the net. It's clear that playing on an Olympic-sized sheet helped with his footspeed and overall skill game.

The Sabres made a run at signing Fasching following his sophomore season, but the budding power forward opted to remain in school on an accelerated academic program. The kid just has it together with the look of a guy you can plug anywhere in support of speedy, high-skill linemates.

4 - Will Borgen - RHD, 6'2", 185 lbs., St. Cloud State University Huskies (NCHC)

Every year there is one Sabres prospect that sticks out as an early developmental overachiever. Say hello to Will Borgen, who entered the NCAA as a true freshman and quickly gained momentum as a rock-solid rearguard before capturing a top-four role for Team USA at the 2016 World Junior Championship.

Borgen is just a very a poised player. He has the calmness and mobility to skate himself into space to make a clean pass out of the zone, and when given the lane, he will take the opportunity to jump up into the rush. His defensive game is a pretty simple one. He maintains tight gaps and goes down to one knee and uses his long stick to clog shooting and passing lanes, and when he needs to show his teeth he's not at all shy about using his body for big hits and pushing back after the whistle.

Borgen's consistency with all the valued traits vaulted him not only up the lineup for a St. Cloud team that fell short in their quest in its quest national title, but also in the Sabres prospects ranks as a potential middle-pair defender following a couple more years of seasoning. It's not unreasonable to think that the Sabres consider offering the steady defender a contract following his sophomore season.

5 - William Carrier - LW, 6'1", 194 lbs., Rochester Americans (AHL)

An honest, hard-nosed worker with a quietly stated high level of skill, Carrier doesn't dangle through traffic and score highlight reel goals that earn thousands of retweets. What he does is pay attention to detail, go hard on the forecheck, win battles in tough areas all over the ice, and quickly make an impact around the net or find his linemates in space. He executes with confidence, giving the Amerks staff a responsible forward who works equally hard with or without the puck on his stick.

Year two in Rochester was a positive journey for the stocky forward. He shrugged off injuries that plagued his rookie season, and arrived in camp with a fresh perspective and a full season of learning in his wake. His consistency allowed him to be placed in key situations, eventually developing some nice chemistry with Justin Bailey before an awkward crash into the boards ended his season in late-March for the second year in a row.

Carrier definitely has an NHL look to his game, and if he repeats his habits in the final year of his entry-level contract, it's just a matter of time before he gets a look in a blue and gold jersey. When he makes it up, there's a good chance he sticks for good because the NHL level has an appreciation for what he brings to the table.

6 - Cal Petersen - G, 6'1", 182 lbs., University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish (Hockey East)

Sabres fans clamoring for a Ryan Miller clone have their wish. The Notre Dame sophomore moves in the crease exactly like the former Michigan State Spartan and Olympic MVP, he processes the game to the point where you can see him thinking (hey, the mind controls the body), and he has the same ability to absorb pucks like the former Sabres starter, who by the way never started 50 consecutive games for Michigan State like Petersen has for Notre Dame. When not conjuring up images of Miller, Petersen also will show some Martin Jones-ish style at times. 

Perhaps the most technically sound of all the Sabres goaltending prospects, Petersen stands out with his quick limbs and overall structure that sees him maintain position for second and third chances. Like so many goalies, the next stages of his development will be keyed by adding muscle to generate more lateral power. Six-foot-two is a decent size, but he needs to add some weight without losing his quickness and become more anchored when he drops to the ice as right now he still tends to slide a little too much.

A big area of Petersen's improvement that has led to success has been exhibiting the mental focus of a winner. Petersen is ultra-competitive and has learned to reset when he lets a shot past him. Continuing to properly channel that fire will only help him when he hits the pro ranks.

As it stands today, Petersen finds himself in the ideal position for a developing netminder as he's playing virtually every game for Notre Dame. Petersen needs to be the man in Hockey East before his time is done in South Bend. Beat Boston College in a playoff game. Shut down Providence. Continue to be sharp against Boston University. Win a championship. Those are the goals until he decides to test his skills at the next level, likely following his third year in South Bend.

7 - Linus Ullmark - G, 6'4", 212 lbs., Rochester Americans (AHL)

I can't recall a player enduring double hip surgery and just six months later, stepping into the role of top performer at the NHL level. That's what Ullmark was able to do in the first quarter of his North American rookie season. Things weren't as rosy when he continued on in Rochester, but the thought is that, as is the case with many young goaltenders, more reps will lead to more consistency.

The big-bodied Swede clearly has the physical and mental tools become a competitive NHL netminder. He's proven calm with veteran-like poise as he adjusts to the speed of play, and with the added work should come improved positioning that makes the most of his long frame. Ullmark isn't classified as clumsy by any means, but Andrew Allen should view Ullmark as a very compelling project as he works to improve his body control and overall economy of movement.

So while polished technical goaltenders don't need to scramble as much, the Sabres just need to build depth with guys who can simply win games. Ullmark has proven that he has that trait very early, launching his development onward and upward.

For me, it's all about quickness and consistent puck tracking. The sky's the limit once Ullmark dials in this part of his portfolio. With Robin Lehner healthy, Ullmark having his development reset with another full year in Rochester should only pay off long term.

8 - Nick Baptiste - RW, 6'1", 196 lbs., Rochester Americans (AHL)

A player with a good all-around foundation to become perhaps a third-line player with some scoring punch, Baptiste illustrates a classic case of patience being required through an adjustment period. Countless fans and media members look at a player's first-year body of work, and make immediate judgement on his long term probability for success, or lack thereof, as a professional hockey player. I see that happening with Baptiste, and I'm not sure why that is.

Baptiste was an energetic goal scorer in junior, but his game better translates as a support worker as a pro. The Ottawa product brings versatility to the right side with his acceleration and willingness to fly into the corners on the forecheck. Baptiste is most effective when he keeps his game in a straight line offensively and come back to his zone with equal gusto, and that's one of the reasons why his ideal role could be as a bottom-line contributor who can force the play deep, apply back pressure and use his excellent release of the puck to capitalize in open space.

9 - Giorgio Estephan - C, 6'0", 189 lbs., Lethbridge Hurricanes (AHL)

Being tabbed as a top 10 prospect one year after being a sixth-round draft pick is a very good thing. In the case of Estephan, the offensive numbers posted aren't the most important reason for the ranking.

Some guys just know how to play the center position. Estephan, a smooth, crafty player with excellent vision and an impressive two-way mindset, fits the bill with his fine edge work and superior puck-handling ability. While he creates and finishes in the offensive zone, Estephan has proven to understand what it takes to be an effective defensive player as well. When he becomes a faster, more powerful glider with added strength up top, Estephan looks like a player with a decent professional future ahead of him as a multi-dimensional organizational depth forward with a fair amount of NHL upside.

Lots of players put up gaudy offensive numbers at the lower levels, and Estephan did just that this past season as part of one of the most productive lines in all of junior hockey. He is talented enough to repeat the feat next season regardless of his wingers, but either way it's all about physical development moving forward. The offensive numbers that many become fixated on mean little if he doesn't get to work in the gym.

10 - Eric Cornel - RW, 6'2", 195 lbs., Peterborough Petes (OHL)

After a mediocre 2014-15 campaign with a struggling Petes club, Cornel took his development to the next level this past season, leveraging sharper cuts and a shoot-first mentality to post career highs in all statistical categories, all the while putting in yeoman's work away from the puck. He's a very precise player whose elevated game coincided with being given the "C" for the storied Petes franchise.

It's clear that he's put significant time and energy into both his strength and skill development, which paved the way to a dramatic leap in points and shots generated, and is unquestionably the major factor in getting his game back and track as he prepares to compete at the professional level as an efficient middle-line producer. The work must continue as he enters his three-year entry-level period.

It's fair to expect Cornel go through an adjustment period like most of the other rookies we've seen enter the AHL ranks, along the way making smart plays in the neutral zone and subtle advances along the wal. While he has shown bursts of quickness in small spaces that has allowed him to jump through seams on his way to the net, Cornel will still want to work on his overall speed as that could be the make or break factor to how far he takes his career when matching the next level of competition.

11 - Evan Rodrigues - RW/LW, 5'11", 176 lbs., Rochester Americans (AHL)

The epitome of hard work and determination, Rodrigues is a skilled winger with excellent straight-line speed. The undersized Rodrigues made great developmental strides this past season in Rochester, learning from mistakes (like figuring out that it's a bad idea to throw the puck across the middle when trying to advance it out of the zone) to become a very reliable producer who will take a beating to create for his linemates or make noise around the goal mouth. 

While showing the resolve that a smaller forward needs to succeed as a pro, and despite earning a late-season recall to Buffalo, Rodrigues can be viewed as somewhat of an NHL underdog largely due to his size and quality of bodies around him. This isn't to say he won't stick long term at some point. He just has to keep working twice as hard as those around him to make it happen, and that fact that it is very well possible is reflected in his relatively high ranking.

12 - Jonas Johansson - G, 6'3", 187 lbs., Almtuna IS (HockeyAllsvenskan)

A prototypical bulky Swedish backstop, Johansson is equal parts athletic and competitive. The big stopper performed well while on loan from Brynas IF to Almtuna IS of  Sweden's second-tier HockeyAllsvenskan, logging a ton of minutes and being among the league leaders in wins all season long before his club bowed out in the first playoff round.

Stylistically, he consistently drops to make butterfly saves like most goaltenders these days, using his size to take up a lot of net space. You notice that Johansson doesn't drop too early, which speaks to his high level of patience, or spend a lot of time on his knees, which speaks to his quickness and athleticism. He has good footwork for a bigger guy, and it keep him in plays to thwart second chances that the opposition gets when the occasional rebound pops out of his control.

The Sabres hold Johansson's rights for two more seasons, and the club should hope that they are spent wherever he can continue to see the most pucks, be it with a return to Almtuna IS of the Allsavenskan or with another SHL club. As of now, his home club Brynas IF has two experienced goaltenders already under contract for next season.

13 - Jason Kasdorf - G, 6'4", 200 lbs., Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Engineers (ECAC)

Calm and poised in the blue paint, Kasdorf regained his top-performer form as a 23-year-old ECAC senior. We saw the solid blueprint in play at July's development camp, where he was the best goalie in the Blue-Gold scrimmage, and the simple positional style carried over into a dominant collegiate performance as he worked his angles to backstop an average RPI squad to a 12-12-5 record before suffering a groin injury in the first round of the postseason.

Hockey, at all levels, has become obsessed with size at the goaltending position. Kasdorf has both it and the requisite resume to add quality competition next season in Rochester. His success as a professional could very well hinge on his ability to remain healthy. He's not a streaky goaltender, like say Andrey Makarov, and he has proven in the past that consistent reps have led to consistent high-level performances.

He's not a super twitchy reflex guy in net, and while we should be reminded that bigger goalies generally appear slower to the eye (unless your last name is Rinne), Kasdorf may not be "NHL fast". Regardless, Kasdorf has the work ethic and superior mental approach to make a mark at the top level once he fully acclimates to the speed of the game.

14 - Victor Olofsson - RW, 5'10", 167 lbs., MODO (SHL)

A bit of a Mats Zucarello clone (Zucarello also developed with MODO), Olofsson is perhaps the best shooter among the Sabres prospects with his ability to stroke a power-play one-timer, both while playing the point or operating on the half-wall, or fill the net with a high rate of success off the rush. He's not a one-trick pony with a big one-time shot, as his vast array of shooting skills include a laser-like wrister and quick, accurate snapshot. He has all the potential to become a dazzling North American scorer, but that projection is still a few years off as Olofsson has the look of a longer project.

With the offensive side of things coming along nicely, the next stage of Olofsson's development is all about his play without the puck. He's a very quick player on the big European ice, and that speed will lend to his defensive zone work with better consistency sticking with his assignments in a system.

Coming off a year that saw him lead MODO in goals and points while averaging just 15:20 TOI per game (10th among team forwards), the sniping Olofsson will likely remain in Sweden next season after inking a two-year contract with Frolunda HC. He'll want to add some thickness to his frame, but remember, this is a guy who endured a serious growth spurt prior to being drafted. With that in mind, his body development has been a little slower than others, but he has already taken strides in that department.

15 - Vaclav Karabacek - RW, 5'11", 200 lbs., Moncton Wildcats (QMJHL)

A stocky, north-south offensive player with soft hands, Karabacek's numbers don't always tell the story with his game. I was somewhat "down" on him after 2015 development camp, but I realized that I had set such high expectations that maybe I needed to cool my jets a little and focus more on the situations he's been placed in since being drafted.

After all, Karabacek was part of a good team in Gatineau when he was drafted, earned a preseason NHL game in his first camp, and then was dispatched to a brutal Baie-Comeau squad the following season where he had virtually zero help before finally being dealt to a better situation in Moncton.

The skill, will and intensity are not issues. He's very good in the corners and adds some jam on the forecheck. It's a matter of consistency that will make or break this player, as the prospect pool is flooded with talented wingers looking to fill the same role. Still, pending any off-ice concerns that I am not apprised of (outside of getting cut from the Czech 2015 World Junior squad for oversleeping a video meeting), I believe he is worth investing a few more years of developmental time.

As of now, Karabacek, who has historically risen his game in the playoffs, appears to be a "tweener" at the next level, meaning there are questions of whether or not he's a skilled enough goal scorer to earn a second line role, while wondering if he's of the optimal mindset to grind out regular checking shifts as an energy winger. That's what the Sabres need to find out, and it hasn't been easy to determine by viewing his QMJHL body of work. It definitely didn't help that he missed the 2016 World Juniors with a busted thumb. Talented player. Need to see more. Simple as that.

16 - Brycen Martin - LHD, 6'2", 200 lbs., Everett Silvertips (WHL)

A quality two-way defenseman and offensive weapon at the junior level, Martin controls the puck well through all three zones while proving to be a very capable defender who holds up in the face of pressure. Martin has done a nice job adding to the attack over the past two seasons with his ability to skate the puck out of trouble and distribute it with poise and confidence. He doesn't try to do too much, but he's effective with what he does.

Perhaps the best thing that happened to him during his time in the WHL was a 2015 trade from Swift Current to Saskatoon. With the Blades, Martin was given a heavy workload reflective of the coaches' high level of confidence in his ability. He played in all situations as both a top-line shutdown guy and a first-unit point man on the power play. The work output made him an attractive commodity in the 2015-16 season, eventually landing him with an Everett club poised to make a deep playoff run. With the Silvertips, he became an even better defensive player.

The thought is that Martin, who earned an ATO to Rochester at the close of the 2014-15 season, will continue his career in an Amerks jersey next season where he'll improve the organizational blueline depth.

17 - Anthony Florentino - RHD, 6'1", 210 lbs., Providence College Friars (Hockey East)

The hard-hitting Florentino has worked hard to shed his "raw skill" moniker since joining Nate Leaman's Providence program as a true freshman in 2013, and the results have been mostly positive. Playing a key role for the 2015 NCAA champion granted key experience in high pressure situations, so it's now on Florentino's shoulders to take his game to the next level with a concentration on consistency with every shift of every game in the ultra-competitive Hockey East.

The physical presence is there, both in open ice and as he works over forwards in the corners and in front of the net, and he brings value on the power play with his heavy shot and ability to zip box-breaking passes. As he has tightened things up with more defensive polish, Florentino will continue working on his patience with the puck as a plan to improve his decision making out of zone.

Completing his education is just as big a goal of his as it is making the NHL, so look for Florentino to play a big role as a senior next season as the Friars look to capture another national championship before talking contract with the Sabres.

18 - Jean Dupuy - C/LW, 6'2", 207 lbs., Rochester Americans (AHL)

It's not hard to appreciate what Jean Dupuy brings to the rink on a nightly basis. He can skate with the skill players, or drop down to an aggressive checking role where he wins his fair share of faceoffs, finishes all his hits and efficiently kills penalties.

Another in the line of Ottawa-area products amassed by Tim Murray, Dupuy ultimately projects to that bottom line role. He's edgy, tough and smart with the puck. He brings a defensive mindset as he patrols the middle, but he has proven to make excellent decisions based on the game situation. You can never have enough team-first guys who play with a sense of urgency when the game is on the line. Dupuy has gone above and beyond his defined role a few times this season as an AHL rookie, providing signs of encouragement for his long-term organizational impact.

19 - Devante Stephens - LHD, 6'1.5", 176 lbs., Kelowna Rockets (WHL)

Another in the long line of athletes assembled by the Sabres scouting staff over the past couple of drafts, Stephens is smart and mobile with one primary mission at this stage of his development - maintaining a stay-at-home presence and getting the puck on the sticks of those responsible for the offense. When an outlet isn't available, Stephens seems content in knowing that up the glass and out is a good thing. This isn't a shock given that he's playing for a junior franchise known for developing quality professional rearguards.

For a defenseman given his physical attributes, that's a smart way to build yourself up as the rest of his game develops slowly over the next few seasons. He's not overly physical, but he's certainly not shy about using his body to make a play without giving up his positioning. Still, a key factor moving forward will be Stephens getting stronger on his feet. Like so many prospects at his point in time, it's all about strength development up top and down low.

Stephens took the reigns from Madison Bowey as a top-pair workhorse this season, and it's a great for his development that he'll again resume that posture for one more season. The Rockets are always a player in the WHL's Western Conference, giving Stephens plenty of opportunities to apply his trade in meaningful postseason games.

20 - Sean Malone - C, 6'0", 190 lbs, Harvard University Crimson (ECAC)

When JT Compher was traded, one of the underlying thoughts was that the Sabres still had an unheralded effort player in the ranks with Malone. Malone may not have the vision and playmaking skill that Compher has, but he makes an impact with a pesky no-quit attitude that should land him a job upon his completion of his studies at Harvard.

Malone makes plays at a high rate of speed, using his feet around the edge to open up defender and his vision to connect with streaking linemates. He has added some thickness to his frame to insulate his massive heart and help him absorb and initiate contact, but that dogged mentality has left a mark in more ways than one. In reality, Malone should be ranked higher on this list, but the fact that the injury bug seems to follow him around impacts his stock in my eyes.

21 - Dan Catenacci - LW/C, 5'10", 191 lbs., Rochester Americans (AHL)

You could see Catenacci on the verge of a breakout over the past two seasons, and while he didn't particularly kill it on the scoresheet in 2015-16, the OHL product certainly took his game to the next level as a new set of coaches settled in on the Amerks bench. The consistent effort caught the eye of the top club with Catenacci earning his first NHL recall in early February.

Catenacci's game is all about speed, whether it is darting down the wing with the puck, lowering his shoulder when driving the net, or going full speed in pursuit to pressure a defender. He's a very effective forechecker, and despite clocking in as below average in the size department, he'll throw his body into hits to cancel out his checks. With a speedy foundation, Catenacci can accurately fire the puck from various angles, making him a dangerous forward when given the playing time.

Catenacci enters the offseason as an RFA, but it's fair to assume he'll be brought back for another tour of duty after being identified as one of the Amerks' better second-half players in the final year of his entry-level contract.

22 - Connor Hurley - C, 6'2", 178 lbs., University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish (Hockey East)

With the talent and passing skills in tow, it's all about Hurley showing the willingness to hit the tough areas moving forward. We've hit on this with Hurley in the past -- it's a phased process to develop a player with his vision and playmaking skill set. As his strength builds, Hurley's overall confidence will elevate. This is exactly how it went down in his sophomore collegiate season, resulting in increased ice time, including work at the point on the power play, and upped production despite the lack of eye-popping offensive statistics.

Hurley was the youngest player selected at the 2013 draft, so in many ways we approach him as if he's a member of the 2014 class. With this in mind, it's fair to expect Hurley to make a drastic leap in his development when action kicks off for the 2016-17 season. We won't be shocked if he's one of the surprises when the Sabres hold their 2016 Development Camp.

23 - Gustav Possler - LW, 5'11.5", 183 lbs., MODO (SHL)

Considering the situation, Possler quietly put together a decent season as a 21-year-old with a brutal MODO club that will move down to the second division next season. Fortunately for Possler, he'll stick around the SHL after signing a new two-year deal with Djurgardens IF as MODO gets relegated.

It has been a long road back for Possler after suffering a major knee injury in 2013-14, with the talented shooter reinventing his skating game to maintain effectiveness as a major league winger. Possler didn't shred the competition with crazy offensive numbers this season, but he put forth an honest effort virtually every night, battling for loose pucks in all three zones, stepping in front of oncoming shots from the point, and adding value as a penalty killer.

What happens next is honestly unclear. He could be a serviceable AHL performer as soon as next year, but all signs point to him playing at least the first year of his new deal with DIF. The Sabres hold his signing rights for one more season, but Possler has to be dedicated to working his way up through the ranks. Some guys get comfortable with both professional and social life in their homeland, happy with the money they can make there. I'm not saying that Possler falls into this category, but we'll find out in due time how he sees himself as a professional hockey player. 

24 - Judd Peterson - C/RW, 6'0", 193 lbs., St Cloud State University Huskies (NCHC)

A swift-skating forward with a very good shot, Peterson got off to a hot start this past season with 12 goals in his first 17 games. It was a bit of a revelation given how he he potted just four in his previous season as a freshman, but he unfortunately went a bit cold down the stretch with just four markers in his next 21 games and ended the season in lower line duty.

Peterson is a bulldog who can lower his shoulder and take a defenseman around the edge, and he'll need to keep his foot on the gas pedal when he gets back to work as a 23-year-old leader in his third season in St. Cloud. The opportunity to get some minor league work exists, but right now he's likely on the outside looking in.

25 - Brady Austin - LHD, 6'3", 232 lbs., Rochester Americans (AHL)

There is no question Austin has put forth some good efforts as a second-year pro, using his mobility and long stick to make plays. His outlet passes have been good, and he has done some things well when working the point in the offensive zone.

Two key factors that make Austin a long-range, lower probability prospect are his inconsistency when handling a speedy rush, and his lack of ability to play to his size.

Big men are expected to, check that, need to play a consistent physical game, and this is a glaring hole in Austin's makeup. He needs to drive through the body in the corners and make forwards pay a price around the goal area if he wants to advance himself to the NHL level. It just hasn't happened enough to date. While it was nice to see him drop the gloves at the Prospects Challenge, I'd much rather see him play a meaner game between the whistles with regularity and never fight. Doing so would give him more definition as a prospect, not to mention improve the overall quality of the Sabres paltry defensive depth.

Not ranked:

Max Willman - LW, 6'0", 190 lbs., Brown University Bears (ECAC)

I like this player and can definitely see him being a real solid AHL-level performer in a couple of years, and that's why he's next in the queue to be ranked if names drop off ahead of him. This kid is a battler who works his tail off and does the dirty work for his linemates. Willman's sophomore season ended with six points, over half his season haul, in his last seven games, and you want to think he has more to offer when he gets back to work for his third season of collegiate hockey.

Ivan Chukarov - LHD, 6'3", 190 lbs., University of Massachusetts Minutemen (Hockey East)

The thick-bodied defender competed as a 20-year-end freshman this past season, using his cannon of a shot and puck moving mindset to contribute to a a Minutemen squad the won just eight of their 36 games. What the Sabres have in Chukarov is a lottery ticket - a late round pick who has the size and offensive tendencies to perhaps someday earn a deeper look at the pro level.

Andrey Makarov - G, 6'1", 193 lbs., Rochester Americans (AHL)

One of the streakiest goaltenders to come through the Sabres prospect ranks in recent memory, Makarov was the odd man out on the farm this season, appearing in just 22 games. Despite ending with numbers deemed acceptable for a developing prospect, his body language suggested displeasure with the situation. We'd be surprised if he was retained.

Christopher Brown - C/RW, 6'0", 185 lbs., Boston College Eagles (Hockey East)

Brown completed his freshman season, executing in mostly a lower line role. There were times that he was moved up to skate as a top-six winger, but his minutes were guarded for the most part as he eased his way as part of a deep group of Boston College forwards.

Justin Kea - C, 6'4", 220 lbs., Rochester Americans (AHL)

A hard-nosed centerman, Kea is embracing an enforcer-like role as he plays checking line minutes at the AHL level. His upside is that of tough a grunt worker who can win draws, chip the puck deep and pin defenders on the forecheck. With fighting becoming less prevalent, Kea will need to improve his quickness to continue carving out that niche.

Jack Nevins - LW, 6'1", 207 lbs., Rochester Americans (AHL)

Tough as nails and afraid of no one, Nevins has been fun to watch as an AHL pugilist. This guy will go with anyone, anytime, and he does the job really well. Like Kea, Nevins is an ideal guy to have on the farm to make sure the skill players have space to develop.

Colin Jacobs - C, 6'1", 200 lbs., Elmira Jackals (ECHL)

The chippy centerman finished the final year of his entry-level contract, ranking fifth on the team with 14 goals and eighth in total points with 29. Jacobs had some decent outings with the team at Traverse City over the years, but it seems that he'll continue his playing career on a minor league contract moving forward.

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