Welcome to the 2014 edition of “Top Shelf Prospects”. As we go through the Summer of 2014 I will be featuring a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL. I will go team by team through the NHL bringing you a look at each Teams Top Prospects. I will be following the order of the first round of the NHL draft (as if there were no traded draft picks) and you can find all the articles here. Since we had an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted in the 2014 draft, as there have been no games since then, and my reports on them will not have changed. What I will be doing is linking you to those articles, as well as taking a look at prospects that were acquired before this year’s draft; their progress, and their chances of making the 2014-15 roster of the NHL team in question. I will also bring you one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the 4th-round or later, or was an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as my darkhorse to make the NHL. For those wondering, the cut-off for what is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 50 NHL games played or being 25 years old. These are not hard or fast rules though, and I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
The Sabres rebuild continues, despite a turbulent 2013-14 season. The Sabres were the worst team in the NHL this year, bottoming out with terrible stats in both conventional and advanced categories. A slow start cost Ron Rolston and Darcy Regier their jobs, as Pat Lafontaine and Ted Nolan came in. A few months later Tim Murray was hired away from Ottawa and given the GM’s chair in Buffalo. That didn’t settle things though as Pat Lafontaine would resign over differences with Murray and the direction to take the team. At the end of it all, the Sabres would lose the draft lottery and get the second overall pick in the 2014 NHL draft, taking Sam Reinhart.
For the first time in 3 years, the Sabres had only one first round pick, but already have three lined up for the deep 2015 draft. Add that to a deep prospect pool, and the Sabres will be a force to be reckoned with sooner, rather than later.
Graduates: Zemgus Girgensons, Brian Flynn, Mark Pysyk,
Buffalo Sabres Top Prospects
Top Prospect: Rasmus Ristolainen, Defence
Born Oct 27 1994 — Turku, Finland
Height 6.03 — Weight 207 — Shoots Right
Drafted in the 1st round 8th overall in the 2013 NHL Draft by the Buffalo Sabres.
Rasmus Ristolainen came over to North America from Finland this year, and enjoyed a solid rookie season splitting time between the Sabres and their AHL affiliate the Rochester Americans, playing exactly 34 regular seasons games with each, and even scoring his first two NHL goals in the process. He also took time out to go back to the World Junior Championships, scoring 3 goals and leading Finland to the gold medal. By any measure, this was a successful season for Ristolainen.
Ristolainen is a talented offensive defenceman who will help the Sabres generate offense from the backend for years to come. The first thing you notice about Ristolainen is how calm and cool he is with the puck on his stick, at least at the AHL level and in the world juniors. While this calm, cool, heads up game hasn’t quite translated to the NHL yet, as he can be rushed, it should come as he adjusts to the quicker speed of the players around him, and of his opponents. In the AHL Ristolainen has shown that he is a good stickhandler, who uses his ability to protect the puck to buy him the time necessary to survey the ice and make the smart play, whether that be deciding between making the quick crisp breakout pass from his own zone, or skating the puck up ice himself. He uses the same smart decision making to be a quarterback in the offensive zone, especially on the powerplay. Ristolainen also has a very strong point shot, which he understands is most effective when he keeps it low and on net.
Ristolainen has good skating skill for a big man. His top end speed is above average and allows him to join the rush, either by carrying the puck or by joining late as a trailer. He has good mobility, agility and edgework and thus, is able to effectively shut down his half of the ice, and can deal with forwards attacking him one on one. He walks the line well allowing him to open up shooting and passing lanes on the power play. While the skating isn’t in an elite category, it is pretty good, especially when paired with Ristolainen’s ideal NHL size.
Defensively, Ristolainen is a punishing physical presence. He loves to throw the body and can deliver some big hits. He also battles hard in corners and in front of the net, and has shown a decent mean streak. He’s added a lot of muscle to his frame over the last year, but needs to do so again this summer to be even more effective at playing that physical game he likes to play. He does uses his size and stick effectively to cut down shooting and passing lanes, and takes full advantage of his extra reach in this way. The one issue Ristolainen has is that he can get out of position in the defensive zone, and does not always diagnose the play as well as he should. He will need to work on this going forward.
Next season, expect Ristolainen to challenge for a spot on the Sabres blueline. He could be a full-time NHLer as early as this year.
Prospect #2: Nikita Zadorov, Defence
Born Apr 16 1995 — Moscow, Russia
Height 6.05 — Weight 227 — Shoots Left
Drafted in the 1st round, 16th Overall of the 2013 NHL Draft by the Buffalo Sabres
Nikita Zadorov started the season in the NHL with the Buffalo Sabres. He would play seven games and score his first NHL goal, but the 18 year old wasn’t quite ready for full-time duty and spent a lot of time in the Sabres press box. Finally he was sent back to the London Knights in late November and played for Russia at the World Juniors, winning a bronze medal in the process. While ultimately the Knights disappointed in the OHL playoffs, and the Memorial Cup, Zadorov was one of the best players on the team, and he really can’t be faulted for his performance.
Zadorov is best known for his defensive skills. A huge defenceman, he dishes out big hits, and opposing forwards really need to keep their heads up if coming down his end of the ice. He is mean along the boards and in front of the net. His skating and mobility is top notch, making him really hard to get by one on one. His pivots are crisp, and his edgework outstanding which allows him to maintain his gap control, cover a lot of ice, and close quickly on a forward and take the body. His backwards skating is outstanding, which makes him very difficult to beat one-on-one off the rush.
He’s a willing shot blocker and his long stick can be an asset in the defensive zone. Zadorov does sometimes have a tendency to overcommit on the hit though, and this can get him out of position. He has become more confident with the puck on his stick, and more relaxed under pressure, but still needs to work on this as he can sometimes have a tendency to make some bad passes and giveaways in his own end of the rink. Overall though, his defensive game shows a lot of potential, its just a little rough around the edges right now and needs some more polish. He has shown great improvement over two years in London though, and is getting there very quickly.
Offensively, Zadorov has improved by leaps and bounds over the course of the last two seasons. He put up 30 points in 36 games with the Knights this season, and also led all defencemen at the World Juniors with four goals. He is now using his good mobility to allow himself to join the rush and then recover quickly. In the offensive end he has a very hard and heavy slapshot, and can let it fly from the point. He also has decent vision and passing skills from the back end and continues to improve when facing pressure, but will need to keep working on this. His stickhandling and wrist shot are also decent. This is another area where Zadorov is highly skilled, but again very raw and will need some time to develop.
Zadorov is in a tough position this fall, he still has OHL eligibility and can’t go to the AHL. He might not be ready for NHL action, but might be too good for junior. This is a tough spot for the Sabres, but unless Zadorov is outstanding in camp and through a possible nine-game NHL stint in the regular season, expect to see him back in London. Even if its back to the OHL, he needs the ice time, and shouldn’t be sitting in the press box as much as he did under the previous Sabres regime.
Prospect #3: Mikhail Grigorenko, Centre
Born May 16 1994 Khabarovsk, Russia
Height 6.03 — Weight 201 — Shoots Left
Drafted in the 1st round, 12th Overall By Buffalo Sabres in the 2012 NHL Draft
It was another strange season for Mikhail Grigorenko. Kept in the NHL by Darcy Regier and Ron Rolston, Grigorenko had just 3 points in 18 games as he struggled to adjust to the speed of the game. When Pat Lafontaine came in he was sent to the World Juniors, where he put up 8 points in 7 games, and while he was good, he wasn’t the dominant player that was expected, and took home a bronze medal. He was then sent to the QMJHL with the Quebec Remparts, and originally refused to report. When he did show up he again looked like a man amongst boys in the QMJHL scoring 39 points in just 23 games, and 9 points in 5 playoff games.
Grigorenko could be the big prototypical top 6 offensive centre that teams dream about when they enter the draft lottery. He’s got the ideal size, and the offensive skill that every team in the NHL would love to have. He has excellent vision and passing ability and is likely to be more of a playmaker than a goal scorer at the next level. Many scouts have compared his game to Joe Thornton, as the big playmaking centre, who controls the play, can’t be knocked off the puck, and has superb vision and passing abilities. Grigorenko however has the added dimension of an excellent wrist shot and release and he’s shown the ability to score a lot of goals at the QMJHL level. With three years playing in North America now, he has adapted to the smaller rinks.
On the negative side, some scouts have questioned his desire and say he doesn’t bring a consistent effort level on a regular basis. He’s also very much a perimeter player and not really a physical presence despite his great size. The thing that cannot be denied is that Grigorenko has the skill to be a franchise changing centre in the NHL. However the question marks will need to be answered before he can do that. Those question marks kept Grigorenko out of the top 10 in the 2012 draft, and it will be up to the Sabres to help him develop into the elite player he has the potential to be.
To date developing Grigorenko has been a real problem, as he has been simply too good to learn much in the QMJHL, but not good enough to play in the NHL, and it is something that previous Sabres management really struggled with. The good thing is that Grigorenko has now reached an age where he can be sent to the AHL, and he should start next season with Rochester. There is a lot of potential there, but he needs work, and finally the Sabres development time will be able to give him that hands on work and control his ice time at the AHL level.
Super Sleeper: Hudson Fasching, Right Wing
Born Jul 28 1995 — Burnsville, MN
Height 6.03 — Weight 214 — Shoots Right
Drafted in the 4th round, 118th overall in the 2013 NHL Draft by the Los Angeles Kings.
Traded to the Buffalo Sabres on March 5th, 2014.
The Sabres picked up Hudson Fasching in a March trade with the Los Angeles Kings adding the 2013 fourth rounder to their prospect pool. He also played for the Americans at the World Juniors picking up 2 goals and 4 points in 5 games. A power winger who had a solid freshman season with the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, Fasching adds a dynamic look to the Sabres prospect pool.
Fasching has all the tools you would want in a power forward prospect. Still just 18, he is already 6’03 and 214 lbs. Fasching takes the puck to the net, and can score goals in tight, or via a good wrist shot and snap shot with a quick release. He gets to the front of the net, where he uses his big body to establish position, and his soft hands to bang in rebounds or make deflections. Fasching is a load to handle in the corners and loves to play a strong, physical game, with plenty of hits on the forecheck. He has also shown good vision and passing skill off the wing.
Fasching is a powerful skater with a long stride. He is a natural power forward who has excellent balance and is very tough to knock of the puck. His power and size allows him to fight off checks, and to bulldoze through defencemen off the rush or own the cycle. His top end speed is good, but the acceleration could be improved going forward, especially his first step. Fasching shows good agility and he has the natural athletic ability but must refine his skating technique with some work on his turning and edgework.
Fasching is also a valuable two way player. He shows very good hockey sense and anticipation, cutting down passing lanes. He shows his aggressive physical side in the defensive zone, pressuring the puck carrier and not being afraid to mix things up along the boards. Consistency issues that seemed to plague him with the US NTDP, didn’t seem to be as big an issue this year with Minnesota, and if he can continue to solve that issue, he can be a steal for Buffalo.
The Sabres prospect pool is stacked at all positions with Nathan Lieuwen and Matt Hackett showing potential in net. Joel Armia, Nick Baptiste, and Justin Bailey joining Fasching on the wing; and JT Compher and Connor Hurley versatile enough to play centre or wing. Down the middle Zemgus Girgensons has made his mark in the NHL, they have second overall pick Sam Reinhart as a potential franchise centre, Grigorenko still developping, and Johan Larsson in the AHL. On defence they add Jake McCabe to the two studs already mentioned. Add to this a ton of picks in the 2015 draft, and the Sabres could be a powerhouse in the near future.
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