Top Shelf Prospects: Buffalo Sabres

Welcome to Today’s edition of “Top Shelf Prospects”.  As we go through the Summer of 2013 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).  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 2013 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 2013-14 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 (especially due to the fact that the latest NHL season was only 48 games).

TopShelfProspectsIt was an extremely disappointing season for the Buffalo Sabres.  Over the years with Lindy Ruff at the helm the Sabres were used to being a playoff team, or at the very least fighting for the playoffs down the stretch every year.  With the team struggling greatly this year, and the playoffs almost completely out of site, the move was made to relieve Ruff of his duties as head coach and replace him with Ron Rolston.  This wouldn’t be the only change the Sabres would make though.  Captain, Jason Pominville would be moved to the Minnesota Wild for a bevy of draft picks and prospects; while Jordan Leopold would be shipped to St. Louis, and Robyn Regher to Los Angeles.  With stars Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller both entering the last year of the contracts and the Sabres appearing to be in full rebuild mode, further trades could be on the way.

And so Sabres fans attention turned to the NHL draft where the team owned two first round picks, where two first round picks, three second round picks, and 11 picks overall certainly gives the Sabres an excellent head start on their rebuild.  In my opinion the Sabres made great use of those picks, and ended up taking top spot in my 2013 Draft Winners and Losers.

2013 NHL Draft Picks Reviewed by LWOS: Rasmus Ristolainen, Nikita Zadorov, J.T. Compher, Connor Hurley, Justin Bailey, Nick Baptiste

Note: For the purposes of this report Marcus Foligno is considered graduated.

 

Top Prospect: Mikhail Grigorenko, Centre
Born May 16 1994 Khabarovsk, Russia
Height 6.03 — Weight 195 — Shoots L
Drafted #12 Overall By Buffalo Sabres

With the lockout, Grigorenko started the year with the Quebec Remparts in the QMJHL. Once the NHL season got going though, he was kept up with the Sabres, but the 18 year old Grigorenko struggled with just 5 points in 25 games at the NHL level. Eventually the decision was made to return him back to the Remparts. His regular season in the QMJHL must be considered a success with 54 points in 33 games. However, he was unable to lead the Remparts past the second round, and with a good but not dominant performance at the World Juniors, again the questions about his play in big games have surfaced.

Grigorenko is 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 will be a playmaker 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 a couple of 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.

Too young to go to the AHL this season, the question will be if Grigorenko is ready to stay in Buffalo for the full season, or if another year at the QMJHL level where he will be a man amongst boys, makes sense.

 

Top Prospect: Joel Armia, Right Wing
Born May 31 1993 — Pori, Finland
Height 6.03 — Weight 187 — Shoots Right
Drafted 16th Overall in 2011 NHL Draft

Joel Armia spent the season playing in the Finnish SM-Liiga (Elite League), and put up very good stats playing against men.  He dominated at the World Juniors with 6 goals and 12 points in 6 games, but unfortunately wasn’t doing that against the best teams in the tourney.  Finland disappointed and ended up in the relegation round where he was padding stats against the minnow countries in the hockey world.

Armia is a natural goal scorer, pure and simple. He just craves goals, and putting on a show, such as when the young Finn rode his stick on his way past the Swedish bench at the 2012 World Juniors. Armia is an outstanding stickhandler. His hands are quick and he is able to dangle past opposing defenders and goalies. We combine this with a hard accurate shot and quick release, and he is a nightmare for opposing goalies. It is very hard to tell if he will let the shot go, or make one more move, and before a goalie knows it, the puck is in the back of the net. He is absolutely lethal on breakaways and shootouts. Armia does have other offensive talents and can sometimes make good passes to teammates, but his main skill is as a goal scorer.

At 6’3″ Armia has ideal size, but we’d like to see him use it more often. He’s not overly physical in the corners either in the offensive zone or the defensive end of the ice. That said he doesn’t shy away from contact, and he is willing to get to the dirty areas of the ice and to battle for pucks and, but he just isn’t the type of player who will initiate that contact. Defensively he is a willing and involved backchecker, and capable two way player.  He brings good back pressure and with his quickness and anticipation cuts down passing lanes and causes turnovers.

Armia has good straight line speed, and very good top end speed. He also has the agility and balance to make the fancy dekes that work so well for him off the rush. He does however lack a little in his start up and acceleration. This is not to say he is bad in those areas, it just isn’t up to par with the rest of his skating which is excellent.

Armia is likely to come over to North America this season.  With the Sabres in full rebuild, he’ll be given every opportunity to make the team.  He could end up in the AHL if he doesn’t have a good camp, but he will get some time in Buffalo this year.

 

Sleeper Special
Logan Nelson, Centre
Born Sep 9 1993 — Rogers, MN
Height 6.01 — Weight 178 — Shoots Right
Selected by Buffalo Sabres round 5 #133 overall 2012 NHL Entry Draft

Logan Nelson is back as our sleeper prospect.  Lets be clear though, he’s not even a top 10 level Sabres prospect who have really developped depth in the last two drafts and in their trades.

So who is Logan Nelson?  In his original draft year of 2010-11, Nelson played for Des Moines in the USHL and really struggled.  He was a fourth line player with limited ice time and really didn’t stand out.  As such he was not drafted in 2011.  In 2011-12, Nelson moved to the WHL, and played a key role for the Victoria Royals and helped the franchise make the  playoffs in their first season on Vancouver Island.  The young Nelson was an effective 2 way centre and the team’s number 1 pivot down the stretch, playing in all situations.  He followed that up with another solid season in 2012-13 at least when he wasn’t injured.  Without Nelson, and others in the lineup we saw the difference in Victoria as struggled greatly.  Overall it was a 6th place finish, and despite Nelson’s PPG playoff performance, the Royals suffered a first round loss.

Nelson is one of those players who is good at everything.  He is an above average skater, and has offensive skill to score goals including good hands and a decent shot.  Nelson can also make plays and has good vision and hockey sense. At the WHL level he is a decent backchecker, playing top matchups and contributing on the penalty kill.  He also has decent size and is willing to play a physical game in both the offensive and defensive zones.  However Nelson does not possess any elite skills that blow you away either.  What he does have is a great work ethic, and a desire to continue to improve and make it to the NHL.  I believe he will continue to work hard at improving his game, and as such, I choose Nelson as my sleeper candidate to exceed expectations and one day make the NHL.  I see him as a potential bottom six centre who can add a few points while providing tenacious defence on the bottom lines.

The decision with Nelson will be if the Sabres send him back to Victoria for his overage season, or if they feel he is ready for the AHL.  I believe he will impress enough at camp to end up starting his pro career in Rochester.

 

As mentionned, the Sabres have really improved their system.  Adding players like Matt Hackett was a boost to the goaltending depth, while Johan Larsson adds to an impressive list of centres that included Grigorenko, Nelson, and Zemgus Girgensons.  While the defence was boosted with Ristolainen and Zadorov added to a group including Jake McCabe and Mark Pysyk.  There was some concern that the Sabres prospect pool was thin on the wings after Armia, and recently graduated Marcus Foligno.  But a strong season from Bryan Flynn and the additions of Justin Bailey, J.T. Compher, Connor Hurley and Nick Baptiste has gone a long way to remedying that issue as well.  While one or both of Compher and Hurley may end up at centre, their versatility and the Sabres centre depth (include the young Cody Hodgson as well), means they may get shifted to the wings.  In short though, the Sabres seem to have built a system with high level talent, and depth at every position.  They should be considered amongst the top prospect groups in the NHL, and if they can get Grigorenko to his elite potential, we may look back on this rebuild as a very successful maneuver by Darcy Regier.

 

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