Welcome to the 2015 edition of “Top Shelf Prospects”. As we go through the Summer of 2015 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 2015 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 2015-16 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.
It was Tank Mission Accomplished for Tim Murray and the Buffalo Sabres in 2014-15, as the club finished last overall and ensured themselves one of the top two picks in the 2015 NHL Draft. Losing the lottery, the Sabres still managed to add Jack Eichel to a prospect group that we named tops in the NHL last summer. The Sabres have now started to use that prospect group (and some accumulated draft choices) to add to their team, picking up Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian, Ryan O’Reilly, and Robin Lehner in late season/off-season trades. The new look Sabres also have a new coach in Dan Bylsma. The tank jobs are over in Buffalo, and a slow, steady ascent up the standings is what is not expected for this rebuilding club.
Buffalo Sabres Top Prospects
Top Prospect: Sam Reinhart, Centre
Born Nov 6 1995 — Vancouver, BC
Height 6.01 — Weight 183 [185 cm/83 kg]
Selected by the Buffalo Sabres in the first round, 2nd overall, at the 2014 NHL Draft
Sam Reinhart is the youngest of three sons of former Calgary Flames defenceman Paul Reinhart. His oldest brother Max Reinhart was a third round pick of the Flames, and the middle brother, Griffin Reinhart, was a fourth overall pick by the New York Islanders in 2012. Even with such great bloodlines, Sam Reinhart might be the best of the bunch. He started the season with the Sabres, but it was clear he wasn’t ready and was sent back to dominate the WHL with Kootenay. He also centred Team Canada’s top line and had 11 points in 7 games as they won gold at the World Junior Championships. Reinhart finished the season getting in some pro action with the Rochester Americans.
Reinhart has excellent hockey sense and vision. He seems to know where the puck is going before it gets there and finds the openings in the defence. He has excellent stick handling and puck protection skills, which when coupled with his good vision and passing make him an excellent play maker. Reinhart is one of those special types of centres who has the ability to make his line mates better. He is very unpredictable, when a goalie is thinking shot he makes the perfect pass to a teammate to give them a wide open net, and if a goalie cheats towards the pass, he’ll put the puck in the back of the net. While his shot could be a little harder and should get there as he gains muscle, but he is deadly accurate and has a great release that fools goaltenders. Reinhart has shown the ability to protect the puck on the cycle and is willing to play in the dirty areas of the ice in order to score points. He’s a natural leader who seems to get a “letter” wherever he goes, whether it be Kootenay or Team Canada.
Reinhart has excellent skating skill. He has good speed, while his acceleration, agility, and balance are all top notch. Reinhart has made his excellent acceleration part of his offensive game. He has the ability to make plays at top speed and so he can control the pace of the game to find openings. When he controls the puck he can speed up or slow the game down and uses this unpredictability to shake defenders and create openings for himself, whether it be a passing or shooting lane.
Reinhart is also great in the defensive end of the ice. He is polished and good on faceoffs. He understands his defensive responsibilities and back checks hard. He has been used on the penalty kill and is not afraid to block shots. He does a good job of supporting his defencemen down low as well. Quite simply Reinhart was amongst the best defensive forwards in all of junior hockey.
The Sabres seem committed to being patient with Reinhart, and he would really need an outstanding camp to make the team. Due to his late birthday, Reinhart has completed four WHL seasons and thus is AHL eligible this fall. It is likely he would start the season in Rochester, as the Sabres do have O’Reilly, Girgensons, Eichel and Larsson up the middle and there is no need to rush him. That said, I could see Reinhart playing so well that he forces the team to give him a call-up at some point this season. He’s an elite two-way prospect, and once he makes the NHL he will be in a prime position for a long time. He’s going to make things difficult for Sabres coaches as one of he, O’Reilly or Girgensons will likely have to be converted into a winger in the near future.
#2 Prospect: Jake McCabe, Defence
Born Oct 12 1993 — Eau Claire, WI
Height 6.01 — Weight 201 — Shoots Left
Drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the second round, 44th overall, of the 2012 NHL Draft
After three years of college hockey, Jake McCabe had a solid first pro season, scoring five goals and 29 points in 57 games for the Rochester Americans, and even getting in a couple of games with the Sabres last year.
McCabe is a very good skater. He has a very good top end speed, quick acceleration and a smooth stride. He pivots and changes directiions quickly and efficiently. He has good agility and balance, and uses his edges well. McCabe’s excellent skating game helps him in all aspects of the game. He is good at rushing with the puck, is capable of getting to a lot of loose pucks, is able to create space for himself in both the offensive and defensive zone, and is rarely beaten by pure speed off the rush. It is his biggest asset in creating the all around game that makes McCabe an intriguing prospect.
McCabe is at his best defensively. As mentioned, he is very good defending against the rush, keeping his opponent in front of him, and using a quick stick to knock the puck off an opponent’s stick. He’s not known as a big hitter, but is willing to engage in physical battles along the boards, and in front of his own net. McCabe has excellent hockey IQ, and plays a strong positional game, using his body and his stick to cut off passing and shooting lanes.
McCabe also has a decent offensive skill set. He’s not much of a gambler, and doesn’t do it often, but his skating does give him the ability to go end to end at times. He’s a smart player, who makes a good first pass to start the breakout in his own end, and has good vision and passing skills to make plays in the offensive end. McCabe has a hard slap shot which he is able to keep low and on net. While he doesn’t project as a huge point producer going forward, we do think he can be a valuable asset in both ends of the rink.
McCabe projects as a solid two-way blueliner at the NHL level. His ceiling is that of a second pairing blue liner. McCabe has the physical tools and skills to develop to the point where he will get special teams time as both a penalty killer, and as a defenceman on the second unit of a power play.
With a year of pro hockey under his belt, the 21-year-old will head to Sabres camp looking to make the big club. However, I think there are still some areas he could work on polishing around the edges and expect to see him start the season as a top pairing defender in Rochester. McCabe is knocking on the NHL door though, and it won’t be long before he’s a top four stalwart for the Sabres. It just might have to wait another year.
#3 Prospect: 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 2014 trade with the Los Angeles Kings adding the 2013 fourth rounder to their prospect pool. He also played for the Americans at the last two World Junior Hockey Championships picking up 3 goals and 7 points in 10 games, and was named a top three player on the team at this year’s tournament. A power winger who had a solid couple of seasons with the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, including helping the club to the Big Ten Title, Fasching adds a dynamic look to the Sabres prospect pool.
Fasching has all the tools you would want in a power forward prospect. 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 edge work.
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 in his time with Minnesota, and if he can continue to solve that issue, he can be a steal for Buffalo. He is scheduled to be back with the Gophers this fall.
Super Sleeper Prospect: Evan Rodrigues, Right Wing
Born Jul 28 1993 — Etobicoke, ONT
Height 5.11 — Weight 179 [180 cm/81 kg] — Shoots Right
Signed as an Undrafted Free Agent in June 2015
After his impressive sophomore season, Rodrigues got some NHL interest but decided to return to school. He followed that up by struggling through his junior season. As a senior, he has been put on a line with Jack Eichel and one of Ahti Oskanen or Danny O’Regan. He exploded offensively putting up 21 goals and 61 points in 41 games.
Rodrigues has good speed and excellent acceleration. He can fly up and down the wing, and creates chances on odd man rushes. He also has an excellent shot and release. His wrister is powerful, and he gets it off quickly and from a variety of release points, which makes it difficult for goalies to anticipate. However, the best part of his game is his playmaking ability. He protects the puck well in the cycle game, working below the hashmarks and extending plays, as he waits for teammates to get open. When they do, Rodrigues can feather a pass through tight openings and put it right on the tape. Some may question if his offensive explosion is due to playing with Eichel, and while its true that he has benefited from being on the line, we should remember he had 34 points in 38 games as a sophomore before Eichel was around.
Rodrigues defensive game is decent for a college player, but he must continue to add some muscle to hise S frame so that he is not overpowered in puck battles going forward. He does well on the back check and is willing to block shots, and his quick stick cuts down passing lanes. When a turnover is created, he is quick in the transition game.
I expect Rodrigues to start the year with Rochester in the AHL. As he has already gone through four years of college hockey, he is relatively advanced and it would not be a surprise to see him pushing for an NHL job late in the season, or by training camp in 2016.
The depth of the Sabres prospect pool took some major hits with Nikita Zadorov, Mikhail Grigorenko, J.T. Compher, and Joel Armia being traded away. Still the team is well stocked at nearly all positions. Centre is a real strength for the club with elite talents in Eichel and Reinhart being complimented by young NHLers in O’Reilly, Girgensons, and Larsson. The forward group also has Fasching, Nick Baptiste, Justin Bailey, Phil Varone, Vaclav Karabacek and William Carriere developping. On defence Rasmus Ristolainen and Mark Pysyk are young NHLers, while McCabe, Chad Ruhwedel, Brycen Martin and Brendan Guhle are looking to the future. In net there is no standout prospect but Andrey Makarov, Linus Ullmark and Cal Petersen all show potential. Even after experiencing some graduations and moving out some prospects, the Sabres still have one of the best prospect groups in the league.
KELOWNA, BC – DECEMBER 7: Sam Reinhart #23 of the Kootenay Ice skates against the Kelowna Rockets at Prospera Place in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)