Welcome to the 2016 edition of “Top Shelf Prospects”. As we go through the Summer of 2016 I will be featuring a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL. I will follow the order of the first round of the NHL draft (as if there were no trades). 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 this year. 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 2016-17 roster. I will also bring you one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the 4th-round or later; or 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.
TSP: Buffalo Sabres Prospects
After two straight seasons at the bottom of the NHL, the Buffalo Sabres started to make strides up the standings this past season. Rookie forwards Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart took the city by storm. They had very good campaigns, and provide hope for the future. New addition Ryan O’Reilly proved to be worth the price paid last summer. The Sabres also made a huge splash on July 1st, signing Kyle Okposo. However, Evander Kane continued to have off-ice issues, and was a little disappointing on the ice.
On defence, Rasmus Ristolainen continues to develop into a force. 2012 draftee Jake McCabe solidified his place in the NHL. The Sabres added Dmitri Kulikov over the off-season, to provide help. The other addition in the Kane trade, Zach Bogosian has been a bit of a disappointment since coming over from Winnipeg.
Injuries limited new goaltender Robin Lehner to just 21 games. He played very well when he did see the net. Lehner posted a .924 save percentage last season.
Draft Picks: Alexander Nylander, Rasmus Asplund, Cliff Pu, Casey Fitzgerald, Brett Murray, Philip Nyberg, Vojtek Budik, Brandon Hagel, Austin Osmanski, Vasili Glotov
Graduates: Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Jake McCabe,
Note: We will not be including Jimmy Vesey as a Sabres prospect due to the fact that all indications are that he will be headed to unrestricted free agency on August 15th.
Buffalo Sabres Prospects Scouting Reports
Top Prospect: Alexander Nylander
The eighth overall pick of the 2016 NHL Draft, Nylander becomes the Sabres top prospect. I will not be re-writing my pre-draft scouting report, as there have not been any meaningful games since draft day. You can check out the report here.
#2 Prospect: Justin Bailey
Right Wing — shoots Right
Born Jul 1 1995 — Williamsville, NY
Height 6’4 — Weight 209 lbs [193 cm / 95 kg]
Drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in round 2, #52 overall at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft
Bailey, a western New York native, had a solid rookie season with the Rochester Americans of the AHL. He scored 20 goals and added 25 assists for 45 points. A versatile forward, Bailey spent most of his time at right wing this season. He played some centre in junior as well. Bailey is the son of Carlton Bailey who went to three Super Bowls with the Buffalo Bills.
While Justin Bailey has said that Carlton Bailey was an absentee father, he still grew up with plenty of good role models. His mother lived in the same condominium complex as Rob Ray, Matthew Barnaby and Mike Peca when Justin Bailey was growing up. Bailey would also have his midget team coached by former NHL superstar Pat Lafontaine.
Bailey skates well, with good agility and edgework. He also has very good top end speed. He cleaned up a choppy stride, and now has a good first step and acceleration. Bailey has good balance and power. He is strong on the puck and difficult to knock off of it. Bailey also has the ability to fight through checks and get to the front of the net.
Bailey has the type of ideal size that NHL teams long for in forward prospects. Bailey has a tremendous arsenal of shots. His snap shot and wrist shot are both lethal and feature the type of hair trigger release that drives goalies nuts. His slap shot and one-timer are accurate and powerful. He has all the makings of a sniper. Bailey is strong on the puck, and his good puck protection, balance, and ability to win board battles makes him good on the cycle game. This coupled with his good passing skill make him a good play maker. He has become more consistent in his physical game. Bailey is willing to battle along the boards and wins loose pucks. He also pressures defenders on the forecheck, and is a threat to throw a big hit.
Bailey’s defensive game has really improved over the last couple of year. He has solved the issues of inconsistency that plagued him in his draft year. Bailey usually plays a strong two-way game showing smarts and high-effort level in his own end of the ice. While he occasionally gets caught puck watching and not moving his feet, this happens far less frequently. He has become a player who is reliable, more often than not.
Bailey is close to NHL ready, but cracking the Sabres line-up is no sure thing. He may need to start another year with Rochester. He has the potential to be a very effective power forward at the NHL level. However, Bailey may need some time to refine his game going forward. He could see further NHL call-ups this year, and may even be ready for full-time duty before the end of the year.
#3 Prospect: Brendan Guhle
Defense — shoots Left
Born Jul 29 1997 — Edmonton, ALTA
Height 6’2 — Weight 189 lbs [188 cm/86 kg]
Drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in round 2, #51 overall at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft
Brendan Guhle was impressive at Sabres training camp last year. He was one of the last cuts, and there was some serious consideration given to keeping him on the main roster. Tim Murray and Dan Bylsma ultimately decided to send him back to the WHL. Guhle had a solid season with the Prince Albert Raiders, scoring 10 goals and 28 points. He also got in a cameo appearance in Rochester, with four points in six games.
Guhle is a very strong skater. He has excellent speed and acceleration in both directions. This allows him to pinch down low, or to join the rush, and still be able to get back defensively. He also has very good pivots and edge work. He maintains good gap control, and is tough to beat to the outside. If there is a criticism to his skating, it is that he lacks lower body strength which takes away from his balance and power. He loses battles along the boards and is not strong enough on the puck right now. These aspects can definitely improve though as he adds core strength in the coming years.
Guhle is a strong offensive defenceman. His strong skating is combined with good puck handling skills making him someone who can lead the rush. He is also willing to join as a trailer. Guhle has a good array of shooting skills that make him dangerous in this position, or at the point on the power play. He has a very hard slap shot and an excellent one-timer. He also utilizes a good wrist shot and snap shot, both of which feature a quick release. His ability to vary his shots, where he shoots from; and a willingness to go to both sides of the net and high or low all make him difficult to defend. He uses his agility to open up passing and shooting lanes. Guhle can control the play and quarterback things from the point.
Guhle improved his defensive consistency over the past year, and is very strong in his own end. He skates the puck out of the forecheck, and makes a good first pass in order to start the transition game. Guhle also has solid positioning and funnels attackers to the outside off the rush. He can throw a big hit from time to time. However, he does not go chasing those hits and get himself out of position. He can sometimes make a silly giveaway, though he has really reduced that tendency. He can get even better though. Correcting those issues with coaching and maturity will go a long way. Another issue he has is again one based on needing to add strength to his frame. This will help him to win more board battles and clear the front of the net.
As good as Guhle was at last year’s training camp, it may be a bit much to expect a repeat performance. He should get a good look, but is probably best off heading back to the WHL. Guhle can still improve his game at the junior level, as well as continue to bulk up. He is likely a year or two away from the NHL, but can be an effective two-way defender in time.
#4 Prospect: Hudson Fasching
Right Wing — shoots Right
Born Jul 28 1995 — Burnsville, MN
Height 6’2 — Weight 216 lbs [188 cm / 98 kg]
Drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in round 4, #118 overall at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft
Traded to the Buffalo Sabres March 2014
Fasching had an outstanding junior season at the University of Minnesota. He put up 20 goals and 18 assists for 38 points in 37 games. When the NCAA season ended, Fasching turned pro, and even got in seven games with the Sabres. He didn’t look out of place, and scored his first goal and assist. Fasching also played for Team USA at the IIHF World Championships.
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 on the cycle. His top end speed is good, but the acceleration could be improved going forward, especially his first step. Fasching shows good agility. He has natural athletic ability but must refine his skating technique. He has made some improvements on his edge work, but there is still some work to do.
Fasching has all the tools you would want in a power forward prospect. He is already 6’2 and 216 pounds. Fasching takes the puck to the net, and can score goals in tight. He also has a good wrist shot and snap shot with a quick release. The former Golden Gopher gets to the front of the net, where he uses his big body to establish position. He has soft hands and can 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 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. Fasching seems to have solved the consistency issues that were a knock on him earlier in his career.
Fasching will go to Sabres camp looking to compete for a spot on the team. His biggest competition will be Justin Bailey. The Sabres have a number of talented centres, and can use some help on the wings. With that in mind he will be given every opportunity to make the team. Even if he doesn’t make the squad, he should be an injury call-up and will be taking a full-time spot soon.
#5 Prospect Rasmus Asplund
The thirty-third overall pick of the 2016 NHL Draft, Asplund becomes the Sabres #5 prospect. I will not be re-writing my pre-draft scouting report, as there have not been any meaningful games since draft day. You can check out the report here.
#6 Prospect: William Carrier
Left Wing — shoots Left
Born Dec 20 1994 — Lasalle, PQ
Height 6’1 — Weight 194 lbs [185 cm / 88 kg]
Drafted by the St. Louis Blues in round 2, #57 overall at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft
Traded to the Buffalo Sabres in February 2014
Carrier had a solid second season with the Rochester Americans, putting up 13 goals and 30 points. He improved in every offensive category, despite playing seven less games than he did in 2014-15. He also developed a stronger defensive game.
Carrier has a strong, powerful skating stride. He generates very good speed, and his acceleration is such that he can reach top speed in only a few strides. He has enough speed to take a defender wide and cut to the net. Carrier has great balance and is very difficult to knock off the puck. Carrier’s powerful stride allows him to fight through checks, and he has the ability to go straight through defenders at times instead of going around them. He has decent agility and edgework, but he’s more likely to use his ability to bulldoze a defender then to elude them.
Carrier cycles the puck extremely well down low, and finds openings to cut to the net. He can show soft hands when he gets there. He scores most of his goals in tight either through this cutting to the net; or by standing in front with rebounds and tip-ins. Carrier has good vision and can be an decent play maker, especially out of the cycle. A pure power forward, he wins battles along the boards, and loves to throw his weight around on the fore check. He could stand to improve his stick handling though. This holds Carrier’s offensive game back. He will need to get better at making plays while still moving at top speed. Otherwise he will top out as a bottom six player going forward.
Carrier has the added bonus of playing a strong two-way game. He brings his physical presence to his own end of the rink, and continues to be strong in board battles and hitting. He also cuts down on passing and shooting lanes and is not afraid to block shots. Carrier has good anticipation, and creates turnovers. He has been used on the penalty kill.
At this point Carrier is profiling like a bottom six player. He can play a grinding game in the offensive zone, and a decent defensive game. With the number of strong wingers on the Sabres roster right now, he might have to bide his time to get an opportunity.
Sleeper: Cal Petersen
Goalie — Shoots Right — Catches Right
Born Oct 19 1994 — Waterloo, IA
Height 6’1 — Weight 182 lbs [185 cm/83 kg]
Drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in round 5, #129 overall at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft
Petersen finished his second season as the starting goalie of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. He was phenomenal, putting up a .927 save percentage and 2.20 goals against average while starting 37 games. The Irish leaned heavily on Petersen, who seemed to start both games in nearly every important back-to-back. Petersen proved to be capable of playing the heavy workload, and was the team’s unofficial MVP.
Coming in at just 6’1 tall, Petersen is a little short when we look at the trend of bigger goaltenders in the NHL. He does make himself look big in the net though, by getting out far to challenge shooters. He is a good skater, with powerful legs. This allows him to avoid being deked out when he does challenge a shooter. He also is quick side-to-side on cross-ice passes.
Petersen has quick legs. He is very tough to beat down low. He has excellent technique and get in and out of his butterfly quickly. The Notre Dame goaltender protects the top of the net with a lightning quick glove hand. His rebound control is very good for a young prospect.
Petersen should be back with the Fighting Irish this season. He has been a workhorse for them, and should continue to do so. The Sabres may try to get him signed to a professional contract in the spring, once his NCAA season is completed. However, he could choose to finish out his entire four year career.
A few years ago, the Sabres had the number one prospect pool in the NHL. While graduations and trades mean they won’t reach such lofty status again this year, they still have an excellent young group. In addition to Petersen, Linus Ullmark gives the team depth in goal. He was solid as a fill-in when Lehnar was injured last season. At the back end William Borgen, Casey Fitzgerald, and Brycen Martin add depth. We also loved the addition of Casey Nelson last year. However, a real blue chip prospect is needed in the near future. The Sabres best position is at forward. In addition to the players already mentioned; Nick Baptiste, Cliff Pu, Vaclav Karabacek, Eric Cornel, Evan Rodrigues, and Giorgio Estephan all have legit chances to develop into NHL players.