Welcome back to Top Shelf Prospects, the column that brings you the next crop of professional hockey players. As we go through the summer of 2023, each day our LWOS Prospects Writers will bring you a look at one NHL team’s top prospects or other topical article. Be sure to bookmark the site, follow Ben Kerr, Kyle Pereira and Frederik Frandson on Twitter, and spread the word for the site that will bring you analytical and critical profiles and scouting reports! You can find all the articles here as well as our extensive NHL Draft preview. Today, we look at the 2023 Buffalo Sabres Top Prospects.
For those wondering, the cut-off for what is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 50 NHL games played (including playoff games) or is 25 years old. These are not hard or fast rules though, and we may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
2023 Buffalo Sabres Top Prospects
1.) Zach Benson
Zach Benson, who was taken 13th overall in the most recent NHL entry draft, is already being looked at as a steal. He very well tops the Buffalo Sabres prospects pool immediately. Benson came into his draft year following a year producing 63 points in 58 games. That’s already impressive for a 16/17-year-old kid in his first full season in the WHL. However, it was this past season that warranted a lot of attention. Benson produced 98 points in just 60 games, and was highly regarded as a lock for the top-10 or maybe even top-five.
However, on draft day, several players consistently ranked below him were scooped up, and he watched himself fall outside the top-10. The Sabres ended his slide, and likely will look like absolute geniuses in the long run. Benson has incredible vision and IQ, which allows him to pick apart defensive zone coverages like it’s nothing. The attention to detail and incredible puck skills gives him a skill set that teams would generally covet. The only reason he fell was his size, and that could come back to bite those teams who passed on him on the backside.
2.) Jiri Kulich
Jiri Kulich, drafted in the first round (28th overall) in the 2022 NHL draft, is coming off a very promising season in the AHL that allowed him to shoot up prospect lists. After being drafted, he would make the move to North America to adjust to the smaller rinks. His defensive game, coming into the season, was already highly regarded and his smart style allowed him to limit mistakes in the offensive end. But coming over to play on smaller rinks would be a test to his offensive game and skating. Could he still limit turnovers with less room for error? Would his skating still be effective with less space to maneuver?
Kulich not only proved his offensive game could still be effective, but he also proved he took a big step. He also maintained his defensive efficiency, as well as still being an effective skater. Playing 62 games with the Rochester Americans, he scored 24 goals and 22 assists for 46 points. With the performance he had, he very well could be a full-time NHLer next season.
3.) Devon Levi
Devon Levi, a seventh round pick (212th overall) by the Florida Panthers back in the 2020 NHL draft, is one of the most anticipated goalie prospects in the league. That’s why he tops the Buffalo Sabres prospects pipeline in the crease. He won NCAA goalie of the year twice in three seasons with Northeastern University, a World Championship gold medal, a U20 World Junior Championship silver medal, and has been awarded with various titles such as player of the week or goalie of the week (13 times), player or goalie of the month (three times), and was a Hobey Baker finalist (twice) in his last two collegiate seasons.
Levi was acquired by the Sabres in the Sam Reinhart trade, alongside a first round draft pick in 2022 (which, funny enough, turned into Kulich). He has done nothing but prove the Sabres were correct in taking a shot on him. The 6’0” goaltender got a taste of NHL action in the form of a seven-game stint. He went 5-2-0, with a .905 save percentage and a 2.94 goals against average. Levi is slated to play more NHL games this year, and he could even earn the starting role as soon as this season.
4.) Matthew Savoie
Matthew Savoie, who was taken ninth overall in the 2022 NHL draft, was able to repeat his successful draft season this past year. In his draft year, he managed to score 90 points in 65 games. While he earned a lot of praise, his smaller 5’9” frame allowed him to be available at ninth overall (similar to the slide Benson had). Staying in the WHL with the Winnipeg ICE this past season, he managed to score 95 points in 62 games, showing that the big season was no fluke.
Savoie is a dynamite playmaker and possesses an effective and underrated shot. It’s clear the offensive skillset is there, it’s clear as day. But Savoie’s game is still under construction, despite the strides he took in his defensive zone. Continuing to evolve his shot and be an even more dynamic play driver will do wonders for his game. That said, he is slated to play next season in the WHL, which may be the best avenue to take in his development.
5.) Isak Rosen
Isak Rosen, who was drafted in the first round (14th overall) in the 2021 draft, made the jump to the AHL last season. The Swede played in 28 SHL games following his draft season, where he managed to post four points. Additionally, he added nine points in eight J20 games. With that, he made the jump to North America and played a full season in the AHL. With Rochester, he scored 37 points in 66 games, proving that his offensive skills can translate to the smaller rinks.
Rosen is an excellent skater who has outstanding pace in the offensive game with really good playmaking skills. Rosen also has a strong shot, and his multi-dimensional offensive game has already carried him far. But he hasn’t taken the strides that many might have expected from him since being drafted. Rosen still has that potential to be a top-six presence, but another AHL season could do wonders for him and, of course, the Sabres. Rosen’s style could add another dynamic, which makes the Buffalo Sabres prospects pipeline even stronger.
6.) Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen
Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen is a former second round pick, and a second high-end goalie that the Sabres have in their system. Luukkonen was drafted 54th overall in the 2017 draft, and he would spend just one more season in his native Finland, where he struggled a bit after moving up and out of the U20 ranks. That’s when he came to the OHL and had a successful first season. Then, he struggled in the AHL the following season after trying his hand in the professional ranks, and spent time in the ECHL.
Since that first AHL season, the 6’4” goaltender would get 46 total NHL games over the next three seasons, recording save percentages of .906 (four games), .917 (nine games), and .892 (33 games). While he did struggle a bit with the Sabres last season, the brightside is that he got a lot of experience and managed to stay healthy. Staying healthy, in his case, is a brighter development than anything else he could have done, within reason. Can he take a step forward next season with Levi breathing right down his neck, while also remaining healthy?
7.) Noah Ostlund
Ostlund is yet another first round pick (16th overall) that came from the Sabres 2022 draft haul. In his draft year, Ostlund was able to get 11 games worth of SHL experience (but did not score any points), and dominated the J20 ranks (42 points in 32 games). Then last season, with Djurgardens now playing in the Allsvenskan (the Swedish AHL equivalent), he stepped into 37 games against men (scoring 26 points). He is expected to play in the SHL with the Vaxjo Lakers this season.
Ostlund’s skillset is one that relies on his excellent skating and anticipation skills. He creates a lot off the rush with his speed and strong puck skills, paired with that anticipation. That allows him to know when to slow down or speed up, by reading the defensive zone coverage and reacting to what’s being given to him. His passes are quick and accurate, and if you give him an inch of space to pass through, he’ll hit the target. Consistency remains a question, but the bigger problem is the injuries he dealt with towards the end of last season.
8.) Anton Wahlberg
Wahlberg is a newly acquired player for the Sabres, someone they took in the second round (39th overall) in this past draft. Last year, he played 32 J20 games and managed to produce 27 points. Now, that doesn’t sound all that impressive until it’s mentioned that Wahlberg is 6’3” and 192 pounds. He’s bigger than a lot of the guys who produce like he did, giving him a more unique look. But also, he managed to draw into 17 SHL games, where he produced four points.
Along with his size and part-time experience in the SHL, Wahlberg is also a strong skater. He needs to refine his skating, certainly, but his straight-line speed once he takes off is impressive. Additionally, with his surprising skating ability, he knows how to use his size effectively in the offensive zone. He gets to the dirty areas, wins the battles at the net front and along the walls, and can put away rebounds. However, the overall skill is lacking offensively to this point, and his something he must work on moving forward. Wahlberg’s game still projects as one that will translate to the NHL, and if he can take strides in his offensive arsenal, he can be more than just a depth forward. That thought, within an already strong Buffalo Sabres prospects pipeline, is scary to think about.
9.) Ryan Johnson
Ryan Johnson, who was drafted back in 2019 with the 31st overall pick, has been playing in the NCAA with the University of Minnesota for the last four seasons. He just completed his fourth season as an assistant captain, showing there’s more to his game than the on-ice product. As for what he has done for Minnesota, he produced eight, 14, 19, and 18 points, respectively. None of those numbers pop off the page, and even less so combined (59 points in 143 games).
However, offence has never been his game. He was a highly coveted defensive prospect because of his puck-moving skills and defensive game. He has always showed reliability in his own end. His skating is also high-end, which has allowed him to play against strong competition and stick with them. It’s also allowed his puck-moving ability to be even more effective. Johnson does need to take a step forward at some point in terms of offensive skills. But he looks the part of a smart, shut-down defender who can play middle-pair minutes down the line.
10.) Prokhor Poltapov
Poltapov, drafted in the second round (33rd overall) in the 2021 NHL draft. He has two more seasons left on his KHL contract. That’s counting this upcoming season. In his draft year, he got one KHL game (no points) and played 61 MHL games, scoring 52 points. The following season, he managed to draw into 17 KHL games (no points again) and 25 VHL games (seven points). However, he still remained at the MHL for a part of the season, with 15 points in 13 games. Last season, while he still drew into both MHL and VHL contests, he finally solidified his spot in the KHL. Across 56 KHL contests, he posted 10 points. That went along with two points combined between a total of five MHL and VHL games (one point in each league).
Poltapov solidifying his place in the KHL for almost all of last season is a huge development. Expected to finish out his contract playing at Russia’s highest level, Poltapov’s goals moving forward is to up the production from here on out. Overall, Poltapov remains a high energy player, as many have known since the day he was drafted. However, that offensive consistency still needs to be figured out, and maybe all he needs is more experience. Poltapov will be given these next few seasons to get that figured out. Until then, the Sabres can wait.
HM (Round 4 or Later): Lukas Rousek
Lukas Rousek is coming off a successful season and deserves a lot of mention within the Buffalo Sabres prospects pool. The Sabres may have gotten a big steal in the former sixth round pick (160th overall) in 2019. Following his draft selection, he played two seasons at Czechia’s top men’s league. He managed to score 29 points in 52 games in that first season. Rousek followed that up with 38 points in 49 games the second year. Overall, that’s 67 points in 101 games, not bad for a younger kid. After those two seasons, he would make the jump to the AHL. But he only managed 19 games due to injuries in his first season. It wouldn’t stop him from proving himself, eventually.
Rousek wasted no time getting his name out there, finishing the season with 56 points in 70 games. In fact, he was so impressive he earned a two-game stint in the NHL. There he scored a goal and an assist. Another high-energy player in the Sabres system, Rousek plays with speed and aggressiveness. He’s willing to do all the dirty work that many players try to avoid. Rousek may not be ready for a full-time role just yet. But if there’s a spot to be had at some point, due to injuries or otherwise, he could be the guy they call.
In The System
The Buffalo Sabres prospects pool is a pretty strong one. Tage Thompson, Dylan Cozens, Peyton Krebs, John-Jason Peterka, Rasmus Dahlin, Mattias Samuelsson, Owen Power and Jack Quinn are not even included, as they’ve graduated to the NHL already. Then, there are the other names not mentioned above. Such as Viktor Neuchev, Alexander Kisakov, Tyson Kozak, Olivier Nadeau, Nikita Novikov, and others who missed the top-10 or also could have been listed as an honorable mention.
The Sabres clearly have a lot of young stars, both already on their roster or on their way up. Additionally, with some of their top-end guys like Benson and Kulich, they drafted for ceiling and not whether they’re ready now or not. In other words, the Sabres have been willing to take swings on higher end prospects at the expense of being pro-ready sooner. Teams need to start taking that approach more often. As evidenced by how strong the Buffalo Sabres prospects pool clearly is, at this time. The future is unquestionably bright.