The Buffalo Sabres have managed to stay competitive in the Northeast Division by drafting well and bringing along players in an intelligent fashion.
Year after year, the Sabres bring up young players for a few games, then return them for more seasoning. Right wing Mark Mancari, left wing Marc-Andre Gragnani and defensemen Mike Weber and Mike Funk are among the prospects who have gotten a taste of the NHL. Clarke MacArthur (56 games) and Patrick Kaleta (47 games) no longer have NHL rookie status, but are other examples of players the Sabres have brought along slowly and who more than likely will wear the Buffalo uniform this season.
The Sabres had a long AHL affiliation with the nearby Rochester Americans, but will base their prospects with the Portland Pirates this season.
"The good thing about moving to Portland will be having everyone in the minors on the same program," said Sabres' Pro Scout Jon Christiano. "The last few years have been hard for us to grow our players with the half-and-half arrangement (with the Florida Panthers)."
Here's a look at the Sabres' top prospects entering the 2008-09 season:
Marek Zagrapan -- "Precocious" only begins to describe Zagrapan's career. Buffalo's first-round pick (No. 15) in 2005 was just 15 when he first played in the top Czech league and was a minor part of Zlin's championship team the next season. He played two seasons for Chicoutimi in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and led all rookies in scoring in 2004-05 with 32 goals and 50 assists. He had 35 goals and 52 assists the next season.
Zagrapan has played two seasons with the Rochester Americans, posting 35 goals and 43 assists for a last-place team. Zagrapan is tenacious in battles for the puck, is very quick and has great balance and stickhandling skills. He plays with a good bit of fury and sometimes takes bad penalties.
"We haven't brought Marek up yet for a couple of reasons," Christiano said. "When we needed a fourth-line guy, we brought up Patrick Kaleta, and when we needed a scorer, we brought up Clarke MacArthur. There weren't too many offensive call-ups. Marek is a young kid who still could have been playing juniors the year before last.
"We want to see some growth in his quickness and battling skills and we're expecting this year to be a good turnaround season for him. He has to be a key guy for us in Portland. It would be great if he is the first guy called up this season."
Nathan Gerbe -- It could be interesting in a couple years if the Sabres have the hero of the 2008 NCAA championship, Nathan Gerbe, centering the hero of the 2007 NCAA championship, left wing Tim Kennedy. After his Boston College team lost the 2007 title game to Kennedy's Michigan State, Gerbe led the nation in scoring this past season with 35 goals and 33 assists for 68 points in 43 games.
Buffalo's fifth-round pick (No. 142) in 2005 was named the Most Outstanding Player of the 2008 Frozen Four after scoring eight points (5 goals, 3 assists) in two games —highlighted by his two-goal performance in the Eagles' 4-1 win over Notre Dame in the championship game. Gerbe tied the record for goals in a single NCAA tournament with seven, and his five goals in the Frozen Four ranks fourth all-time.
Gerbe is only 5-foot-6 and 160 pounds, but his size hasn't stopped him from being one of the best players in his age bracket. He twice represented the United States at the World Juniors and twice at the World Under-18 championship.
"Nathan had a really good camp and he played just like he plays in his college games," Christiano said. "You can't help but notice him. He's always around the puck, creating offense. He pulls things out of his hat sometimes and he fit in really well.
"He's successful because he is quick and there is a ton of battler in him. He's a smaller version of Martin St. Louis or Brian Gionta. Gionta has that quickness, too. Gerbe has slippery quickness and competes for pucks. He doesn't like to lose. I find it hard to believe an inch or two will make that much difference if a guy has the heart twice the size of someone else. Nathan should do all right."
Tyler Ennis -- The Sabres had two first-round picks in the 2008 Entry Draft and the long and short of it is that they took the long and the short -- 6-foot-7 defenseman Tyler Myers at No. 13 and 5-foot-9 center Tyler Ennis at No. 26.
Ennis has put on weight since he was measured in juniors at 146 pounds. He's closer to 170 now. He is a fine playmaker who can also score. He was voted to the 2008 WHL East First All-Star Team and voted the Brad Hornung Trophy as the league's Most Sportsmanlike Player. He had 43 goals and 48 assists for 91 points for the Medicine Hat Tigers, making him the fourth-leading scorer in the WHL. Ennis has junior eligibility remaining and is likely to return to Medicine Hat.
"Ennis is in the Gerbe mold, a creative offensive player," Christiano said. "He played pretty well here at development camp and he handles himself really well. He has a composure to him. His junior coach spoke highly of him. He's kind of small, but he'll get bigger and stronger. He's bigger than Gerbe!"
2007-08 SEASON STATS
(10TH eAst/18TH NHL)
|Change from 2006-07||-23|
(10th eAst/23RD NHL)
(8tH eAst/12 NHL)
In his last three seasons with the Prince Edward Island Rocket, Gragnani had 48 goals and 178 points. The Rochester Americans switched Gragnani to left wing last season and he led the team with 38 assists while scoring 14 goals, while also playing point on the power play. Gragnani was pointless in two games with the Sabres.
Gragnani is 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds and still growing. The experiment at forward might be terminated if Gragnani can strengthen his defensive play as well as his body. He would seem like a logical candidate to take over the role played so well in the past by Brian Campbell and, before him, Alexei Zhitnik. Gragnani is said to be more mobile than Campbell but still has a lot to learn about the position at the NHL level.
"There will probably be a transition for him to go from defenseman to forward. That's our thought process right now," Christiano said. "He's a very good skater with good hands. His skill package should allow him to play in the NHL. The big thing for him is learning to play forward, the different skating routes and the little intricacies of the position. It shouldn't be too hard for him because he played forward prior to juniors. So, it's not a new thing.
"He played forward last season for half the year and ran the power play from the point in the American league. He's got the capability of doing that. This way, we get the offensive mentality of a forward at the point and he has more defensive background than the average forward at the point."
Tim Kennedy -- Kennedy, a local boy, was the Washington Capitals' sixth-round choice (No. 181) in the 2005 Entry Draft; his rights were traded to Buffalo by Washington a month later for Buffalo's sixth-round choice in the 2006 Entry Draft.
Kennedy led Michigan State in scoring for the second straight season by tying his career-best with 20 goals and 23 assists in 42 games. Kennedy led the Spartans in all offensive categories. He had nine power-play goals and five game-winners and was named to the CCHA Second All-Star Team. In three seasons, Kennedy has 42 goals and 63 assists for 105 points.
Kennedy will live in Spartans' lore for helping to deliver the 2007 NCAA Championship. He was named to the All-Tournament team after scoring the tying goal in the championship game against Boston College and then assisting on Justin Abdelkader’s game-winner. He's likely to turn pro this fall.
"Tim has gotten bigger and stronger and he can skate fairly well," Christiano said. "He has really good hands for a kid who needs to play with an edge. It will be interesting this season to watch him play in the AHL, get some experience and see where he fits. His greatest need is to work on his scoring possibilities. He needs more work on his shooting and goal-scoring skills. Gerbe has him beat in that area, in terms of finishing."
Mark Mancari -- The Ottawa 67s were Memorial Cup finalists in 2005 and definitely would not have gotten there without Mark Mancari's team-leading 14 goals and 10 assists during the OHL playoffs. He had two goals and an assist in four Memorial Cup games.
Mancari started slowly in juniors and was subbed out his first season to a Junior B team. He had a pretty good second season but coach Brian Kilrea moved him to right wing in his third season and he broke out for 29 goals. Mancari had 36 goals and 68 points his final season.
Mancari has had two seasons in Rochester and was one of the few players to end last season with a positive plus-minus number. He was called up for three games, and is likely to see more NHL time this year. He's big and tough at 6-4 and 225 pounds and won the AHL's hardest-shot contest last season.
"His issue is his skating, his gift is his big shot," Christiano said. "Mark is probably going to get another chance to see where he fits in in the NHL. There aren't too many guys can shoot a puck like him. He needs to work on his foot speed, especially the first couple of steps.
"He's not going to be the guy that carries the puck. He'll be more like a Dave Andreychuk who goes to the net, gets the puck and pounds it into the net. Mark is a hybrid guy who played defense in juniors and some forward. He's a guy who can score and get the puck to the net. Then, somehow, they get through the goalie."
Tyler Myers -- The Sabres traded up at the 2008 Draft to get Myers at No. 12. He is a 6-foot-7, 204-pound, defensive defenseman who has played two full seasons and nine games his first junior season with the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League. He had eight goals and 27 assists for 35 points in 133 games and was named the WHL's Top Prospect.
The Sabres were intent on strengthening their defensive corps of prospects while attempting to get bigger on the blue line. Myers' height and strength were seen as key to that goal and they took three other defensemen in the Draft, Corey Fienhage, Jordon Southorn and Nick Crawford.
Myers has a terrific shot and is a surprisingly good skater for a tall man. He has to work on his strength but it's coming. He said he was compared to Zdeno Chara in every team interview he did at the NHL Combine in May -- but realizes he has a long way to go to match Chara's strength.
"Tyler Myers is going to be the real deal," Christiano said. "For a kid that tall, he has good feet and hands. You don't see that all the time. This is a guy who is 6-foot-7 but it so coordinated that he can really motor."
Mike Weber -- Weber was Rochester's most reliable defenseman last season. The Sabres are famous for bringing players along slowly but Weber's development may alter their plans. He is a 6-2, 200-pound, defensive defenseman who played four games for Buffalo early in the season and then 59 games for the last-place Amerks. He was brought back up and played the final 12 games for the Sabres, going plus-12 for his 16-game NHL season, with three assists. He was playing 19 minutes a game late in the NHL season.
While you don't think of Weber for offensive contributions, he won the hardest-shot contest at the OHL Top Prospects competition two years ago. Weber, picked in the second round (No. 57) in 2006, is a good skater with fine passing skills and he pounds opponents while picking up his share of penalties.
"Mike is a big, strong kid," Christiano said. "He's the complete pro, from his work ethic to his desire to be an NHL player. He will be there. Mike is a tough guy to play against and he has a great desire to succeed and achieve.
"In a way, it's not surprising because he lives with the Ott family in Windsor, Ontario, and he has great respect for (Dallas forward) Steve Ott and Steve's dad. He also had a lot of respect for his junior coaches in Windsor. When we drafted him, we were told he has a burning desire to play in the NHL and we have seen nothing to make us disagree with that statement."
T.J. Brennan -- While Gragnani may have once been seen as a successor to Brian Campbell, the rapid development of T.J. Brennan may have made possible the experiment to move Gragnani to forward.
Brennan had 32 goals and 50 assists in two seasons with the St. John's Fog Devils of the QMJHL. Brennan was the QMJHL's top rookie defenseman two years ago but his continuing defensive struggles are a concern. His minus-15 was second-worst on the Fog Devils.
Brennan, Buffalo's first pick (No. 31) in 2007, came late to hockey and was a high-school star in lacrosse. As a result, he has great hand speed and physicality but needs to improve his skating.
"He's an offensive defenseman who flew onto the charts this year," Christiano said. "T.J. has a big shot. His real need is to grow into a better defender by raising his defensive awareness and thinking like a defensive defenseman in those situations. He just needs more experience. There's another factor: Some of these juniors play half the game so they're jogging out there, economizing their energy so they can play those many minutes.
"He has to become like a lot of kids going from juniors to the professional game: He thinks offense but you have to be capable defensively. Hopefully, his skating agility and his defensive awareness will improve. He needs to work on his pivoting, his turning to skate backwards, his first couple of steps. Anyone can skate a straight line. Today's game is about wiggling around, making tight turns, skating in a phone booth. You have to be able to maneuver, get a little space and throw a puck on net."
Chris Butler -- Butler, a native of St. Louis, chose the University of Denver because he thought he could learn from defense-playing upper classmen Matt Carle and Brett Skinner. He became the Pioneers' 34th All-American selection last season when his three goals and 14 assists led Denver back to the NCAA Tournament. He led the Pioneers with 110 shots.
Butler weighed 170 pounds when Buffalo drafted him in the fourth round (No. 96) in 2005 but reportedly added 30 pounds by his sophomore year. He has a knack for excellent plus-minus numbers. He led the USHL in 2005 at plus-36 and was plus-9 and plus-10 in his last two seasons in Denver.
"Chris is another guy that is going to play in the NHL," Christiano said. "We expect great things. He has speed, power and awareness. Chris thinks like a defenseman and he has a good skill set. He's a lot like his former Denver University teammate, Matt Carle. He's in great shape. He's a great physical fitness guy with very little body fat at 198 pounds.
"This is his third development camp with us, and he has always been very athletic. His quickness and power rank at the top of our list. We can't ask for much more than that."
Michael Funk -- The Sabres hope that a successful call-up at the end of last season will help him Funk get out of the funk he seems to have been in the past few years.
He was the Portland Winter Hawks' rookie of the year in 2003 and played beside Braydon Coburn the next season, when he had three goals and 25 assists and was taken by Buffalo in the second round (No. 43). He played on the 2004 Canadian World U-18 team but was cut from the 2005 and 2006 World Junior teams.
Funk has had two so-so seasons in Rochester, getting called up briefly to Buffalo in each. With their playoff hopes hanging in the balance last spring, the Sabres called up three Rochester defensemen, Funk, Weber and Andrej Sekera, while sitting a couple of regular defensemen. The Sabres missed the Playoffs, but all three call-ups performed well.
"Mike has to get stronger and he has to work on his mobility," Christiano said. "He is a defensive defenseman for the most part. Mike has to be a guy who takes care of his end of things. He's not going to be a guy who joins the rush. His job is to protect the net and get the puck moving out of the defensive zone. He has to play within himself and he has to be a tough guy to play against. We're seeing some improvement in strength this summer.
"Mike has a long reach, long arms and a long stick. He needs to learn how to tangle guys up without getting penalties. Like a lot of young guys, he has to learn the percentages, when to make a certain play at a certain time."
Dennis Persson -- Buffalo's first-round pick (No. 24) in 2006 split last season between Djurgardens of the Swedish Elite League, and Nykoping of the Swedish second-tier league. He had one assist and 6 penalty minutes in 21 games with Djurgardens, and a goal and three assists and 14 penalty minutes with Nykoping.
Persson also represented Sweden at the 2006 World Juniors, where he was the team’s most consistent defenseman with six points in five games.
He is a little on the light side at 6-foot-1 and 182 pounds. His strengths are his good hockey sense and excellent ability to keep the puck in the offensive zone. He is not physical and should use his shot more.
Persson went from a standout Swedish junior player to one who had trouble at the Elite League level. He had five goals and seven assists in 53 Swedish minor-league games over two seasons.
"Dennis is a good skater and passer but he's another guy who has to get stronger to play in the NHL," Christiano said. "He will play in Sweden again this year. Like a lot of Swedes, compared to North American guys, Dennis has a good awareness of how to play defense and his skill set is pretty good. His biggest thing is getting bigger and stronger and then applying it around the net. He needs to become a strong guy to play against.
"Although he was used as power-play guy in juniors, we look at him not as guy who runs it but as the defenseman on the other side from the power-play quarterback. He has a big shot, a really good one-timer. He's not the guy who deceives and moves the puck, but he's good as the other point on the power play because he has defensive and offensive skills."
Jhonas Enroth -- Enroth has done nothing to make Buffalo worry about using a second-round pick (No. 46) in the 2006 Draft to select the player ranked as the No. 1 European goaltender. He'd had a strong 2006 season in Swedish juniors and played very well at the World U-18 tourney. Playing the next year for one of the weaker Elite League teams, Enroth had a 1.61 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage and was the runner-up for the Swedish Elite League rookie of the year.
Enroth had a 2.13 GAA last season and a .932 save percentage. But it was at the World Juniors, where Enroth led Sweden to the silver medal, that he really shone.
Enroth has very fast reflexes, good lateral movement and his coach described him as "a technically perfect goalie." There are concerns about his 5-foot-10, 175-pound frame and his stickhandling.
"Jhonas signed a three-year, entry-level contract with us in May and we are expecting him to be with our AHL team in Portland this year," Christiano said.
"Jhonas is a 'technique' goaltender versus a 'blocker-type. He's smaller-sized but his numbers and experiences at his age are equal to a Henrik Lundqvist. Jhonas has achieved what Lundqvist did at his age and they have very similar numbers. That would be great if he is comparable to Lundqvist.
"What I like the most is his composure," Christiano continued. "He doesn't get rattled. I saw him in Sweden in pressure games and he handles things with ease. It seems he has that poise and composure that you want in your goalie and he is mature beyond his years. That's another good trait for a goaltender. A lot of them don't play that well until they are 30.
"This is such a mentally tough game that a lot of young goalies are not ready for it. The best I ever saw walk into a pressure situation was Carey Price last season and yet he came undone in the Playoffs. That was the first time in his life, in his career at least, that he didn't succeed. NHL goaltender is a very demanding job."