After the Buffalo Sabres' second consecutive season missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs, general manager Darcy Regier appears committed to rebuilding from the ground up.
First, Regier removed the interim tag from coach Ron Rolston, who ran the U.S. National Team Development Program (USNTDP) from 2004-11. Rolston bolstered his staff with Joe Sacco, an assistant with a successful record of prospect development.
Rolston and Sacco will be eager to work with a prospect pool brimming with talent at nearly every position, especially on the blue line. As a result of Regier's recent strategy of stockpiling draft picks, the Sabres have taken 20 players in the past two NHL drafts, top prospects Mikhail Grigorenko, Rasmus Ristolainen and Joel Armia among them.
Though their homegrown talent pool is as good as any in the League, the Sabres' list of prospects grew even stronger with the trade of Jason Pominville to the Minnesota Wild. In return, Buffalo received a pair of high-ceiling players, goalie Matt Hackett and Swedish scorer Johan Larsson.
Here's a look at Buffalo's top 10 prospects, according to NHL.com:
1. Mikhail Grigorenko, C: A centerpiece of Buffalo's rebuild, Grigorenko is poised for a breakout season at the NHL level. The Sabres drafted the native of Khabarovsk, Russia, No. 12 in the 2012 after a season for the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League when he led all rookies in goals (40) and points (85).
Last season, after 50 points in 32 QMJHL games, Grigorenko earned a spot on Buffalo's 2012-13 opening-night roster. In 25 games, he scored a goal and had four assists playing mostly as a third- or fourth-line center. At 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, he exhibits a maturity and technical acumen well beyond his 19 years. With Buffalo's reconstituted lineup, expect to see all of Grigorenko's gifts on display on one of the Sabres' top lines this season.
2. Rasmus Ristolainen, D: Buffalo's first pick (No. 8) this summer, the "Finnish freight train" could make an immediate impact this season. With his 6-3, 207-pound frame and two-way abilities, Ristolainen tops Buffalo's stacked defensive class despite having spent only a month in the organization. The Sabres signed him to a three-year, entry-level contract in July after an impressive display at development camp.
Ristolainen, 18, is confident, calm with the puck, and loves getting into the rush almost as much as he enjoys crunching opposing forwards. What's more, he can do either with NHL-level skill. Ristolainen modeled his thundering slap shot after Shea Weber, his favorite player, and his game resembles the perennial All-Star's in more ways than one.
With two seasons in Finland's elite SM-Liiga under his belt, including 2012-13, when he scored 15 points and had 32 penalty minutes in 52 games, Ristolainen will receive a long look in training camp.
3. Zemgus Girgensons, C: When Girgensons was chosen two spots after Grigorenko (No. 14) in the first round of the 2012 draft, it appeared at first glance Buffalo selected identical players nearly back-to-back. Dynamic, imposing, two-way centers -- Girgensons is 6-2, 194 -- gifted in controlling the play and breaking the opposition down, the pair represented an exciting one-two punch.
Girgensons, who became the highest-drafted Latvian of all time, is more defensive and physical than Grigorenko. Most of Girgensons' forays last season for the Sabres' American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester found him on the forecheck instead of in front of the net.
The 19-year-old was a physical force all season in the AHL, and his offense finally clicked in the Calder Cup Playoffs, with three goals in three games. Girgensons projects as a second-line center who backchecks while more offensive-minded counterparts Grigorenko and Cody Hodgson create in the opposition's zone. Expect Girgensons to see a lot of ice time at First Niagara Center this season.
4. Chad Ruhwedel, D: Ruhwedel barely had time to blink before making his NHL debut this past April. Thursday, April 11, the 5-11, 180-pound defenseman for UMass-Lowell was eliminated from the Frozen Four. By Saturday night, Ruhwedel was skating alongside Mike Weber on Buffalo's blue line in a 1-0 win against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Ruhwedel, an undrafted free agent who signed a two-year, entry-level contract with the Sabres, played the final seven games in Buffalo as a replacement for injured Tyler Myers.
With a summer to put things into perspective, the jury remains out on the 23-year-old due to the small sample size of last season. An unknown in his draft year, the San Diego, Calif., native polished his game over three seasons at Lowell. In his junior season, when he led the River Hawks to the Frozen Four, he had a career high seven goals and starred in all situations. He excelled in his own zone, anchoring his team with impressive skating and puck movement, and picked up a raft of awards. Whether he can transition those skills to Buffalo remains to be seen.
5. Brayden McNabb, D: They like them big at Athol Murray College of Notre Dame in Wilcox, Canada. Myers, Buffalo's hulking 6-8, 227-pound defenseman, cut his teeth there, often partnered with fellow behemoth McNabb. Though smaller -- McNabb is 6-4, 205 -- scouts have said the 22-year-old could be an even more imposing presence on the blue line.
The Davidson, Saskatchewan, native played 25 games for the Sabres in 2011-12 as a 20-year-old, with a goal and seven assists, then spent all of 2012-13 with Rochester. He played well, with five goals and 31 assists in 62 games, and improved his skating ability and puck skills. Like Ruhwedel, McNabb, drafted 66th in 2009, is most comfortable in his own zone.
6. Joel Armia, RW: In a prospect pipeline clogged with defensemen and two-way centers, Armia's natural goal-scoring abilities are unique. Buffalo's best homegrown scoring threat since Thomas Vanek, the 6-3, 187-pound wing is physical with a proven goal-scoring record. The 20-year-old compensates for his lack of high-end speed with excellent puck control in tight areas and a mean wrist shot.
After being chosen No. 16 at the 2011 draft, Armia returned to Finland. In 101 games over two seasons with SM-Liiga club Porin Assat, Armia had 37 goals and 34 assists. He will be in North America this season, and with a solid showing at training camp, where he will join good friend Ristolainen, Armia's nose for the net should earn him a place in Buffalo's lineup sometime in 2013-14.
7. Mark Pysyk, D: Another defenseman who models his game after Weber, at 6-1, 193 pounds, Pysyk has huge upside as a two-way standout at the NHL level. Buffalo drafted him No. 23 in 2010, and he spent the next two seasons with the Edmonton Oil Kings of the Western Hockey League, where he was named MVP in 2010-11 and captain in 2011-12. Last season, Pysyk scored a goal in his professional debut for Rochester and was leading the Americans with a plus-8 rating when he was called up to Buffalo on March 17.
Pysyk finished the season in Buffalo, scoring a goal with four assists and a minus-7 rating in 19 games. Though the 21-year-old has much to prove before becoming a regular in the NHL, his high hockey IQ, puck-handling and decision-making should merit a call-up at some point in 2013-14.
8. Johan Larsson, C/LW: At 21 years old, Larsson has quite the trophy cabinet. Drafted in the second round (No. 56) in 2010 by Minnesota, he returned to Sweden under contract with Elitserien club Brynas IF. In 2011-12, Larsson helped his team to the Elitserien title. As captain of Sweden in 2012, he won the country's first gold at the IIHF World Junior Championship since 1981. He was named Elitserien Rookie of the Year, joining former winners Henrik Zetterberg, Loui Eriksson and Nicklas Backstrom.
These accomplishments were enough to catch the attention of the Sabres, who acquired him as part of the trade sending Pominville to the Wild, but Larsson's most impressive feat might be his transition to American hockey in 2012-13. In 69 AHL games for the Houston Aeros and Rochester, he had 16 goals and 25 assists. Larsson (5-10, 200) represents another offensive weapon ready to contribute should the Sabres need him.
9. Matt Hackett, G: The other prospect acquired from Minnesota in the Pominville trade, Hackett is the best of a group of Buffalo goalie prospects that includes Connor Knapp, Nathan Lieuwen and Andrey Makarov. Hackett (6-2, 173) was the primary starter for three seasons for Minnesota's AHL affiliate, with a plus-.900 save percentage.
With David Leggio, Rochester's starting netminder this past season, heading to the Washington Capitals, 23-year-old Hackett likely will open the season as the Americans' starter. Should Ryan Miller or Jhonas Enroth struggle in training camp, or at any point this season, expect a promotion for Hackett.
10. Nikita Zadorov, D: Add the 6-5, 221-pound defenseman to a class that includes Ristolainen and McNabb, and Buffalo could have the most physically imposing blue line in the NHL in short order. Zadorov, taken eight spots after Ristolainen at No. 16 in this year's draft, is an extremely raw, physical player whose size gives him tremendous upside.
Offensively, the 18-year-old has plenty of room to grow, but is unlikely to be a two-way player in the mold of Ristolainen or Pysyk. The Russian's wheelhouse is leveling opposing forwards and disrupting the opposition's flow, which he did with skill and regularity for the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League in 2012-13. Zadorov did manage six goals and 25 points for London, but should he turn pro at some point next season, whether with Rochester or Buffalo, expect him to be deployed as a defensive nuisance.
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