The last long weekend of the summer has come and gone, which in the hockey world means that another year of sticks of pucks has arrived. Exhibition schedules have kicked off with no fewer than 10 Buffalo Sabres draft picks – including three already signed to entry-level contracts – firing early in hopes of getting one step closer to the NHL.
|Joel Armia (Photo: Sabres.com) |
One prospect already inked, Finnish sniper Joel Armia, is locked and loaded for the final year of his commitment to Assat of SM-Liiga. The 2011 first rounder had quite the busy summer: shuttling between his mandatory military conscript, to Sabres Development Camp, then back to Finland, before making another trip back across the pond in August to skate for Finland in three games at the USA National Junior Development Camp tournament in Lake Placid, NY.
With the bulk of his military work complete, the 6-foot-3 Armia is focused on the season ahead. The winger collected 18 goals in each of his last two seasons with the Aces, a number that could increase after an offseason of added strength and continued time on Assat’s top power play unit. Armia, who later this winter will assume scoring line duty for Finland at the IIHF World Junior Championship for a third straight year, notched one assist in four exhibition tilts in preparation for Friday’s regular season opener at Lukko.
The European ranks will also feature Linus Ullmark (2012, sixth round), goaltender for Modo’s top junior squad in Sweden’s SuperElit league. The 6-foot-3 Ullmark has been excellent early, showing a quick glove and strong recovery skills en route to posting two shutouts in five preseason starts. On Sunday, he stopped 44 of 45 shots in Modo’s 2-1 overtime win over Skelleftea. Ullmark, 19, attended Sweden’s Under-20 evaluation camp in August and won his only start at the Four Nations Tournament in the Czech Republic to put himself in the mix when Sweden announces their World Junior squad later this winter.
Chosen 12th overall in last June’s Entry Draft, centerman Mikhail Grigorenko headlines the list of Sabres prospects developing in the North American junior ranks in 2012-13. Grigorenko returns to the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts, where last season he collected 40 goals and 85 points to earn the Canadian Hockey League’s Rookie of the Year award.
If preseason production is any indication, both the 6-foot-3 Grigorenko and the Remparts could be in line for a big season under the guidance of head coach Patrick Roy. In two games versus defending Memorial Cup champion Shawinigan, the 18-year old scored twice and added three assists while clicking with 2013 draft eligible Anthony Duclair to lead Quebec to a pair of wins. Things could pick up when Nikita Kucherov, a Tampa Bay draft pick and close comrade of Grigorenko’s, joins the Remparts in November once his surgically repaired shoulder heals.
Despite garnering just one assist at the recent Canada-Russia Challenge, Grigorenko will likely join Armia at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship when the tournament kicks off in his native Russia the day after Christmas. For now, though, the skilled pivot is zeroed in on the QMJHL regular season which kicks off Friday, September 21 against Chicoutimi.
While Grigorenko is the lone prospect ramping up in Quebec, the Sabres will have four players honing their skills in the Ontario Hockey League this fall – Daniel Catenacci (2011, third round), Alex Lepkowski (2011, fifth round), Justin Kea (2012, third round) and Brady Austin (2012, seventh round).
After leading all Sabres prospects last season with 33 goals and inking an NHL entry-level contract, Catenacci returns to Owen Sound for a final year of major junior. The 5-foot-10 center, whose speed was on display as the Sabres marched to victory at the 2011 Traverse City NHL Prospects Tournament, will be counted on for key faceoffs (voted second in 2012 OHL Western Conference coaches poll) while maintaining his keen finishing ability around the net. Cateancci has yet to connect in limited work, but that could change quickly when the Attack opens the season Thursday, September 20 at Windsor.
|Alex Lepkowski (Photo: Sabres.com) |
Following a strong performance in the 2012 playoffs, the 19-year old Lepkowski will be counted on to anchor the Barrie Colts blueline with his physical, stay-at-home style while asserting himself more in the transition game. Simple plays, like the board pass to spring a forward for a partial breakaway in the Colts’ second preseason game, displayed both poise with the puck and progression in his overall development. Continuing to drift into the high slot to support the offense could see the West Seneca, NY native match the eight goals and 11 points put up a season ago. The Colts kick off their schedule Thursday, September 20 at Ottawa.
Kea is slated to see increased minutes for Greg Gilbert’s Saginaw Spirit this season, bumping up to the number two center role behind Florida prospect Vincent Trocheck. A power forward in the making, Kea has continued to show value at both ends of the ice in addition to being the Spirit’s top penalty killer. With two assists in the preseason, the larger role and use of his 6-foot-4, 211-pound frame should see the native of Woodville, Ontario, improve on the three goals and 14 points posted a season ago. Saginaw begins regular season play September 21 at Guelph.
A mammoth and mobile rearguard, Austin has settled into his post on the Belleville Bulls blueline after arriving last season in a trade with Erie. The 6-foot-4, 225-pounder was unable to participate at Sabres Development Camp in July, but has made his presence known through the Bulls’ first two preseason tilts by mixing a pair of assists with steady defensive play. Backboned by 2012 first-round picks Malcolm Subban (G, BOS) and Brendan Gaunce (C, VAN), the Bulls are projected to be one of the stronger teams in the OHL’s Eastern Conference when play begins September 21 at Sarnia.
Victoria Royals forward Logan Nelson (2012, fifth round) has yet to notch a regulation point in three exhibition contests, but he was able to ice a weekend tilt with a shootout marker in a 3-2 win over Kelowna. The 6-foot-1 Minnesotan had a breakout rookie campaign in 2011-12, collecting 21 goals while playing part of the year alongside fellow Sabres prospect Kevin Sundher. The performance earned him a look at USA Hockey’s National Junior Development Camp, an experience that could vault the quick-footed forward to a new level when the Royals begin the WHL regular season September 21 at Vancouver.
Colin Jacobs (2011, fourth round) begins the new season with a new club following an August trade to the Prince George Cougars. After seeing the first 26 games of his 2011-12 campaign in Seattle washed out due to injury, the 6-foot-2, 207-pound center is healthy and ready for the upcoming WHL schedule. Jacobs has gathered a goal and an assist while setting a physical tone through three appearances in his new colors. The Cougars push off for their 2012-13 year on September 22 at Everett.
Judd Peterson (2012, seventh round) is poised to make the jump from the Minnesota high school ranks to Tier I Junior “A” with the Cedar Rapid RoughRiders of the United States Hockey League. Peterson, who will play alongside Buffalo Jr. Sabres product and New Hampshire commit Andrew Poturalski, got his feet wet Saturday with three shots on goal in a loss to Dubuque. Peterson and the RoughRiders make their season debut September 29 at Green Bay.
For more on all the youngsters in the Sabres pipeline, check out Kris Baker’s web site - sabresprospects.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @sabresprospects for in-game updates throughout the week on any Buffalo prospects that are in action.