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NHL Prospects Tournament September 18, 2011

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The Buffalo Sabres were invited to play in the NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, MI for the first time this year, and the Sabres youth brigade acquitted themselves very well, going on to win the championship. Led by Ron Rolston, the new ‘Dean’ at the ‘Sabres University’, the team showed that the future of the Sabres seems to be in safe hands.

For those unfamiliar with the tourney, it consists of eight NHL teams, in two divisions: the Howe Division with Buffalo, Columbus, Minnesota and Detroit and the Gretzky Division featuring Carolina, Dallas, NY Rangers and St. Louis. The two division winners would meet in the final to decide the championship.

Two comfortable 6-3 wins over Columbus and Minnesota ensured the Sabres would be playing in the final. With four games in five days scheduled, the Sabres opted to rest some of the higher profile players in the last group game against Detroit, which they lost 5-2.

In the final the junior Sabres played the New York Rangers, for whom Ryan Bourque (son of Hall of Famer Ray Bourque) was outstanding throughout the competition. The tourney showcased the Sabres’ excellent ability to step up to another level in the third period. Apart from the mishap against Detroit, the Sabres outscored their opponents 9-1 in the third period of their games. This kind of grit and resolve is a good sign for the future, too often in the last few years we have seen the senior team disappear in the third period, although last season it seemed that they started slowly more often than not.

After taking a 2-1 lead at the end of the first period on goals from Luke Adam and Marcus Foligno, they let the ‘Rags’ back into it in the second period to knot it at two after two. However, in the third period they showed their true mettle with some excellent short passing and movement, adding goals from Corey Tropp and Dan Catenacci with Foligno adding his second of the day to round off the triumph.

The line of Zack Kassian, Adam & Foligno played like men among boys, both in terms of physical presence and skill. While Adam has already a few NHL games under the belt, Kassian and Foligno showed they are not far behind. 2011 draft pick goalie Nathan Lieuwen and Yale graduate Ryan Rondeau with the Sabres on a tryout carried the goaltending load, playing two games each. On defense, Brayden McNabb, Nick Crawford, Jerome Gauthier-Leduc, and Alex Biega all had decent outings. Among the forwards, Riley Boychuk, Corey Tropp, Jonathan Parker and Catenacci all had good showings too.

On the downside, the Sabres special teams units showed they have some ways to go compared to the other teams. The powerplay unit fizzled with just 3 goals on 25 powerplay opportunities, while shipping 3 goals on 25 penalties conceded.

My personal opinion is it would have been good for first round draft pick Joel Armia to play in the tournament as well, and start building some chemistry with the other prospects. He hasn’t had a good start to the Finnish hockey season, struggling to score there after the first two games. Bookmark Kris Baker’s excellent blog at Sabres Prospects as he follows their fortunes through the season.

NHL Entry Draft review June 28, 2011

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By all accounts the Sabres have had a pretty successful entry draft; if you were looking for one word to describe the process it would have to be ‘steal’ . Of course, all of this is on paper until the players actually prove it by cracking the starting lineup. In the NHL more so than any other pro sports, this does have a longer timeline. GM Regier and his crew have been enjoying a pretty good success rate of converting draft picks into roster spots, but at the same time those results are tempered by the fact starting places on the Sabres lineup might have been easier to have come by due to the grooming policies in place during the Golisano era, and the fact that Sabres were never big players in the free agent or trade markets thanks to their recruiting style of using retreads and bit-part players.

1st Rd – #16: Joel Armia, RW – While the Sabres were expected to go with the safe and solid pick of Mark McNeill to address the weak C position, instead they picked Finn Armia, who is not only a big body at 6’3″ 191lb, but is also a sniper of repute, and has been often compared to fellow Finn Teemu Selanne. Armia was a lock to go higher in the draft and getting him at #16 can be considered a steal. Described by the experts as a pure finisher equipped with an amazing set of hands and excellent creativity, he is expected to make the Sabres squad in a year or so.

2nd Rd – #46: No pick – Traded to St. Louis Blues at the deadline for Brad Boyes

3rd Rd – #77: Daniel Catenacci, C – Finding this former OHL #1 pick in the third round was definitely a heist for the Sabres. Catenacci is a speed merchant, arguably the fastest skater among all the prospects, and plays with a physical edge despite his 5’10”, 183lbs frame. A natural center who scores at a point-per-game, he has good vision, a quick release and fills the gap created when Paul Byron was traded.

4th Rd – #107: Colin Jacobs, C – More of a two-way forward than Catenacci, Jacobs is another big body (6’1″, 197lbs) who seems destined to be a checking line center who can score as well. Expected to go between the late-first and early-second rounds, Jacobs fell to the Sabres in the fourth round who gladly picked him up. Ironically, he only started playing hockey after being inspired by the Dallas Stars beating the Sabres in the famous ‘no-goal’ Stanley Cup Finals. Jacobs is a power forward and relies on his size to fight for the puck around the boards.

5th Rd – #137 – Alex Lepkowski, D – Keeping up with their newer trend of picking local kids as well as gritty players with size, Lepkowski is a 6’4″, 212lbs from West Seneca not ranked on the pre-draft boards. However he will drop the gloves when required and can fit into the Mike Weber mold. Many of the Sabres D prospects are of the flashy offensive kind and Lepkowski should be able to take care of business in his own end anchoring them. Should turn into a fan favorite if he can make the squad.

6th Rd – #167 – Nathan Lieuwen, G – The Sabres goalkeeping prospect depth has been looking thin, and this athletic, 6’5″ goaltender will provide cover in Rochester as Jhonas Enroth should be the backup in Buffalo this year. He will compete with David Leggio as both Brad Eidsness and Connor Knapp are still in college. Limited in his ability, he is destined to be a backup more than anything else.

7th Rd – #197 – Brad Navin, C – For a seventh round pick, Navin is more than just a depth player. Navin tore it up in the Wisconsin high school system last year offensively and made the jump straight to college, committing to the Wisconsin Badgers, without the almost-mandatory one year USHL transition. His all-round offensive ability (Navin also played QB in his high school football team) has the potential to to make him a late-round star.

Sabres keeping busy June 2, 2011

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As I watched the Canucks beat the Bruins in one of the better 1-0 games we’ve ever seen, I couldn’t help but feel that we would have been overmatched had this year’s Sabres even made it this far. Sometimes you just have to be honest, and over the last two playoffs the Sabres haven’t stepped up collectively as a unit to reach the level that playoffs demand.

Meanwhile the Thrashers franchise is going to be shipping up north of the border to Winnipeg – too late for there to be any significant impact for the 2011-12 season, but the realignment of the divisions for the season after should be very interesting. Die By The Blade contemplates a future where Winnipeg goes to the Western Conference, and one of Columbus, Nashville, or even Detroit moves East. Nashville by location makes sense for the Southeast, while Columbus would slot into the Northeast or Atlantic divisions. Bringing Detroit over to the Eastern Conference would go a long way in improving this conference just by their being here.

What is good to see though is that the Sabres are not sitting around twiddling their thumbs waiting for the next season. Brian McCutcheon has been let go from the Sabres coaching staff – the Sabres’ much-maligned special teams woes over the last couple of years have been attributed to him. While I’m not the best judge of whether that is fair or not, I think change will be good. With Gragnani expected to play on the Sabres PP next season, I’d like to see some good principles instilled in him.

Unfortunately the Sabres also had to say goodbye to Portland Pirates coach Kevin Dineen, who has done a stellar job with the Sabres’ affiliate. The success of the rookies who have come from up the AHL with the big club, as well as three straight rookie-of-the-year awards are testament to his coaching and vision. He is moving on to Florida to become the head coach there, and we wish him well in his travels, except when we play them of course – the Sabres struggled against the Panthers’ neutral zone this season, and it will be interesting to see what Dineen changes there. No word yet on replacements for either of the coaches, who are your recommendations?

Finally, today brought the news that 2010 first round pick, defenseman Mark Pysyk has been offered an entry-level contract with the Sabres. Since he is not age-eligible, this will mean that if he doesn’t make the Sabres roster after ten games, he will be sent back to the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings, where he had 40 points and was +23 on a quite miserable season for the team.

updates May 25, 2011

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It had been relatively quiet in Sabreland while everyone’s been busy focusing on the conference finals.. but there was some exciting news today.

The Pegula management has been following through on their promises of making Buffalo a destination that hockey players are going to want to come to, and a family they want to be part of. Today marked the beginning of the ambitious facilities area overhaul, highlights being a circular locker room to facilitate communication, theater areas to watch video in, larger players’ lounge and coaches’ suites, and an improved training facility as well. {plans}

One other note – two prospects have been signed up for Sabres contracts. 2009 3rd round pick defenseman Brayden McNabb was second in scoring among WHL blueliners, and second in scoring among all WHL players in the playoffs. The 20 yr old is 6’5″ and 216lbs, and he can hit dirty and fight clean too!  Forward Marcus Foligno (2009 4th round) is the son of Sabres’ alumni Mike Foligno, and at 6’3″, 222lbs is another big boy. He was named on the the OHL’s Second All-Star Team, and is a good combo of skill and brawn.

the kids are alright May 10, 2011

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The Sabres have learned a lot about the youth brigade on the team, and the portents for the future are bright. here’s a review of all the kids who have come up from the Pirates over the last couple of years and shined with the Sabres. I’ve thrown in some others as well who really aren’t new to the team, but are still young(ish).

Without further ado, i present to you.. the future of your Buffalo Sabres!! basically, a rrrrroooolllll the highlight film series..

Goalies
Jhonas Enroth (22) as magnificent as any Viking warrior ever was {with or without a helmet}

Defensemen
Mike Weber (23) was gritty and brutal, in hitting and in efficiency, and boy does he hit {hello Cindy Crosby?}
Chris Butler (24) has been steady and quiet, remind anyone of Jeeves? {the Sens are just dirt}
Tyler Myers (21) improved later in his sophomore season, became a beast in the corners {this, this or that?}
Marc-Andre Gragnani (24) AHL Defenseman of the Year, shined in the playoffs {game winner}

Forwards
Tyler Ennis (21) the pocket rocket, and what a top-shelf shot he has {bye bye water bottle}
Nathan Gerbe (23) renamed Tenacious G, and with good reason {he does everything}
Patrick Kaleta* (24) called the 2nd most hated player in hockey {making Mike Tyson jealous}
Mark Mancari (25) has a slapshot only second to Chara, hits like a horse {AHL hardest shot}
Cody McCormick (27) has been the enforcer who fights, scores and assists {Tyson’s still fuming}
Drew Stafford* (25) became a pure scorer this season, leading the way with four hatties this season {1, 2, 3 & 4; he’s funny too!}
Luke Adam (20) one of the AHL Rookies of the Year, big and brawny {Sabres season till Feb}

The Sabres kids have been invited to a NHL Prospects Tournament late this summer as well, giving some of the kids another chance to show what they’ve got.

*Kaleta & Stafford never played on the Pirates – thanks for the note Phil

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