Buffalo - August 29, 2014 - We here at 2PS are looking at the top five prospects in each system. Then we had a thought: everyone and their mother likely has a list up on their blog, so why not do a different take on it? Instead of a straight top five, we’ll take a look at the top forward, top defender, top goalie, top overall prospect and the top dark horse prospect. Also, if a player earns top prospect nods, the top positional spot will be filled by the next best at that positional group. So if Sam Reinhart grabs top overall prospect, he won’t grab top forward because no one needs to read two reports on good ol’ Sam.
Disclaimer: we’re following NHL rookie qualification rules here. If anyone has played 25 or more NHL games in a season, they are disqualified from consideration. Sorry, Rasmus Ristolainen, but them’s the rules.
With that in mind, let’s go!
Top Overall Prospect: Sam Reinhart
This one was pretty easy. The second overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, Sam Reinhart is the complete package: fantastic hockey IQ, great playmaking ability and leadership at a young age. He’s an elite offensive player that can create not only for himself, but for his teammates as well.
Reinhart will be one of the keys to the Sabres rebuild and should be one of their top players for a long, long time. He’s got the size to hold up against the rigors of the NHL and the demeanor scouts rave about from players his age. Simply put, he’s the real deal and as exciting a prospect as the Sabres have had since Pierre Turgeon.
Projected Role: #1 Center
Player Comparable: Reinhart has had his share. Jonathan Toews, Brad Richards (the good version) and Henrik Zetterberg are just a few.
Timeline: Reinhart has already been signed to his entry-level deal and seems likely to head to Buffalo at some point this year. He’ll likely be protected in the same way Nathan MacKinnon was in Colorado last year, seeing third-line time. There’s no reason to throw him completely into the fire given how bad the Sabres should be in 2014/15.
Top Forward: Mikhail Grigorenko
Despite the hiccups he’s shown during his short tenure in Buffalo, Grigorenko’s talent is still undeniable. He’s a big body (6’3”) with room to grow into his frame, but the real salivating point comes from his talent.
Grigorenko has the ability to be an elite offensive player, possessing undeniable passing skills, smooth skating and a patience with the puck that few have. He’s still working on becoming stronger and more consistent, but his ceiling might be as high as anyone in the Sabres’ system and probably more than a handful of prospects anywhere.
Projected Role: #1 or #2 Center
Player Comparable: I hate to do this to him, but Alexei Kovalev. Kovalev was an immensely talented winger who had a long NHL career, but only seemed to scratch the surface of his abilities.
Timeline: After struggling as a teenager during the lockout-shortened 2012/13 season, it was clear that Grigorenko needed more time to develop. He’ll likely spend this year in the AHL with Rochester before he’s given a serious look next year when the youth movement begins.
Top Defenseman: Nikita Zadorov
Zadorov is the type of player the Sabres have been looking to grab for ages now: a physical goliath at 6’5” 230, Zadorov is the kind of defensemen opposing forwards fear. He hits with ferocity, crush opponents along the boards or in front of the net. He wants to let you know who you’re up against each and every time you cross the blueline.
More than that, he’s a good skater especially given his size who has a burgeoning offensive game. He’s shown the ability to lead the rush this last year and has a booming shot that he’s getting the hang of. If he can put his offensive game together, he could be unlike any defenseman in the NHL: huge, physical and offensively capable.
Projected Role: #2 or #3 Defenseman
Player Comparable: London Knights owner Mark Hunter has compared him to Larry Robinson, but for a far less-lofty comparison, let’s go with a poor-man’s Zdeno Chara. He likely won’t have the offensive game, but he’s got the reach and physical game.
Timeline: Zadorov will likely stay in juniors this season with a chance to crack the lineup out of camp next season. If he can’t stick, he’ll go to Rochester for at least a year of seasoning before getting another shot to stick.
Top Goalie: Linus Ullmark
Ullmark looks to be another late-round steal out of Sweden. The sixth-round pick seems to have the total package: he’s big (6’3”, 200) and has all the physical ability in the world. He’s been given the time to develop, staying in Sweden and recently winning top goaltender honors in the SHL. Ullmark has been on an upward trajectory for a while now and seems like the safest bet of the Sabres’ goaltending prospects to make an impact on the NHL level.
Projected Role: Quality #1 goaltender
Player Comparison: I hate to do this because it’s a lofty one, but the comparisons are too similar: Henrik Lundqvist. Both were big, talented Swedish goalies taken late in the draft and given 4-5 years from their draft year before they debuted in the NHL.
Timeline: Ullmark recently signed his three-year, entry-level contract and will spend the 2014/15 season in the AHL with Rochester. He’ll likely stay there next year as well before getting a crack at the NHL in 2016.
Top Dark Horse: Nick Baptiste
A third-round pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, Baptiste has taken a huge step forward in his third full season with the Sudbury Wolves of the OHL. He had a solid 21 goals and 48 points in 66 games in 2012/13, but exploded onto the scene last year with 45 goals and 89 points, leading the way for the Wolves.
He’s really starting to show just how much talent he has to go along with his 6’2”, 200 frame. He looks like he’s taking the steps to becoming a quality NHL power forward and his skating is exceptional, especially given his size. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s a quality two-way player, too.
Projected Role: #2 or #3 Winger
Player Comparison: Nick Foligno. Like Foligno, he will probably make his name in the NHL as a solid third-line presence who can chip in offensively, but prides himself on his strong two-way game.
Timeline: Baptiste will be back in Sudbury for one more year before spending two or three years in the AHL. Might be ready for the big time by 2017 or 2018.
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When not inanely bantering about the Sabres, Ryan Womeldorf can be found here and at TwoPadStack.net talking all things hockey. He's usually got a lot to say, but sadly most of it is wrong. If you have any questions, feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org