The Buffalo Sabres front office has remained busy during the final stretch of the regular season. Over the past few weeks, the team has called up several minor league and junior players in order to analyze their progress.
Since the beginning of last month, they have recalled five Rochester Amerks and signed two other players from the NCAA to their entry-level deals. On top of that, the Sabres have signed two others rookie deals, sending them directly to the AHL for an amateur tryout. Let’s take a look at the “future core” players who the organization will be keeping a close eye on as the season comes to a close.
Last week, Casey Mittelstadt made his highly-anticipated NHL debut. Since mentally checking out after the team failed to show signs of progress over the course of the year, fan interest has been reignited since it was announced that the team had signed the 19-year-old to his ELC.
Though his seven-game appearance to close the season will burn a year off of his rookie deal, Mittelstadt’s initial stint in Blue and Gold has been a breath of fresh air. While there has been an adjustment to the speed and skill level in the professional ranks, he hasn’t looked out of place. With three points in his first four games, his skill set has translated well alongside players like Evan Rodrigues and Sam Reinhart.
Though the Sabres only have three games remaining on the schedule, fans can expect to see even more of him after the season. During a radio interview on WGR 550 last night, Sabres general manager Jason Botterill stated that Team USA has expressed interest in having Mittelstadt join the final roster for the World Championships in Denmark.
“It’s a unique thing with Casey, we were able to get confirmation that he was gonna get the opportunity to play at the World Championships too with Team USA.”
Mittelstadt is a near lock to play in the Sabres’ top-six next season. If the team expects to show a marked improvement in the standings, they will need to make sure he is put in a position to succeed. As the organization has learned on numerous occasions, highly-touted young players often require a skilled presence alongside them in order to properly develop.
Last night, Alex Nylander made his season debut after a relatively rocky start to his professional career. After posting 75 points in 57 games with Mississauga of the OHL in 2015-16, the 20-year-old winger has struggled to make waves in the AHL. Over the past two seasons in Rochester, he has only managed to produce a pedestrian 54 points in 113 games.
Not exactly the output the organization was hoping for from a former eighth-overall draft pick.
Despite his difficulties with the Amerks, he has the skill set to develop into a force in the NHL. Though his focus and work ethic has been criticized at times, he still boasts elite speed. In a Phil Housley system that is predicated on a high-octane, quick-strike attack, his ability to keep up with someone like Jack Eichel cannot be overlooked.
Though some fans are ready to write Nylander off as a “bust” the organization hasn’t given up on him. He will likely require another season to hone his skills in the AHL, however, if he can find his stride and progress anything like his older brother William has in Toronto, the Sabres will have a force to be reckoned with on the left side.
Brendan Guhle and Casey Nelson
While both of them have been with the Sabres for over a month, young blueliners Brendan Guhle and Casey Nelson have shown that they belong in the NHL ranks.
Long-touted as the top defensive prospect in the Buffalo system, Guhle has lived up to the hype. His ability to transition from defense to offense has been a welcome addition to a team that has struggled mightily to produce scoring opportunities from the back end. Though his two points in 15 games this season won’t turn any heads, his two-way, mistake-free game will continue to develop in the coming years.
When the two were in Rochester, Guhle spent a majority of his time paired up with Nelson. Since becoming somewhat of an afterthought leading up to the season, Nelson has worked his way up the organizational depth chart after being the eighth defenseman recalled this year.
With eight points in 34 games, the 25-year-old seems to have developed into a reliable bottom-pairing defender. Though he is slated to become a restricted free agent this summer, the team will almost certainly bring him back on a short-term deal.
Last night, the two were reunited each spending over 20 minutes on the ice. With Marco Scandella and Rasmus Ristolainen being the only near-locks to play in the top-six next season, Guhle and Nelson will have ample opportunity to cement their status as mainstays in Buffalo moving forward. After the Sabres’ season comes to a close, both players will most likely be sent back to Rochester as the team prepares to make a push for their first Calder Cup championship since 1995.
More Pieces of the Future Core
Several other players have split time between Rochester and Buffalo this season as they continue to prove their worth to the big club. The most notable player who fits this criterion is forward, Evan Rodrigues. In 45 games with the Sabres this season, Eichel’s former linemate at Boston University has forced the team to keep him in the fold, producing 21 points.
After joining the organization as a collegiate free agent in 2015, the 24-year-old has continued to develop. Moving forward, he projects as a solid scoring presence in the bottom-six.
Two other senior prospects have joined Rodrigues in Buffalo after proving their worth in the AHL. Draft picks from 2013, Justin Bailey and Nic Baptiste remain with the team as they approach the final stretch. While neither of them project to be long-term contributors, they do possess the necessary skill to thrive in the NHL, however, both are 22 years old so the clock is ticking on their development.
In net, Linus Ullmark recently received another call-up amid his stellar season with the Amerks, though it was cut short after he suffered an upper-body injury in practice last week. The 24-year-old netminder had his best professional campaign this season, posting a .932 save percentage with the Amerks, earning him a spot in the AHL All-Star Game. With Robin Lehner likely on his way out this summer, Ullmark is the odds-on favorite to become the Sabres’ starter next year.
With a playoff run on the horizon, the Amerks received a few reinforcements last week after having the core of their roster picked apart by the Sabres. Prospects Judd Peterson and Will Borgen joined the team from the collegiate ranks, while Vasily Glotov came aboard on an amateur tryout from the OHL.
After a very strong season as teammates for St. Cloud State of the NCAA, Borgen and Peterson made their AHL debuts together last week. This past winter, Borgen was a member of the Team USA Olympic roster. If that wasn’t impressive enough, he was also named ECHC Defensive Defenseman of the year at the end of his college season.
We've signed defenseman Will Borgen of @scsuhuskies_mh to a 3-year entry-level contract.
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) March 25, 2018
Peterson, a 2012 seventh-round pick, posted 18 points in 40 games for the Huskies this year as a senior. He will likely need a full season or two in the AHL before getting his first taste of NHL action, but the potential is there.
After an impressive performance at the annual Prospects Challenge in Buffalo this summer, Glotov continued his development with Shawinigan in the OHL, posting 42 points in 64 games. The 20-year-old will need to show he can handle professional action during his ATO with the Amerks. Regardless of how he performs in Rochester, he will likely spend time next season with the Sabres’ ECHL affiliate, the Cincinnati Cyclones.
After Wednesday night’s 4-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators, Buffalo secured the last place in the NHL, so they’ll have the best odds at the first overall pick in the NHL draft. With a top-four pick guaranteed, the organization will add another key piece to the puzzle in the very near future.
Though it will likely take a few more years for the Sabres to become playoff contenders, there are several building blocks in place. At the conclusion of the season, Botterill will have a better idea which prospects fit into the franchise’s future plans. Slowly but surely, the new core in Buffalo is starting to take shape.