Hope is on the horizon. The Sabres have a number of exciting players that are already in their system. There is a definite group of players ready for NHL play. And there is a distinct group that is close but, realistically, at least a year away.
One never knows exactly how a teenager or young twenty-something will adjust to living in a new city, perhaps responsible for himself for the first time in terms of housing and diet, let alone on the ice. The most likely players ready to make an immediate impact are those who have strength, size, and great skating ability. They also have some experience playing against men, have experienced some kind of adversity, and have shown continued progress in their development.
Ready for the NHL
Edmonton native Brendan Guhle was selected in the second round in 2015 NHL Entry Draft. He may not have filled out completely and is already 6-foot-3 and weighs in at 190 pounds at 20 years of age. He’s a good first-passer, defends well, and can skate like the wind. He’s played well enough in his call-ups so that he is a lock to start as high as No. 2 on the Sabres’ defensive depth chart.
Guhle will be entering the second year of his entry-level contract with a cap hit of just $700,000. Sabres general manager Jason Botterill could give the promising Guhle another year to ripen in Rochester. There he would have a real chance at a championship while playing in the number one position; a chance to gain more confidence and advance the winning attitude the Sabres seek. Playing with the Sabres, he risks being played too many minutes against too many established stars, potentially damaging his development mentally and emotionally.
In the long term, for both the Sabres and for Guhle, waiting one more year would be the wise move. Fans will soon see if Botterill has the steel to resist the cries to automatically promote the young defender.
The soon-to-be 20-year-old forward from Richmond Hill, Ontario is the Sabres’ next prime candidate to make the roster. At 6-foot-2 and over 190 pounds, the 2016 third-round pick has good size. He’s a former center who switched to wing, so he has positional flexibility. While he was a star in youth hockey, his junior career really blossomed a couple years ago after he underwent shoulder surgery. He took that opportunity to develop his lower body, doing effective strength and acceleration work. Since then, his speed has been markedly above average and noticeable on every shift.
Last season Pu notched 35 goals and 51 assists for 86 points in 63 games. The same London Knights team that featured current Toronto Maple Leafs’ talent Mitch Marner and Arizona Coyotes’ young gun, Matthew Tkachuk in 2015-16. Midway through this season, Pu was traded to the Kingston Frontenacs. Despite adjusting to a new team and routinely being asked to kill penalties, he still managed 79 points in 62 games.
The Sabres are about to finish very close to last in goal scoring and first in negative goal differential. For a team yearning for speed and goal-scoring, particularly from the wing, Pu is tailor-made. Botterill and the Sabres front office know it; he was the last junior player in camp before this season started. The faithful fans of the blue and gold should be heard shouting “Puuuuuuuuu” in 2018.
Before being called up to Buffalo, the Amerks leading scorer was acquired as an undrafted free agent out of UMass-Lowell. The 23-year-old native of Des Moines, Iowa, is one of the only promising left wingers in the Sabres entire system.
“Sometimes I’m not the flashiest guy out there, but I have good details, good habits,” said Smith about his play.
The Sabres may finish this season with Evan Rodrigues as the only left wing to return for next season. Benoit Pouliot, Scott Wilson, and Jordan Nolan should be on their way out as they have contributed a total of 36 points in 159 games. The other left winger, Zemgus Girgensons, has one year left on his contract with a cap hit of $1.6 million. The “Latvian Locomotive” currently has 12 points and probably will not equal last year’s total of 16. Neither Jacob Josefson or Johan Larsson, who have both spent time on the left wing, is the answer.
One has to imagine that GM Botterill has a modicum of respect for a confident player who walked undrafted onto an AHL roster and led the team in scoring; AHL All-Star Smith has earned a shot.
Let Them Develop Another Year
The ever-hopeful fans in Buffalo have been salivating over Casey Mittelstadt since the Edina, Minnesota native was selected eighth overall in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. Chosen as ALL-USA Boys Hockey Player of the Year in 2016 and 2017, Mittelstadt was then named Mr. Hockey, the best high school senior hockey player in Minnesota, in 2017. He was named the best player at 2018 World Juniors, scoring a tournament-high 11 points in seven games. He has the complete package of speed, skill, and hockey sense coveted in emerging prospects. And he brings it with dynamic puck skills and determination that bring fans out of their seats every shift. It is on the basis of this background that Sabres fans have all but written him into next year’s line-up.
Then came the rest of 2018. The 6-foot, 190-pound center just completed his freshman year as a Minnesota Golden Gopher. Playing against bigger, more experienced competition, 19-year-old Mittelstadt scored 11 goals and 19 assists for 30 points in 34 games at a plus-four rating. While scoring nearly a point per game to finish second in scoring on his team in his first college season is very good, this was not a season on par with Jack Eichel who scored 71 points in his 40-game freshman year. Eichel won the Hobey Baker award for best player in the collegiate game. Mittelstadt has been nominated as a finalist for Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
It took some time for the young Minnesotan to adjust to college life. If he is a ‘one and done’ in the college game, he will certainly have another big adjustment stepping into the professional ranks. Because of the way that this year played out, he is the logical poster child for another year of experience and development with the Rochester Americans.
Olofsson is another exciting prospect that needs more ripening. The 5-foot-10, 176-pound Swedish winger was selected deep in the 2014 draft. He has a powerful, accurate shot and good hockey sense. Playing in the Swedish Hockey League for Frolunda, two years ago, he scored just 27 points in 51 games. He was able to crank his game up a notch in the playoffs, posting four goals and eight assists in the 14 games that led to a league championship. Apparently, there was no turning back because this year, he led the league with the most goals (27) and the most power-play markers (14) in the 50 game season. Olofsson finished with 43 points.
While Olofsson has shown continuous, marked progress, his defensive skills and play on the boards will need work in order to flourish on the smaller ice surface in the world’s top league. A year in Rochester would allow him to adjust to life in North America while adding some size and strength in the weight room. It’s exciting that he is already doing well in a league full of men who are, on average, five-to-ten years older and more experienced.
Nylander has given zero reasons to believe he is ready now or that he will be in the future. By no means should the team give up on him, but he certainly should not be promoted. In 42 games for the Amerks this season, he has six goals and 15 assists. He’s twelfth in scoring. The aforementioned Guhle, a defenseman, has more points than Nylander.
The 6-foot-1, 180-pound winger was selected with the eighth overall pick in 2016. He was projected to go even higher, so the Sabres were thrilled he was still on the board. His rookie season with the Amerks last year was rough–just 28 points in 65 games, and the worst plus-minus rating on the team. While he was named Rochester’s Rookie of the Year, that speaks more to the low quality of the Americans than the high level of play from Nylander.
The word ‘potential’ is always thrown around with Nylander. The Calgary, Alberta native has great technical skill, explosive speed and soft hands. Unfortunately, he’s also inconsistent, often lacks intensity and needs to improve his defensive play. In the offseason, he committed himself to adding strength and elevating his all-around game. Before he could prove himself, he was injured in the Sabres first pre-season prospect game in September.
Now that he’s healthy, he needs to start producing. If he doesn’t, there will be a whole new crop of draft picks competing for the position that he seeks. This is his first year of his three-year, entry-level NHL contract that was signed in July of 2016.
Jeff has been covering the NHL for over a decade for various sites. He’s been with The Hockey Writers as a lead Sabres writer three years, while also writing a satire column called “Off the Crossbar.”