It’s no secret that the Buffalo Sabres have struggled this season. At 22-35-11, they sit securely at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. In a year where the team hasn’t provided much to cheer about at KeyBank Center, fans have shifted their focus toward the future.
Though several valuable future assets were squandered during the expedited rebuild orchestrated by former general manager Tim Murray, the Sabres still have a handful of NHL-caliber prospects in the system. Fortunately, a few of them are nearly ready to sport the blue-and-gold on a full-time basis.
Let’s take a look at the top-four young guns on the farm.
When the Sabres selected Nylander eighth overall in the 2016 NHL draft, the pick was met with some skepticism from the fan base. It’s not that he wasn’t worthy of being a top-10 selection, but with the organization’s prospect cupboard essentially bare on defense, perhaps they would have been better off selecting Charlie McAvoy or Jakob Chychrun, both of whom are currently NHL regulars.
Nylander has struggled in the professional ranks thus far. Leading up to the draft he registered an impressive 75 points in 57 games for the Mississauga Steelheads of the OHL. Over the past two seasons with the Sabres AHL affiliate, the Rochester Amerks, he has struggled to find his game, posting a pedestrian 46 points in 102 games.
Injuries have played a role in hampering his development. During the Sabres annual Prospect Challenge tournament this past summer, he went down with a lower-body injury in the first game of the showcase. As a result, he was sidelined for the Amerks’ first 14 games of the season. When he returned to the ice, there was a noticeable adjustment period before he regained his elite speed.
After being written off as a “bust” by some of the more impatient members of the fan base, Nylander has flourished as of late with nine points in as many games. Despite his recent uptick in production, Amerks’ head coach, Chris Taylor wants to see more from the 20-year-old.
“I’m demanding on him because I know he’s got a lot more and I want more from him and I think that’ll bring the best out of him,” said Taylor “We can’t lay off him. I think he’s the type of guy, he can be a game-changer.”
Time will tell whether or not Nylander ever lives up to both his draft and genetic pedigree. His father, Michael played 12 seasons in the NHL for six different franchises and his older brother, William is an integral part of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ roster. If he can elevate his game to anything remotely resembling that of his brother, he will quickly become a fan favorite in Buffalo.
Leading up to the 2017-18 NHL season, Victor Olofsson was a relatively unknown commodity in the Sabres’ system. Entering his third season in the SHL, the former seventh-round pick was somewhat of an afterthought. At 22 years old, he needed to show a vast improvement from his 27 point campaign with Frolunda HC last season, and boy has he delivered. Posting a career-high 41 points in 49 games thus far, Olofsson leads the SHL in goals with 25.
The Sabres are in desperate need of a culture change. Jason Botterill has already set this process in motion by adding players throughout the organization who have experience in a winning environment. Olofsson is no stranger to success. In 2016-17, he was an integral part of a Frolunda team that took home the SHL Champions League crown – their first since 2005.
It’s unclear whether or not Botterill will elect to have Olofsson spend a season in Rochester before giving him a chance with the big club. As it stands, the Sabres roster is in desperate need of reinforcements on the wing.
At just 5-foot-11, 172 pounds, it would be wise to allow him time to adjust to the North American game. The Sabres are, at best, two-to-three years away from playoff contention. There’s no sense in rushing a player who could become a top-six forward with the proper coaching.
Unless they win the draft lottery in April and draft Rasmus Dahlin, Brendan Guhle is the only defensive prospect in the Sabres’ system who is a sure-fire NHL contributor. If Buffalo had actually met expectations this season instead of plummeting back into the NHL cellar, there is little doubt he would wear the blue-and-gold full-time. As a result of the Sabres’ disastrous campaign, Guhle has spent a majority of the season with the Amerks, posting 24 points in 47 games.
Botterill has been reluctant to bring Guhle up to the big squad this season as the Amerks jockey for playoff position in the AHL. Realizing that it would make little sense to subject a developing prospect to the toxicity of the Sabres’ locker room, the rookie GM has left him in Rochester as part of a campaign to create a winning culture from the ground up.
As the Buffalo defensive corps works its way through injuries to Zach Bogosian and Jake McCabe, Botterill didn’t have much choice. Guhle has spent the last three games in Buffalo. Though he has only registered a single assist in five NHL games this season, it’s clear he belongs. Not only is he debatably the second-best defender on the team behind Rasmus Ristolainen, his elite skating speed has allowed him to seamlessly adapt to Phil Housley’s system.
As has been the case with several Rochester call-ups this season, Guhle has played with a level of effort that has been missing in Buffalo this season. Once the Sabres can field a healthy blue line, he will be sent back down to play his last games with the Amerks. Hopefully, his AHL career ends with a championship.
As if you expected anyone else, Casey Mittelstadt headlines the Sabres prospect list. Since Botterill selected the American wonder eighth overall in last June’s draft, he has continued to surpass expectations. Known amongst fans as “the kid who couldn’t do a pull-up” leading up to the draft, the Sabres’ Twitterverse exploded with outrage when the pick was announced. Fortunately, the Buffalo scouting staff saw something that most arm-chair general managers didn’t, and fan opinions on a specific player have never shifted so quickly.
From the moment Mittelstadt took the ice for the Minnesota Gophers this season, he began producing highlight reel moves that showcased his elite skating and puck-carrying ability. Once considered a prospect who would spend multiple seasons in the NCAA honing his craft, fans have speculated for months as to whether or not Botterill will decide that the 19-year-old is ready for NHL action after just one season with Minnesota.
While Mittelstadt has certainly shown that he is an elite college player, his most impressive performance came during the World Junior Championship in Buffalo. In seven games, he posted 11 points, tied for most in the tournament. At the conclusion of the event, he earned Most Valuable Player honors.
Last week it was announced that he had been named a finalist for Big 10 freshman of the year, producing 30 points in 34 games. Despite his growing list of accolades, the Edina, MN native knows that there is still work left to be done as he prepares to take the next step.
“College has taught me a lot and I have grown quite a bit,” Mittelstadt said. “I have worked with the coaching staff and am going to keep working on things like faceoffs and improving defensively. There is a lot of time for me to get in the weight room too, which is important.”
After the Gophers’ season comes to a close, there is a distinct possibility that he will sign his professional contract and join the Amerks before their postseason run. If he elects to enter the pro ranks early, he could provide Rochester with the spark it needs to win their first AHL championship in 22 years.
Regardless of where he finishes the 2017-18 season, one thing is for sure; Mittelstadt has justified his status as a top-10 draft pick. It’s a wonder he lasted as long as he did.
An argument can certainly be made for other players to have earned a spot on this list. Two forwards in particular just missed the cut.
2016 third-round pick, Cliff Pu has certainly become a fan favorite within the Sabres’ organization. Over the past two seasons, the 19-year-old has dominated his competition in the OHL. In 60 games split between the London Knights and Kingston Frontenacs this season, he has registered 74 points. Though that represents a slight regression from his 86-point campaign last season, he is undoubtedly ready to make the jump to the AHL next year.
Pu’s fellow 2016 draftee, Rasmus Asplund has also shown great improvement during his time in the SHL. In 49 games with Farjestad BK this season, he has posted a career-high 28 points.
Related: Buffalo Sabres Recent Draft History
The Sabres made Asplund the 33rd overall pick two years ago, trading up in the second round as part of a deal with the Florida Panthers that sent Mark Pysyk to Sunrise in exchange for Dmitry Kulikov. The two teams swapped second rounders as part of the transaction. While the trade looks like a brutal loss for Buffalo at the moment, if Asplund can maintain his trajectory as a physical two-way center at the NHL level, that perception could change in short order.