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The Buffalo Sabres are about to embark on a tough couple of seasons ahead, undergoing what can effectively be called their second rebuild of the last decade. Instead of focusing on the 2020-21 season, Sabres general manager (GM) Kevyn Adams is looking ahead to the 2023-24 season to return to playoff contention, and the key to making sure that happens is drafting and developing top-end talent. Adams must assess the team’s needs, and plan for recent draft picks and highly-rated prospects to begin making a difference in the NHL in a few seasons’ time.
Despite finishing last in the NHL standings this past season, there is one positive the Sabres can point to in their organization at the moment: the prospect pool. Adams has drafted a number of exciting, promising prospects in the last two drafts, and many of them are projecting to be solid contributors on an NHL roster one day soon. For the purposes of ranking the top Sabres prospects, players who have cracked the NHL roster already and are likely to make the opening night roster won’t be included, including Casey Mittelstadt, Dylan Cozens, and Rasmus Asplund. Out of the true prospects, there are some that stand out above others – here are five ‘untouchable’ prospects in the Sabres pipeline that should be protected at all costs.
1. Owen Power
This one goes without saying. As soon as Adams used the first-overall pick in the 2021 NHL Draft on Owen Power, he immediately became the No. 1 prospect in the Sabres’ system. Impressively, he managed to do so without even playing professional hockey yet, and won’t do so for at least another season. Power will be returning to the NCAA for his sophomore college hockey season at the University of Michigan, where he will play with a stacked team including the likes of 2021 second-overall pick Matthew Beniers, fourth-overall pick Luke Hughes, and fifth-overall pick Kent Johnson. Needless to say, Power will be an integral part of a dangerous Michigan team next college hockey season.
As far as what he will bring to the Sabres in the future, Power will add a shut-down defensive game to the blue line, while doubling as a power play quarterback using his crisp passing and hard slap shot. He can also play on the penalty kill, and is efficient in all three zones of the ice. His 6-foot-5 frame adds a big body to the back end, and he’s skilled at taking away threats by playing physically in the tough areas and in the neutral zone. Power was a standout player for Michigan last season and for Team Canada at the 2021 World Championships, and there’s little doubt that will translate into the NHL.
2. Jack Quinn
Jack Quinn, the Sabres’ first-round pick in the 2020 draft (eight overall), comes in at No. 2 in the prospects rankings. When Adams selected Quinn ahead of other available players like Marco Rossi, Cole Perfetti, and Anton Lundell, a large portion of Sabres fans thought he made the wrong decision, myself included. But since then, Quinn has earned this spot in the rankings, thanks in large part to his stint with the Sabres’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate Rochester Americans last season. The Ontario Hockey League (OHL) canceled last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and 19-year-old Quinn made his AHL debut, just to get some hockey under his belt. In 15 games with the Amerks before undergoing season-ending hernia surgery, Quinn scored two goals and seven assists for nine points. That’s an entirely respectable stat line for the young forward.
Analysts have touted Quinn as the most lethal goal-scorer from the 2020 draft, and Sabres fans know that’s one area the Sabres are desperately lacking in currently. A speedy, dynamic forward with a knack for scoring goals is exactly what they need in their top six moving forward. Out of concern for rushing him onto a weak NHL roster too soon, I think Quinn should take another season to develop, but I don’t think he’s all that far away from being an effective NHL player. When he comes to the Sabres, he will bring a goal-scoring prowess and special teams talent that they haven’t had in a while, and that’s why fans should be high on Quinn at this point in time.
3. J-J Peterka
Another 2020 draft pick, J-J Peterka was taken 34th-overall by the Sabres, with their first pick in the second round last October. At the time, Peterka was considered a steal, and most mock drafts had him going late in the first round, so it’s not hard hard to see why. His play in his first professional hockey season backed up that notion, too. Peterka made his professional debut last season with EHC Red Bull München in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL), the top-tier league in Germany, scoring nine goals and 20 points in 30 games at just 19-years-old. He was also a standout at the 2021 World Championships, where he impressed playing alongside 2020 third-overall pick of the Ottawa Senators Tim Stützle.
The Sabres signed Peterka to his three-year, entry-level contract (ELC) earlier this summer, at a $925,000 AAV. It’s not likely he’ll play for the Sabres this season, but if he takes a step forward in the DEL, it wouldn’t surprise me if he appeared in any of the Sabres’ final 10 games during the upcoming season to showcase his development and test his NHL readiness. Peterka could soon be a member of the Amerks, and soon after the Sabres. Him and Quinn are on a similar trajectory, and could both crack the NHL roster around the same time, which would make the 2020 draft look like a win.
4. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen
Hopefully Sabres fans haven’t forgotten about the team’s second-round pick from the 2017 draft, because he is closer to playing in the NHL than he’s been since being drafted. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen actually made his NHL debut with the Sabres toward the end of last season, playing four games and going 1-3-0, with a .906 SV%. Were it not for an ankle sprain that landed him on the injured list, he might have seen more starts, too. It seems like a long time since our “goalie of the future” was drafted, but keep in mind that goalies typically take much longer than skaters to develop into NHL-caliber players. And the 22-year-old Luukkonen still has plenty of time to develop and ready himself for the NHL.
Luukkonen has one season remaining on his ELC before he becomes a restricted free agent (RFA), with a $910,833 AAV. With last season’s goalie tandem of Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton headed to the Boston Bruins and Arizona Coyotes, respectively, the door has opened much wider for Luukkonen to make the jump, but Adams has done his due diligence in making sure he doesn’t have to make the jump too soon. The NHL’s free agency period saw goalies Craig Anderson and Aaron Dell sign with the Sabres as next season’s goalies, essentially (and hopefully) to bridge them between now and when Luukkonen is ready for the NHL full time. He is still one of the highest-rated goalie prospects out there, and that’s why he earned himself a spot on this list.
5. Isak Rosen
Isak Rosen might be ranked fifth on this prospects list, but that doesn’t mean I would value him less than any of the players above him. He was the Sabres’ 14th-overall pick at the 2021 draft, and was the No. 8 ranked European skater by NHL Central Scouting heading into the draft. He spent last season with Leksands IF in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL), scoring one assist in 22 games as a 17-year-old limited to just 5:45 time on ice per game. At just 5-foot-11 and 161 pounds, he is considered undersized and will need to strengthen his frame before playing in the NHL.
Rosen has a wide skillset of offensive talent, including his shooting, passing, speed, Hockey IQ, and his defensive play, which indicates he’ll be a solid two-way threat in both the offensive and defensive zones once he makes the jump to the NHL. He’s been called a “shoot first” forward, and is touted as having the ability to score from all areas of the ice. He scores more goals than he does assists, so he would make a dangerous addition to the Sabres power play unit one day. He might take a bit longer to develop compared other Sabres prospects, but he’s definitely a player to be excited about down the road.
The list of exciting and talented players in the Sabres prospect pool doesn’t stop at five, and there’s still a good number of names that excite me, and who have a legitimate chance of making the Sabres roster one day. Here are your honorable mentions for the top Sabres prospects.
Ryan Johnson, the Sabres’ 31st-overall in the 2019 draft, is one of the last remaining pieces of the trade that sent former Sabres forward Ryan O’Reilly to the St. Louis Blues. He won a gold medal with the United States at the World Junior Championship last year, and is set to play his junior college hockey season at the University of Minnesota next season. At just 19-years-old, he still has plenty of time to develop, but looks like he might be ready for the NHL sooner than later. The Sabres will make a push to sign him after the college hockey season, and you might see a glimpse of him in the NHL toward the end of the upcoming 2021-22 season.
I wrestled with whether or not Arttu Ruotsaleinen should be classified as a prospect, and I ultimately decided that he should be. The 23-year-old still has one season left on his ELC at $925,000 AAV, and will become an RFA once that deal expires. Ruotsaleinen is a goal scorer, and proved that last season when he scored 16 goals in 19 games in Finland, five goals and 13 points in the AHL, and five goals in 17 games with the Sabres to end the season. He led the Sabres with 1.39 goals per 60 minutes after being called up, and could be a valuable scoring threat for the Sabres in the future if he hones his skills and fine-tunes the other parts of his game.
Oskari Laaksonen was the Sabres’ third-round pick (89th overall) in the 2017 draft, and has yet to make his NHL debut. He did make his AHL debut with the Amerks in the 2020-21 season, though, and notched two goals and a team-high 15 assists in 28 games. He is currently listed at 6-foot-2 and 165 pounds, so the 22-year-old still has a ways to go in terms of strengthening his body for the NHL. He has two years left on his ELC to do just that, as he aims to improve and develop in the AHL.
Linus Weissbach was another 2017 draft pick of the Sabres, taken in the seventh round at 192nd overall. If his development continues its current trajectory, he is on track to look like a steal from that draft, and could very well suit up for the Sabres one day. He just finished up his collegiate career at the University of Wisconsin, scoring 29 assists and 41 points in his senior season, which ranked second and third, respectively, in the NCAA. Weissbach looks like a perfect shoe-in for the Amerks this season, and could get the chance to play alongside some of the Sabres’ other talented young prospects to show what he’s made of.
The Sabres’ Future Is Bright
The Sabres prospect pool is loaded, and with the next two seasons looking like they might be tough ones, the chance to draft high will only help build out their pipeline even more. Between the five top prospects listed here, the honorable mentions, and all the other young talent not mentioned in this article, they have a long list of players who will make a push to be on the roster some day soon.
Adams has firmly established his managing style, and has made patience a virtue for the Sabres, as he looks to be making smart and respectable decisions for the long run. Despite the pain and failures experienced over the last decade, great drafting and development now and in the future will help rebuild this team into a winning franchise again, and I believe Adams has set the ship on the right course in trying to achieve that.