August 31-in-31: Buffalo Sabres

Pat Quinn

2019-08-04

 

 

 

Introduction

 

Since 2011, the Buffalo Sabres have not had any playoff appearances. The Sabres have had six coaches since losing in the 2010-11 Conference Quarter Finals. Lindy Ruff, Ron Rolston, Dan Bylsma and Phil Housley have attempted to bring the glory days back to Buffalo.

 

As I mentioned in the July 31 in 31 Buffalo Sabres post, general manager Jason Botteril fired Housley after two frustrating seasons and hired former Edmonton Oilers head coach Ralph Kreuger. Kreuger will be under pressure from the get-go as Sabres fans are hungry for the playoffs. Fortunately for Kreuger, the Sabres have a roster with plenty of depth.

 

In addition, Buffalo has done an excellent job stocking the pond with prospects. The Sabres have a few prospects on the rise and a few are ready to make the jump from junior hockey to the AHL. There are a few prospects who could make a splash at the KeyBank Center.

 

 

 

Graduating Players (Players graduating any professional levels)

 

 

Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen

 

After Luukkonen’s first and only season in the Ontario Hockey League, the Finnish goaltender is ready to play in the AHL full-time. Last season, the goaltender played in 53 games and posted a 2.50 Goals Against Average (GAA). The Espoo, Finland native also managed to post a .920 Save Percentage (SV%). Luukkonen’s SV% was the best in the OHL. Vancouver Canucks goaltending prospect Michael DiPietro also had a .920 SV%, but that was only during his 21 games with the Windsor Spitfires. DiPietro was dealt to the Ottawa 67’s prior to the OHL Trade Deadline and his SV% seemed to tail off in Ottawa.

 

Aside from Luukkonen’s time in the OHL with the Sudbury Wolves, he suited up for the Rochester Americans for a game and played for the Finland U20 team. His performance in net for Finland helped secure a gold medal victory at the World Junior Championships in British Columbia.

 

Luukkonen is a behemoth of a goaltender. His positioning is elite and his size allows him to have near-perfect sight-lines. As I mentioned in my July update on Luukkonen’s profile, his transitioning needs to improve, but he has plenty of time to make improvements.

 

He will have the opportunity to work with Rochester Americans head coach Chris Taylor and his coaching staff over the next season or two. After a couple of seasons in Rochester, Luukkonen should be ready to make a splash at the NHL level.

 

 

Arttu Ruotsalainen

 

Aside from Luukkonen, the Sabres have another Finnish prospect who is ready to make the jump to the AHL. Forward prospect Ruotsalainen is coming over from Finland to play in his first full season in North America. Last season Ruotsalainen tallied 42 points (21 goals and 21 assists) in 59 games with Ilves. His offensive production has significantly improved and he appears to be ready to make a splash in Rochester.

 

In May, DobberProspects Director of European Scouting Jokke Nevalainen wrote a detailed report on Ruotsalainen. Nevalainen explained that the Finnish centerman had a breakout season in the Liiga and quickly became a leader on his team, despite his young age. In addition, he mentioned that while Ruotsalainen is under-sized that “he competes very hard and isn’t afraid to go into the dirty areas of the ice”.  Ruotsalainen has also demonstrated that his offensive skill-set is sound. He has a knack for finding the back of the net and has found quite a bit of success on the power play.

 

 

Matej Pekar, Jacob Bryson and Casey Fitzgerald

 

In addition to Ruotsalainen and Luukkonen joining the Rochester Americans, Pekar, Bryson and Fitzgerald are ready to make the leap to the AHL.

 

Pekar is coming off of an injury-riddled season with the OHL’s Barrie Colts, but when he was in the lineup, he was a dominant offensive force. The winger could not be stopped and he was able to improve his PNHLe quite a bit. At the moment, Pekar’s potential is right in between 1st line and 2nd line. If he has a strong season in Rochester, Pekar’s PNHLe could continue to climb.

 

Both Bryson and Fitzgerald have concluded their collegiate careers and will now spend time continuing to improve their game in the minors. Bryson is coming off of a 28 point season with Providence College and Fitzgerald managed to muster up 14 points in his final season with Boston College. The two defensemen will need quite a bit of time developing in the AHL and are considered long-shots to make the Sabres in the future since the club has a good chunk of depth on defense.

 

 

 

Risers

 

 

Henri Jokiharju

 

Earlier this off-season, the Buffalo Sabres acquired right handed defenseman Jokiharju in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks. The Sabres dealt forward prospect Alex Nylander to Chicago for the young Finnish defenseman.

 

Last season, he split his time between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Blackhawks’ AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs. In 38 games played with the Blackhawks, he tallied 12 assists, a 54.3 corsi-for percentage (CF%), an offensive zone start percentage (oZS%) of 60.7, along with 37 block shots, 48 hits, seven takeaways and 26 giveaways. While Jokiharju’s advanced metrics were solid, the Blackhawks felt that he could use some time in the AHL to further develop. Later on in the season, he reappeared in the Blackhawks lineup, but the time in Rockford was time well-spent for the Oulu, Finland native. He was able to continue to improve his puck moving skill-set and his offensive prowess.

 

With Jokiharju joining the organization, the Sabres have a surplus of defensive talent on the right side. If he makes the opening night roster, there is a good chance that he would be on the third pairing with Marco Scandella. While his ice-time would not be too high, a Scandella-Jokiharju pairing would take pressure off of the Sabres top four defensemen and could be a solid pair all over the ice. Scandella has decent size and can be physical when needed. On the other hand, Jokiharju is a magician with the puck. The duo would blend very nicely and could possibly be a good third defensive pairing in the NHL.

 

 

Victor Olofsson

 

Another riser is Swedish left winger Olofsson. Last season, Olofsson played in his first full season in North America. He played in 66 games for the Rochester Americans and was featured in six games for the Buffalo Sabres.

 

At both, the NHL and the AHL level, Olofsson impressed fans. His shot and the ability to pick corners is intriguing. Olofsson has proven to be an asset no matter the situation (full strength and power play). He led the Americans in goals, assists and points per game (Tage Thompson had a higher points per game ratio, but only played in eight games).

 

Not only did Olofsson impress fans and the Sabres organization last season, but his play at the Sabres development camp made it evident that the Swede is ready to play full-time in the NHL. His puck movement and ability to draw his opposition and goaltending off-guard makes him a strong candidate to open up the 2019-20 season in Buffalo.

 

 

Fallers

 

The two prospects that seemed to fall off the radar last season were:

 

 

Jonas Johansson

 

Johansson spent most of the season in the ECHL and while his GAA improved in comparison to his 2017-18 numbers, he still has not shown that he is ready to play in the AHL full-time. With that being said, Johansson is getting older and is proving to be a career minor leaguer at best.

 

 

Tage Thompson

 

Expectations were moderately high as he was one of the key pieces that the Sabres received in the Ryan O’Reilly trade. Thompson projects to be a top nine forward but does have top six upside. Unfortunately, Thompson’s play indicated that his top six upside is more of mirage than a reality. In 65 games played with the Sabres, he tallied seven goals and five assists. Due to his lackluster performance, his PNHLe has dropped significantly. Now he needs to prove his worth next season, otherwise he might be sent down to the AHL permanently.

 

 

 

Prospect Depth Chart

 

Left Wing

Centre

Right Wing

Victor Olofsson

Casey Mittelstadt

Evan Rodrigues

CJ Smith

Jean-Sebastien Dea

Tage Thompson

Remi Elie

Dylan Cozens

Matej Pekar

Brett Murray

Arttu Ruotsalainen

 

Linus Weissbach

Rasmus Asplund

 

 

Marcus Davidsson

 

 

Connor Hurley

 

 

Left Defense

Right Defense

Lawrence Pilut

Henri Jokiharju

John Gilmour

Will Borgen

Brandon Hickey

Casey Nelson

Ryan Johnson

Casey Fitzgerald

Mattias Samuelsson

Oskari Laaksonen

Jacob Bryson

Miska Kukkonen

Linus Cronholm

 

 

Goalies

Linus Ullmark

Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen

Jonas Johansson

Erik Portillo

Adam Wilcox

 

 

 

Top Twenty Fantasy Prospects

 

  1. Ukko-Pekka Luukonen
  2. Casey Mittlestadt
  3. Dylan Cozens
  4. Henri Jokiharju
  5. Ryan Johnson
  6. Lawrence Pilut
  7. Oskari Laaksonen
  8. Victor Olofsson
  9. Arttu Ruotsalainen
  10. Rasmus Asplund
  11. Linus Weissbach
  12. Matej Pekar
  13. Marcus Davidsson
  14. Evan Rodrigues
  15. Tage Thompson
  16. Brett Murray
  17. Jacob Bryson
  18. CJ Smith
  19. Linus Ullmark
  20. Will Borgen

 

 

Stats from eliteprospects.com and hockey-reference.com

 

 

Josh Tessler – @joshtessler_

 

 

 

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