The Pegula Puzzle: Black aces

I am onto part three of my offseason look at the Sabres and how the roster may look when the season begins. I took a look at who Darcy Regier should resign in the first part and I broke down how the current players will fall into the 2011-12 roster in part two. The third piece of the Pegula Puzzle will focus on where the Sabres prospects will land for the upcoming season.

The 2011-12 season will be the first year that the prospect cupboard begins to truly stock up. The Sabres are well removed from their last European draft pick and the ease of moving picks into the minors is starting to pay dividends. In addition, Marcus Foligno, Zack Kassian, Brayden McNabb and Mark Pysyk all received entry-level deals as last season wound down. Those four players represent some of the most promising talent in the Sabres’ pipeline, three of them will be playing professionally next year. Pysyk will be the only one to return to his junior team.

They will join other blue chips like Luke Adam, TJ Brennan, Paul Byron, Drew Schiestel and Corey Tropp in a line of players who will be pushing for NHL playing time very soon. Not to mention Tyler Ennis, Nathan Gerbe, Marc Andre Gragnani and Mike Weber, who have all cracked the lineup in the show. Adam and Schiestel are of particular interest to me because they may be seeing regular time in the NHL this coming season.

Adam became Buffalo’s third-straight AHL Rookie of the Year in 2010-11 and even saw a handful of games with the Sabres during the year. I feel his skating still needs to improve if he is to become an impact player in the NHL, but it is clear he has the offensive chops already. I don’t think he translates as a second line center just yet, and he certainly isn’t going to do much good in a third or fourth line role. The best bet would be to utilize him as your first call up and allow him to play major minutes in the AHL this season.

Schiestel is in a similar boat as he was an AHL All-Star and showed real promise before getting injured. I see him having a shot to be the seventh defenseman this season, especially if Andrej Sekera and Chris Butler are allowed to walk. The only drawback is the fact that he will see limited time as the seventh man in the rotation. He could play top minutes in the AHL (like Adam) and further his development that way. It is a tough line to toe in that regard and the organization will need to determine the best way for the young blueliner to develop.

Zack Kassian is the only other prospect who may have a shot to crack the big club this season. His size and skill make him a raw talent similar to a Milan Lucic. It is clear that he is very raw in terms of maturity and overall skill. Put in the right situation he could certainly flourish. I could see him landing as high as a second line winger (riding shotgun for Roy and Ennis) or even in a bottom six role using his physicality along with Cody McCormick and Paul Gaustad. When it comes down to it, I don’t see a spot on the roster for Kassian. He could certainly play big in camp and earn a spot, but with a logjam at wing a full year of seasoning in the AHL will do him well.

That is precisely how I view the development of Marcus Foligno and Brayden McNabb. They are the two of the most precious commodities entering the system this year and, if groomed properly, will turn into major cogs for the future success of the team. A full season, maybe two will allow them to season into their early 20s before hitting the NHL with a full skillset. I am especially excited at the prospect of McNabb, Tyler Myers and Pysyk anchoring the blueline for the next 10 seasons.

The only question that remains is where these guys will play? Dollars to donuts the new affiliate will be the Amerks. It is only a matter of time before the official announcement comes down. Having these players 90 minutes away has prepared me for a handful of trips up the 90 this winter.

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