Buffalo Sabres season preview: Blueline blue chips

This is part three of a series previewing the Buffalo Sabres 2011-12 season. Part three focuses on the defensemen who will play for the Sabres’ farm club. Read part one and two here.

An AHL All-Star selection, Drew Schiestel will be the first off the farm for Buffalo this year.

Due to a number of roster moves by Darcy Regier in the offseason, a handful of the Sabres’ prospects will remain stuck in the minors for another season. If Tom Golisano still owned the Sabres it would be likely that Chris Butler and Marc-Andre Gragnani would be fighting for playing time with players like Drew Schiestel or T.J. Brennan. Both defensemen are close to making the jump to the NHL soon.

As luck would have it, Terry Pegula instituted a new mandate of spending and the Sabres brought in two new veterans to man the blue line. So, Schiestel and Brennan will need to wait another year to make it with the big club.

Still, Schiestel was an AHL All-Star before suffering a season-ending knee injury last season. He has come a long way from being selected late in the second-round in 2007. He sported a +15 and would have been the first player off the farm had he not lost the second half of the season. His fellow draft mate, Brennan, managed to find the net 15 times last year as he continues to develop as an offensive force. His time in the Buffalo system may be short as Mark Pysyk tops a short list of offensively gifted rear-guards that includes Andrej Sekera and Gragnani. Brennan and Schiestel will still do some heavy lifting early in the year while some of the new additions become acclimated to the professional game.

Brayden McNabb is probably the most exciting prospect to be playing defense for the Amerks this season. He rolled up a ton of points in his final year of junior last year, but don’t expect a similar output. He is a physical defenseman who excels in his own zone. His ability to move the puck is a bonus feature that most stay-at-home types lack. He will need time to adjust to the size and speed of the AHL. But I have little doubt that the Sabres won’t find a way for him to see his first NHL game this season. McNabb is playing in the Traverse City tournament as you read this entry and will be thrown into training camp upon his return to Buffalo at the end of this week. Don’t be surprised if he plays in every preseason game this year.

Nick Crawford and Dennis Persson are somewhat lost in the shuffle in the AHL. Persson has yet to live up to the first-round selection the Sabres spent on him, while Crawford has simply been overshadowed by the hype of other players. Crawford was a sixth-round selection in 2008 but managed to find his offensive talents late in his junior career. His first professional season was no waste, he managed to record 31 points (7+24) for Portland and will certainly earn more playing time this year. He falls into the same issue that Brennan finds himself in. He is an offensive defenseman who is going to be passed on the depth chart by newer acquisitions like Pysyk.

Perrson will toil in the minors until his entry-level deal expires. Then he will be off to Europe to continue his career. He will see playing time, likely on the third pairing, and could even find himself in a roster battle with players like Alex Beiga and Corey Finehage.

Finehage is not the only physically impressive third-rounder on the depth chart. Brayden McNabb shares the same traits but a different career trajectory. Unfortunately Fienhage couldn’t crack the lineup at North Dakota and he defected for the WHL. He had little additional success before finishing the 2010-11 hockey season on a tryout ofer with Portland (circumvents an entry-level deal). While his size and raw skill are impressive, his lack of development may land him in the AHL this season.

Beiga saw action in over 60 AHL games last season. Expect to see him again this year in his second full professional season. He is still a few years away from having a definitive answer to where he will ultimately play. However, my money is on the minors.

What the Sabres have going for them at this point in time is a serious prospect pipeline on defense. Brennan and Schiestel are ready to jump to the NHL and could see spot duty now, if necessary. McNabb needs some time but will be the top defensive prospect by the end of the season. While Persson has become and afterthought, Crawford and Biega have the promise of two more professional seasons to blossom. Not to mention, it is likely that Shaone Morrisonn ends up in Rochester as well. That just means more veteran leadership and skill on a blueline teeming with talent.

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