Buffalo Sabres season preview: Black Aces

This is part five of a series previewing the Buffalo Sabres 2011-12 season. This edition will focus on the wingers and centers expected to play in Rochester. Here are links for parts one through four: 1, 2, 3, 4.

Zack Kassian is on the fence between Buffalo and Rochester at this point.

It is fairly easy to write out a rough depth chart based on the abundance of talent the Sabres have at wing. It has a trickle-down effect to the AHL level based on the players who are assumed to make the NHL roster, and those who will be riding the bus in Rochester.

The centers are being roped into this equation simple because there is very little organizational depth at the center position.

Aside from Zack Kassian and Ales Kotalik, the rest of the wingers in the Buffalo Sabres system are penciled in to begin the year playing for the Americans. Even Kotalik is likely to be sent down due to salary constraints. Since Kassian has seen little time at the AHL level, let alone against NHL talent, some seasoning in the minors will do him well. I fully expect to see him playing in every situation for Rochester as he is likely the top candidate to snag the AHL Rookie of the Year award for the Sabres organization.

One thing that Darcy Regier made sure to take care of is veteran talent for his farm squad. Matt Ellis, Colin Stuart, Paul Szczechura (triple-word score) and Mike Ryan will all provide tutelage to the young prospects seeing their first professional play. Ellis and Stuart are hold-overs from last season and both saw time with the Sabres due to injury. Ellis is especially effective because he can play both wing and center. Stuart saw limited time with the Sabres last season, but was a quality signing for the AHL club, it was wise to bring him back into the fold. I would put Ellis on the short list to be the first call-up along with Luke Adam, Kassian, Stuart and Ryan.

The 2010-11 AHL Rookie of the Year, Luke Adam will see some time with Rochester this year.

Szczechura, aside from being a wicked Scrabble combo, will provide some stability at center for a team that would have entered camp with just Adam and Ellis as the potential pivots. Szczechura could also garner a recall depending on injuries and production. Ryan sits in the same situation, as there are likely two or three players ahead of him for a call-up. However, his familiarity with Lindy Ruff’s system and the Sabres organization made him a no-brainer signing. Not to mention, he is an excellent offensive asset in the AHL. One thing to keep an eye on, the low salary of Ellis, Ryan, Szczechura and Stuart will make one the extra forward for the Sabres main roster. Training camp will likely decide that victor, my money is on Stuart for the time being.

As for Luke Adam, I expect him to get used to the sights along the 90 as he will likely be shuttling between Buffalo and Rochester quite a bit. He is likely the first center, if not the first forward, who will be sent up to the NHL in the event of an injury. The reigning Rookie of the Year looked like a man amongst boys playing with Marcus Foligno and Kassian in Traverse City. Adam’s development won’t advance much further in the AHL, he will be graduating to the show in little time.

Foligno and Corey Tropp enter this season as x-factors in my book. Foligno is entering his first professional season, but is cast in the same mold as Kassian and fellow prospect Riley Boychuk. In his defense, Foligno is a far superior skater than Boychuk and shouldn’t have much to worry about on that front. Still, it is important for him to provide a spark in his rookie year and prove his worth to the organization. Tropp, on the other hand, is entering a crucial time in his development. He has had a full season in the minors, picking up the intricacies of the pro game, yet he hasn’t sniffed a call-up to the big club. He hasn’t necessarily been passed on the organizational depth chart, but for all intents and purposes he has. Adam and Kassianwill surely warrant a recall before the Michigan State product. This will be a make or break year for the winger as he will need to prove he can produce big numbers to warrant a look in the NHL.

Marucs Foligno will make his professional debut in the AHL this season.

The only other names of interest, to me, are Shawn Szydlowski and Phil Varone. Szydlowski can play either wing or center and had a strong showing in Traverse City. He was signed late last season and was given a new deal to continue his time with the Sabres organization. While he won’t see time with the Sabres, he is a quality signing for Rochester. Varone does not have a contract, but he was blowing up all over the Sabres blogger’s Twitter feeds this week. He had a good rookie camp and an even better showing in Traverse City, all on an invitation. I would be very surprised if he wasn’t given a minor-league deal for camp.

The remaining forwards; Jacob Lagace, Travis Turnbull and Derek Whitmore are all quality depth players for the Amerks. All three have had a few years with the Sabres organization and have carved out a good niche for themselves at this point. Will they ever get a call-up? Maybe one day, I don’t expect it to be with the Sabres, but they will certainly see some time in the NHL before their time is up.

Stay tuned for the final installation of the positional season preview along with a post on the overall outlook for 2011-12.

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