The hockey season ended prematurely for everyone around the world due to COVID-19 and it is still an unknown how the aforementioned pandemic will impact the 2020-21 season for all leagues. This weekly column was intended to track and provide updates on how Buffalo Sabres Prospects were performing and developing so I thought that it would be fitting to do one final review of the past year.
Many players saw their status in the organization change but that change was not equal for all as there was a variety who progressed, regressed, or stayed about the same as when the season began. There’s a few who will drop out completely while others may graduate to the next level though generally speaking, this group of prospects still leaves a lot to be desired from an overall depth and potential perspective.
Clicking the image below will take you to The Charging Buffalo’s Prospect Stats Page which shows just how well each prospect performed this season. On this page, there are player specific tabs which show their entire stats history from EliteProspects.com as well as a few other tabs showing the NHLe trends for both the Forward and Defense groups over time.
In the two charts below we see where the Sabres prospects stand for NHLe and pNHLe scores. The first chart shows the forward group which is not surprisingly headlined by Cozens.
As a refresher, the NHLe numbers developed by Manny Elk attempt to take a players production in their current league and adjust it to an equivalent point production in the NHL. These have been further refined by others in the data community and something I will be updating for next season hopefully.
The pNHLe numbers were developed by Mason Black (@NHLRankKing) and can be found very easily on his NHL Rank King app. This model is intended to expand on the NHLe number by taking age into account for projecting a prospects’ point potential in the NHL.
Unsurprisingly, Cozens leads the way here with a projected ceiling of 75 points at the NHL based on his current age and level of production in the WHL. Arttu Ruotsalainen had such a great year in Liiga that it propelled him to the 47 point mark in this model though I’ve found that Finnish prospects pNHLe doesn’t have as strong a correlation to future NHL success.
I think that while Ruotsalainen and Pekar both showed very well in 2019-20, with these prospects expected to jump up to a higher level of play for the 2020-21 season, it is likely we will see a dip in their pNHLe numbers.
Biro, Mittelstadt, and Thompson are the next highest forwards on this chart with the latter two names showing a potential NHL point ceiling that leaves me desiring more for players that came with top 6 expectations.
It’s surprising to see Samuelsson at the top of this list for pNHLe but due to his age and point production for Western Michigan last year, he may actually possess more upside than he’s given credit for. I will speak to him a bit more later on but there are concerns with his game that should be taken into account before classifying him as a defender with offensive potential.
I don’t think the rest of the order is very surprising for defenders but what is clear is that there really isn’t much in the way of offensive D in the system. Bryson, Pilut, Laaksonen, and to a lesser degree Johnson, are the names that we would hope can turn into productive defenseman. Each of these players has the skating ability and offensive mindset required to be a play driving defender, they just need time to reach their potential.
As noted in the Cozens Season Review article posted recently, Cozens took his game to a new level and grew as a player in just about every aspect of the game. Sending him back to the WHL next season wouldn’t really do much for his development and while some are cautious to rush him to the NHL, it’s really the best option of the two so long as he isn’t expected to be a dominant 2nd line center right out of the gate.
Fortunately, Cozens has great hockey sense and a nice size/speed combination that should allow him to transition better than most 19 year olds to NHL action. He should be wearing blue and gold next season on the 2nd or 3rd line wing while getting some time on the powerplay and a 40 point season isn’t out of the question given his talent level.
A rather unknown undrafted free agent signing from last year, Ruotsalainen excelled in the Finnish Pro League Liiga. Putting up 15 goals and 28 assists in 44 games was quite impressive and he showcased the offensive ability that earned him an NHL contract. He did a lot of his damage on the powerplay and was arguably the play driver for his line at even strength. While he is undersized, I believe he could fill in on the bottom 6 for the Sabres down the road as he is a great passer and has good enough speed to be effective at the next level.
“I do believe Ruotsalainen will make the jump to North America but most likely he’ll spend the upcoming season in the AHL and try to earn his way up from there. As a small offensive center, the smaller ice will require adjustments to his game. If he makes it to the NHL, I would be surprised if that happened as a center, so I think he’ll need to switch to wing and learn how to be effective there. If he makes it, he’ll be a hard-working offensive player who doesn’t leak defensively. But his strengths are definitely in the offensive end.” -Jokke Nevalainen
There will definitely be some growing pains adjusting to North American hockey where I think teams will press him more to try and force him into making quicker decisions than he was used to in Liiga. Regardless, he’s a piece in the pipeline that can be considered found money and offers some upside to a severely lacking forward group of prospects.
The 4th round agitator from 2018 played in his 2nd season in the OHL and got traded partway through the season from Barrie to the Sudbury Wolves. Pekar has a nice set of offensive skills but did show the same consistency issues from his rookie season in the OHL as there were nights where he just didn’t show up. He’s a good goal scorer who isn’t afraid to get in the dirty areas and can also serve as a solid playmaker when he does decide to be patient with the puck.
I would say he’s an above average skater who improved year over year in his offensive production but will need to take an even bigger step in his development if he wants to be considered a prospect to continue hoping pans out. He’s likely headed to Rochester where he should slot into their middle 6 group of forwards and get some powerplay time. It may be lofty to put 40 points as a goal for him in the AHL but that’s a benchmark I believe would show he’s made strides in his game that are a sign he has not reached his ceiling.
Rousek was an overager drafted by Botterill last year and performed very well for Sparta Praha in the Czech pro league Extraliga. Rousek plays an intense style hockey where his feet are constantly moving. He has solid top end speed though his stride has always been a point of contention of mine that I think needs to get cleaned up.
He showed growth in his offensive zone awareness which enabled him to score more than expected this season. Being one of the older players from last years draft class, it’s not surprising that he may be a bit further ahead in his development than some of his peers but will still need some time before he’s even in consideration to make the Sabres.
I struggled to decide whether or not to put Samuelsson in the Up or Down column and ultimately chose Up because I think he found a way to tap into his offensive game more than I had expected. This is by no means an endorsement that he’s well on his way to being a top 4 defender but I liked how he was taking some chances jumping into the rush on offense for somehow who lacks foot speed.
Much like Ryan Johnson, Samuelsson was likely overdrafted based on who was still available but does present a pretty safe (albeit low) floor. He has the size to play in the NHL and will need to ensure that his positioning and decision making is excellent to compensate for his slow skating.
I love the way Borgen plays and this is coming from a guy who loves speed and point production from his defenseman. Borgen is just a solid defender and someone who really took on an expanded role with Rochester this season.
He only registered 11 points (1 goal and 10 assists) in 61 games but the 23 year old who stands 6’3″ and just under 200 lbs is a great presence on the backend and is very strong positionally in his own zone. Given his ability to be a calm with the puck, I think he can carve out a role as a bottom pair defender in the NHL and could perhaps make the jump next year, though the right side of the blue line is still very full.
After a slow start to the season, Bryson finished the year extremely hot, capturing 16 points (4 G – 12 A) in 21 games for the Amerks. While the accumulation of points was impressive down the stretch, it was the confidence with which Bryson played that was encouraging for his rookie season in the AHL. The left handed defender is not the biggest player out there but he has great hockey IQ and is a fantastic skater.
His instincts to jump into the rush on offense showed a player who understands the game at a high level and I believe he is one of the best, if not the best left hand defensive prospect in the organization currently. He has the ability to quarterback a powerplay and while that may not necessarily translate to PP Unit #1 in the NHL, he definitely looks like a guy who could be a 2nd pair defender and play on the 2nd PP Unit. With how strong he finished the season, I am very high on Bryson for next year and look forward to seeing his continued development.
The young left handed defenseman has been the point of contention on Sabres Twitter ever since he was drafted in 2019 (31st) over the likes of Kaliyev, N. Robertson, Rees, and Hoglander, just to name a few. While his skillset for a defender is desirable for today’s game, Johnson has not been able to translate that to much success in point production in the USHL, and also his first year in Minnesota. He’s a good skater that shows great poise with the puck and was solid in his own end for being a true freshmen at Minnesota this past season but there are mild concerns of him ever developing into a top play driving defenseman.
As it stands, he is very likely headed towards being a 2nd pair NHL defenseman with a limited ceiling from a point production standpoint and he will unfortunately receive undue criticism for being selected too high by this GM. I’m optimistic that he can have a strong year for the Gophers next season but he will need to really develop his offensive game for me to get excited about his future with the organization.
Much to the dismay of my cohort TCB Bill, Weissbach’s train slowed down as the season progressed though the same could be said for most of the Badger players as it was a disappointing season for Wisconsin given all of the talent they possessed. A 7th round pick from 2017, Weissbach had performed very well in his 1st two NCAA seasons and still had a solid year but was not able to maintain the production he had in the 1st half of the season. Smaller in stature and a good skater who plays a well rounded 2-way game, he appears to be headed back for his senior year per The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler.
Plagued by an early season injury, Laaksonen never really looked himself as the season went on. The significant regression in his game from his DY+1 season is why he landed in the Arrow Down section but the skill set he possesses makes him a someone worth hoping turns it around next season.
When asked about Laaksonen’s struggles, Dobber Prospects Head European Scout Jokke Nevalainen had this to say:
“Laaksonen’s regression has been a bit of a mystery for everyone. There was definitely much more competition for offensive minutes on Ilves’ back end and Laaksonen did have a couple of injuries and didn’t seem to be at 100% when he came back from those. But even still, he should have been better than what he showed this season – he didn’t even look like the same player most of the time.”
The fundamental style of hockey Laaksonen plays is why we can remain optimistic about his future, though he will require some patience for sure. Adding to his strength will help him play against higher levels of competition as he has a good size frame already. He’s very smart with the puck, especially in the offensive zone and getting over to Rochester next year would be a good option for his development.
Ukko Pekka Luukkonen
Luukkonen came into the season coming off of hip surgery and was sent to the ECHL for a conditioning stint that saw him dominate the competition down there. An injury to Ullmark allowed for UPL to get a call up to Rochester where he struggled mightily, posing a 4-4-3 record with a 3.04 GAA and .882 Save %. After an incredible 2018-19 season where he won a WJC Gold Medal and crushed the OHL for Sudbury, the past season for UPL was really one where I expected more from him.
As goalies are tricky to project as it is, I am not overly concerned with his rough 2019-20 season but definitely want to see him take hold of the starting role for the Amerks next year and show more consistency on a nightly basis. In his final 5 games in the AHL, it was clear that Chris Taylor was seeking to shelter UPL a bit by keeping the shot totals down as he saw 19 shots or less in 4 of those contests. A good target for him would be to replicate the GAA (2.24) and Save Percentage .912 %) numbers he produced in the ECHL in 23 GP.
Davidsson had his season shortened presumably due to the lingering effects of a concussion though up until he was forced out of Vaxjo’s lineup, he had not been putting up the points that were expected of him.
“Växjö was not a good team this season. They didn’t score a lot of goals, so no one on their team had high point totals. Davidsson’s ice time also dropped about two minutes per game from the previous season, and he was moved from center to wing this season. I think that combination caused him to have a difficult season, so hopefully he’ll bounce back next year.” -Jokke Nevalainen
I was optimistic about Fitzgerald entering the year and he didn’t do much to impress as he found himself the odd man out in Rochester for most of the season. Having played only 25 games, Fitzgerald managed 8 points (2 goals and 6 assists) which is respectable for his first full year in the AHL. He will be given an opportunity next season to make a larger impact though the pipeline is fairly full of defenders so he will definitely need to earn the minutes.
The 2019-20 season never got started for 4th round pick Aaron Huglen who spent the entire season sidelined with a back injury. Little was known about what was ailing Huglen until about the middle of March when Kris Baker brought attention to a news article that explained Huglen would indeed be having surgery to repair a bulging disc in his back. His DY+1 absolutely didn’t go as he would have hoped but taking care of a serious injury like this and taking the proper time to let his body heal is the right course of action as Huglen will be joining fellow Sabres Prospect, Ryan Johnson, at Minnesota.
Jury Still Out
Cronholm bounced around the Swedish leagues this year and spent most of his time with Karlskrona of the Allsvenskan league and went pointless in 10 games in the SHL. The soon to be 20 year old defender showed some offensive upside in 2018-19 that didn’t really carry over to this season. The hope for him is that he plays full time for Malmo in the SHL in 2020-21 on a 2nd paid role.
William Worge Kreu
The 7th round left shot defenseman from the 2018 Draft is extremely tall at 6’6″ but lanky at only 185 lbs. He really exceeded expectations as his solid play in the SuperElit League earned him 25 games in the SHL where he scored 1 goal and 2 assists as a 19 year old. Given the obvious need to fill out his frame, Worge Kreu is someone I will be monitoring closely in 2020-21 to see if he can be an impact player.
The right shot defender from the 2018 Draft Class also got a taste of action against grown men in the Finnish pro league Liiga this year. He has never really shown much in the way of offensive upside but is solidly built at 6’1″ and 201 lbs. He is still a long way from being considered a valuable asset in the pipeline and is entering some key developmental years.
The first college free agent signing of the year was Penn St. senior Brandon Biro. Going undrafted 3 times, Biro played extremely well as captain of the Nittany Lions in 2019-20, scoring 10 goals and 15 assists in 25 games. His nose for the net definitely helps ensure he is an offensive threat on the ice and projects to add some forward depth to the AHL with some bottom 6 upside in the NHL.
A teammate of Mattias Samuelsson at Western Michigan, DiPietro was signed as a college free agent after completing his Senior season. The left winger ended his college career 34 goals and 54 assists in 104 games played and is similar to what Biro will offer but with less upside in my opinion. DiPietro is an energy type player who can get up to top speed quickly and will be welcome addition to Rochester as he attempts to develop his game at the pro level.
2020 1st Round Pick
There’s a handful of players that could be available at 7th overall for the Sabres and that’s largely in part to the great depth in the top 10 this year. While Jake Sanderson has been a buzz worthy name associated with Buffalo, there’s going to be at least one of the high quality forwards available and I just don’t see how Botterill could go with Sanderson over what will be available at 7.
Based on the way things are trending, it would seem that one of Lucas Raymond, Alexander Holtz, Cole Perfetti, and to a lesser degree, Marco Rossi, will be available for the Sabres to pick from. Any of these names would immediately vault to 2nd in the prospect pool by default and each has the potential to supplant Cozens as the top prospect in the organization.
The first half of the season was one to forget for Mittelstadt who struggled mightily with the Sabres and eventuallyl got demoted to Rochester. Adjusting to the AHL also proved a challenge for him early on as he only registered x points in his first y games with the Amerks. Things stabilized for Mittelstadt under the guidance of Chris Taylor though and he gradually started showing signs that he was growing his game again.
Earning top minutes as the season wound down, Mittelstadt put up a points in the final b games for Rochester. While the idea of him being a great second line center in the NHL has evaporated, his progress at the end of the season showed that he still has the potential to be a middle 6 player in the NHL. This next season is a major one for him as it is a contract year (RFA) and one where he truly needs to earn ice time in the NHL.
Thompson found himself in Rochester to start the season and he excelled right out of the bat. He used his size and speed to make an impact for the Amerks on a nightly basis and was one of the first callups to Buffalo when the big club started to struggle.
Unfortunately, Thompson would only get a partial game in as he went down with a shoulder injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the season. Like Mittelstadt, this following year is a big one for Thompson though at this juncture of his time with the organization, he doesn’t appear as if he will ever be able to live up to the perhaps unfair expectations bestilled upon him for being a part of the ROR trade.
After a strong showing in the 2018-19 season, especially by the possession numbers, Pilut took a bit of a step back this year. His numbers regressed in his limited action in Buffalo and while he was still productive in Rochester, he didn’t improve much.
Part of his struggles in the NHL can be attributed to his usage where he is far from the only victim to such a problem. The left side of the blue line is still very wide open in general so Pilut should have an opportunity to solidify his presence in Buffalo before players like Samuelsson and Johnson develop further.
Asplund got an early call up due to injury and also due to his solid play in Rochester. He carried that momentum into his first few games in Buffalo but became mostly invisible after that, ultimately getting sent down.
He still has a lot to improve on regarding his consistency but there’s a lot to like about such a smart player like him who understands his defensive responsibilities. While I had hoped his strong 2018-19 season was a sign that he would be ready to seize a full time spot on such a weak roster this year, I feel he understands the game well enough but is still adjusting to the speed at the NHL level.
On The Way Out
The following players have hardly done much to warrant a contract offer to stay with the organization and the Sabres will likely let their rights over these players expire this summer. Of the players on this list, I could see Murray and Oglevie getting AHL contracts.
- Philip Nyberg
- Matt Spencer
- Vasily Glotov
- Brett Murray
- Andrew Oglevie
My Current Buffalo Sabres Prospect Ranks
- Dylan Cozens
- Arttu Ruotsalainen
- Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen
- Jacob Bryson
- Matej Pekar
- Erik Portillo
- Ryan Johnson
- William Borgen
- Oskari Laaksonen
- Mattias Samuelsson
- Brandon Biro
- Lukas Rousek
- Marcus Davidsson
- Linus Weissbach
- Aaron Huglen
- Casey Fitzgerald
- Dawson DiPietro
- William Worge Kreu
- Filip Cederqvist
- Linus Cronholm
- Miska Kukkonen
Mason Black (@NHLRankKing) and his NHL Rank King App for pNHLe Data
Eliteprospects.com for their player stats
Emmanuel Perry (@Mannyelk) for his NHLe numbers.
Past Prospect Notebooks from 2019-20
Sabres Prospects Notebook 1-27-20
Sabres Prospects Notebook 1-22-20
Sabres Prospects Notebook – Midterm Report Card 2019-20 Part 1
Sabres Prospects Notebook – Midterm Report Card 2019-20 Part 2