It is November and the college hockey season is finally upon us! This season will see three Sabres prospects playing in the NCAA: Ryan Johnson, Erik Portillo, and Linus Weissbach. Luckily for Sabres fans, all three of these prospects play in the Big Ten Conference, which happens to be kicking off their season this Friday. So let’s take a quick look at each of these prospects heading into their upcoming season:
Sophomore, LHD, University of Minnesota
2019/20 Stats: 38 GP, 0 G, 8 A, 8 PTS, 42.4 EV GF%, 19:52 ATOI
There is no doubt that Ryan Johnson had an subpar 2019/20 freshman season at the University of Minnesota, especially for a 1st round pick. He only recorded 8 points in 38 games for the Golden Gophers. This mediocre stat line was even more disappointing when one takes into account the historic D+1 production from some of the players selected immediately after him in the 2019 NHL Draft.
Johnson had a lot of things stacked against him going into his freshman season. He was one of the youngest players in college hockey, having just turned 18 years old just a few months before the 2019/20 season began. He had one of the smaller frames of any college player at 175 pounds. He also spent the majority of the season playing on the right side, his off-hand, due to the lack of right-handed defensemen on the roster.
Ryan Johnson has never been a defenseman who has been known for racking up the points. He was not even a 0.5 point per game player in the USHL when the Buffalo Sabres drafted him in the 1st round. His key strengths have always been his mobility, transition game and his defensive smarts. The lack of production is certainly concerning and I believe that places a cap on his ceiling as a prospect. However, I am confident that he has all of the tools to carve out a role as a depth defenseman at the NHL level, even if the production does not come in spades at Minnesota.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers enter the 2020/21 season as the 13th ranked team in USA Today poll and the preseason favorites to win the Big Ten Conference. They return a solid core led by Lightning forward prospect, Sammy Walker; Ducks defense prospect, Jackson LaCombe; and numerous other NHL prospects.
The Golden Gophers will be very deep on left-handed defensemen once again with 8 left-handed shots on their blueline compared to just 2 right-handed shots. So it’s very likely that Ryan Johnson will be playing on his off-hand once again. It’s going to be a deep defense group in Minnesota, one that features six NHL-drafted prospects. However, with the two defensemen who led the team in ice time in 2019/20 having graduated, it’s possible that Johnson could see top pair minutes this season.
If you are looking for a the biggest bounce back candidate in the Sabres prospect pool, it has to be Ryan Johnson. He went on an “inverse PDO bender” last season: his opponents had a lot more puck luck than he had. Johnson is almost guaranteed to have a stronger campaign in 2020/21 with his on-ice shooting percentage numbers likely improving to the mean. Some added muscle and 38 games of NCAA experience under his belt should help as well.
Johnson wouldn’t be the first Minnesota defenseman to bounce back from a mediocre freshman season. After being selected in the 1st round of the 2012 NHL Draft, Brady Skjei only recorded 3 points in 35 games during his first season at the University of Minnesota. Nick Leddy had 11 points in 30 games as a freshman for the Golden Gophers. Nate Schmidt only appeared in 13 games his freshman season and only recorded 1 point. All three of these players managed to eventually carve out successful careers at the University of Minnesota and as NHL defensemen. Maybe there’s just a freshman curse in the Twin Cities.
Everybody saw flashes of what Ryan Johnson is truly capable of during his last season at Minnesota. He has it in him, he just needs to be more consistent if he wants to cement his status as a legitimate NHL prospect.
Freshman, G, University of Michigan
2019/20 Stats (USHL): 19-5-1, 2.11 GAA, .915 SV%
The 6’6” Swedish netminder is set to begin his freshman season in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan. It has been quite the journey for Erik Portillo, who initially went undrafted in the 2018 NHL Draft. He responded with a big year for the Frölunda U20 team the following season, posting the top save percentage and goals against average at the top level of Swedish junior hockey.
His impressive performance led to the Buffalo Sabres selecting Portillo in the 3rd round of the 2019 NHL Draft. He would make the move to North America for the 2019/20 season and would not skip a beat. He went on to be named the USHL Goaltender of the Year after a stellar campaign with the Dubuque Fighting Saints.
This is a highly anticipated season for the Michigan Wolverines, who boast a roster that is chock-full of future NHL talent. They have two 2019 1st round picks returning to the squad in Cam York and John Beecher. They add a 2020 1st round pick (Brendan Brisson), 2nd round pick (Thomas Bordeleau), and 5th round pick (Jacob Truscott). Oh and they have added three projected 2021 1st round picks in Owen Power, Kent Johnson, and Matthew Beniers to top things off.
The talented Wolverines squad begins the college hockey season ranked #12 in both the USA Today and USCHO polls. They hope to be able to turn their youthful but talented squad into a legitimate title contender.
For Erik Portillo, the key obstacle he faces will be the man in front of him: Strauss Mann. Mann is entering the upcoming season as a member of the Big Ten Preseason First Team. He’s coming off a season where he was named Big Ten Best Goaltender after posting an incredible 1.85 GAA and .935 SV% over 35 games in 2019/20.
Strauss Mann controlled a large portion of the workload in net for the Wolverines last season, playing in 35 of their 37 games. That is pretty incredible considering that nearly all games in college hockey are played back-to-back on Fridays and Saturdays. But, it will be tougher for Mann to carry the same workload in 2020/21 as there will only be three to four days off between back-to-back series with more games taking place on weekdays. So it’s likely that Erik Portillo will get a chance in net for a decent number of games this season.
Michigan head coach, Mel Pearson, told Michigan Daily, “Erik has shown extremely well and we’ve got to get him in there. We’ve got to get him some minutes. But when you have a guy like Strauss Mann, sometimes it’s easier said than done.”
While Erik Portillo may not be the starter in Ann Arbor this season, I would not be surprised to see the undrafted Strauss Mann sign on with an NHL team after the conclusion of the 2020/21 season. That would allow Portillo to take over the reigns as starter in 2021/22 on what will still be a very talented Michigan squad.
It’s also worth noting that Erik Portillo currently has the best gear in college hockey:
Senior, LW, University of Wisconsin
2019/20 Stats: 35 GP, 4 G, 18 A, 22 PTS, 41.7 EV GF%, 14:44 ATOI
In terms of earning an NHL entry level contract, it all comes down to this season for the Sabres’ 2017 7th round pick. Linus Weissbach is entering his senior season at the University of Wisconsin and the final season of his draft rights being held by the Buffalo Sabres. If he does not receive a contract at the conclusion of this season, he will become an unrestricted free agent.
Underwhelming was a term used to describe many Sabres prospects’ seasons in 2019/20 and that term could certainly be applied to Weissbach’s junior-year campaign. Weissbach appeared to have a golden opportunity to put up big offensive numbers with the additions of 2019 top-15 picks, Alex Turcotte and Cole Caufield, to the forward group. He had a hot start to the season with 16 points in his first 15 games, but he quickly cooled off and only recorded 6 points in his last 20 games. He was even demoted to the 4th line during his cold spell.
Linus Weissbach recording his lowest point per game totals in his junior season on one of the more talented Wisconsin teams was certainly unexpected. Wisconsin finishing in last place in the Big Ten with all of their young talent was even more unexpected. Overall, it was a disappointing season for many Wisconsin Badgers.
But, with the 2019/20 season in the rearview mirror, Linus Weissbach is hungry to have a big impact during his senior season. The Badgers have lost some key talent to the NHL with Alex Turcotte, K’Andre Miller, and Wyatt Kalynuk all signing entry-level contracts. However, they still have a solid group of talent that still includes two 1st round picks in Cole Caufield and Dylan Holloway.
Linus Weissbach is set to take over the point position on the top power play unit after Wyatt Kalynuk departed for the Chicago Blackhawks. With an elite sniper like Cole Caufield on that top unit, Weissbach should be able to rack up the points this season in his new, more involved power play spot. Being inserted back into the top six should also help him get his offensive numbers back on track after the cold streak to end last season.
At the end of the day, putting up numbers on offense this season is crucial for Weissbach as a 5’9” winger looking to earn an NHL entry-level contract. He has his work cut out for him to prove that he his worthy of a contract, especially since the majority of the front office members who were around when the Sabres drafted him are no longer with the organization. The 2020/21 season is going to be a “put up or shut up” one for Linus Weissbach.