Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Buffalo Sabres top-three prospects by position--Center

Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com

We had previously mentioned that the defense-corps had taken a huge hit over the past couple of seasons as GM Tim Murray traded depth on the blueline for quality up front. After trading away two NHL d-men and a top prospect on the back end, the Sabres pool on defense got mighty thin. Yet Murray was able to land Brendan Guhle in the second round of the 2015 NHL Draft last year and as of right now he has at least top-four potential. Murray was also able to bolster the ranks with another 2015 pick in Will Borgen (92nd-overall) who's on track to hit the NHL, had possible top-sixer Brycen Martin (2014, 74th) in the stable and added Casey Nelson in the fold as a free agent out of the NCAA.

Did they replace the ones that left? Only time will tell, but it sure looks like they're not too far away from doing so.

The center positon is way different as the prospect pool took a different kind of hit yet it's also an area that they won't need to tap into for years to come. For a bit of perspective we go back to the Darcy Regier regime.

After a quality top-two center tandem of Daniel Briere and Chris Drury, the Sabres had both of them walk out the door in 2007. Their spots were filled by Tim Connolly and Derek Roy and despite the fact that Regier touted them as two of the top-20 centers in the league back in 2010, they weren't close and even worse, the pipeline didn't have much in it either. After Connolly was allowed to leave the Sabres had one center in Roy then tried to fill the other top-two spot with converted winger, Ville Lieno, which really didn't work out all that well.

Buffalo began addressing the extremely weak center position at the 2012 NHL Draft when they selected Mikhail Grigorenko (12th) and Girgensons (14th) then really added quality when they tabbed Reinhart with the second-overall pick in the 2014 draft. In 2015 they used the second-overall pick to take an American-born phenom in Eichel then quickly announced that they'd just traded for O'Reilly minutes after the Eichel selection.

Boom! Within minutes at the 2015 draft the Sabres had themselves their top-two centers while Reinhart, Girgensons, and Johan Larsson (who was acquired from Minnesota in 2013)
represented young players who could hold down a third line center spot at the very least. Or they could be moved to the wing.

With Eichel and Reinhart making the jump to the NHL as teenagers last season, the chasm of quality between what the Sabres have with the big club and what's in the system is huge. The prospects at center come in wide array of sizes and styles but one constant is that they're considered long shots to make the NHL, much less have an impact.

Giorgio Estephan

Estephan represents an interesting case study in the power of scouts being in and around a particular situation to know the circumstances surrounding a certain player's production.

In his draft year Estephan finished with a pretty strong stat-line of 23 goals and 28 assists in 64 games
which is pretty respectable and worthy of a slot much higher. But perhaps scouts wrote him off after watching him in the first half of the season when he and his Lethbridge Hurricanes were struggling mightily.

From my 2015 post-draft blog:  "He was drafted by the Hurricanes where player unhappiness and turmoil within the organization seemed to dominate until Peter Anholt came in as coach and general manager midway through the 2014-15 season," wrote Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal. TSN's Craig Button added a little more perspective writing, "Once (Lethbridge) made the coaching change and brought in Peter, Estephan’s game took off. Giorgio was back on his heels until then, playing not to make a mistake. On a team that was abysmal, he somehow finished minus-1 at the end of the season and he had 51 points (64 games). His game was in the shadows.”

It was in the shadows where the Sabres scouting department was lurking and they may have found themselves a late-round gem. Kris Baker of sabresprospects.com/sabres.com wrote of Estephan, whom Baker ranked ninth in his April, 2016 rankings, "Some guys just know how to play the center position. Estephan, a smooth, crafty player with excellent vision and an impressive two-way mindset, fits the bill with his fine edge work and superior puck-handling ability."

But Baker cautions that Estephan's junior numbers, however "gaudy" they may end up being in his final year of junior won't mean much at the pro-level if he doesn't work out and strengthen his 6'0" 190 lb. frame.

Connor Hurley

Buffalo drafted Hurley with the 38th selection of the 2013 NHL Draft. As much as the pick was about Hurley's God-given talent, it was also about stretching out the pipeline a bit as the Sabres had already selected eight players in 2012, ended up selecting 11 players in 2013 and had every intention of adding even more picks as their rebuild gained serious momentum.

Hurley was the youngest player in the draft that year as he was born September 15th, the cut-off date. In fact had he been born a day later he'd have been the oldest player in the 2014 draft. In a blog I wrote pre-hockeybuzz, it came down to Hurley's huge upside with a caveat at the end:  "This pick is all about upside for Hurley. Not two or three years, but maybe four or even five years down the road. If he ends up making an impact in the NHL, it will be a tribute to the projections of the Sabres' scouting staff. If he bombs, he'll get lost in the number of overall picks the Sabres had in the first two rounds of the draft."

Hurley has the skills but has been on a slow-growth pattern physically which makes him timid in and around the prime scoring areas. Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson told me last summer that Hurley tends to lean towards the defensive side even though they want him to be an offensive player and he attributes that to the correlation between confidence and his physical attributes which aren't fully developed yet and Baker sees the same way, "As his strength builds, Hurley's overall confidence will elevate," he wrote. "This is exactly how it went down in his sophomore collegiate season, resulting in increased ice time, including work at the point on the power play, and upped production despite the lack of eye-popping offensive statistics."

It's a huge year for Hurley moving forward as he'll be entering his junior season on an Irish team that will have a much more veteran group this year. He upped his production last season in less games and it seems as if he's ready to take the next step.

We mentioned Tim Connolly earlier, an extremely gifted center drafted by the NY Islanders with the fifth-overall pick in 1999. Connolly was thrust into the lineup right out of the draft and never really matched the potential of his extremely high skill-level. Hurley has similar offensive gifts as Connolly had, although the former doesn't have quite the talent-level of the latter, and I'm left to wonder what would have happened with Connolly had he played one more year in the minors. With the Sabres holding his rights as long as Hurley's in college, there's no rush, and the words of Gandhi might be apropos when comparing the two, "It is easier to build a boy than to mend a man.”

Sean Malone

The Buffalo, NY native and Nichols High School graduate will enter his junior year at Harvard this fall and in two years playing for the Crimson, he's acquitted himself well. Last season he had 18 points (8+10) in 21 games to help lead Harvard into the NCAA tournament.

Although he has some offensive upside, Malone projects as a bottom-six energy guy with a "no-quit attitude" and the type of player who "makes plays at a high rate of speed," wrote Baker.

But apparently Baker has concerns about Malone staying healthy as the injury bug is starting to creep into the conversation and that, he wrote, "impacts his stock."

Others:  Jean Dupuy (Rochester,) Judd Peterson (St. Cloud State,) Christopher Brown (Boston College,) Justin Kea (Rochester/Elmira,) Colin Jacobs (RFA)

Overview:  As mentioned at the beginning, there a huge talent-gap between the wealth of quality centers at the top already in Buffalo and the prospects from Rochester on down. Also in the system is 25 yr. old Tim Schaller who's been paying his dues the last three seasons for the Amerks and is a Group-6 free agent. Schaller projects out as a solid bottom-six role player with a strong defensive game and the ability to chip in offensively at the NHL-level.

Dupuy is one of those "heavies" that Murray likes a lot yet has surprising speed for a player listed at 6'3, 207 lbs. while Peteson and Brown are longshots stretching out the prospect pool.

The Sabres are really weak down the middle and it wouldn't be surprising if they add a center or two in the draft, maybe waiting until the 3rd round to do so. Sure with Eichel and O'Reilly presumably as a one-two punch for years to come, drafting centers, even if they end up playing on the wing, isn't a bad idea and one should expect them to keep adding to the prospect at that position.

Having either Estephan or Hurley make an impact at the pro-level might change their strategy a bit.

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