Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
If there's one position that will keep the Buffalo Sabres prospect pool in the top-half of the league it's right wing. Trades and graduation, plus Jack Eichel's direct route to the NHL, were direct hits to the talent pool. Which is the way it should be when the big club starts to build in earnest.
Every position in the prospect pool took a hit as all of the Sabres right-wingers were in their proper developmental leagues making significant strides in their development. With that in mind, it's not surprising that Kris Baker of sabresprospects.com/sabres.com has six RW's in the top-15 of his April, 2016 rankings, three in the top-eight and two of them occupying spots directly behind highly regarded d-prospect, Brendan Guhle.
None were ready for the NHL, but one may be there right now.
"I think [Justin Bailey] fits the mold of the up and coming player more than any other player I saw," longtime Rochester Americans broadcaster Don Stevens told me last month. "and that mold is speed. I think that's where the game is."
Sure enough, as the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose' Sharks have shown in the 2016 Stanley Cup Finals, speed is where the NHL is trending right now and Bailey's got it. Plus at 6'3" 210 lbs. he's got plenty of size to the point where once he gets rolling, he's a freight train barreling up-ice.
Bailey, the son of former Buffalo Bills linebacker Carlton Bailey, was taken in the second round (52nd-overall) of the 2013 NHL Draft. Buffalo acquired that pick along with a conditional fifth rounder from the St. Louis Blues in exchange for defenseman Jordan Leopold on March 30, 2013. The fifth-rounder, by the way, was converted and the Sabres selected defenseman Anthony Florentino with the 143rd selection.
Level-by-level Bailey's grasping the nuances of the position and has made impressive strides as he's progressed. From 36 points (17+19) in 57 games his draft year to 69 points (34+35) in 57 games for Kitchener and Sault Ste. Marie the following year. Last season Bailey started slow but finished with 15 goals and 18 assists in his last 30 games.
Bailey got the call to Buffalo for eight games during the latter half of the season and he did everything but hit the scoresheet. On display was his impressive speed, NHL frame and a willingness to play the game at the fastest pace possible. Within that framework lies the next step which is getting his hands to catch up with his skates. It's something he worked on in Rochester, and it came to fruition, and it will be something he'll be working on in Buffalo as soon as next season and should it all come together, the Sabres may have found themselves a top-six powerforward on the right side.
"In a world where size, speed and reach are great tools to have," wrote Baker of his No. 2 ranked Buffalo Sabres prospect, "Bailey brings it all, putting him on the cusp on taking a run at a full-time NHL job within the next 12 months."
A 2014 trade with the Los Angeles Kings netted the Sabres 6'2" 216 lb. Hudson Fasching.
Fasching is a big body with soft hands who's favorite spot is in and around the goal but he also has NHL skating ability and makes hard cuts off the wing while driving towards the net. When he gets that big frame moving, he's hard to stop as shown on his first-ever professional goal which was scored on his first shift of his first NHL game.
But there's more to Fasching than a Dave Andreychuk-like net-front presence as Baker likes his all-around game. Of his third-overall prospect Baker wrote, "[Fasching] is a smart, diligent worker at both ends of the ice who executes in a manner very similar to St. Louis captain David Backes, just without the consistent snarl.
"He's just a hard working, effort player who can finish around the net."
Fasching would supremely benefit playing at least one year at the AHL level and there's no reason to believe the Sabres think otherwise. As NHL-trends come and go, having a big body that can get up and down the ice who also has a soft touch around the net and a two-way game ta boot, will never go out of style and Fasching's got that.
The third spot on this list is a toss-up between Eric Cornel and Nicolas Baptiste and a case could be made for both. Baker has Baptiste ranked 8th and Cornel 10th so there really isn't that much of a difference. And a case could be made that Victor Oloffson, who had a real strong season in Sweden on a poor MODO team, might really be the third best prospect amongst right wingers. In a personal preference, I like Cornel and what he brings to the table.
Cornel is set to hit Rochester full time next season after finishing his final season with the Peterborough Petes (OHL.) At 6'2" 195 lbs. Cornel has an NHL frame that's just about where it needs to be. His strong skating allows him to play a 200' game while he has the skills to put up decent numbers. Last year he had his best production for the Petes with 27 goals and 56 assists in 68 games.
Cornel's numbers took a huge jump last season (from 56 to 83 points) and Baker attributes it to developing his strength and working on his skills. "Cornel took his development to the next level this past season, leveraging sharper cuts and a shoot-first mentality to post career highs in all statistical categories," wrote Baker, "all the while putting in yeoman's work away from the puck. He's a very precise player whose elevated game coincided with being given the "C" for the storied Petes franchise. The work must continue as he enters his three-year entry-level period."
Is he a playmaker or a scorer? That's what we'll be finding out in Rochester over the course of the next season or so as he himself will discover how his talents fit at the pro-level. Being a former captain and a strong two-way player will only help him along the way while working on his consistency and play away from the puck may get him into a top-nine role at the NHL-level.
Others: Baptise (2013, 69th); Oloffson (2014, 181st); Vaslav Karabacek (2014, 49th);
Overview: We could conceivably add one more prospect to the list in Evan Rodrigues but we're not sure where he's going to end up. Regardless of what forward position he plays, as mentioned in the last segment, he's one to keep an eye on as he really started to catch on to his professional surroundings as the season progressed.
One of the first things Murray did in his first off-season as GM was to sign Baptiste to an entry-level contract. The big, 6'1" 203 lb. winger had put up impressive numbers in the OHL in his final two seasons of junior and was being projected as a possible two-way, top-six player. Although he had a so-so first pro season, I like Baker's take in that people shouldn't write him off. Baptiste has a sweet set of hands and can get off a strong shot in a variety of ways from a variety of spots on the ice. Yet he is also tenacious in a defensive role as well. One way or another, in the very least Baptiste looks to be a NHL'er in a bottom-six role.
Because Olofsson is over in Sweden the exposure we fans get to him is limited but everything I've read about him, including what Baker has to say, tells me that he might have more offensive upside than any prospect outside of Bailey. Year-over-year he's shown plenty of growth and because he's overseas, the Sabres have the luxury of letting him develop longer as a seventh round pick usually indicates a rather long incubation period.
There are a lot of uncertainties on the right side outside of Bailey and maybe Fasching but that's the way it usually unfolds when it comes to prospects. Should those two be able to land in the top-nine players like Baptiste and Karabacek could be players like they've had in Chicago recently. The NHL salary cap has force Blackhawks to continually shed salary but they've managed to remain a Cup-contender by bringing up high-quality players to competently fill roles of those who left.
The Sabres have that on the right side and will be looking to build that kind of depth at other positions over the course of the next couple of drafts and beyond. It's safe to say that a pure right-winger is probably not high on their list. However, if a premier prospect does fall to them, talent is talent and they can always move forwards around if the need arises.