Monday, July 30, 2018

The Sabres top-5 prospects to watch after Dahlin and Mittelstadt

Published by, 7-27-2018

Once Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin was selected first-overall in last month's NHL Entry Draft he immediately took his place at the top of the Sabres prospect pool. The teenager just completed a full season competing against men for Frolunda of the Swedish Hockey League and was impressive. After being drafted by Buffalo he hit development camp and showed why many feel he should be considered a franchise defenseman bordering on generational talent.

He's got that much going for him.

Dahlin displaced center Casey Mittelstadt as the Sabres top prospect. Mittelstadt spent last season playing for the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the Big-10. The Minnesota native was one-and-done in the NCAA finishing with 30 points (11+19) in 34 games for the Gophers but more importantly, Mittelstadt proved he could battle through tough defenses focused almost exclusively on him and produce against many players much older than him. It was with little surprise that he came to Buffalo after signing his entry-level deal and looked like he fit right in scoring a goal and adding four assists in six NHL games.

Those two represent great news for the future of the Buffalo Sabres. Even moreso when you add them to franchise center Jack Eichel and young workhorse defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen.

The cool part about the prospect pool is that it doesn't stop at Dahlin and Mittelstadt. Buffalo is emerging from a period where the system was gutted as past draft failures and underachieving prospects left the entire organization with bottom-dwelling teams. That, however, is changing. A few players like Evan Rodrigues, Casey Nelson, Nicholas Baptiste, Justin Bailey and goalie Linus Ullmark have graduated but instead of a huge void in Rochester and the other developmental leagues, a wave of prospects and free agents drafted and acquired over the last few years (and maybe a bit beyond that) are ready to step up.

General manager Jason Botterill has done a fine job augmenting decent group of prospects ready to hit the pro ranks this season and it looks as if his two drafts (2017 ands 18) will continue to strengthen the prospect pool.

For this exercise the phrase "prospects to watch" is used because they may have the most impact at the AHL or possibly NHL-level this season. Talent is definitely a criteria but also the ability/probability of them reaching their potential this season and in the future. And we begin with:

1. D, Brendan Guhle

Prior to the drafting of Dahlin, Guhle was the Sabres top d-prospect. The 2015 second round pick (51st-overall) has surprised and excited the Sabres and their fan base since his first training camp three years ago. Until he got walloped by a clean Dion Phaneuf hit in the preseason, Guhle looked as if he was headed for the opening night roster. That hit set him back but when he did make his NHL debut as an emergency call up in December, 2016 for three games, he certainly looked the part.

The 6'3" 192 lb. Edmonton, Alberta native can really get up ice and although he wasn't drafted as a scorer has shown some serious touch. Both smart and athletic, Guhle was put on the slower developmental track last season by Botterill who is a firm believer in getting prospects as much development as possible.

Guhle played top-pairing minutes for the Amerks last season and was up for 18 games with the Sabres last season. Although he and the rest of his Rochester teammates faltered in the playoffs, everything he has to offer was on display at development camp as the  20 yr. old looked like a man amongst boys.

His waivers exempt status and the fact that Buffalo is overflowing on defense right now may mean he'll start the season in Rochester, which really isn't a bad thing for any party involved and you can bet your bottom dollar that if that's the case, he'll be the first defenseman called up and will retain that status throughout the season.

NHL Projection:  Top-four defenseman

2. F, Victor Olofsson

Simply put, Olofsson has proved to be a sniper. After plying his trade in his native Sweden since Buffalo drafted him with the 181st pick of the 2014 NHL Draft, the seventh rounder had a breakout season for Frolunda of the SHL. Olofsson lead the league with 27 goals in 50 games winning the Haaken Loob Trophy for the top goalscorer in the league.

The 5'10" 176 lb. winger found his niche while being deadly on the powerplay with a scorching one-timer. Because of that he's been labeled a powerplay specialist but he's a swift skater who has a knack for finding open ice. With the offensive skill there, Olofsson was said to have been working on his defensive game and a couple of things he'll also need to work on jumping the pond to North America is the smaller ice surface and a more rugged North American game.

If he can bring his defensive game to a respectable level and learn to avoid some of the North American aggression, especially as a smaller player, the Sabres could have found themselves a real seventh-round gem.

NHL Projection:  Top-nine winger/Powerplay Specialist

3. D, Lawrence Pilut

Pilut is a very intriguing free agent signing out of Sweden by Botterill and the Sabres as they landed the reigning SHL defenseman of the year.

The 5'11" 181 lb. Pilut had a breakout season for HV71 of the SHL as he lead all defensemen with 30 assists and 38 points on his way to the Borje Salming Trophy. When describing Pilut's game, we'll let HV 71 head coach Johan Lindbom tell it. "[Pilut] he wants to be involved in the play all the time," Lindbom told me over the phone back in May. "He's not the toughest, he's not the strongest in front of the net," said the coach, "but he reads the play really well.

" Larry (as the team called him) was very talented at a young age. Maybe a little too small from the beginning but he's a fighter. He takes his hockey very seriously. He practices very hard and that's what makes him successful."

Lindbom had Pilut working on his defense last season and we're pretty sure Amerks bench boss Chris Taylor will be doing the same in Rochester. But as we saw from the 3-on-3 tourney at development camp, Pilut has too much ability to be corralled. He'll definitely need to play defense in North America but look for him to be jumping into the play often once he gets his footing.

NHL Projection:  No. 4/5, offensive-minded defenseman

4. C, Rasmus Asplund

Asplund was the draft-eligible focal point of former GM Tim Murray when he mad a draft-day trade back in 2016. On the second day of the draft Murray pulled the trigger on a deal where the Sabres would move up from No. 38 to No. 33. There was no guarantee Asplund would be there but Murray was pretty sure to the point where the swap was insisted upon.

The 20 yr. old Asplund has been developing his strong two-way game in Sweden having spent almost four full seasons in the SHL. In 170 SHL games he tallied 62 points (20+42) and was a plus-17 for Farjestad BK. But stats aren't full where it's at with him.

Asplund plays an advanced two-way game where his high hockey IQ and hard working play were relied upon throughout the game. He has all the makings of a classic third-line/two-way center who's responsible all over the ice and can chip in on offense

NHL Projection:  Third-line center.

5. LW, CJ Smith

Smith is another good free agent signing for the Sabres. Buffalo signed him out of UMass-Lowell in 2017 and he just finished a very solid rookie campaign in Rochester scoring 44 points (17+27) in 57 games for the Amerks.

Although Smith doesn't have ideal size at 5'11" 185 lbs., he's got plenty of skill and chutzpah, is a solid two-way player, has a strong work ethic and plays the game fast with plenty of determination.

NHL Projection:  Top-nine winger

Honorable Mentions:

D, Brandon Hickey--a very intriguing trade with Phoenix this off season by Botterill brought in an excellent skating defenseman with size (6'2" 201 lbs.,) some physicality, leadership qualities and some offensive acumen.

LW, Alexander Nylander--if his desire ever rises to his skill-level, he's got top-six sniper written all over him. Key word 'if''.

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