The youth movement is on at First Niagara Center. Bolstered by two-straight drafts with a pair of first round selections, the Buffalo Sabres boast one of the NHL’s deepest and most talented prospect pools. And there’s a chance many will see time with the big club right away.
Mikhail Grigorenko, who already played a portion of an NHL season, leads the group as a former lottery candidate and perhaps the most impressive offensive weapon the Sabres own in the entire organization (outside of Thomas Vanek). Girgorenko’s development is a big part of where he ends up in the grand plans of the Sabres, however. He struggled through his first campaign with the team and will need more ice time with skilled linemates in order to progress as a player this year.
Along with Girgorenko’s fellow 2012 first rounder Zemgus Girgensons, Joel Armia (2011 first round) represents two more significant pieces to the offensive future of the organization. A big, talented winger, Armia will look awfully good patrolling the wing with Grigorenko or another top center to his side. Girgensons has proven to be a do-anything center who has also spent time on the wing. He’s a tenacious talent who serves equally well on the power play as on the penalty kill. He seems to have some Chris Drury or Michael Peca intangibles as an effective two-way forward with leadership potential.
In addition to Armia, Girgensons and Grigorenko, the Sabres also have the likes of Johan Larsson, Daniel Catenacci and a handful of other promising prospects set to begin the year in Rochester.
The 2013 first round yielded Darcy Regier a pair of cornerstone defenders to go along with another top talent in Mark Pysyk (2010 first round). Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov have both earned positive reviews throughout camp and the preseason and with Ristolainen already under contract, there seems to be a good chance at least one starts the year in Buffalo.
Based on the direction that Regier seems to be thinking about taking, it might be worthwhile to roll out a majority of Buffalo’s top prospects to start the 2013-14 season. One challenge is finding the space.
On the backend players like Henrik Talliner, Mike Weber and Jamie McBain will all command playing time and finding a way to fit Ristolainen into that mix could be difficult.
Pysyk will almost certainly be amongst Buffalo’s top six when the puck drops on opening night. He showed well last season and seems to have secured a position on the right side of one of Buffalo’s top pairs. Should Ristolainen find a spot, he’d join Pysyk and Tyler Myers as three of Buffalo’s top youthful defenders. Although Myers’ struggles have been an issue in recent seasons, adding that trio with Christian Ehrhoff creates a significant, solid core.
There is a little more wiggle room up front with Buffalo’s four big guns. While Cody Hodgson, Thomas Vanek and other veterans obviously get written into the lineup with pen, there is space for the likes of Larsson and Girgensons to fit in.
I personally like both Larsson and Girgensons together in a third line, two-way role. They both excel at both ends of the ice, they play physically and could eventually grow into a shutdown scoring line. Think of something in the mold of Patrice Bergeron. While sticking Steve Ott with them would provide more than enough sandpaper, finding an adequate right winger may make more sense. Exactly who fills that role, however may be tough to pinpoint.
While it would be doubtful to see Grigorenko and Armia sitck together for the duration of the year, giving them an opportunity right off the bat would almost be like seeing your future unfold directly before your eyes. Splitting the pair may provide more wiggle room for each to make the roster.
Ultimately, Armia will likely land in the AHL in order to further adjust to the North American game, although don’t be surprised when you see him called up by midseason. Even with Armia sent to Rochester, here’s a set of lines which I’d like to see the Sabres open the year with should youth be a primary concern (bear in mind that some of these sets my not make the most sense):
Vanek – Hodgson – Stafford
Ennis – Grigorenko – Leino
Ott – Larsson – Girgensons
Foligno – Porter – Kaleta
Scott (extra forward)