Welcome to the 2017 edition of “Top Shelf Prospects”. During the summer, I will feature a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL. I will follow the order of the first round of the NHL draft (as if there were no trades). You can find all the articles here. Since we had an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted this year. There have been no games since then, and my reports on them will not have changed.
I will link you to those articles; as well as taking a look at prospects that were acquired before this year’s draft; their progress, and their chances of making the 2017-18 roster. I will also bring you one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the 4th-round or later; or an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as a dark horse to make the NHL. The cut-off for prospects is typically 50 NHL games played or being 25 years old. These are not hard or fast rules though, and I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
TSP: Buffalo Sabres Prospects
The Buffalo Sabres season started ominously. Top centre Jack Eichel was injured in one of the team’s first practices. This would be a major loss for the Sabres and a sign of things to come. One of their big off-season acquisitions, Dmitry Kulikov hurt his back, and never seemed to recover. He had a horrible season as a result, and will not be back in Buffalo. Injuries would take a further toll as key players Kyle Okposo, Ryan O’Reilly, Evander Kane, Cody Franson, Tyler Ennis, and Zach Bogosian would all miss key stretches. While some teams could overcome such injuries, the Sabres are a rebuilding club that does not yet have a lot of depth. They could not weather the storm and missed the playoffs.
Top Prospect: Alexander Nylander
Left Wing — shoots Right
Born March 2nd, 1998 — Sodertalje, Sweden
Height 6’1″ — Weight 179 lbs [185 cm / 81 kg]
Drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the 1st round, #8 overall at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft
The Sabres signed Nylander last summer, and opted to assign him to the AHL instead of sending him back to Mississauga in the OHL. While his statline of 10 goals and 28 points in 65 games is not jaw-dropping, it must be remembered that he was one of the youngest players in the league. He was a force at the World Juniors with five goals and 12 points in seven games. Nylander joined the Sabres late in the season, playing four games and recording his first NHL point.
Alexander Nylander is a tremendous skater. He has top notch speed and great acceleration, as he is able to reach that top gear in just a few strides. Nylander has the ability to fool defenders by dropping his shoulder and exploding past them to the outside. Add in his excellent agility and the ability to change directions extremely quickly, as well as top notch stick handling ability and he can be a nightmare for defencemen off the rush. Nylander could stand to bulk up, especially in his lower body, which would allow him to be stronger on the puck and in board battles.
An excellent play maker, Nylander has the ability to handle the puck as well as make precise passes while moving at top speed. His wrist shot features a quick release, but he must add some upper body strength in order to add more power to that shot going forward. Once he does it will allow him to become a sniper in addition to his current skills as a playmaker. Nylander possesses soft hands. He finishes plays in tight to the net. He also has the instincts to get open in the zone and get his shot off. Nylander’s great vision and good hockey sense also make him a dangerous player when the play is in the offensive zone. He almost always makes the right play with the puck, and can thread the needle through small openings when passing to teammates.
Nylander’s top notch stick handling allowed him to protect the puck in junior, and will be useful going forward; but he must add more bulk to really succeed in being able to play the cycle game when facing bigger opponents in the pros. This was the biggest adjustment that Nylander faced in the AHL last season. Nylander must adjust to not having the time and space that he had in Mississauga.
Nylander also has to work on being more conscientious on the back check and not cheat to create offensive chances. His defensive game is a bit of a work in progress, but he seems to be eager to learn and he could go a long way with the proper coaching. Once he learns proper positioning and how to read the play defensively, he should be able to play a solid game in his own end of the rink.
While Nylander will be looking to make the Sabres out of camp, he likely needs more time in the AHL. The Sabres need to be patient with Nylander. He has high-end potential. He could be a mid-season call-up if things go extremely well. A full-time job in 2018-19 seems more likely though.
#2 Prospect: Casey Mittelstadt
The Sabres drafted Mittelstadt with the 8th overall pick in this year’s NHL draft. Prior to the draft, we did an in-depth scouting report on Mittelstadt. As no games have been played since that report; we will not repeat it. You can check out the report here.
#3 Prospect: Brendan Guhle
Defense — shoots Left
Born Jul 29 1997 — Edmonton, ALTA
Height 6’2 — Weight 189 lbs [188 cm/86 kg]
Drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2nd round, #51 overall at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft
After nearly making the Sabres out of training camp in 2015, Guhle could not repeat it in 2016. He was sent back to Prince Albert. It must have been disappointing, and Guhle had a slow start to the year. He was called-up for a three game emergency stint in December. When he returned to the WHL, a trade to Prince George seemed to jumpstart things. He had 13 goals and 29 points in 32 regular season games and six points in playoff games. He finished the year in Rochester.
Guhle is a very strong skater. He has excellent speed and acceleration in both directions. This allows him to pinch down low, or to join the rush, and still be able to get back defensively. He also has very good pivots and edge work. Guhle maintains good gap control, and is tough to beat to the outside. He has added lower body strength in the past year, giving him more balance and power. This has helped him to win more battles on the boards and be stronger in front of the net at the junior level. However, he will likely need to continue this improvement as he moves up to the pro game, and faces even stronger opponents.
Guhle is a strong offensive defenceman. His strong skating is combined with good puck handling skills making him someone who can lead the rush. He is also willing to join as a trailer. Guhle has a good array of shooting skills that make him dangerous in this position, or at the point on the power play. He has a very hard slap shot and an excellent one-timer. He also utilizes a good wrist shot and snap shot, both of which feature a quick release. His ability to vary his shots, where he shoots from; and a willingness to go to both sides of the net and high or low all make him difficult to defend. He uses his agility to open up passing and shooting lanes. Guhle can control the play and quarterback things from the point.
Guhle improved his defensive consistency over the past year, and is very strong in his own end. He skates the puck out of the forecheck, and makes a good first pass in order to start the transition game. Guhle also has solid positioning and funnels attackers to the outside off the rush. He can throw a big hit from time to time. However, he does not go chasing those hits and get himself out of position. He can sometimes make a silly giveaway, though he has really reduced that tendency. He can get even better though. Correcting those issues with coaching and maturity will go a long way. Added strength will further help him clear the front of the net against pro players.
Guhle should get a good look at camp, but is probably best off heading back to the AHL. Guhle can still improve his game, as well as continue to bulk up. He is likely a year or two away from the NHL, but can be an effective two-way defender in time.
#4 Prospect: Justin Bailey
Right Wing — shoots Right
Born Jul 1 1995 — Williamsville, NY
Height 6’4 — Weight 209 lbs [193 cm / 95 kg]
Drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in round 2, #52 overall at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft
Bailey, a western New York native, had another good season with the Rochester Americans of the AHL. He scored 23 goals and added 13 assists for 36 points in 52 games. His goal total was up despite playing 18 less games. His points per game was also up. It was enough to get Bailey 32 games with the Sabres. The NHL success didn’t come as easily. He had two goals and four points in 32 games.
A versatile forward, Bailey spent most of his time at right wing this season. He played some centre in junior as well. Bailey is the son of Carlton Bailey who went to three Super Bowls with the Buffalo Bills.
While Justin Bailey has said that Carlton Bailey was an absentee father, he still grew up with plenty of good role models. His mother lived in the same condominium complex as Rob Ray, Matthew Barnaby and Mike Peca when Justin Bailey was growing up. Bailey would also have his midget team coached by former NHL superstar Pat Lafontaine.
Bailey skates well, with good agility and edgework. He also has very good top end speed. He cleaned up a choppy stride, and now has a good first step and acceleration. Bailey has good balance and power. He is strong on the puck and difficult to knock off of it. Bailey also has the ability to fight through checks and get to the front of the net.
Bailey has the type of ideal size that NHL teams long for in forward prospects. Bailey has a tremendous arsenal of shots. His snap shot and wrist shot are both lethal and feature the type of hair trigger release that drives goalies nuts. His slap shot and one-timer are accurate and powerful. He has all the makings of a sniper. However, Bailey struggled to find the time and space to get those shots off at the NHL level. He will need to adjust in moving from the AHL to NHL.
Bailey is strong on the puck, and his good puck protection, balance, and ability to win board battles makes him good on the cycle game. This coupled with his good passing skill make him a good play maker. He has become more consistent in his physical game. Bailey is willing to battle along the boards and wins loose pucks. He also pressures defenders on the forecheck, and is a threat to throw a big hit.
Bailey’s defensive game has really improved over the last couple of years. He has solved the issues of inconsistency that plagued him in his draft year. Bailey usually plays a strong two-way game showing smarts and high-effort level in his own end of the ice. While he occasionally gets caught puck watching and not moving his feet, this happens far less frequently. He has become a player who is reliable, more often than not.
Bailey is close to NHL ready, and has an excellent chance to crack the Sabres line-up out of camp. It is no sure thing though as there are a number of prospects fighting for spots at forward. He may need to start another year with Rochester. He has the potential to be a very effective power forward at the NHL level. However, Bailey may need some time to refine his game going forward. Even if he does not make the squad in October, he could see further NHL call-ups this year. Bailey should be ready for full-time duty before the end of the year at latest.
#5 Prospect: Nick Baptiste
Center/Right Wing — shoots Right
Born August 4th, 1995 — Ottawa, Ontario
Height 6’1″ — Weight 196 lbs [185 cm / 89 kg]
Drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the 3rd round, #69 overall at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft
Baptiste had an offensive breakthrough with the Rochester Americans last season, becoming one of the teams best scorers. He put up 25 goals and 41 points in 59 games as a second year pro. He also got in time with the Sabres, scoring three goals and four points in 14 games.
Baptiste features a very powerful skating stride. The power he generates, allows him to battle through checks and play his game. His strong lower body gives him great balance and he is very hard to knock off the puck. His top end speed has really improved over the last year and in terms of pure top end speed he’s one of the faster skaters in this draft class. He’s really worked to improve his first step and acceleration in recent years. This has helped take his game to the next level. His edge work and agility are good, but his game is built on power, not finesse.
Baptiste’s offensive game is very simple, and based on power. His best work is done down close to the goal line, and he is extremely effective on the cycle. He protects the puck extremely well, using his body to shield the puck and make plays. Out of the cycle, Baptiste can power his way to the front of the net. He has a decent shot and release, but Baptiste scores the vast majority of his goals within 10-15 off the goal line. Baptiste drives hard to the net, and battles for position in front, banging home rebounds, and firing home passes. He also has good passing skills coming out of the cycle. Baptiste wins board battles and plays a very robust physical game.
Baptiste is very good defensively for his age. He helps kill penalties in Rochester. He displays an excellent ability to make smart reads and go to the proper spots to apply back pressure when defending the rush. In the defensive zone he gets involved physically and shows the same commitment in battling for loose pucks as he does in the offensive end. He has good positioning and instincts, and is able to keep his body between his man and the net. Baptiste will help his defence down low when necessary or will stick close on his point man, depending on the situation and his read.
Baptiste is knocking at the door of being NHL ready. He will battle for a spot at training camp. While the talent and development is close, it will be a numbers game. He needs a strong training camp. If he does not make the team, Baptiste should dominate at the AHL level again. The question here is upside. He looks like a bottom six player in the NHL, and may not have the upside of a player like Bailey.
#6 Prospect: Cliff Pu
Centre/Right Wing — shoots Right
Born June 3rd, 1998 — Richmond Hill, Ontario
Height 6’2″ — Weight 193 lbs [188 cm/88 kg]
Drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the 3rd round, #69 overall at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft
Pu found it tough to get minutes in his draft year, playing on a stacked London Knights team that won the Memorial Cup. With a number of graduations after winning the Championship, Pu got a bigger role last season. He took full advantage and has rewarded the Sabres for drafting him so early on a small track record. Pu scored 35 goals and 86 points in 63 games. He wasn’t quite as productive in the playoffs with two goals and seven points in 14 games.
Pu is an excellent skater. He shows great top end speed, a quick first step, and outstanding acceleration. This makes him very hard to contain on the rush, as defenders must respect his speed. He has excellent agility and so can go wide or make a quick fake and go through the middle. He does have good power in his stride and can fight through checks, but can still afford to add more muscle and strength to improve in this area going forward. Pu has good balance. This helps him to win battles along the boards and establish position in front of the net at the junior level, but again this is an area he can bulk up in.
Pu has rounded out his game in the pass year, and can now be seen as both a scorer and a playmaker. He combines his skating with good puck handling skills and uses this to open up passing lanes. He also can extend plays in the cycle game, and then find a pass to a teammate. Over the last couple of years, Pu developed his shot. It became harder and his release a bit quicker. His wrist and snap shots are now both major weapons in his arsenal. He can also drive the net and score in tight to the goal with his soft hands. Pu works the boards both in trying to create turnovers on the forecheck, and in battling for loose pucks. He also is not afraid to get to the front of the net to make plays.
Pu already has a decent defensive game. He uses his quickness to create pressure on the back check and take away the time and space of his opponents. He also uses his stick to cut down passing lanes. Willing to do anything to get ice time earlier in his junior career, Pu learned to be effective at blocking shots and taking away passing lanes for the Knights. He also showed his willingness to get involved in battles in the defensive zone. One area he can stand to improve is his face-off skills if he wants to play centre at the next level.
Pu took a big step forward last season. However, he still needs more development time. Expect to see him back in London to start next season, where he should be expected to be one of the team’s leaders on what could be another excellent season for the perennial OHL powerhouse.
#7 Prospect: Marcus Davidsson
The Sabres drafted Davidsson with the 37th overall pick in this year’s NHL draft. Prior to the draft, we did an in-depth scouting report on Davidsson. As no games have been played since that report; we will not repeat it. You can check out the report here.
#8 Prospect: Rasmus Asplund
Center — shoots Left
Born December 3rd, 1997 — Filipstad, Sweden
Height 5’11” — Weight 176 lbs [180 cm / 80 kg]
Drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2nd round, #33 overall at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft
Asplund had a very strong season for an 18-year-old in Sweden’s top men’s league. 19 points in 39 games is solid productions for his age. He also added three points in five playoff games and five points in six Champions Hockey League games. Asplund also had seven points in seven games for Sweden at the World Juniors.
Rasmus Asplund is a strong skater. His speed and acceleration can give defenders problems on the rush, and his agility adds another layer to that. He can make a quick cut to get by a defender on the inside, or take a defender wide, drop his shoulder and accelerate to the net. Asplund also shows impressive lower body strength and balance, as he skates through checks, and is difficult to knock off the puck. He will need to continue to add weight to play this style of game in North America.
Asplund has a variety of offensive tools. His stick handling and good balance allows him to create plays off the cycle game. He has a good variety of shots, showing a quick release, and heavy shot with his wrist shot and snap shot, as well as good accuracy on his one-timer. Asplund reads the defence well and can find soft spots to get open and get his shot off. Asplund can be a play maker by slowing the game down and drawing in defenders, allowing his teammates to find open space and create scoring chances. He has good vision and excellent hockey sense as he almost always makes the right play with the puck.
Asplund is a hard working forward who uses his speed to get in quickly on the forecheck and create pressure on opposing defenders. When he creates turnovers, he can quickly turn those into offence.
For such a young player, Asplund’s defensive game is well developed. He is strong in the faceoff circle, getting low to the ice and winning draws with both his quick reflexes as well as with leverage and strength. He reads the play well defensively, allowing him to provide support to the defence, and cut off passing and shooting lanes. While he is not a big hitter; Asplund is a willing and conscientious back checker, willing to get involved in the physical battles for loose pucks.
Expect to see Asplund back in Sweden for at least one more season. He has a lot of potential but is not NHL ready yet. The Sabres will allow him to continue his development close to home, in one of the top European Pro Leagues.
Sleeper Prospect and #9 Prospect: Hudson Fasching
Right Wing — shoots Right
Born July 28th, 1995 — Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Height 6’2″ — Weight 209 lbs [188 cm / 95 kg]
Drafted by Los Angeles Kings in the 4th round, #118 overall at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft
Traded to the Buffalo Sabres in March 2014.
Fasching had some difficulties making the adjustments during his first full season as a professional. In 37 games with Rochester, he had eight goals and 12 points. Fasching also got in 10 games with the Sabres, scoring just one assist. A groin injury kept him out of the lineup at times, and limited his skating when he did play.
It was clear that Fasching’s skating continued to be effected by his groin injury. He just wasn’t the same player in 2016-17 that we had seen in previous years. This should heal and he should get back to the player seen before.
At his best Fasching is a powerful skater with a long stride. He has excellent balance and is very tough to knock of the puck. His power and size allows him to fight off checks, and to bulldoze through defencemen off the rush or on the cycle. His top end speed is good, but the acceleration could be improved going forward, especially his first step. Fasching shows good agility. He has natural athletic ability, but must refine his skating technique. He has made some improvements on his edge work, but there is still some work to do.
Fasching has all the tools you would want in a power forward prospect. He has excellent size and strength. Over his college career, Fasching took the puck to the net, and scored goals in tight. He also has a good wrist shot and snap shot with a quick release. The former Golden Gopher gets to the front of the net, where he uses his big body to establish position. He has soft hands and can bang in rebounds or make deflections. Fasching is a load to handle in the corners and loves to play a strong, physical game, with plenty of hits on the forecheck.
The issue is that while these skills were still there at the AHL level, they came in flashes. His power game was He was unable to put it all together on a consistent basis. This again could be an issue with his skating.
Fasching is also a valuable two-way player. He shows very good hockey sense and anticipation, cutting down passing lanes. He shows his aggressive physical side in the defensive zone, pressuring the puck carrier and not being afraid to mix things up along the boards.
Fasching is one of a number of Sabres prospects coming to camp with a chance to win a bottom line spot. After a rough season in 2016-17, it is likely that Fasching is going to need a little bit more seasoning at the AHL level. While the upside is unclear, Fasching has the size and the skating ability to make a career as an NHL grinder, even if he never becomes a top scorer.
The Sabres have a ton of forward depth in their system. As can be seen above, there is going to be quite the battle for spots in this training camp, and many to come in Buffalo. Evan Rodrigues had good production in the AHL and god some time in the NHL, but needs a bit more seasoning. Meanwhile Eric Cornel, and Vaclav Karabacek are finding their feet at the professional level.
The Sabres blue line is the weakest part of their system. Guhle is a very nice prospect, but the team is in real need of a blue chip player on the blue line. Casey Fitzgerald, and Casey Nelson, could develop into depth pieces. Will Borgen and Brycen Martin are further down the depth chart and Oskari Laaksonen was a decent draft pick. There just are not any blue chippers here. In net, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen was amongst the best goalies in the draft class, while Linus Ullmark is close to being read for a back-up job.