Welcome to the 2019 Top Shelf Prospects series. As we go through the Summer of 2019 LWOH will be featuring a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL. We will be following the order of the first round of the NHL draft (as if there were no traded draft picks) and you can find all the articles here. Since we had an extensive NHL Draft preview, we will not be reviewing the players who were drafted in the 2019 draft, as there have been no games since then, and our reports on them will not have changed. Today we look at the Buffalo Sabres Prospects.
What we will be doing is linking 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 2019-20 roster of the NHL team in question. We will also bring you one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the 4th-round or later, or was an undrafted free agent signing who we pick as our dark horse to make the NHL. For those wondering, the cut-off for what is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 50 NHL games played (including playoff games) or is 25 years old. These are not hard or fast rules though, and we may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
Buffalo Sabres Prospects
Things started out well for the Sabres in 2018-19. Newly acquired Jeff Skinner was one of the hottest goal scorers in the NHL early in the season, rookie Rasmus Dahlin was everything he was advertised to be, and the team seemed poised to finally turn the corner. A ten-game winning streak vaulted them up the standings and they were even challenging for first place in the Atlantic Division in December. Then things fell apart. Familiar problems, goaltending, defence, lack of scoring all reared their heads at various points in the second half of the season, and the Sabres would end up 6th in the division, and well outside the playoffs.
The failures would cost coach Phil Housley his job, replaced by Ralph Krueger. It would also marshall in change, starting at last year’s trade deadline when the team added Brandon Montour. Those changes continued in the off-season with the additions of Marcus Johansson, Jimmy Vesey, and Colin Miller. The team also moved Alexander Nylander to Chicago for Henri Jokiharju. Smaller moves saw Andrew Hammond, Jean-Sebastien Dea, John Gilmour, and Curtis Lazar added to the mix. Despite the busy off-season though, the Sabres growth will need to come from within. The keys to the future are the Buffalo Sabres prospects.
2019 NHL Draft Picks (Grade B): Dylan Cozens, Ryan Johnson, Erik Portillo, Aaron Huglen, Filip Cederqvist, Lukas Rousek,
2018-19 Graduations: Rasmus Dahlin, Casey Mittelstadt, Tage Thompson, Linus Ullmark,
Top Prospect: Dylan Cozens
The Sabres drafted Cozens with the 7th overall pick in this year’s NHL draft. Prior to the draft, we did an in-depth scouting report on Cozens. As no games have been played since that report; we will not repeat it. You can check out the report here.
#2 Prospect: Lawrence Pilut
Defence — shoots Left
Born December 30th, 1995 — Tingsryd, Sweden
Height 5’11” — Weight 180 lbs [180 cm / 82 kg]
Signed by the Buffalo Sabres in May 2018
Pilut split time between the Sabres and the Americans last year. He was very impressive in his first season in North America. He was dominant offensively at the AHL level, with four goals and 26 points in 30 games. While he only put up one goal and six points in 33 NHL games, he also had a 53.2 percent Corsi-For and a +2.5 relative Corsi, while playing 17:25 per game.
Pilut is a good but not a great skater. His top-end speed allows him to keep up with the play but he is not going to blow anyone away. His first few steps and acceleration are also decent. The best aspect of his skating is his pivots and agility. He can transition quickly from offence to defence and vice-versa. He is also able to walk the line to open up passing and shooting lanes. Pilut could stand to increase his strength. This would help him to battle in the corners and in front of the net.
Pilut has excellent vision and passing skills. He can move the puck quickly, both through the first pass out of the zone and in quarterbacking the play at the opponent’s blue line. Strong stickhandling and poise at the line allow him to make those passes. By using his lateral movement as well as a quick feint with his stick, he is able to open up passing lanes and get the puck to teammates. He is also able to open up shooting lanes to get his shot on the net. His slap shot is decent but could stand to add power. He makes the most of it by keeping it low and allowing teammates to get rebounds and deflections as well as to create screens in front of the net.
Pilut can avoid forecheckers and move the puck out of the zone. He does not lead the rush often but is not afraid to join as a trailer and let off a wrist shot. His improved skating has allowed him to be more involved in the play. Pilut is a smart player who finds open ice without the puck, sneaking in from the point and getting into position to let his wrist shot go at the top of the circles.
Pilut will need to continue to work on his defensive game going forward. He is willing to work in his own end of the ice, fighting hard in the corners and in front of the net. However, his lack of size and strength can be an issue. He can be overpowered by bigger and stronger forwards. Pilut’s biggest asset is his ability to move the puck out of his zone quickly. By starting the transition game, he is able to keep the puck out of his end and avoid being on the defence. Pilut has a quick stick which creates turnovers and allows him to transition quickly to offence.
Pilut should begin next season with the Sabres. It’s even possible that he is the team’s second-best left-handed defender after Rasmus Dahlin. This might seem like strong praise for a player who was under 18 minutes per game last season, however, Pilut’s strong play has earned a bigger opportunity this season.
#3 Prospect: Mattias Samuelsson
Defence — shoots Left
Born March 14th, 2000 — Voorhees, New Jersey
Height 6’4″ — Weight 217 lbs [193 cm / 98 kg]
Drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2nd round, #32 overall at the 2018 NHL Draft
Samuelsson had a solid freshman year at Western Michigan, scoring five goals and 12 points in 35 games. He also played for Team USA at the World Juniors, coming home with a silver medal.
Samuelsson has good balance and can use his size to outmuscle opponents. He is a good skater for his size, with decent speed in both directions. However, his acceleration could use some work. It takes him a few strides to reach that top speed which can be an issue in closing short distances and getting to loose pucks. His agility and footwork are decent. While they can use some improvements, he changes directions quickly enough in most situations, and his pivots allow him to quickly transition from offence to defence and vice-versa.
Samuelsson likes to join the rush as a trailer, looking to add extra offence. However, he is not going to lead the rush very often. At the point, he has a good slap shot, but it is not a cannon either. Samuelsson has a knack of getting it on the net, even with traffic and facing pressure at the point. He also has a very good wrist shot, and release. Samuelsson loves to sneak in from the point and get off that wrist shot from inside the circles. His snapshot is also powerful and accurate.
Samuelsson is a good passer, especially in starting the transition game. He has good vision and the hockey IQ to make the smart play. At the blue line, he is not much of a quarterback. He makes the safe pass but is not one to make a lot of creative plays or set up teammates from the point.
Samuelsson is a big defenceman, who plays a physical game in his own end of the rink. He throws big hits if an attacker comes down his side of the ice, and also battles hard in the corners and in front of the net. Samuelsson sometimes gets into penalty trouble by being a bit too aggressive though. If he learns to walk the line between being strong physically and taking penalties, he will be an absolute force. He uses a long, and active stick to cut down passing lanes and is not afraid to block shots. Samuelsson is a strong penalty killer. His hockey IQ and anticipation are strong.
Samuelsson continues to develop at Western Michigan and will return there for his sophomore season in the fall. He is also likely to play on Team USA at the World Juniors. With another solid season, the Sabres could look to lock him up in the spring and get him time with Rochester. He’s a couple of years away but the potential is clearly there.
#4 Prospect: Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen
Goalie — Shoots Left — Catches Left
Born March 9th, 1999 — Espoo, Finland
Height 6’4″ — Weight 198 lbs [194 cm/90 kg]
Drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2nd round, #54 Overall, in the 2017 NHL Draft
Luukkonen had a dream season with the Sudbury Wolves. His 2.50 goals-against-average and 9.20 save percentage saw him named OHL Goaltender of the Year, and OHL MVP. He was a big reason why Sudbury went from one of the worst teams in the league in 2017 and 2018 to making the playoffs and winning a round in 2019. He also played for Finland at the World Juniors, backstopping the team to a gold medal and being named to the Tournament All-Star team.
Skating and Talent Analysis
At 6-foot-4, Luukkonen has the ideal size that NHL teams are currently looking for. He also gets out well, cutting down angles and taking up a lot of the net. Luukkonen has strong legs, giving him an excellent push off the post. He gets side-to-side extremely quick. Luukkonen keeps his shoulders square to the puck when moving across the crease, and when tracking rebounds.
He is very good down low, with very quick legs. Luukkonen is a butterfly goalie who gets in-and-out of his stance extremely quickly. With his size, he still has his shoulders above the crossbar, even when playing in the butterfly. Luukkonen is also very athletic, which helps him to make highlight-reel saves on those rare occasions that he finds himself out of position. He has a decent glove and blocker to take away the top of the net. They have improved over the last year but can still be even quicker. They aren’t bad, in fact, they are very good but they aren’t at the elite level his legs are currently at.
Luukkonen is part of the modern group of goalies who have very good puck handling ability. He can make the first pass to a defenceman, moving the puck out of danger and getting the transition game started. He also has the ability to make a long breakaway pass, catching the opponents out of position if they are in the midst of a bad change.
Luukkonen can still refine some areas of his game. Like many young goalies, he has not yet mastered rebound control. He can work on swallowing up more shots, as well as directing pucks to the corners.
Luukkonen has performed well in high-pressure situations, like the Under-18s, and World Juniors with elimination and/or medals on the line. He does not get flustered in net and recovers quickly after letting in a bad goal. Luukkonen is calm and composed in the midst of traffic. He keeps the focus on his puck-tracking, not getting distracted by what is happening around him.
Luukonen graduates to the pros this year and could be the starter in Rochester. With goalies taking longer to develop, don’t be surprised if it takes him 2-3 years before he’s ready for the starting job with the big club.
#5 Prospect: Henri Jokiharju
Defence — shoots Right
Born June 17th, 1999 — Tampere, Finland
Height 6’0″ — Weight 180 lbs [183 cm / 82 kg]
Drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1st round, #29 overall, at the 2017 NHL Draft
Traded to the Buffalo Sabres in July 2019
Jokiharju spent last season bouncing between the Blackhawks and their AHL affiliate in Rockford. In the NHL, he put up 12 assists in 38 games. In the AHL, he scored two goals and 17 points in 30 games. He also played for Finland at the World Juniors, winning gold, scoring five points in seven games, and being named a top-three player on the team. Things didn’t end there though, he put up three assists in 10 games in helping Finland to a World Championship gold medal.
Jokiharju is a very good skater. He has excellent edgework and pivots which allow him to transition from offence to defence quickly and efficiently. They also allow him to cover huge amounts of ice. Jokiharju has a very good first step and excellent acceleration. He wins races to loose pucks and quickly starts the transition game. His speed is very good, going both forwards and backwards. This allows Jokiharju to join the rush, or pinch in at the blue line, and get back defensively.
Jokiharju is a solid puck handler. He can lead the rush or join in as a trailer. He also has the poise to quarterback the play from the blue line. Jokiharju keeps his head up and makes smart passes. He can make the long stretch pass in transition, as well as make a cross-ice pass to set up a one-timer for a teammate. Jokiharju possesses excellent vision, the smarts to see plays developing before they happen, as well as the skill to fit the puck through tight openings. He makes those passing lanes a little less tight, through his excellent lateral mobility and poise with the puck.
Jokiharju showed an increased willingness to shoot last season and the goal results followed. He has improved his shot, adding power to his slap shot and one-timer. He has a knack for getting it through traffic and through to the net. Jokiharju also makes use of a good wrist shot. He sneaks down from the point and will let it go from the top of the circles. It is accurate and has a quick release. Jokiharju’s added muscle mass has also led to a stronger shot.
Jokiharju has very good positioning and gap control. He keeps his man to the outside and away from the dangerous areas of the ice. His good lateral agility makes him very hard to beat in one-on-one situations. An active stick helps him to cut down passing and shooting lanes. Jokiharju is aggressive physically despite his small frame. He battles hard in the corners and in front of the net and is also willing to throw big hits. Over the last year, Jokiharju has really started to bulk up. This will help him to play this aggressive style at the NHL level. That said, there is still room to continue to fill out his frame.
In a little over a year, Jason Botterill has taken great steps to improve the Sabres defence. He drafted Dahlin and Samuelsson with his first two picks in 2018. He traded for Montour at the deadline and Miller this summer. Botterill’s latest addition is Jokiharju. Expect the 20-year-old to be given every opportunity to make the Sabres out of training camp, likely by fighting for the spot on the third pair. However with Rasmus Ristolainen, Montour and Miller all on the right side, it might be tough to crack the top-six this year and he could find himself starting in the minors. Even if he doesn’t make the team, he could see plenty of call-ups from Rochester when injuries hit. If Ristolainen is traded (as has been speculated by many) it could change the equation and see him make the team this year.
#6 Prospect: Victor Olofsson
Right Wing/Left Wing — shoots Left
Born July 18th, 1995 — Örnsköldsvik, Sweden
Height 5’11” — Weight 181 lbs [180 cm/82 kg]
Drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the 7th round, #181 overall, at the 2014 NHL Draft
In his first North American season, Olofsson proved that he was worth the Swedish hype. He put up 30 goals and 33 assists for 63 points in 66 AHL games. He also added two goals and two assists in six NHL games.
Olofsson is a strong skater. He has good speed and acceleration, allowing him to get around the ice effectively. His edgework and agility allow him to weave through traffic and get away from defenders. Added lower body strength has helped him to work the puck in the cycle game and to fight for loose pucks or position in front of the net.
Olofsson is a sniper. His wrist shot and snapshot are both extremely powerful and deadly accurate. He also has a very quick release. Olofsson is a smart player who manages to find open space and in order to take a pass and get a shot on the net. He also has a very good one-timer. While Olofsson is very much a shoot-first player, he also sees the ice well and can set up teammates with good passes through tight areas.
Olofsson added upper-body strength this past season. He did better establishing a position in front of the net or fighting for loose pucks in the corners. However, there is still room to get even stronger and better in those physical confrontations. That said, he does not back down and is willing to be involved in battles.
Olofsson is willing to work on the backcheck, helping his teammates with backpressure. He is well-positioned and looks to create turnovers and start the transition game. Olofsson is a responsible player who maintains his discipline and does not get caught out of position. This is another area where added upper body strength would help him get the most out of his game.
The Sabres need to improve their offence and Olofsson could add a real spark in the top-six. After an excellent AHL season, his time to make the team is here. This is a big camp for Olofsson. Look for him to win a spot with the Sabres.
#7 Prospect: Ryan Johnson
The Sabres drafted Johnson with the 31st overall pick in this year’s NHL draft. Prior to the draft, we did an in-depth scouting report on Johnson. 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
Centre — shoots Left
Born December 3rd, 1997 — Filipstad, Sweden
Height 5’11” — Weight 192 lbs [180 cm / 87 kg]
Drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2nd round, #33 overall at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft
In his first season in North America, Asplund put up 10 goals and 41 points in 75 games with the Rochester Americans. Asplund wasn’t quite as successful in the playoffs as he was held pointless in three games, with the Americans losing in the first round.
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. A low centre of gravity and good core strength help him to overcome his lack of size in this area.
Asplund has a variety of offensive tools. His stickhandling and good balance allow him to create plays off the cycle game. He has a good variety of shots, showing a quick release, and a heavy shot with his wrist shot and snapshot, 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 playmaker 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 offensive chances.
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.
Asplund will likely start the season in the AHL. If he continues to make strides forward, he could see a call-up before the end of the season. The Sabres could use more scoring from their centres, at least those not named Jack Eichel. As Asplund develops it is hoped that he can provide that in a second or third-line role but he is not quite there yet.
#9 Prospect: Marcus Davidsson
Centre/Left Wing — shoots Left
Born November 18th, 1998 — Tyresö, Sweden
Height 6’0″ — Weight 192 lbs [180 cm/78 kg]
Drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2nd round, #37 overall at the 2017 NHL Draft
Davidsson put up ten goals and 27 points in 52 games for Djurgardens last season. These numbers were up from the 2017-18 season, as Davidsson improved during his 19/20 season. It was enough to see Davidsson get in three games representing his country on the European Hockey Tour.
Davidsson is more quick than fast. He has good speed, but a great first step and excellent acceleration mean that he reaches that top-end speed extremely quickly, and is very effective in short races to loose pucks. He moves quickly through turns and accelerates with excellent crossovers. His agility and edgework are top-notch and make him able to move quickly laterally both when attacking and in protecting his own zone. Davidsson has a strong lower body and has good balance. He uses this well in fighting for position in front of the net, as well as fighting through checks, hooks and holds. He is also good at winning battles along the boards and establishing a position in front of the net.
An excellent two-way centre, Davidsson does all the little things well. He gets in quickly on the forecheck and pressures defencemen into making turnovers. Once a turnover happens he can hit a teammate with a quick pass, drive the puck to the front of the net, or fire an excellent wrist shot on goal. He has the soft hands to score goals on those net drives, as well as to pounce on rebounds and get deflections. His shot is accurate and he has improved its power this season though there is still more room to grow. His wrist shot and snapshot also feature a quick release.
He is relentless in chasing down pucks in all three zones and has the skating to be able to get to loose pucks quickly. Davidsson also has the vision and smarts to be an effective playmaker. He anticipates plays well and can make passes through tight spaces. His stickhandling is effective in puck protection on the cycle game. Davidsson is a straight-ahead player though. He isn’t overly creative with the puck, but he does enough good things well that it is very effective.
Defensively, Davidsson is already good in the face-off circle. He shows a highly advanced ability to pressure puck carriers and to play a smart positional game in his own end. He uses his stick effectively in cutting down on passing and shooting lanes. Once he creates a turnover, he is quick to transition the puck up to the offence. Davidsson plays a smart game and kills penalties for the Swedish junior teams.
Davidsson is likely to spend at least one more season in the SHL, this time with the Vaxjo Lakers. Expect him to continue to earn more ice time. When he comes over to North America, he may need to start in the AHL. Davidsson could be a couple of years away from NHL action but could be very effective when he gets here.
#10 Prospect: Will Borgen
Defence — shoots Right
Born December 19th, 1996 — Moorhead, Minnesota
Height 6’3″ — Weight 196 lbs [191 cm / 89 kg]
Drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the 4th round, #92 overall, at the 2015 NHL Draft
Borgen played his first pro season. He put up three goals and 14 points in 71 games for Rochester. Borgen also had his first taste of NHL action, playing in four games for the Sabres but is still looking for his first NHL point.
Borgen is a good skater. His edgework, agility and pivots allow him to cover a lot of ice and make him difficult to beat one-on-one. His first step quickness and acceleration help Borgen to play a physical game in the defensive end. Opponents who try to beat him in one-on-one situations usually come out on the poor end of a hit. His speed is also good, both going forwards and backwards.
Borgen doesn’t have a lot of offensive ability. He makes a decent first pass out of his zone to start the transition game. However, he is not the type to rush the puck up the ice or even join the rush. Instead, he is the classic stay at home defender. Borgen can make a decent pass in the offensive zone but does not have the poise or stickhandling to control things at the point. Instead, he moves the puck quickly, generally with a safe pass but not one that will create a lot of offensive opportunities. He leaves the creative plays to his partner or the forwards out on the ice. Borgen has a decent slap shot and does a good job getting it in on the net.
Borgen is at his best in the defensive end of the ice. He is well-positioned, forcing his opponents to the outside and away from the net. Borgen uses his long stick to cut down passing lanes and create turnovers. He effectively uses his size and physical gifts to win battles on the boards and in front of the net. Borgen is not afraid to block shots. All of this helps Borgen to be an effective penalty killer
With the Sabres increased depth on defence it will be difficult for Borgen to make the team out of camp. Instead, he will likely spend most of the season in Rochester. Expect Borgen to get called up if the Sabres need help due to injuries. In Rochester he should work on his offensive game.
Sleeper Prospect: Matej Pekar
Centre — shoots Left
Born February 10th, 2000 — Turnov, Czech Republic
Height 6’0″ — Weight 175 lbs [183 cm/79 kg]
Drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the 4th round, #94 overall at the 2018 NHL Draft
After being taken in the second round of the CHL Import Draft, Pekar spent the season with the Barrie Colts in the OHL. He put up 14 goals and 36 points in 33 games before a broken collarbone in January ended his season early. He also represented the Czech Republic at the World Juniors but was held scoreless in five games.
Pekar has good speed and has a good first step and the acceleration to reach his top-end speed quickly. He buzzes around the ice and is particularly effective in short bursts to loose pucks or to accelerate and get away from a defender. He also has good edgework and agility, allowing him to avoid defenders both with and without the puck. A strong stride allows Pekar to fight through checks. Pekar’s low centre of gravity and good core strength allows him to win battles along the boards. He could stand to improve his upper body strength to continue this style against professional opponents.
Pekar has excellent vision and hockey sense, anticipating where his teammates are going to be before hitting them with a tape-to-tape pass. He has the ability to fit the puck through tight areas and can make difficult saucer passes. Pekar’s ability to control the play allows him to be patient and wait for those linemates to get open. Strong stickhandling ability and good work down low make this possible.
Pekar also has a good wrist shot with a quick release but needs to use it more. Pekar gets his nose dirty and goes to the tough areas of the ice but needs to add upper-body strength. He can be a real pest on the ice, always in the middle of every scrum and causing havoc in front of the other team’s net. Quick hands allow him to score by pouncing on rebounds, getting deflections, and putting the puck through tight areas in close to the net.
Pekar is another two-way centre. He is willing to work hard at both ends and has even been an offensive threat on the penalty kill. He brings his physical play and willingness to get involved in board battles and in working in front of the net at both ends of the ice. Pekar has good positioning and uses his stick to cut down passing lanes. When he creates a turnover, he is able to transition quickly to offence.
Pekar is likely headed to Rochester this year and will begin his professional career. Just 19, He is still eligible to play for the Czech Republic at the World Juniors. He could even be returned to Barrie in the OHL if he struggles in camp or early in the AHL season. Pekar is a couple of years away from being NHL ready but is a prospect to watch going forward.
With so many players graduating recently, the Sabres system is not as deep as one might assume after years of missing the playoffs. After Luukkonen, they have Erik Portillo and Jonas Johansson. Goalies are voodoo and as good as Lukkonen has been, there is no guarantee he can translate that to the NHL. The Sabres might want another good goalie prospect or two. On defence, the team has real depth. Beyond the players already reviewed, Jacob Bryson, Oskari Laaksonen, Miska Kukkonen, Brandon Hickey, and Casey Fitzgerald remain players to watch. Forwards to watch include C.J. Smith, Brett Murray, and Aaron Huglen.
Buffalo Sabres Prospects Main Image:
VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA – JUNE 21: Dylan Cozens poses for a portrait after being selected seventh overall by the Buffalo Sabres during the first round of the 2019 NHL Draft at Rogers Arena on June 21, 2019, in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Kevin Light/Getty Images)