PORTLAND, ME (LGS) - This past offseason the Buffalo Sabres reestablished a minor league system that in the past helped build the core of today’s team featuring the likes of Derek Roy, Jason Pominville and Paul Gaustad. By becoming the sole-sponsoring NHL franchise for the wonderfully managed Portland Pirates of the AHL, Buffalo now has complete control over their minor league affiliate's roster.
The Sabres have stocked the Pirates with solid veterans, a decent group of former Amerks and possibly the strongest group of NHL prospects that the organization has seen in recent years. The key figure in the molding of these prospects into NHL players will be Portland coach Kevin Dineen.
Dineen possesses a proven track record as an NHL player and as an AHL coach. He should provide the young Portland roster with similar strong guidance that Randy Cunneyworth provided in Rochester. In addition, the hiring of NHL veteran defenseman Eric Weinrich as Dineen's top assistant should help the development of Portland's fresh-faced defense corps.
The key returning AHL players are center Marek Zagrapan, defenseman Mike Funk and defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani. Other returnees are forward Dylan Hunter, who reached the 20-goal plateau last season, goaltender Adam Dennis and defenseman Mike Card.
Gragnani blossomed as a winger in his first pro season and finished second on the Amerks in scoring; however, he'll likely find his way back to his regular blueline position with the influx of offseason signees made by Sabres' GM Darcy Regier for the Pirates.
This is a make or break season for both Zagrapan and Funk. Zagrapan, who is in the last year of his entry-level deal, should begin the season as the first line center. Although he has made progress last season, he has yet to prove himself to be the scoring threat that the Sabres envisioned when the franchise drafted him 13th overall in the 2005 draft. Considering the lack of depth at center in the Buffalo system, Marek will be given every opportunity to earn a slot in the NHL.
Funk has enjoyed two cups of coffee with the Sabres over the last two seasons and, like Zagrapan, he is in the last year of his entry-level deal. Although an excellent skater and solid defender, Funk doesn't use his excellent size to his advantage. He has been passed on the prospects list by the more offensive Andrej Sekera and the more physical Mike Weber. With a long list of young prospects behind him in system, Funk needs to prove to management that he is ready for the NHL now or face searching for a playing-opportunity elsewhere.
Depending on how training camp shakes out in Buffalo, a number of the Amerks key players from last season could return to the AHL with the Pirates. Scorers Mark Mancari and Clarke MacArthur are fighting for roster spots in Buffalo and would need to clear waivers to return to the AHL if they get cut from the top squad.
Physical defender Mike Weber and antagonizer Pat Kaleta both made excellent impressions in Buffalo last season. Both players have options remaining and may find themselves back in the minors to make roster decisions easier at the NHL level.
In addition to the other returnees, Buffalo signed two intriguing NCAA free agents that debuted for the Amerks late last year. University of Massachusetts defenseman and power play specialist Mike Kostka should add depth to the Pirate's blueline while Bowling Green sniper and Rochester native Derek Whitmore should add some needed scoring touch to the Pirates forward lineup.
Early in the offseason, Darcy Regier focused on signing the franchise's top prospects. He lured junior All-Americans Tim Kennedy, Nathan Gerbe and Chris Butler from the NCAA and then went on to ink three important European prospects including goaltender Jhonas Enroth and defenseman Dennis Persson.
Enroth and the three NCAA standouts are expected to have a major impact in Portland this coming season while Persson will remain in Europe for at least one more year.
Buffalo created the most buzz when they signed Hobey Baker finalist Nathan Gerbe to a three-year, entry-level deal after he dominated his competition in the NCAA while leading Boston College to the 2008 National Championship. Gerbe led the Eagles in scoring with 68 points in 43 games and earned the award as the Frozen Four's Most Outstanding Player.
Although small at just 5-foot-6 and 160 pounds, the 2005 fifth-round pick utilizes his great speed and a feisty nature to create open space on the ice. Gerbe should start the season as the Pirates' number two center behind Marek Zagrapan.
South Buffalo native Tim Kennedy joins the organization after a great run with the Michigan State Spartans. The former sixth-round pick of the Washington Capitals in 2005, Kennedy led the Spartans in scoring for the last two seasons and was a major force in the school's 2007 NCAA Championship.
Although fast and a good puckhandler, Kennedy also is known for being defensively responsible and a team leader. Don't be surprised to see Kennedy lineup with former rival and good friend Nathan Gerbe.
The key addition on the blueline is Denver's Chris Butler. Butler, the Sabres fourth-round pick in 2005, is an excellent all around defenseman who can quarterback the power play while shutting down the opponent's top forwards. Butler should anchor the Pirates defense, and like Weber last season, he may quickly push for an opportunity in Buffalo.
After Gerbe, the signing of Swedish goaltender Jhonas Enroth might be the most important of this summer's minor league acquisitions. Enroth, the second-round pick in 2006, dominated the Swedish Elite League at only 19-years-of-age with a 2.13 GGA and a .932 save percentage. Hockeysfuture.com lists him as the franchise's top prospect.
The Swede is a classic butterfly goaltender with quick hands and excellent technique. He will make his North American debut this season as the Pirates likely top netminder. With Miller under contract for the next six years and Lalime under contract for the next two, the Sabres can afford to let Enroth adjust to the North American game in Portland.
In addition to the star prospects, the Sabres also added a variety of minor league veterans, NCAA free agents and other prospects to round out Portland's roster. Of this group the most intriguing player is German center Felix Schutz.
Drafted by the Sabres in the fourth round of the 2006 draft, Schutz learned the game while playing two seasons in the QMJHL. He played extremely well in the most recent world junior tournament. Known as a good skater with a strong wrist shot, Schutz should serve as the Pirates third or fourth line center this upcoming season if he doesn't go back to the German Elite League.
To complete Portland's roster, Regier signed five additional AHL/ECHL veteran forwards including 23-year-old bruiser Jimmy Bonneau (LW). To add additional toughness, Regier acquired RW Tyler Bouck and LW Colin Murphy, both 28-years-old. To add additional scoring, Regier added Michigan State alum, and former Tim Kennedy teammate, RW Colton Fretter (26) and LW Mathieu Darche (31).
Both Darche and Bouck have played in over 90 NHL games. Bouck returns for his second season in Portland while Darche dressed in 73 games for the Tampa Bay Lightning last season. Coach Kevin Dineen will look to these two forwards to provide on and off the ice leadership.
From the looks of things, Sabres GM Darcy Regier constructed a good mix of experienced professionals that should help mentor a strong group of young, talented players. It's nearly impossible at this point to gage how well the young players will adjust to the professional game or how quickly a team that was cobbled together with only six players who have played together before will gel. That said, I believe the talent on this team will ultimately play an exciting band of up-tempo hockey that the fans in Portland – and Buffalo – will enjoy.