Let’s cut to the chase: the Buffalo Sabers have one of the best prospects, period.
Like, damn it. Year after year, they find ways to win big in the draft. After not making the playoffs since 2011 and not winning a series since 2007 — the longest active drought — you hope that is the case. But even after landing Jack Eichel with the second pick in 2015 and Rasmus Dahlin at No. 1 three years later, the fan base still has nothing to cheer about for decades. Seriously, Zach Benson — Buffalo’s first pick in the 2023 NHL Draft — had just turned two when they last won a series.
The Sabers have a passionate fan base and deserve better. And it’s finally happening, with the team already having a solid core with Tage Thompson, Dylan Cozens, Dahlin, Jeff Skinner and Alex Tuch, among others. A strong young team with other key elements to come in the near future? It’s a good time to be a fan of blue and gold (and the superior red and black).
I kept Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen out of the equation here given his 46 NHL games, including 33 last season that led all Sabers goaltenders. But even he is still someone worth watching. The team has depth up front and in the crease, although the blue line is still a bit in the works. It will come, but there are very few teams with a prospect pool like the Sabers right now.
So breathe. Better days are ahead.
The greatest strength
Holy moly, what a group of forwards. Even just from this list, Noah Östlund would be one of the top two prospects for so many other teams. Makes me think they’ll flip a few to get veteran assets for a long playoff streak over the next two years. Otherwise, they’ll have scoring depth across the lineup for years to come. Benson and Matthew Savoie look like top-six stars, while Jiri Kulich has had a memorable season in the AHL — and he’s just getting started. That kind of flexibility should get fans excited for better days.
After promoting Owen Power and Mattias Samuelsson to full-time positions in recent years, the biggest issue is finding good defensive depth.
TOP 10 PROSPECTS
1. Zach Benson, LW, 18 (Wenatchee, WHL)
Draft: No. 13, first round in 2023
The Sabers got a steal, simple as that. Pure skill-wise, Benson was a top-five prospect in the 2023 NHL Draft, and the numbers back it up. But at 5-foot-10 with average skating, Benson was available later than he should have been. He will return to the WHL this season with Wenatchee (formerly the Winnipeg Ice) and should have no problem breaking the 100-point barrier. It will be interesting to see what path the Sabers take with his development and whether that includes experience in the AHL once he is eligible. I wouldn’t be surprised if he decides to stay with the Sabers outside of camp for a few games.
2. Matthew Savoie, C, 19 (Wenatchee, WHL)
Drafted: No. 9, first round in 2022
Sabers fans have an interest in seeing Savoie and Benson together in the NHL. Savoie’s game is built on the skill of breaking his ankle and his explosive skating can be extremely difficult to slow down. His efforts never seem to waver, as his electric run in the WHL playoffs showed that saw him finish second in the scoring standings. I definitely think Savoie is going to play well above his 5-foot-9 frame because skill, hockey IQ and speed trump any physical concerns. I expect Savoie to be one of Canada’s best players at world juniors in a few months.
3. Jiri Kulich, LW/RW, 19 (Rochester, AHL)
Draft: No. 28, first round in 2022
Kulich moved to North America last year instead of playing in the top Czech men’s league, and it was a huge success. He had one of the best U-19 seasons in the AHL with 24 goals and 46 points in the regular season and 11 more in 12 playoff games. Add to that a terrific performance with the Czech Republic at the World Junior Championships and you have one of the best shooters in the game. Kulich has been on an absolute tear since the 2022 U-18 World Championship and he’s ready to take another step forward in 2023-24. For what it’s worth, I was shocked that Kulich fell to Buffalo in 2022.
4. Devon Levi, G, 21 (Buffalo Sabers)
Draft: No. 212, seventh round in 2020 (by Florida)
Is Levi finally the answer to the team’s long-term goalkeeper problem? He’s been excellent down the stretch for the Sabres, going 5-2-0 in an effort to keep the team in the hunt for the playoffs. Levi just finished one of the best two-year college runs ever and his 2021 World Junior effort with Canada was, statistically, one of the biggest on record, even though it ended in silver. So all he did was win, but the NHL is a whole different beast. The hype is deserved, but, at six feet, there is some trepidation. Either way, expect him to be Buffalo’s No. 1 around Christmas.
5. Noah Ostlund, C, 19 (Vaxjo, SHL)
Draft: No. 16, first round in 2022
Yet another top pick in the 2022 draft, Östlund has had a tremendous first year playing against second-tier Swedish league pros. Östlund had 26 points in 37 games while playing an important attacking role with Sweden at the world youth championships, but with mixed results. The 19-year-old center will play for Vaxjo in 2023-24 but getting a regular shift might prove a bit difficult, as is usually the case for U-20 talent in Europe. Still, there’s a good chance he’ll become a second or third line at some point in the NHL.
6. Isak Rosén, LW, 20 (Rochester, AHL)
Drafted: No. 14, first round in 2021
Rosén’s season wasn’t as prolific as Kulich’s, but it was still quite remarkable. He’s a goal-scoring winger who does a great job controlling the puck and starting plays. Rosén likes to be smart with the puck, but he’s also very dangerous around the slot. He has the potential to be a 20-goal scorer in the NHL, but consistency is still an issue. It will improve over time.
7. Anton Wahlberg, C, 18 (Malmo, SHL)
Draft: No. 39, second round in 2023
Standing at 6-foot-3, Wahlberg was a C-rated prospect in the NHL’s first central scouting standings. In June, many thought he was a first-round threat. He had an impressive season against men with Malmö to help the team avoid relegation. Wahlberg then closed out the year helping Sweden to silver as one of the team’s most valuable threats. He’s a good skater for a prospect his size and he works hard, hits hard and wins a ton of battles along the boards.
8. Lukas Rousek, RW/LW, 24 (Rochester, AHL)
Draft: No. 160, sixth round in 2019
Rousek has missed most of 2021-22 due to injury, his first year in North America. It meant catching up on the previous year, and it worked as well as you’d hope with 56 points in 70 games. Rousek then had 12 points in 14 playoff games to cap off an impressive season. At 24, it is hoped that Rousek could make an impact sooner rather than later. He scored in his first shift in his debut game which is hard to beat. Hopefully he gets a good shot to get the team out of camp.
9. Ryan Johnson, D, 22 (Rochester, AHL)
Drafted: No. 31, first round in 2019
It’s quite common for a first-round player to have a cut short career in the NCAA. That wasn’t the case for Johnson, who went the distance with the University of Minnesota. Last season, Johnson scored 18 points, one shy of his career-high 19 the year before. Johnson is a good skater who plays a similar game to Alec Martinez – straightforward, with an odd burst of offensive ability. The Sabers have a good blue line, and Johnson could be a decent third pair option in a year or two.
10. Viktor Neuchev, AG, 19 (Yekaterinburg, KHL)
Draft: No. 74, third round in 2022
Neuchev was described by scouts as a « project » a year ago. They loved his frame and his shot was among the best. But the concern was that he never really used his 6-foot-2 height to his advantage and like most of the time, all of the time. Against competition from the KHL, Neuchev has made great strides in becoming more defensively responsible and he seems to have picked up speed. As the top scorer of the last six, Neuchev could become something remarkable.
Other notables: Gavin McCarthy, D (18), Alexander Kisakov, AG (20), Olivier Nadeau, RW (20), Nikita Novikov, D (19), Mats Lindgren, D (19), Jake Richard, RW (19), Scott Ratzlaff, L (18), Topias Leinonen, L (19), Prokhor Poltapov, AD (20)
Previous 2023-24 NHL Prospect Pool Payouts
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