Drowning in a Deep Prospect Pool: Thoughts & Predictions

Somebody throw me a floatie.

For years, Buffalo Sabres fans have been told about how deep the team’s prospect pool is, over and over again. With such a deep pool, it’s easily to feel like you’re drowning, isn’t it?

These prospects are great, but then what happens? Obviously, the goal is for these young players to develop and then actually make the AHL and NHL. Not every prospect will make it to the big leagues, and to expect them to would be foolish. But as others have written, it can certainly be exhausting to hear about how amazing a team’s prospects are for years and years, and for it to never fully develop into anything.

Before I go any further, I’d be remiss not to direct you toward Joe Yerdon’s Noted Hockey Substack. His recent post is what got me thinking, as well as some comments on Twitter, like this one:

The Sabres recently ranked #1 on The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler’s prospect pool rankings. You can check out his full thoughts here ($, subscription required), but it once again leads to the question: where is this all going? Is this even going anywhere, or is this another year of having great prospects and no future? What happens when these players age out of, or graduate from, their respective teams? Where will the Sabres be then?

Obviously, it’s incredibly hard to predict. You just can’t, really. There are so many factors at play, including who will be on the Sabres to surround guys like Owen Power when they reach the NHL. As we’ve seen with others, the players & personnel surrounding the prospects are critical to their future success with the team (or lack thereof.) If a prospect is given the right atmosphere, there’s a better chance for success. If they aren’t, well, it’s much more challenging.

Two factors I have to point out here: coaching and management. Having a coach like Ralph Krueger, as in the recent past, isn’t going to bode well for a prospect. Having a coach that prefers to let you learn from the press box isn’t the same as one who helps you grow with actual experience. Playing in a screwy system won’t help your game. And yeah, having management that won’t let you have the surgery you want, probably won’t bode well, either.

I mean, who would’ve predicted back in 2015 that seven years later, Jack Eichel would no longer even be in Buffalo? Same with Sam Reinhart.

There’s also the ongoing concern throughout the Sabres’ fanbase that this organization ‘wastes’ its prospects. Some players are rushed into a role they aren’t ready for, physically or mentally. Then, when things go south, we wonder why it never works out. Other players sit in juniors for years and through no fault of their own, never get the chance.

Too many times, we’ve seen ‘promising’ prospects not turn out in Buffalo, go elsewhere and flourish. It’s easy to get bogged down by it!

Anyways, back to the current prospects.

When can we realistically expect to see these guys in the AHL and NHL? When will they stop being prospects and become actual Sabres players? I don’t know, and neither do you, but here’s my best quick prediction & thoughts on those listed in Wheeler’s piece:

  • Owen Power, 19, 2021 draft: I wouldn’t mind seeing him finish two more seasons (a full four) at Michigan, joining the Sabres for the 2024-2025 season. (Oh goodness, that sounds like it’s a lifetime away.) No need to rush, even if everyone in Buffalo is eagerly waiting.
  • Peyton Krebs, 21, 2019 draft (VGK)): Has already cracked the NHL lineup. I’d expect him to play scarcely in the AHL going forward and make the big team full-time next season.
  • Jack Quinn (20, 2020 draft): Has already started cracking the NHL lineup, but between injuries & illness, it hasn’t been an easy road. Will compete for a spot come training camp/preseason, and may float between Buffalo & Rochester next season before finding the NHL full-time.
  • Devon Levi (20, 2020 draft (FLA)): We all know how abysmal the Sabres’ current goaltending situation is, but I don’t think Levi will be that quick to leave Northeastern... once he comes back from Beijing, that is. Give him another year or two of NCAA Division-I hockey and then see where he’s at.
  • JJ Peterka (20, 2020 draft): Has started cracking the NHL lineup. Like Quinn, I think he can only benefit from more time in the AHL. Give him another season in Rochester.
  • Isak Rosen (18, 2021 draft): I honestly don’t expect to see him in North America for another two years, at least. From there, I imagine him joining the Amerks (and possibly bulking up a bit) before seeing any time in the NHL.
  • Ryan Johnson (20, 2019 draft): He’s in his third year at Minnesota, so the timeline is a little shorter here. I anticipate he’ll finish out his four years in college and then join the Sabres after the end of his final season, then compete for a roster spot the following camp/fall.
  • Erik Portillo (21, 2019 draft): He still has a few years at Michigan. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the NHL once he finishes there, but he’d do well in Rochester for half a year or so to help him get used to the pro level.
  • Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (22, 2017 draft): I think the Sabres may call heavily on UPL next season based on their current status and contracts for next year. Now, that doesn’t mean he’ll be a top contender and put up great numbers, but based on Buffalo’s situation, I think he’ll be relied on.
  • Mattias Samuelsson (21, 2018 draft): Already cracked the NHL lineup. Expect to see him in Buffalo next season if there’s an open spot; otherwise, he may spend one more year going back and forth between the NHL and AHL.
  • Alexander Kisakov (19, 2021 draft): I see him coming to North America further down the line, maybe 3 years away.
  • Prokhor Poltapov (19, 2021 draft): See above, rinse & repeat.
  • Olivier Nadeau (19, 2021 draft): I imagine him as one of those guys who is promising and plays for a while in the AHL once his junior career ends (he’s 19). He won’t be the first to get called up to the NHL and will have to work his way there.
  • Oskari Laaksonen (22, 2017 draft): Just hasn’t cracked that NHL lineup yet. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him finish out his entry-level deal and then sign elsewhere if another team offers him a chance to be part of a third pairing, for instance.
  • Lukas Rousek (22, 2019 draft): A lot of this depends on his recovery from his knee surgery. Expect to see him in Rochester in the fall, as long as his recovery goes well, but I also anticipate it may be a slower season than we expect.
  • Matteo Costantini (19, 2020 draft): He’s only in his freshman year at North Dakota, so I think he’s several years away from even having this conversation.
  • Nikita Novikov (18, 2021 draft): I don’t see him making the jump to North America anytime soon, or if I’m being honest, maybe ever. Is that KHL bias? Admittedly, maybe a little, and at the very least, I think guys playing internationally have a more complicated path for a number of reasons. It has to be lucrative for them to make the jump, and worth it, or else they’ll wind up back overseas or bouncing around like Mikhail Grigorenko.
  • Aaron Huglen (20, 2019 draft): As Scott said in his piece, Huglen seems like a long shot to make it to the NHL. Based on what I know about him, and what I know about the Sabres organization and what’s happened in the past, I can see him finishing four years at Minnesota and then ending up in a different organization where he’ll be a better fit. He’s got the promise, but I’m just not sure it works out for him here.
  • Josh Bloom (18, 2021 draft): Still several years away from contention. The 18-year-old is doing well with Saginaw and still has plenty of junior eligibility left, which he’ll certainly take advantage of.
  • Matej Pekar (22, 2018 draft): While everyone loves his personality, I’m not sure I can see him making it to the NHL at this point, at least not as anything more than an occasional call-up./

Friendly reminder: I am decidedly not an NHL general manager or scout, nor am I a psychic. (And if I was, well, I’d probably be predicting lottery numbers or something financially lucrative like that.)

But that’s the thing with prospects like this: there’s no predicting the future, really. I could have written anything for any of the aforementioned players and probably have just as good a chance at being completely right as at being completely wrong. You could make a totally different prediction than I did, and neither of us could be correct down the road. Sometimes a player’s in the heat of a huge season and then they have an injury that stifles all of that. Trades happen. Simply put, sometimes the guys you expect to pan out don’t, and the ones you call a long shot make it big.

It’s just the way that top-shelf cookie crumbles.

For now, just enjoy watching these guys play when you can. Enjoy them where they are, and try not to put too much stock into expectations or the future, because some of them are performing incredibly well at this point in their careers - and while we’re thinking about when they’re going to ‘make it,’ we’re missing out on some great moments along the way.

Anyways. If you’ve made it this far, congratulations. I wrote, I rambled, I spit out a lot of thoughts here. I was really inspired by Scott & Joe’s pieces but also wanted to contribute something worthwhile, too. I think this is a huge topic and something that is certainly worthy of further discussion. As someone who’s followed the Sabres for nearly my entire life, it’s hard to trudge through years of hearing how good the team will be in the future, only to wait for a future that never comes.