Thursday, August 16, 2012

One To Watch: Buffalo Sabres

If it's quality over quantity than Buffalo has to be considered one of the stronger organizations in the NHL when it comes to its prospects. The 28 players currently listed on the team's website aren't all of the club's prospects (for some reason) but it's a solid crop to look at. 

Recently drafted and signed forwards Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons are going to be particularly interesting to follow this year. Both could play in the NHL, both could end up in the CHL but only the Latvian can play in the AHL (as rules stand right now). Is there room for both with the Sabres? If the answer is no, does the AHL option decide who stays?

The Sabres have two netminders in the system that I really like, both of them were 6th round picks and both of them are giants. Connor Knapp checks in at 6'5 and after 4 years with the Miami RedHawks is ready to make his professional debut. Nathan Lieuwen is also 6'5 and will be a rookie pro this year after 4 WHL seasons with the Kootenay Ice. Both goalies have been to the National Championship tournament for their respective league and both have a ton of potential. But who will play where this year?

Brayden McNabb, Matt MacKenzie, Jerome-Gautheir Leduc, Joel Armia and recently traded Colin Jacobs (too Prince George of the WHL) are all guys to keep an eye on as they take on bigger challenges this year.  

The player I have opted to go with for this series is a player I have known since he was 15 and have been able to watch closely for the last half decade. 

Photo: Andy Devlin

Mark Pysyk (D)

Edmonton Oil Kings
6'1, 190 lbs
Drafted 23rd Overall in 2010

The Pipeline Show is now in its 8th year on the radio and I was covering prospects for 3 or 4 seasons before that. In that time, I honestly don't know if I have crossed paths with a more genuinely "Nice Guy" than Mark Pysyk. Even when I first met his as a 15-year-old, part of my four-golfer team during our golf station's annual tournament, he was mature beyond his years. He was quiet, perhaps even a bit shy but he was very pleasant and man... could that kid hit a golf ball.   

Little has changed over the last five years; he's still a first class individual and still drives the ball better than I ever will. 

Pysyk was the first pick for the Edmonton Oil Kings in 2007 as the team rejoined the league for the 2007-08 season. In many ways, he's been the face of the franchise ever since then; the local product picked by the local team, who was named captain two seasons ago and has played 243 regular season games in all. 

Photo: Andy Devlin
He also represented the Oil Kings and Edmonton last winter during the 2012 WJC in Alberta as the only player on Canada's roster from the city. He played sparingly but not poorly and always had time for reporters after the games, a smile plastered to his face even when asked about his limited role. 

Perhaps it is his quiet, likeable personality that often has him overlooked by people but Pysyk has been one of the WHL's top blueliners for the past few seasons. He's not flashy by any means but that also has something to do with it. 

He's a two-way defenceman with more emphasis on his own end than in the offensive zone although Pysyk has never struggled to put up numbers; he's had 78 over the last two WHL seasons. Pysyk is the classic first pass guy; he starts the transition from his own end by winning control of the puck and making the safe outlet pass. 

Photo: Andy Devlin
While some defenceman will put a forward through the boards to take the puck away, Pysyk relies on his smarts, his positioning and a great stick to do the job. He's no shrinking violet and does great work along the boards or in the corners but don't expect Pysyk to be in highlight reels for huge open ice hits. 

Skating has become essential for defencemen in the NHL and that happens to be one of Pysyk's best traits. He's very smooth and efficient with his stride and while comparisons to NHL superstars are never fair (or my forté), Pysyk could be said to play a similar style of game as Jay Bouwmeester or Nicklas Lidstrom. 

Photo: Andy Devlin
Both of those players are also known for logging a ton of ice time and that holds true for Pysyk as well, at least at the WHL level. 

Oil Kings GM Bob Green once joked that Pysyk doesn't come off the ice at the end of his shift because he's tired, it's simply because his 45 seconds are up. Over the years it's been common to see him come off, rest for one shift and then jump back out again. 

This coming year will be an interesting one for Pysyk. I certainly don't expect him to crack the NHL his first time out but I wonder how he makes the transition to pro hockey. He'll be living away from home for the first time in his life, playing on a different team in a much harder league; talk about getting outside of your comfort zone. 

How will Pysyk's game evolve as a pro? Does he become more of a stay-at-home guy or does his offensive game become more dominant? Will he see as much power play time as he has or will he be a staple on the PK? How will he adjust to going from a veteran, confident WHL captain to a raw rookie once again?        

Photo: Harry Scull Jr.
What happens if there is another NHL lockout? Would that lead to teams like Buffalo sending players to the AHL who otherwise may have been on the NHL roster? Brayden McNabb for instance? If so... does the end result push Pysyk down to the ECHL or even perhaps back to the Oil Kings for an unexpected overage season? 

There are a lot of reasons to like Pysyk and a lot of storylines to follow as the new season gets closer. Obviously having covered the Oil Kings since their re-inception makes me biased on this one but for me, Mark Pysyk is "One to Watch" in 2012-13.    

No comments: