Part three: Buffalo Sabres
Daniel Catenacci - Owen Sound Attack
After requesting a trade from the Soo, I thought that Catenacci had a terrific first season in Owen Sound. He maintained his aggressive and high energy style, but played a little more refined and in control. He also was incredibly consistent (save for maybe the end of the season when the Attack lost Halmo) and brought it pretty much every night. Every time I saw Owen Sound play this year, Catenacci was among the better players on the ice. His biggest asset remains his speed and overall skating ability, but I felt like he was stronger this year and more effective in carrying the puck and taking it to the net. As a result, his goal scoring totals jumped a bit. While he's always been a solid defensive player, I've found that his play in all three zones has been inconsistent in previous seasons. This year, he was dedicated to playing hard away from the puck in every game I saw. I also love the fact that Catenacci wore a letter this year, his first with Owen Sound. Next year should be a great one for the Cat. He's got a chance to be the team's captain (although I expect it to go to Keevin Cutting), and he'll be the team's offensive leader, but still surrounded by some terrific young talent. I could definitely see Catenacci putting up a 90 point season next year, taking his offensive game to yet another level.
Alex Lepkowski - Barrie Colts
Big guy who slowly emerged into a top four defenseman for Barrie this year. Before he was a big guy who's game was very raw, but this year he really started to come into his own defensively. He's got only average mobility, but he uses his stick very effectively to breakup plays off the rush and is hard to get around. He's still learning to use his size most effectively, but he can be very mean when he wants to be. Lepkowski will be looked upon to fill a similar role in Barrie again this year. I'll be looking for improvements in his offensive game. He's actually got a pretty heavy shot from the point and I could see him seeing some secondary powerplay time more consistently this year. He'll need to gain more confidence in his breakout pass and start taking a few more chances. I also look for him to continue to become comfortable using his size to be aggressive. Hopefully he can become a defensive beast this season for Barrie, as they could be starved for offense if Mark Scheifele and Tanner Pearson stick in the pros.
Justin Kea - Saginaw Spirit
I love Kea and I think he's got a ton of potential as a power center. He works hard at both ends of the ice, moves well for a big man, and has more skill with the puck than he's given credit for. IMO, Kea has a legitimate chance to be Saginaw's 2nd line center this season (behind the criminally underrated Vincent Trocheck). They are going to need him to step it up offensively as the Spirit are losing Saad, Shalla, Fine, and possibly even Garret Ross to the pro's. The only problem is that there may not be a lot of talent on the wing to surround him. I think we'll see an improvement in his offensive numbers, but I'd expect the big jump in his offensive game to occur in 2013-2014.
Brady Austin - Belleville Bulls
Austin was definitely a savvy pick-up. The behemoth defenseman blossomed in his first full season as a defenseman in Belleville. Previously, he was moving back and forth between center and the blueline in Erie. But he jumped right into the top four of the Bulls and never looked back. He's a very important defender for them because he plays in all situations. This year, I'll be looking for him to continue to improve his offensive numbers as he becomes more comfortable rushing the puck and controlling the point on the powerplay. I'm also looking for him to continue to improve his defensive game. Part of that is using his size even more to his advantage and becoming more of a physical threat (especially in front of the net). Belleville has a chance to be the best team in the East, and Austin is going to be a huge part of that. Hopefully he's up to the challenge.
*Steven Shipley and Gregg Sutch were Sabres prospects who were not signed this year, and thus their rights were relinquished by Buffalo.