The Buffalo Sabres have one of the deepest pipelines of skilled defensemen in the NHL. From NHL stalwarts, Henrik Tallinder, Toni Lydman, Nathan Paetsch and Andrej Sekera to prospects Chris Butler, Tyler Myers, T.J. Brennan, Drew Schiestel, Dennis Persson, Alex Biega and Vyateslav Buravchikov, the Sabres defensive depth is immense. Despite the abundant skill, none of these prospects has the offensive upside of Marc-Andre Gragnani.
Gragnani, a 6'2, 205-pound speedster, is probably one year from serious power play time in Buffalo. 'Grags', 22, finished fourth in scoring among AHL defenseman in 2008-09. A third round pick in 2005, Gragnani has always possessed immense offensive talent. In his last three seasons in the QMJHL, he averaged almost a point per game for the PEI Rocket. His devotion to offense cost him dearly, however, as his initial pro season (2007-08) was a defensive embarrassment. Gragnani looked completely lost at times playing down low in the offensive zone far too often. There were times he played entire shifts in a forward's role creating mass confusion on the ice. It was so bad that Rochester experimented with him at left wing. That experiment failed, leaving the young defenseman with a -24. Despite the poor plus/minus, Gragnani notched 52 points in 78 games and was named 2008 Rochester Americans' Rookie of the Year.
Gragnani's offensive ability has never been questioned, but his ability to play a two-way game has always held him back from a serious shot at the pros. Last season saw 'Grags' round out his game, scoring 51 points in 76 games playing exclusively on the blue line. More importantly, he vastly improved his plus/minus from -24 to -1. Gragnani has continued to concentrate on his defensive game throughout the 2009 Sabres prospects camp and appears well rounded enough to be at least the second call-up in case of blue line injury.
The Sabres are flush with skilled defensive talent, however, Tony Lydman, Henrik Tallinder and Nathan Paetsch are all unrestricted free agents after the 2009-10 season. Buffalo has a history of letting their top free agents go and replacing them with talent from their deep farm system. Free agent departures include Daniel Briere, Chris Drury, Brian Campbell, Jay McKee and Max Afinogenov. There is little reason to believe veterans Lydman and Tallinder will be re-signed at premium prices next summer which would open full-time roster spots for Myers and Gragnani. That likely scenario would definitely put Gragnani on the power play and give him a great shot at a 40-point season. Gragnani has the speed, size, durability, shot and passing ability to notch a 50+ point NHL season and should definitely be on everyone's fantasy radar, even if he's likely one season away from consistent production.