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Inside the Sabres: 'Next Chapter' is scary story

Ted Nolan's first run as Buffalo Sabres coach will be remembered for his motivational skills. He helped the "hardest-working team in hockey" grow from a group of fighters to a division champion in 1997.

Nolan's second stint will be remembered for his words in 2014.

"Prospects are great," Nolan said. "Then some of them turn into suspects. Then some of them turn into rejects."

Two weeks after Nolan was fired in April 2015, a glossy brochure arrived in the mail for Sabres season-ticket holders. The 16-page sales pitch was titled "Buffalo Sabres 2015-16: The Next Chapter." It proudly noted that ESPN and Hockey's Future said Buffalo possessed the No. 1 prospect pipeline in the NHL. Sports Illustrated listed Buffalo at the top, too.

So what happened?

The fall from prospect to suspect to reject hit hard.

Looking back, the highly ranked names jump off the page for the wrong reasons. Mikhail Grigorenko. Joel Armia. Andrey Makarov. Connor Hurley.

Here is a look at the players Buffalo boasted for its Next Chapter – which unfortunately looks like the previous, inglorious chapter of last-place hockey.

Forwards

* Sam Reinhart – HockeysFuture.com had Reinhart as the No. 1 prospect in all of hockey in the spring of 2015. The No. 2 overall draft pick was supposed to be a cornerstone.

So far, the hype is suspect.

The 22-year-old hasn't been able to find a home at center. His goal total dropped from 23 as a rookie to 17 last season, and he entered the weekend on pace for 15 this year. After boosting his assists from 19 to 30, he's on pace for just 15.

* Mikhail Grigorenko – Buffalo botched his development, repeatedly bouncing him from juniors to the NHL and back again. His sense of entitlement hurt him, too. The 23-year-old has already been rejected by the NHL after 22 goals and 42 assists in 217 games. He is playing in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League.

Buffalo dealt him to Colorado in June 2015 as part of the package for center Ryan O'Reilly.

* J.T. Compher – Another part of the O'Reilly trade, Compher had four goals and eight points in his opening 20 games for Colorado this season while skating on the power play.

* Joel Armia – The winger was a big reason for the Sabres' No. 1 rankings, but he was gone by the time the book arrived in the mail. Buffalo traded the highly regarded sniper to Winnipeg in February 2015 as part of the deal for Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian.

This season, the third-year pro had four goals and 10 points in his opening 25 games with the Jets while skating 10:45 per night.

* Brendan Lemieux – Also part of the Winnipeg trade, the antagonistic winger made his NHL debut this season with one goal in seven games. The 21-year-old had six goals and nine assists in 15 games with Manitoba of the American Hockey League.

* Johan Larsson – The promise seemed real for the center after he split 2014-15 between Buffalo and Rochester, totaling 21 goals and 56 points in 83 games. Last season was cut short by dislocations of his wrist and elbow. This season, he's been invisible.

The 25-year-old entered the weekend with no goals and three assists in his last 22 games.

* Hudson Fasching – The 22-year-old is back in Buffalo following a season that was decimated by a groin injury. He had no points in his opening two games with the Sabres after putting up six goals and 14 points in 21 games with Rochester.

* Justin Bailey – The 22-year-old is caught between who he wants to be and what Buffalo expects. He is a scorer in the AHL with 45 goals and 83 points in 126 games. He has four goals and three assists in 47 games with Buffalo, which tries him in a physical role on the bottom six.

* Nick Baptiste – The 22-year-old is similar to Bailey, a fellow high draft pick in 2013. He has 42 goals and 79 points in 136 games with Rochester. The winger has three goals and an assist in 18 games with Buffalo.

* Will Carrier – He was the prospect acquired from St. Louis in the big 2014 trade of Ryan Miller and Steve Ott. The Sabres gave Carrier ample opportunity to be a top-six winger last season, and he responded with five goals and three assists in 41 games.

Buffalo gave Vegas a sixth-round pick so it would select Carrier in the June expansion draft.

* Connor Hurley – Drafted with the eighth pick of the second round in 2013, Hurley isn't playing this season. After three uneventful years at Notre Dame, the winger transferred to Minnesota and will skate for the Gophers next season.

* Zemgus Girgensons – This is a "bonus" because he didn't count in the 2015 prospect rankings. The reviewers had already elevated him to a full-time NHLer following a 15-goal, 30-point season. Now the 23-year-old is a healthy scratch after putting up one goal and two assists in 24 games.

As Girgensons hits 300 games with Sabres, he's stuck in epic scoring slump

Defensemen

* Rasmus Ristolainen – Finally, there is good news for fans. While there is a debate whether he's a true No. 1 defenseman, he's a true NHL player. The 23-year-old consistently leads Buffalo blue-liners in most categories.

* Nikita Zadorov – He was expected to partner with Ristolainen to form a physical, point-producing, shutdown pair. After an immature start with Buffalo, Zadorov joined Grigorenko and Compher in the trade to Colorado for O'Reilly.

The 22-year-old had three goals and five points in his first 21 games this season while skating 17:23 per night.

* Jake McCabe – The 24-year-old is in his third season as a regular on the Buffalo blue line. On Tuesday, he became the first Sabres defenseman to score this season, part of a one-goal, six-point start in 28 games. He is skating 19:05 per night.

* Mark Pysyk – After splitting three seasons between Buffalo and Rochester, the defenseman was ready for a full-time role in 2015. Former General Manager Tim Murray was not impressed, shipping Pysyk to Florida in June 2016 for Dmitry Kulikov and a draft pick used on forward Rasmus Asplund.

This season, Pysyk had two goals, four points and a minus-10 rating in the opening 27 games for Florida while skating 18:31 per night.

* Jerome Gauthier-Leduc – A high-scoring defenseman in the minors, the third-round pick in 2010 never made it to the NHL. Traded to Ottawa in 2015-16 as part of a package that brought Cole Schneider to Buffalo, Leduc was in Czechia last season and Austria this year.

Goaltenders

* Andrey Makarov – Signed as a free agent out of juniors in 2013, Makarov made it to Buffalo for one game. He lost, 3-0, to the New York Islanders on April 4, 2015.

Makarov played 22 games for the Amerks the following season, and he's spent the last two years in the KHL.

* Nathan Lieuwen – Concussions ruined his career, which included seven games in Buffalo in 2013-14. The Sabres declined to make him a qualifying offer as a restricted free agent in 2016. The 26-year-old has retired after playing in the AHL and ECHL last season.

* Cal Petersen – The goalie was just starting to make a name for himself in the spring of 2015 after playing 33 games as a freshman at Notre Dame. He grew into one of the top goalies in NCAA history, then declined to sign with the Sabres this spring. They lost his rights and he joined Los Angeles.

In his first nine starts with Ontario of the AHL, the 23-year-old is fifth in the league with a 1.99 goals-against average while going 4-5 with a .926 save percentage.

* Linus Ullmark – The Amerks' MVP last season is a winner this year as a 24-year-old. In his opening 16 appearances with Rochester, Ullmark was 10-3-2 with a .919 save percentage. He might be Buffalo's most legitimate prospect.

As Nolan warned and fans know, Ullmark has been surrounded by suspects and rejects.

Linus Ullmark remains a happy guy, on and off the ice

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