Features | 6/19/2012 4:59:22 PM | Warren Kosel
| Former Amerks forward Thomas Vanek
A look back at the Buffalo Sabres’ last five first-round selections to have started their careers in the American Hockey League with the Rochester Americans.
Taken by the Buffalo Sabres with the 13th overall pick in 2009, highly touted forward Zack Kassian highlighted Buffalo’s list of top prospects entering the 2011-12 season. After closing out an impressive junior career that saw him capture a Memorial Cup with his hometown Windsor Spitfires in 2010, Kassian took his game to the next level and made an immediate contribution in his first professional season in Rochester. In just 30 games with the Amerks, Kassian would register 26 points on 15 goals and 11 assists, sitting atop the team’s point leaders before a midseason trade sent him along with Marc-Andre Gragnani to Vancouver in exchange for Cody Hodgson and Alexander Sulzer. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Kassian also appeared in 27 games over four NHL recalls to the Sabres and was Rochester’s lone representative at the 2012 AHL All-Star Classic.
A teammate of Kassian’s this season in Rochester, defenseman Dennis Persson also called the Flower City home for the 2011-12 campaign, but an injury-riddled season saw the Swedish-born blueliner record seven points (3+4) in just 39 games with the Amerks. Having spent the previous three years with the Portland Pirates, this season marked Persson’s fourth with the Sabres organization after going to Buffalo in the first-round (24th overall) of the 2006 Entry Draft.
Marek Zagrapan, who was claimed by Buffalo with its 13th overall pick in 2005, is the only Sabres first-round selection in the last 10 years to play multiple seasons with the Amerks. Following a productive 87-point year with Chicoutimi (QMJHL) in 2005-06, Zagrapan spent his next two professional seasons in Rochester, where he totaled 78 points (35+43) in 147 career games in the red, white and blue. A native of Presov, Slovakia, Zagrapan currently ranks tied for 134th in scoring among all-time Amerk forwards.
Despite playing just half a season in Rochester, Drew Stafford emerged as an up-and-coming star for the Buffalo Sabres when he opened the 2006-07 season by scoring 22 goals and adding 22 assists for 44 points in just 34 games with the Amerks. Stafford’s impressive start featured him picking up nine points in his first 11 games, and combined with his natural scoring ability, it would soon earn him a full-time promotion to the NHL. Though remaining with the Sabres for the duration of the season, the former University of North Dakota standout would finish sixth among Rochester’s top point-getters in overall scoring, in addition to being one of just four Amerks to reach the 20-goal mark. Since becoming a mainstay with the Sabres in November of 2006, Stafford has gone on to appear in 397 career NHL games with Buffalo, scoring 114 goals and 132 assists for 246 points.
One of the most prolific scorers in franchise history in recent memory, Thomas Vanek’s 42-goal record-setting season in 2004-05 turned him into an instant fan favorite during his one and only year in Rochester. Vanek was drafted by the Sabres with their fifth overall pick in 2003, making him the highest draft pick in Austrian history. Two years after winning the NCAA National Championship with the University of Minnesota, Vanek helped the Amerks to the team’s best regular season finish in franchise history as Rochester posted a 51-19-6-4 overall record (112 points) to earn the Macgregor Kilpatrick trophy as regular season champions. Vanek recorded an astounding 68 points in 74 games with the Amerks, placing second among AHL rookies in scoring while also ranking second overall with 42 goals. Vanek became just the 13th player in team history to net 42 goals or more in one season and the first since Craig Charron potted 43 during Rochester’s 1995-96 Calder Cup championship season. His freshman campaign also featured a team-best 25 power-play tallies as he tied team records for most goals and power-plays goals in a single season by a rookie. His breakout season would garner him several league accolades, including a spot on the AHL All-Rookie Team and Amerks Rookie of the Year honors. The 2004-05 season would mark the only season in Rochester for Vanek, who has since enjoyed a seven-year career with the big club, registering 447 points (230+217) in 547 NHL appearances.