2021/22 Buffalo Sabres NCAA Prospects Preview

It’s October so you know what that means: college hockey! The NCAA may be the league that provides the most intrigue for Sabres fans this season as the big club is not looking too hot and the NCAA boasts six Sabres prospects across four teams and three conferences. Five of those prospects (Owen Power, Erik Portillo, Aaron Huglen, Ryan Johnson, and Matteo Costantini) plays on teams ranked inside the top ten (Michigan, Minnesota, and North Dakota). So expect lots of fun , Sabres-related hockey being played in the NCAA this season.

With that being said, let’s run through a quick preview of all six Sabres prospects who will be kicking off their college hockey seasons this weekend:

Matteo Costantini
Fr., C, University of North Dakota
20/21 Stats (USHL): 37 GP, 7 G, 15 A, 22 PTS, 61.0 EV GF%, 14:21 eATOI

Last season was a bit of a whirlwind for Matteo Costantini. After playing for the Buffalo Jr. Sabres of the OJHL in 2019/20, he made the move out west to join the Penticton Vees of the BCHL for the 2020/21 season. Costantini would only see a few exhibition games for Penticton before the BCHL season was suspended, causing him to move to Sioux City of the USHL.

He had a bit of an underwhelming season production-wise for a 5th round pick, only posting 22 points in 37 games for Sioux City. Mitch Brown’s tracking data did not shine much positive light on his game either. He seemed to play a shot-heavy game with poor expected results and average transition numbers:

Screen Shot 2021 10 07 at 9.59.05 PM 2021/22 Buffalo Sabres NCAA Prospects Preview

The thing about Matteo Costantini is that he is both young and toolsy. He is about 11 months younger than Jack Quinn despite being fellow draft classmates. Costantini has both the shooting ability and he has the skating ability, now he just needs to work on the little things in his game in order to consistently translate his skill set into positive results. NCAA hockey should provide him with the perfect opportunity to finetune his craft.

The 19 year-old will begin his journey at the University of North Dakota this fall. The Fighting Hawks lost a number of players, including their top three centers, to the pro ranks, but they still boast an intriguing roster highlighted by Jake Sanderson. They currently sit at 8th overall in the USCHO poll heading into their first game against Niagara this weekend.

Costantini saw somewhat of a limited role in North Dakota’s exhibition match against Bemidji State last weekend. He took on the 4th line center duty and saw somewhat limited minutes. I do not expect him to set the world on fire right from the get go. However, he will have a nice opportunity to work his way up the lineup as the season goes on. He is a bit of a project as a prospect, so expect him to spend multiple years in the NCAA ranks as he continues to round out his game.

Aaron Huglen
Fr., RW, University of Minnesota
20/21 Stats: 39 GP, 15 G, 20 A, 35 PTS, 48.3 EV GF%, 19:14 eATOI

After spending nearly two years away from the game due to a back injury, Huglen finally returned to the ice for the USHL’s Fargo Force midway through the 2020/21 season. He did not appear to have missed a beat as he was a consistent offensive threat who could pull off dazzling moves on any given night. Huglen was one of the most entertaining players to watch in the USHL last season.

After using the 2020/21 season to get his feet back under himself, Huglen will make a big jump onto one of the top teams in college hockey: the 4th ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers. This team will be a top contender for a National Championship and boasts a lineup that is chock-full of NHL prospects. 

The Golden Gophers’ forward group is led by veteran forwards such as Sammy Walker, Blake McLaughlin, and Ben Meyers. They also bring on some very talented freshman forwards in Chaz Lucius, Matt Knies, and Tristan Broz. Calling this forward group deep would be an understatement, so it will definitely be a battle for top six minutes and power play time. Maybe Huglen gets a bit of a leg up on the other freshmen since he is 20 years old? Only time will tell.

Huglen’s production in 2021/22 will be very dependent on the amount of ice time he is given. While that may seem like a tall task given the caliber of players in Minnesota’s forward group, I would not count Huglen out. He is not a one-dimensional skilled forward, he does a bit of everything. Now that he has his first full offseason of training under his belt since the summer of 2018, expect him to be a player who can make some noise for the Golden Gophers.

Ryan Johnson
Jr., LHD, University of Minnesota
20/21 Stats: 27 GP, 2 G, 12 A, 14 PTS, 64.0 EV GF%, 21:20 eATOI

Yet another Sabres prospect on the Golden Gophers, Ryan Johnson will be returning to the University of Minnesota for his junior season. This player is certainly a contender for the most interesting Sabres prospect. As a 6’1”, 190-pound defenseman with only 22 points in 64 NCAA games, there is really nothing that jumps off the page about Johnson’s profile. However, when you watch his game you start to realize that there’s a bit more to his game than the box score numbers indicate.

He is a modern defenseman in the sense that he is good defensively without being a 6’5” physical bruiser-type of player. Johnson is able to compete defensively because of his IQ and fantastic edgework. His IQ and skating also allow him to be a very strong player in transition. Everything about Johnson’s game comes in one neat, smooth-skating package. Really the only thing that has yet to be there for him is the point production.

One important thing to remember when evaluating Ryan Johnson is that he was playing for the Anaheim Jr. Ducks 16U team in 2018. There was just one season in-between his 16U days and his freshman year at Minnesota. As one of the younger players in his draft class, there is still a lot of runway left for his game to develop despite being a junior in college. If Johnson can continue to grow his game, the Sabres will have a very intriguing prospect on their hands.

Like the Golden Gophers’ forward group, the defense group is also loaded. Ryan Johnson is joined by two stud defense prospects (and fellow WJC gold medalists) in Brock Faber and Jackson LaCombe. Johnson spent a lot of time paired with the right-handed Faber in 2019/20 and went on to be a very solid pair for Minnesota. I would expect that pair to stick together in 2021/22 and I expect that pair to be one of the best in college hockey.

Devon Levi
So., G, Northeastern University
20/21 Stats (WJC): 7 GP, 0.75 GAA, .964 SV%, 3 SO

At this point, Devon Levi may only be known as “the guy the Sabres got in the Sam Reinhart trade” to most Sabres fans. However, Levi is a very intriguing goalie prospect who will be the starter in net for the Northeastern Huskies in 2021/22.

After being selected by the Florida Panthers out of the CCHL in the 7th round of the 2020 NHL Draft, Levi went on to only play 7 games (all for the Canada WJC team) in the 2020/21 season. His numbers in those games were just silly: 0.75 GAA, .964 SV%, and 3 shutouts. He got a big boost from playing on a stacked Canada team, but his performance was still very impressive nonetheless.

It turned out that Levi was putting some of these great displays of goaltending at the World Juniors while playing with a fractured rib. This rib injury would sideline him for the entirety of Northeastern’s 2020/21 season. So he actually did not play his first collegiate game until this past weekend where he (unsurprisingly) recorded a shutout in a win over Bentley.

He is not the biggest goalie at only 6’0”, but makes up for it with fantastic tracking and agility. He has the ability to “stand on his head” at times and make some game breaking saves. I guess the thing with Levi is that we just have such a small sample size of his performances over the past 18 months, but those performances in that sample have been amazing. His 2021/22 NCAA campaign is already off to a fantastic start and hopefully that first game will set the pace for the remainder of his season.

Erik Portillo
So., G, University of Michigan
20/21 Stats: 7 GP, 1.67 GAA, .935 SV%

Portillo spent his freshman campaign at the University of Michigan backstopping Strauss Mann, but will now be handed the reins as the Wolverines’ starting goaltender in 2021/22. This will be a huge opportunity for the 6’6” goalie on an absolutely stacked team that features four top-five picks (yes, you read that right) from the 2021 NHL Draft.

Being the starting goaltender will be a major change of pace for Portillo as he only appeared in 7 games for the Wolverines last season. He was phenomenal in those games, posting an impressive .935 SV%. However, being a starting goalie in college hockey is a different beast due to the large number of back-to-backs and coach Mel Pearson does not shy away from giving his starting goalies a sizable workload. Strauss Mann played in 35 of the team’s 37 games just two seasons ago.

So, do not be surprised if Portillo experiences some growing pains as he adjusts to life as the starter. Expect the extremely talented team in front of him to make that adjustment a little bit easier. Owen Power, Matty Beniers, Kent Johnson, Thomas Bordeleau, and Brendan Brisson return for their sophomore seasons. Freshmen Luke Hughes and Dylan Duke add to their youthful firepower. Toss in a solid group of vets into the mix and you have the makings of a national championship contender.

There is probably no prospect in the Sabres’ system with a better chance to improve their stock this season than Erik Portillo. The experience he will get from backstopping one of the top teams in college hockey against some of the best competition is invaluable. Everything that the Sabres have seen out of Portillo since they drafted him has been quite encouraging, now we will see how he performs in the spotlight.

Owen Power
So., LHD, University of Michigan
20/21 Stats: 26 GP, 3 G, 13 A, 16 PTS, 70.5 EV GF%, 21:45 eATOI

The “big fish” of the Sabres’ prospect pool, Owen Power will be the first 1st overall pick since Erik Johnson in 2006 to play their initial post-draft year outside of the NHL. Just one quick glance at the roster that Buffalo will be icing this season and, yeah, he may be better off playing NCAA hockey in 2021/22. He will also get a pretty unique opportunity to run things back with a very talented Michigan squad after their 2020/21 season ended prematurely due to COVID-19 cases.

This season will be an important one for Power’s development. Even though we saw him hold his own against NHL-caliber competition at the World Championships, there are still areas of his game that need cleaning up. I would like to see his offensive and transitional games advance a bit more so he is not so reliant on his vision alone. Maybe some more active feet in the offensive zone which would help open up his playmaking abilities. Gap control is another area that needs to be worked on as he tends to give way too much cushion when faced with a speedy attack.

We will likely see Owen Power paired with Nick Blankenburg throughout this season. Blankenburg is a 23 year-old senior defenseman who is only 5’9”, but is a fantastic skater and has the ability to contribute offensively. After losing Cam York, Michigan will replace with another talented blueliner in Luke Hughes. Expect Hughes to eat up 2nd pair and 2nd power play unit minutes while Power gets the top minutes.

The Wolverines ran a 1st power play unit with Owen Power, Kent Johnson, Brendan Brisson, Thomas Bordeleau, and Matty Beniers in their exhibition match against Bowling Green. That group is absolutely loaded, so expect Power to pick up a ton of points on the man advantage this season. When you (inevitably) get bored of Sabres hockey this season, just tune in to watch the Michigan Wolverines.

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