The Buffalo Sabres' horrendous start to the 2013-14 season was the clear signal that the team needed to make drastic changes. Ted Nolan replaced Ron Rolston as head coach early in the season, and Darcy Regier was fired after 16 years with the team after a few disappointing seasons and a spotty draft record.
In January, Tim Murray was hired as the new general manager to turn the organization around. Coming from a scouting background, Murray has been tasked with finding and fostering young talent to turn them into winners.
The future for the Sabres is quite bright. Though their top prospects have had their ups and downs, some of it can be attributed to poor decisions made by the previous management. The Sabres are not expected to compete for a playoff spot in the near future, which means the team will continue to add to their pile of young talent.
Top 10 Prospects:
1. Rasmus Ristolainen, D
2. Mikhail Grigorenko, C
3. Nikita Zadorov, D
4. Mark Pysyk, D
5. Jake McCabe, D
6. Joel Armia, RW
7. Johan Larsson, F
8. JT Compher, C
9. Chad Ruhwedel, D
10. Daniel Catenacci, LW
Quite frankly, the Sabres biggest need at the moment is patience. Most of the team's key veterans have left the organization, and it is possible the Sabres will start the 2013-14 season without a single player over 30 years old. Impending free agents Henrik Tallinder, Zenon Konopka, and John Scott are unlikely to be retained, while Ville Leino is scheduled to be bought out and Christian Ehrhoff's future with the team is in doubt. The organization has one of the deepest pools of talent in the league, but they seem to lack a strong mentorship group to foster that talent.
Once the Sabres' top prospects become full-fledged NHL players, such as the recently graduated Zemgus Girgensons, it is in the organization's best interest to keep the system well stocked so it can provide a constant flow of talent. The future is unpredictable, and even under new general manager Murray, there is a reasonable expectation that some of the prospects will not pan out for various reasons.
With Rasmus Ristolainen and Mark Pysyk settled in the pros, and Nikita Zadorov and Jake McCabe joining them fulltime in the near future, the Sabres will most likely lean towards drafting forwards at the draft. Mikhail Grigorenko and Joel Armia are still getting comfortable in North America, while Nick Baptiste, JT Compher, and Hudson Fasching are a few years away from making an impact on the Sabres.
The organization's greatest strength is its depth of talent at every single position. Buffalo may have traded Ryan Miller reluctantly, but they were able to sleep soundly at night afterwards knowing that top Swedish goalie Linus Ullmark, farm team goalies Nathan Lieuwen and Andrey Makarov, as well as Cal Petersen at Notre Dame, all have the potential to contribute in the NHL.
The Sabres also have a deep crop of forwards, ranging from the talented Grigorenko to utility forward Johan Larsson to power forward Justin Bailey. It is a versatile mix, but how their pro careers will pan out remains to be seen.
The Sabres have done a good job of adding size to the system, but only on the wings and on defense. Grigorenko is an intriguing package of size and skill at 6'3, but it is not in his nature to play a physical style. Girgensons may be the closest to anything resembling a power center, and he stands just 6'1 while top center Tyler Ennis is generously listed at 5'9. All three are good skaters and the lack of size down the middle may be of little consequence in the Eastern Conference, but looking far ahead, the Sabres may need bigger players to compete with the tougher Western Conference teams.
Skating is not a general weakness among the Sabres prospects, but drafting players who are strong, agile and able to move freely around the ice could help the team establish its identity as a fast and skilled team. Teams prize speed and mobility, and the better the Sabres can get at moving up and down the ice with efficiency, the better off they will be.
The Sabres went through some lean drafting years under Regier, but the 2012 and 2013 drafts have proven to be quite fruitful. It was rare for Regier to strike out on first round picks, with the last two misfires in 2005 with Marek Zagrapan and 2006 with Dennis Persson. Regier did not venture out to Europe very often, and the Saskatchewan-born executive leaned towards the WHL and OHL.
This being Tim Murray's first GM job in the NHL, he enters the 2014 draft as a relative unknown. He certainly has the strong hockey bloodlines to show for it, being the nephew of Ottawa GM Bryan Murray and Adirondack Phantoms head coach Terry Murray, but has the added pressure of having a top five pick in his first ever draft.
Over the past seven seasons, Murray has served as the assistant GM for the Sens and spent another seven seasons prior as Binghamton's GM. He certainly comes from a scouting background, previously serving as scout for the Rangers, Panthers, and Red Wings, along with a three-year stint as Anaheim's Director of Player Personnel.
The Sens have always been known to have a good feel for European prospects and often draft out of their own backyard in the OHL. Rarely did they draft players from the QMJHL and it is likely that trend will continue in Buffalo under Murray.
The Sabres own eight picks in 2014. They will select at: 2, 31, 39, 49, 61, 121, 151, and 181.
The 39th and 49th picks were acquired from Minnesota in separate deals. The 39th pick, originally a Jets pick, was acquired in exchange for Matt Moulson, while the 49th pick was acquired in 2013 for Jason Pominville.
The Sabres' own third round pick, 91st overall, was sent to Minnesota as part of the Pominville trade, which was later traded to Edmonton for Ilya Bryzgalov.
The Blues will not re-sign Ryan Miller, but if they trade him before he becomes a free agent, the Sabres will still get their first round pick, 21st overall. If the Sabres do indeed receive the Blues' first round pick, the 39th and 61st picks will go to the Blues.
Hockey's Future Staff Mock Draft Results:
2. Sam Reinhart, C, Kootenay Ice (WHL)
Assuming that Aaron Ekblad goes first overall, the first forward off the board will be Reinhart. The Sabres have had a big leadership void since Chris Drury and Danny Briere departed, opting to split the leadership duties. When Steve Ott and Thomas Vanek were traded, the 'C' was vacated without a clear successor. A captain for the Ice, Reinhart is a contributor with or without the puck and manages to perform his best during crunch time. He sees the ice well and often makes the right play, but what really separates him from Sam Bennett are his leadership abilities. Leon Draisaitl brings a great mix of size and skill, but Reinhart is more likely to wear a letter some day.
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