The Buffalo Sabres were disappointed not to get the 1st overall pick in the lottery after a last-place finish, but it is a good thing this year’s draft features two players who are heads and shoulders above everyone else.
The youth movement continues in Buffalo, with general manager Tim Murray maintaining a steady course in building the team’s foundation. Other than retaining a few key veterans, including 35-year-old captain Brian Gionta and 30-year-old defensive stalwart Josh Gorges, the team’s new core will likely consist of Tyler Ennis (age 25), Zach Bogosian (24), Evander Kane (23), Zemgus Girgensons (21), Rasmus Ristolainen (20), Nikita Zadorov (20), and the incoming Sam Reinhart (19) and Jack Eichel (18), whom they will assuredly select with the second overall pick.
Top 10 Prospects:
The obvious need is patience, which is tougher than it sounds in a market starving for a winning hockey team. Bogosian, Kane and Girgensons have had very productive careers so far despite their relatively young age, and they are expected to continue to develop with a slew of other prospects under the further mentorship of Gionta and Gorges.
The team has plenty of centers, and the expectation is that some of them will move to the wing, but as far as natural wingers go, the Sabres lack an elite, top-line prospect in the pipeline. Many of the team’s best wingers have outstanding skills, but none are considered to be the ultimate package like Reinhart. Justin Bailey, Nick Baptiste and Hudson Fasching are intriguing prospects, but it remains to be seen whether or not they have what it takes to be first-line players.
The one thing that the Sabres may lack is an elite goalie. The silver lining is that the Sabres have a few goalies that may turn into under-the-radar home runs, just like the one they drafted in the fifth round of the 1999 draft, when they took a chance on a lanky, underweight goalie in Ryan Miller and slowly developed and molded him into an eventual Vezina winner. Andrey Makarov may turn out to be one of the best free agent signings the franchise has ever made, and 2012 sixth-round pick Linus Ullmark has shown he could become a world-class netminders, but the path of development for goalies is rarely smooth and often lengthy. There is a chance that Makarov or Ullmark will develop into the next Miller, but both will need a lot of time to get there.
The team’s organizational strength is its depth, with several quality prospects at every position. They may not have a knockout prospect at every position, but relative to the other 29 teams in the league, the Sabres have arguably the best pool.
The Sabres are deepest at centre. With Reinhart and Girgensons expected to be regulars next season, Johan Larsson will get another chance to win a roster spot, and JT Compher and Connor Hurley are performing well in the college ranks. That is not including Eichel, whose offensive abilities will raise the team’s profile to new heights. Though Mikhail Grigorenko may head to the KHL, the Sabres are expected to keep him in the fold.
On the wings, the team’s plethora of playmaking centers will allow players such as Bailey, Baptiste and Fasching to thrive, but also hopefully bring out the best from minor leaguers such as Dan Catenacci and William Carrier, and Swedish snipers such as Gustav Possler and Victor Olofsson. There is enough speed and skill for them to be productive NHL scorers, but again, none are as talented or come with the same pedigree as Kane.
On defense, the gems are Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov, both of whom should be considered full-time NHL players next season. They are buoyed by Mark Pysyk and Chad Ruhwedel, two more defensemen who should join the Sabres full-time, and the underrated Jake McCabe is not far behind. Anthony Florentino has trended upwards every year and represents yet another potential late-round gem.
In net, including the aforementioned Makarov and Ullmark, Jonas Johansson is another promising Swede and Cal Petersen had a very good freshman season with the University of Notre Dame. Jason Kasdorf was also picked up from the Jets via trade, giving the Sabres a lot of options in the future.
This will be Murray’s second year at the helm, and in both years the first pick was an obvious one. In 2014, the Sabres selected Reinhart second overall, and in 2015, the Sabres will draft whoever is left between Connor McDavid and Eichel.
With nine picks in the 2014 draft, Murray opted to select seven forwards, which may seem excessive, but at the 2013 draft, the Sabres used both of their first-round picks on defensemen. For Murray, the most immediate strategy seems to be to take the best player available, and worry about where the pieces fall later.
The Sabres rarely dip into the QMJHL, preferring to use the vast majority of their picks on OHL and WHL players while selecting college-bound or European players in the later rounds, allowing their play and development to dictate when they will turn pro.
Hockey’s Future Staff Mock Draft Results
2. Jack Eichel, C, Boston University (NCAA)
The 2nd overall pick is also the second easiest to make. The Oilers have all but said that they will draft McDavid, which means the consensus second-ranked player in the draft will go to Buffalo. Eichel is a franchise player in his own right, a highly productive center with excellent speed who led the Terriers with 71 points in 40 games as a freshman. He is an ideal first-line offensive center, someone who can spearhead an attack and make big plays, while Reinhart will slot in as the more complete, two-way player.
21. Joel Eriksson Ek, C, Farjestad (SHL)
Using the best player available approach, Farjestad center Joel Eriksson Ek presents the most value. The Sabres may like to take a defenseman here, but that really depends on who is available; AIK defenseman Oliver Kylington saw his draft stock fall from the beginning of the year, and the industrious Brandon Carlo of the Tri-City Americans lacks dynamism in his game.
In Eriksson Ek, the Sabres get another center who can play both ends of the ice, possesses a good shot that he is not afraid to use from in-close, and has also seen his stock rise since the beginning of the year with strong individual performances at the international level. With Grigorenko’s future with the team rather murky at the moment, and knowing that having too many centers can be a good problem to have, Eriksson Ek is a solid choice.