In most cases, a winning record and a championship trophy would be considered a triumphant year, but not for the Buffalo Sabres, a rebuilding team more concerned with stockpiling talent. Losing was winning for the Sabres, because each loss meant getting closer and closer to their prize: Connor McDavid. A generational talent, McDavid could single-handedly alter the course of a franchise and provide multiple winning records and trophies for years to come.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. At the NHL Draft Lottery, the Sabres watched the first overall pick slip through their fingers to the Edmonton Oilers, forcing them to settle for the second instead. In any other year, the drop from first to second would be significant, but center Jack Eichel was also considered a franchise player in his own right, and perhaps a first overall pick in any other year.
While Buffalo’s first selection at the 2015 NHL Draft hardly required any thought, the rest of the draft certainly presented some tough decisions. Under General Manager Tim Murray, the Sabres have always elected to take the best player available, but after trading defenseman Nikita Zadorov in a package to Colorado to land Ryan O’Reilly, a blue line that barely managed to stay afloat during the regular season got even thinner. The Sabres have taken a best-player-available approach under Murray, but also needed to replenish the back end, which may come at the expense of passing on a more talented player.
The Sabres managed to accomplish both, drafting defensemen Brendan Guhle and Will Borgen in the second and fourth round, respectively, and then adding another defenseman in Devante Stephens, whom the Sabres believed was the best player at their slot in the fifth round. Center Giorgio Estephan was selected in the sixth round while defenseman Ivan Chukarov was selected in the seventh.
Jack Eichel, C, Boston University (NCAA)
1st round, 2nd overall
Height: 6-2 Weight: 196 lbs
“Buffalo selects Jack Eichel.”
In his typical direct fashion, it took less than a minute for Murray to walk from the Sabres draft table and speak those words into the microphone. In a night where Murray can change the fortune of the Sabres with one name, at an event considered to be a rite of passage for young players, there was nothing grand or ceremonial when Eichel’s name was called.
“I had an idea that Tim Murray was going to say that in the exact way that he said,” said Eichel. “I was told he was going to say it like that, so it wasn’t really a surprise. I kind of like it. He’s straightforward, got to the point, didn’t have to build up any suspense.”
Even if Murray wanted to build some suspense, it was probably impossible, considering what Eichel had accomplished over the year. The Boston University product led his team in scoring with 71 points in 40 games, en route to winning the Hobey Baker Award as the NCAA’s best player, becoming only the second freshman to do so since Paul Kariya in 1993. It was a foregone conclusion that the Sabres would draft Eichel, but for the 18-year-old, it was still a thrill.
“I think just looking back on the entire year, it’s been the best year of my life. This just really caps it off. You hear a lot about the draft and everything that goes on here, but until you hear your name called and you go on stage and put a jersey on, there’s nothing like it.”
Eichel immediately becomes Buffalo’s best prospect given his explosive offensive abilities, and projects to be an elite first-line scoring center. He will be surrounded by a young core of players and the group will be expected to carry the franchise together.
“I think Buffalo as a city and the Sabres as a team is heading in a great direction. I think you look at some of the moves that they’ve made and the guys they’ve acquired, the guys they have in the system, the guys they have on their team, there’s a lot of positives, and I want to try to become a piece of the puzzle because Buffalo wants success and they want success soon.”
Eichel signed less than a week after getting drafted. Sam Reinhart, last year’s second overall pick and a very strong two-way center, is also expected to make the team. With Eichel, Reinhart, O’Reilly and the industrious Zemgus Girgensons, the Sabres have already locked up their most important position.
Murray is well aware of the pressure that is placed on Eichel and Reinhart, and knows that throwing the kids into the fire may not always produce the best result. The experience comes first hand with Zadorov and Mikhail Grigorenko, neither of whom were able to transition from major junior to the pros without hiccups, and both have since been traded for O’Reilly.
“We want to take pressure off them, certainly at home when we have the last change,” said Murray. “I like the fact that… on the road they’re still going to get good matchups. I know Girgensons can play center, O’Reilly can play center and they both have some experience and they both play hard.”
Tim Murray spoke with reporters towards the end of the first day of the NHL Draft, with his comments being included in this HF video.
Brendan Guhle, D, Prince Albert Raiders (WHL)
2nd round, 51st overall
Height: 6-2 Weight: 184 lbs
Originally ranked 76th in the midterm Central Scouting rankings, Guhle’s strong play throughout the season saw his stock rise steadily before settling at 56th at the end of the year. The third overall pick from the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft, Guhle describes himself as a “do it all” defenseman who skates well, creates offense, and plays against the opposition’s top lines. He scored five goals and 32 points in 72 games, was one of just three Raiders to dress in every game this season, and showed a significant improvement over his rookie season—when he scored just 10 assists in 51 games.
The Sabres kept tabs on Guhle all season long and were not too surprised that he blew everyone away at the combine.
“We were kind of hoping he wouldn’t test at the combine,” said Murray, who wanted to keep Guhle’s exceptional athletic ability secret. “He’s an unbelievable athlete. He tested off the charts. He can really skate.”
Guhle matched Eichel with seven finishes in the top 10, including best scores in the Wingate (explosive leg power) and the long jump, fourth place in the vertical leap, and top-seven finishes in agility tests, further evidence of a powerful stride and good skating ability.
“I was pretty quietly confident [at the combine] but I was surprised about a couple of things that went better than I thought it would,” said Guhle, who credits Josh Morrissey (WPG) for his growth this season.
Guhle was a steady presence on the Raiders blue line last season, despite being just 17 years old.
“I think that it’s important to have (poise) as a defenseman,” he said “Being able to handle the puck obviously is a big part of the game since defence usually have the puck more.”
Guhle admitted that he had “a pretty good feeling” that the Sabres were looking to draft him, though both Guhle and the Sabres know he still has to develop further before turning pro.
“He’s raw,” said Murray. “We had some concerns a little about his defensive game, but he went where he went. There are some things he has to remember but I know the one thing we can teach in this organization is how to check.”
“I definitely want to become a lot bigger and a lot stronger,” said Guhle, who intends to add more muscle to his 6’2 frame. He will need to do so in order to withstand the immense physical demands of playing in the pros, especially when it comes to hitting. “It’s part of the game,” said Guhle. “It’s not necessarily I like it, but it just happens at times. I think it’s important in a game of momentum, too, for your team.”
Guhle is expected to return to Prince Albert, where he is certainly going to play a major role. Murray described Guhle as a “long-term” player, meaning that the Sabres will be patient with Guhle as he fine tunes his game.