Sabres Report: 2001 Draft Preview

By Ken McKenna

The 2001 NHL Entry Draft approaches amidst a swirl of trade rumors, with the potential for a change of address for many of the league’s biggest stars. Names such as Jaromir Jagr, Alexei Yashin, Doug Weight and Eric Lindros are being bandied about as trade fodder in the days leading up to this weekend’s draft, as are the names of a couple of the Buffalo Sabres’ stars, Dominik Hasek and Michael Peca.

Trades of this magnitude could have a direct effect on the draft, as there is talk of possibly one, or both, of the top 2 picks being dealt in return for immediate help. Once again, Buffalo’s name has been mentioned prominently in trades involving the top draft choices held by Atlanta (#1) and the N.Y. Islanders (#2), but so far, at least, Sabres’ GM Darcy Regier has publicly denied any pursuit of these prime draft picks.

The trade rumors have so far caused a diversion from what looks to be a very solid 2001 draft class. At the top of the draft is 4-5 highly touted forwards, led by the mercurial Russian RW Ilya Kovalchuk. There is plenty of solid, if not spectacular, talent to be found beyond the top 5, however, with talent to be had well into the second round. The depth of this draft should be good news for the Sabres, as 4 of their 6 draft choices will be made in the first 2 rounds (barring trades, of course).

Buffalo enters this draft with a diminished prospect pool, as they recently said goodbye to 8 of their 12 1999 draft choices. One of those farewells was particularly painful, as they lost promising C Mike Zigomanis due to a last-minute contract snafu. Also set free was LW Barrett Heisten, their top choice in ’99, but that was pretty much a foregone conclusion well before the signing deadline. While the Sabres will receive nothing for the loss of Zigomanis, they have received compensation- the 50th choice -from the NHL due to Heisten’s departure.

In addition to the loss of the 1999 draft choices, Buffalo also has to deal with the fact that their 2000 draft may not have been their most fruitful in recent history. Only 3 of their choices (C Artem Kriukov, D Gerard Dicaire and C/LW Paul Gaustad) appear to have NHL potential, but there are no guarantees with any of those 3 at this time.

Aside from the foibles of Buffalo’s two previous drafts, there are other questions that remain unanswered regarding the prospects currently counted as Sabres’ property. Buffalo has two European prospects, D Henrik Tallinder and RW Ales Kotalik, who had good seasons in their respective leagues- will Buffalo make an attempt to sign those players? Will D Brian Campbell live up to his billing as a top offensive defenseman, or is he overrated? Will RWs Milan Bartovic and Jaroslav Kristek develop into solid NHL forwards, or will their small stature hinder their progress? Will D Luc Theoret overcome his battle with an undisclosed form of cancer to develop into a solid defensive prospect? Many questions, indeed, which only underscores the fact that Buffalo probably has its weakest crop of prospects in recent years.

Buffalo should have a good chance to improve the quality of their prospect ranks with the four picks they have in the draft’s first 2 rounds. All told, the Sabres have just six choices over the course of the nine round draft, so Regier, Don Luce & Co. will have to be especially astute with those early picks if they want to have a successful draft.

When it comes to their 1st round choice, Buffalo inevitably goes for the best player available on their board. When a team is drafting at the 22nd position, as the Sabres will do this Saturday, the answer to the “best player available” question is not always easily determined, however. 30 different NHL GMs would probably give you 30 different answers when asked who the best player is at the 22nd spot, so Buffalo will have to have a clear vision of their future to help make their decision a little easier. The one certainty is that the player Buffalo finally decides on will probably not help them next year.

The Sabres enter the 2001 draft needing to bolster their size and skill at the forward position. With the loss of Zigomanis, Buffalo’s depth at center is greatly weakened, while their prospects on the wings lack either good size and/or talent. Buffalo’s depth at defense is potentially good, but there are enough question marks with the current crop that the selection of at least one defenseman is a certainty. Where the Sabres are most obviously blessed is in goal, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that Buffalo will avoid choosing a goaltender, as they can always use one as trade bait in the future.

Given the many factors that go into making a draft pick, and the many players of seemingly equal ability that will be available at the 22nd spot, it would seem to be a fool’s errand to try and pinpoint the exact player Buffalo will take with their top choice. As usual, I will chicken out, and instead offer up a few names that could potentially be called when Buffalo’s turn comes up. At the 22nd position, the defensive prospects tend to be better bets than the available forwards, so this list will be heavily weighted towards defensemen.

Ales Hemsky (RW) – At 6’, 170 lbs., Ales does not cut an imposing figure, but the Hull forward definitely has a nose for the net. Hemsky scored 36 goals and 100 points in his first season of Canadian junior hockey, so he clearly had no trouble adjusting to his new surroundings (Ales is from the Czech Republic). Ales is a skilled winger with good speed and “soft” hands, and would certainly be a worthy choice at the 22nd position. Hemsky could be gone by the time Buffalo selects, however.

Lukas Krajicek (D) – The Peterborough defenseman, another Czech import, is a skilled offensive defenseman. Lukas has above-average speed and good hands, and is not afraid to jump into the play. As skilled as Krajicek is offensively, he is just the opposite when it comes to the physical part of the game. Lukas’ lack of toughness may scare away a team that is looking for this trait on the blueline. If Buffalo feels unsure about the development of prospects Campbell and Dicaire, then choosing Krajicek might be a good move at the 22nd slot.

Igor Knyazev (D) – This Russian defenseman is a solid, dependable player with leadership qualities. While Igor doesn’t generate much offense, he plays rock-solid in his own end, and is rarely caught out of position. There is nothing flashy about Knyazev’s game, but he would be a very safe pick late in the 1st round.

Doug Lynch (D/W) – Doug is a member of the Memorial Cup-winning Red Deer Rebels, so he has already learned something about winning championships. Lynch might be a bit of a reach at the 22nd position, but there is certainly a lot to like about this rugged defenseman/winger. Lynch had been a forward exclusively until he was asked to play some defense with Red Deer, and he had little trouble adapting to the change in positions. Doug is 6’ 3″, 205 lbs., and is not afraid to throw his weight around. While he is primarily a physical player, he can also contribute on offense from either his defensive or forward position. The Hockey News compares him to Mark Tinordi, which is not bad company if you’re a team looking for some toughness.

Fedor Tyutin (D) – Fedor is another big, physical defenseman (6’3″, 203 lbs.) who is solid both offensively and defensively. The main knock on Tyutin is that he does not play to his ability every game, which is not unusual for a teenager. If the Sabres think Fedor can improve his game over the next couple years, they might take Tyutin a little higher than his current rating.

The NHL Draft will take place in Sunrise, FL at the National Car Rental Center, with the Florida Panthers being the host team. The draft will be nine rounds in length, and will be held over the course of two days, with rounds 1-3 taking place on Saturday, and rounds 4-9 being completed on Sunday. Buffalo currently has 6 choices in this draft- 22nd, 32nd, 50th, 55th, 140th and 247th.

Enjoy the draft!