If there is one team in the NHL that is a testament to good drafting and player development, that team is the Buffalo Sabres. In addition to the Sabres’ appearance in this year’s Stanley Cup finals, their farm club the Rochester Americans made the 1999 Calder Cup finals in the AHL. The roster of both of these teams is dotted with Sabre draft picks, as well as young players acquired from other organizations.
The foundation for the current organizational success was built during the John Muckler era. Prior to Muckler’s stint as GM, the Sabres lacked a cohesive drafting philosophy, instead jumping from one drafting trend to another. The result of this haphazard approach to the draft was several lean years for the Sabre organization.
Once John Muckler assumed the GMs duties, however, the Sabre organization moved from chaos to cohesion, at least with respect to their drafting philosophy. The emphasis moved from the grab-bag approach of years past, to one that emphasized the drafting of bigger and feistier players (mostly Canadian) that possessed good skating ability. This approach landed current Sabres Curtis Brown, Wayne Primeau, Erik Rasmussen and Jay McKee. Darcy Regier has since taken over the duties as Sabres’ GM, and he appears to have taken the “If-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it” approach. Regier has taken only a slightly different tack in that the Sabres are drafting more Europeans than they had previously, but the emphasis on size, speed and character still remains.
With regard to the ’99 Draft, the Sabres currently hold the 20th pick in the first round, and 11 picks overall (there could be a 12th pick on the way from San Jose, but I need definite confirmation of this). Identifying a team’s needs entering the draft can be difficult, since most of the players picked will not arrive for another 2 or 3 years (if ever). Currently, the Sabres are in need of a center with size and scoring ability, as well as some help on the wings. Regardless of what the Sabres needs are, the first pick will almost surely be used on the player that the Sabres deem to be the best available. This means that, regardless of whether the best player available is a goalie, defenseman or forward, the Sabres will choose that player. While this might create an overload of prospects at a particular position, having excess prospects at a position isn’t a bad thing, since you can always trade from strength in the future to shore up a weakness.
As to whom the Sabres might draft with their first pick, the best I can do is to throw out a handful of names, and my reasoning as to why Buffalo might pick that player:
Jeff Jillson (D)- he may not be available at Buffalo’s pick, but he fits the Sabres profile of size and competitiveness. His stock has been rising as the draft approaches, so this might be wishful thinking on my part.
Branislav Mezei (D)- another big defenseman, but one that possesses more skill than grit. Opinions vary on Mezei, but he wouldn’t be a bad choice at #20.
Luke Sellars (D)- Sellars is another player that could move up as draft day approaches, as he is considered to have good potential. Not unlike Mezei, Luke has good size and skating ability, but he does not possess as much grit as a player his size is expected to have. The Sabres likely got a very good look at Sellars while scouting Luke’s teammate (and Sabre draft pick) Brian Campbell.
Alexei Semenov (D)- possibly the player whose stock has risen the most in a short amount of time. Semenov is already big, and he’ll get bigger, but there is also skill to go along with that size. Semenov is a teammate of Sabre draft pick Norm Milley, so I’m sure the Sabre scouts have a pretty good read on Semenov’s abilities.
Martin Havlat (C/W)- a player with definite offensive ability, but also possessing some definite minuses. The Sabres like players from the Czech Republic, but Havlat might be a risk at the 20th position.
Ross Lupaschuk (D)- the Sabres like players coming out of the Western League, and Lupaschuk has some attributes that would interest Buffalo. Lupaschuk is built solidly, he has a good shot, and he is not a shrinking violet. Buffalo could do a lot worse for themselves at this position.
As you can see, I’m of the opinion that the best players available at the 20th slot will be defenseman. There are some intriguing forwards (mostly European) that might interest the Sabres, but they may be risky choices in the first round. Besides, the Sabres have three 2nd round picks, so the Buffalo should have a shot at 1 or 2 of these forwards.
Enjoy the draft!