The 28-chapter book known as the 1999 NHL Entry Draft has been completed, with a possible title for the Buffalo Sabres’ chapter being “Good Things Come In Small Packages”. Certainly, Buffalo did not shy away from drafting players under 6′ tall, as they drafted six players (seven, if you count Mike Zigomanis, who is 6′ in his dreams only) under the six-foot benchmark. This trend toward smaller players seems to run counter to more recent Sabre drafts, and could signal a frightening return to the bad old days of the Gerry Meehan (former Sabre GM) era.
In an interview on the Empire Sports Network, current Sabre GM Darcy Regeir stated that the early part of the draft was used to acquire more skill, while the latter portion of the draft (rounds 4-9) would be used to acquire players with a little more size and toughness. Darcy was only partially correct in his assessment, however, which makes one wonder exactly whom was in charge of the Sabres’ draft table. In fairness to the Sabres, drafting 20th (or worse) in most rounds is a sure way to log a mediocre draft, so Buffalo’s recent success has its downside in lower draft picks. Still, the trend toward smaller players will likely be a little disconcerting to Sabre fans that have grown accustomed to Buffalo’s emphasis in recent drafts on choosing player’s with some size.
The Sabres did attempt to address some need for depth at the forward position, as 9 of Buffalo’s 12 picks were forwards (2 centers, 3 right wings, 4 left wings). In addition, Buffalo added a goalie and two defensemen to their depth chart. The Sabres didn’t make any trades on draft day, with their only move the entire weekend being the trade of Dean Sylvester to the Atlanta Thrashers in return for the Thrasher’s assurance that they wouldn’t take Geoff Sanderson in the expansion draft (there may also be some future considerations involved, but don’t hold your breath on that one).
As for the players chosen by the Sabres, their first pick was used to select University of Maine LW Barrett Heisten. The book on Heisten is that, while he is a physical winger with good speed and good awareness at both ends of the ice, his offensive game is not well developed (translated: he couldn’t put the puck in the Niagara River from the Peace Bridge if his life depended on it). In fairness to Heisten, his offensive game (35GP, 12G, 14A, 26Pts, 3GWG, 3PPG) picked up in the second half of the season, which was the main reason his CSB ranking improved. Barrett was named to the Hockey East All-Rookie Team for his efforts, and he was one of the better players for Team USA in their otherwise dreadful showing at the ’99 WJC. The bottom line on Heisten is that he is the kind of player that every team could use, but his chances of being an impact player are questionable. Heisten’s immediate future will be to try and help Maine win a second consecutive NCAA title, since he is at least a year away from turning pro.
Buffalo had 3 picks in the 2nd round, with the most intriguing choice being Milan Bartovic, a RW from Trencin of the Slovak Junior League. The 5′ 11″, 183 lb. winger was rated as the 20th best European prospect by CSB, so his being chosen at the 35th position by the Sabres was a bit of a surprise. Milan appears to be a pure skill player, as he possesses good speed and a deadly scoring touch. Bartovic put up impressive numbers with Trencin (44GP, 35G, 24A, 59Pts, 52PIM), but he really made a name for himself playing for the Slovakian team at the Under-18 tournament, where he was named to the tourney All-Star team. His shortcomings would appear to be his lack of good size, and his penchant for one-way hockey, but his scoring ability could trump those shortcomings. It would not be surprising to see Bartovic play in the CHL next season, not unlike other European Sabre draft picks Jaroslav Kristek and Dimitri Kalinin.
The second choice for the Sabres in the 2nd round was another player from the NCAA champ Maine Black Bears, D Doug Janik. At 6′ 1 ½” and 198lbs, Doug has the size to play defense in the NHL, while his talent level could enable him to be a top-four defenseman for the Sabres. Janik is a steady defenseman who is solid in his own end of the rink, but he is also not afraid to join the offensive rush from time-to-time. In 35 games for Maine, Janik picked up 3 goals (1GWG, 2PPG) and 12 assists, so there is some indication that his numbers could improve as he gains more experience. Like teammate and fellow Sabre draft pick Heisten, Janik will spend at least one more year in college before making a decision on whether or not to turn pro.
The Sabres final pick of the 2nd round, C Mike Zigomanis from Kingston of the OHL, is a player whose stock fell as the draft grew closer. He was rated as the 10th best North American prospect by CSB at mid-season, but he fell to 18th in the year-end rankings. The Sabres chose Zigomanis at the 64th position, so, for all intents and purposes, he ended up being a 3rd round pick. Mike has undeniable offensive skill (67GP, 29G, 56A, 85Pts, 36PIM), as he is a clever puck handler and playmaker, but his average skating ability and lack of size (he is listed at 6′, but he needs lifts to reach that height) are the main reasons for his falling rating. One other area of Mike’s game that is said to need improvement is his work on face-offs, which is bad news for a team looking for help in that area. Ultimately, Zigomanis was a good pick at this position, with his future being either a major surprise for the Buffalo Sabres, or a good minor-leaguer for the Rochester Americans.
Amongst the other Sabre picks, 3rd rounder Tim Preston (RW, 5′ 11 ½”, 193lbs.) of the Seattle Thunderbirds is a speedy defensive forward with little offensive ability (60GP, 12G, 15A, 27Pts, 98PIM) who could have a future as a penalty-killer and agitator. Karel Mosovsky, the Sabres 4th pick, is a LW from the Czech Republic playing for the WHL’s Regina Pats who possesses average offensive ability (68GP, 26G, 25A, 51Pts, 58PIM) and some grit. (Hockey’s Future exclusive interview with Mosovsky can be found at: http://www.hockeysfuture.com/mosovskyinterview.html) Ryan Miller, the Sabres first choice of the 5th round, had the 3rd-best save percentage amongst CSB’s top 30 North American goalies, but his real test will come next season when he begins playing for Michigan State. The Sabres might be guilty of trying to copy a previous success with their second 5th round pick, Matthew Kinch of the Calgary Hitmen. Kinch is a small (5′ 11″, 177lbs.), offensive defenseman (not unlike Sabre pick Brian Campbell) who put up impressive numbers in the WHL (68GP, 14G, 69A, 83Pts), but it remains to be seen whether he has what it takes to play the pro game.
The remaining Sabre picks (LW Seneque Hyacinthe of Val D’Or in the QMJHL, RW Bret Dececco of Seattle in the WHL, C Brad Self of Peterborough in the OHL and RW Craig Brunel of Prince Albert in the WHL) are forwards in the 5′ 11″ range that are long-shots to ever play for the Sabres. Dececco appears to be the most offensively talented of these players (72GP, 57G, 43A, 100Pts.), but he is 19. Brunel was drafted in ’98 by the Nashville Predators, but his re-entry into the ’99 draft did not appear to help his standing.
This draft, compared to the Buffalo’s last 4 or 5 drafts, will likely not turn up any players with star potential (Bartovic could be the exception). This does not mean it wasn’t a good draft for the Sabres, but Buffalo still has some immediate needs that must be addressed (a center with size and offensive ability who is good on face-offs, for instance). Also, the return of Buffalo’s penchant for choosing smallish players could cause problems for this team down the road, as it was a problem for them pre-Muckler era. Given the team’s recent success and bright future, however, the Sabres’ player personnel has certainly earned the benefit of the doubt with regard to their drafting ability. Here’s hoping that they lay off the Smurfs in the future, however.