The Buffalo Sabres go into the 2002 Entry Draft with their highest drafting position since they chose Erik Rasmussen 7th overall in the ’96 Draft. In spite of the pre-draft hype regarding the weakness of this draft, Buffalo should be able to add at least a couple of NHL-caliber prospects to their depth chart, given the fact that they currently have 3 picks amongst the top 41 selections.
Buffalo’s strong suits, at least in terms of prospects and younger players, would appear to be in goal and along the right flank. The Sabres do have a few prospects at the center position, as well, but none of that talent is proven up to this point. The depth at left wing and on defense would appear to be the two areas that need to be addressed in this draft, although trying to fill specific needs may not always be the best way to run a draft. The strength of the talent at each position in a draft probably has more influence on the players a team chooses, rather than the specific needs of the club.
The following is a more detailed breakdown, by position, of Buffalo’s prospect depth:
Center– the Sabres would appear to be solid at this position for the near term, since they have a pretty good mix of talent in the system. Tim Connolly and Derek Roy represent the offensive future at center, although neither player has proven that they will be above average in terms of offensive output. Jiri Novotny, Artem Kriukov and Chris Thorburn would appear to be candidates for the 3rd and 4th lines. Novotny is probably the best of this trio, with Kriukov and Thorburn being unknown quantities up to this point. Paul Gaustad can also play the center position, but he seems a more likely candidate for duty at left wing.
Analysis: there is a good mixture of size, speed, toughness and ability in this group, but there may not be a true #1 center in the bunch. Connolly could still become that, of course, but he needs to show more than he has in his first 3 seasons. It is unlikely that Buffalo will be able to address the need for a top center in this draft, unless they want to take a chance with one of the midgets (Jiri Hudler or P-M Bouchard). With 11 picks in hand for this draft, however, it seems likely that at least one center will be chosen.
Right Wing– given their organizational depth at this position, Buffalo would appear to have few worries for the future. They have solid young veterans in Miro Satan and Vaclav Varada, plus developing youngsters in Maxim Afinogenov and J.P. Dumont. Dumont is also a candidate for the LW, of course, but his given position is the right side. On top of this established talent, the Sabres also have prospects like the high-scoring Jason Pominville, hard-working Norm Milley, the versatile Czech Ales Kotalik, the injury-prone, but talented, Jaroslav Kristek, and power play specialist Karel Mosovsky developing in the system. Tough guy Sean McMorrow’s destiny would appear to be as a forward, as well, since he saw most of his action this year on the right wing.
Analysis: the one element that might be lacking amongst the younger prospects at this position, except for McMorrow, is toughness. Otherwise, the Sabres would appear to be set on the right side, with perhaps one 2002 pick being used to select a RW.
Left Wing– beyond the speedy Milan Bartovic, recent signee Paul Gaustad, and perhaps college graduate Mike Pandolfo, there does not appear to be much talent in the pipeline at this position. Taylor Pyatt could be on the way to establishing himself as a solid power forward, while J.P. Dumont has at times played very well as a LW, but, in terms of younger talent, there isn’t much at this position on the current squad beyond Pyatt and Dumont. Milley will probably be given an opportunity to make the Sabres’ roster as a LW, so that could alleviate the shortage a bit, but the talent in the pipeline beyond Bartovic, Gaustad and Pandolfo is pretty thin. Michal Vondrka, Andrew Peters and Marek Dubec, three younger prospects on the left side, don’t appear to be strong candidates to wear a Buffalo uniform any time soon.
Analysis: this is certainly a position that could use some depth, at least as far as prospects are concerned. Dumont represents the only LW with a good offensive touch, with Pyatt perhaps developing into a power forward with some offensive ability. Buffalo is sure to use at least one draft pick on a LW, most probably one of their two 1st round picks.
Defense– Dimitri Kalinin and Brian Campbell are youngsters who have already seen a good bit of NHL action, with both players still in need of some improvement. Henrik Tallinder played well for the Rochester Americans, as did Doug Janik, but beyond these four, there isn’t much in the way of good, young defensive talent. Denis Denisov played well this season in the top Russian league, so he may eventually fill a need, but Denis is not a very imposing physical specimen. Calle Aslund could be a solid defensive defenseman, but he is by no means a sure thing. Buffalo’s defensive depth ends here.
Analysis: the decision not to sign Gerard Dicaire makes it a virtual certainty that the Sabres will use one of their two 1st round selections on a defenseman. In fact, it would not be surprising if Buffalo used four or five draft choices to add to their defensive depth.
Goaltender– the Sabres have no shortage of quality depth in goal, although some of that depth is unproven. After a shaky start to his first season as Buffalo’s #1 goalie, Martin Biron posted solid numbers in the season’s 2nd half. Mika Noronen also started slowly in Rochester, but he too showed his mettle later in the season in games both in Rochester and Buffalo. And in the collegiate ranks, Ryan Miller continued to shine for the Michigan State Spartans, then put in a solid performance for Team USA in the World Championships.
Analysis: along with their right wing contingent, Buffalo’s terrific trio of goaltenders would appear to be a strength of this organization. In spite of their enviable depth in goal, Buffalo’s determination not to sign Ghyslain Rousseau makes it likely that the team will use a draft pick on a goaltender.
It seems likely, then, that Buffalo could use their two 1st round choices to shore up the left wing and the defense. As luck would have it, this year’s draft has several players rated as potential 1st round material who happen to play at those two positions, so the stars may be aligning for Regier & Co. Ultimately, though, Buffalo’s hockey department usually makes their 1st round selections the way the other clubs do, by choosing the best player available.
While I’m sure the organization will be approaching Draft Day as if it were business as usual, it would be surprising to see the Sabres make any trades of note given the uncertainty of the Adelphia situation. The more likely action will be to stay the course, instead adding to Buffalo’s organizational depth. Perhaps they’ll trade down to add more draft choices, but that may be the most excitement that Sabres’ fans can hope for.
Buffalo goes into the 2002 Draft with 11 draft choices, with picks in all rounds except the 5th (traded to Atlanta in the Corkum trade). Buffalo received two compensation picks from the league for the losses of Donald Audette and Steve Heinze to free agency, and they have the extra 1st round choice from the Hasek trade. The drafting positions for each round are as follows:
1st round (11th), 1st round (30th), 2nd round (41st), 3rd round (76th), 3rd round (88th), 4th round (108th), 4th round (121st), 6th round (178th), 7th round (208th), 8th round (241st), 9th round (271st).