Sabres 2004 draft review

By Kristofer Baker





1

After failing to qualify for
the playoffs for a franchise record third straight season in 2003-2004, the
Buffalo Sabres braintrust convened at the draft table in Raleigh, North
Carolina with hopes of adding a few key pieces that would help right the ship someday
soon.

 

With adequate organizational
depth up front on both wings, the Sabres approached the selection process with
clear-cut needs at the defense and center positions. Solid depth prospects were
a necessity on the blueline, while size and gamebreaking ability were
priorities for any draftee potentially slotted to man the middle. Often
chastised by fans for their inability to identify “home run” prospects with
their early round picks, the selection of players who met these needs with a
package of size and skill would help restore the hope of the Sabres faithful in
the team’s scouting department.

 

When the dust settled, the
Sabres walked away from the RBC Center having addressed just a few of their
trouble spots. After adding a wing and two rearguards on Day 1, the Sabres
followed up with a goaltender, a defenseman, and another troika of wings on Day
2. Despite the addition of three defensive prospects, Buffalo struck out in
their quest to find a top-flight centerman. With GM Darcy Regier on record as a
proponent for selecting at least one goaltender per draft, the adding of
another prospect between the pipes was to be expected.

 

Buffalo’s
eight picks were used to select three players from the OHL, two from each the
WHL and Slovakian junior ranks, and one from the NCAA. An overview of the types
of players would reveal the Sabres picking up a safe two-way speedster, an
undersized leader from the back end, a developmental backstopper, a pair of WHL
defenseman whose stock fell (one slightly, the other precipitously), two OHL
forwards who were passed over the previous draft year, and a locally-bred
physical presence.

 

 

Drew Stafford,
Right
Wing

Team:
University of North Dakota (WCHA)

Height:
6-1

Weight:
202

Shoots:
Right

CSS
Rank: 7th overall, North American Skaters

ISS
Rank: 11th overall

Selected:
First round, 13th overall

 

As
top defensive prospects like Cam Barker, Ladislav Smid, Boris Valabik, and A.J.
Thelen fell like dominoes before them, the Sabres were delighted to have the
best player available land in their lap with their top selection. The top-rated
NCAA player eligible for the draft, the right-handed Drew Stafford is a
character player with no glaring weaknesses to his game. Because of this, he
was widely considered to be the safest pick outside of the top ten.

 

A
native of Faribault, Minnesota and son of former Milwaukee Admiral Gord
Stafford, Drew is a product of prestigious high school powerhouse, Shattuck-St.
Mary’s. In his senior year as a line mate of 2005 draft prize Sidney Crosby,
the winger scored an impressive 49 goals and 116 points. Displaying versatility
as a player who can be iced as a center or a right wing, he would earn a
scholarship to occupy the right side at the Men’s Division I level for the
University North Dakota in the highly competitive WCHA.

 

As
a freshman for the Sioux in 2003-2004, Stafford cracked the team’s second line
and gained the reputation as a relentless puckhound who competes his hardest on
every shift. Using the winning combination of size, strength, and skill, the
energetic forward would pump in 11 goals, including three game winners, along
with 21 helpers. His 32 points was good for fifth on his team, as the Sioux
were crowned WCHA champions.

 

After
scoring three goals and two assists for Team USA at the 2003 Under-18 World
Championships, Stafford would return for the Under-20 World Junior
Championships in Helsinki, Finland. Originally named as a reserve forward on
the squad, injuries would lead to his placement on the bottom lines in a
checking role. His energy in the corners and along the boards was a valuable
ingredient to the gold medallist’s success. Stafford would finish the
tournament with 2 assists and two penalty minutes in six games.

 

At
6’2”, 200 pounds, Stafford is an extremely hard worker who excels at both ends
of the ice. He is a great skater, who uses excellent speed to get to the net.
He possesses a fine set of hands, and an equally impressive ability to pass the
puck. With a knack for thriving in a physical game setting, Stafford is
expected to mold into a formidable power forward at the NHL level.

 

Stafford’s
future will be evaluated on a year-by-year basis. He will likely return to
North Dakota in the fall of 2004, ready to assume a larger workload as the
Sioux attempt to defend their regular season title. He’s also expected to
return to Team USA for the World Junior Championships, held in part on his home
ice in Grand Forks. In the quest to defend their gold medal, you can bet that
Stafford will be an integral part of the offensive makeup of the American
squad.

 

Stafford’s
selection by Buffalo came much to the chagrin of the Edmonton Oilers, who were
picking one spot behind the Sabres at 14th overall. The Oilers were
very familiar with the gritty winger who spent much of his youth around his
uncle, Barrie – the Oilers longtime equipment manager.

 

Michael Funk, Defense

Team:
Portland Winterhawks (WHL)

Height:
6-4

Weight:
199

Shoots:
Left

CSS
Rank: 39th overall, North American Skaters

ISS
Rank: 84th overall

Selected:
Second round, 43rd overall

 

Buffalo
addressed its top organizational weakness with the selection of a defenseman in
the second round. Michael Funk of the WHL’s Portland Winter Hawks is a tall,
lanky defenseman with excellent mobility who suffered a gradual drop in
pre-draft rankings throughout the 2003-2004 season. After entering the year as
the 25th ranked North American skater, his final ranking dipped to
the 39th position for the June draft. Despite his fine instincts and
long, fluid skating stride, much of his drop can be attributed to his
questionable decision-making with the puck and his failure to become a more
physically imposing player.

 

Funk
can use his accurate left-handed shot from the point and superb passing ability
to quarterback the power play, and utilize his long reach and lengthy twig to
kill penalties. He uses above average vision to be an excellent breakout passer
when he has the time to survey the ice. Classified as a finesse defender, the
smooth skater is agile enough to duck oncoming checkers, while adept at closing
off oncoming puckhandlers with his size and stick. Not known as a banger, Funk
is more apt to playing a sound positional game as opposed to an abrasive,
physical style of defense. Funk is not completely shy, though, for he did have
four scraps during 2003-2004 for the Winter Hawks.

 

Funk’s
skills have been recognized on a few occasions. He was named Portland’s Rookie
of the Year in 2002-2003 after impressively making a lineup despite a full cast
of returning defenseman. His fine play as a rookie in the WHL was parlayed into
a spot on Team Canada at the Under-18 World Championships in Belarus. His
progress hit a peak when he was named to Team Orr for the CHL Top Prospects
Game in January 2004. From that point on though, his stock seemingly started to
fall on draft boards across the league with an inconsistent second half of the
season.

 

With
Braydon Coburn signing with Atlanta, Funk will return to Portland for the
2004-2005 season as the top man on the blueline (assuming the NHL plays the
season). In an effort to become best prepared for the role, Funk is diligently
hitting the weights in hopes of adding a minimum of 20 pounds to his 199-pound
frame. The mission is to use the added mass to knock around bodies, taking
opposing forwards off the puck much akin to his NHL idol, Chris Pronger.
Ideally, the 2004-2005 season will see Funk shake the “soft” tag, taking
command as a top WHL rearguard and setting the tone for his next step towards a
career in the NHL.

 

 

Andrej Sekera,
Defense

Team:
Trencin (Slovakia Jr.)

Height:
6-0

Weight:
187

Shoots:
Left

CSS
Rank: 39th overall, European Skaters

ISS
Rank: 91st overall

Selected:
Third round, 71st overall

 

The
Sabres closed out the first day of the draft by picking up Andrej Sekera, a
smallish, two-way defender from the Slovakian junior ranks. While he’s lacking
ideal size for an NHL defenseman, Sekera makes up for it in heart, intensity,
and poise. He possesses an above-average skating stride, which he uses to
demonstrate his ability to move the puck up ice. Overall, Sekera is regarded as
a confident, hard-working battler who brings fire to the ice with natural
leadership qualities. A fast riser leading up to draft, Buffalo was extremely
pleased to bring another intriguing blueliner into the fold.

 

While
leading the Trencin Junior squad this past season, Sekera scored five goals and
12 assists while amassing an astonishing +37 rating. Previously known for being
solid on his skates but not overly physical, Sekera displayed a propensity for
delivering more body checks in 2003-2004. With his spectacular finesse game
being complemented by the added physical dimension, the six-footer earned
short-lived promotions to the Trencin “B” and “A” teams of the 1st
Division and Extraleague respectively. Sekera also participated for Team Slovakia
in the Under-18 World Championships in Belarus, where he was named captain. The
emotional team leader notched two assists and 18 penalty minutes in six games
at the tourney.

 

Shortly
after his selection by Buffalo, Sekera was chosen No. 2 overall in the CHL
Import Draft by the Owen Sound Attack. He hopes to make the jump to the OHL
sooner rather than later in an effort to learn the nuances of the North
American game, and to further develop his established skills both on the ice
and with the English language. In the meantime, the Sabres are hoping he can
grow a few more inches, and fill out his frame by adding more muscle mass in
the weight room.

 

Michal Valent,
Goal

Team:
Martin (Slovakia Jr.)

Height:
6-0

Weight:
176

Glove:
Left

CSS
Rank: 3rd overall, European Goaltenders

ISS
Rank: 103rd overall

Selected:
Fifth round, 145th overall

 

Using
their first pick of the second day, the Sabres went back to the Slovakian
juniors to select goaltender Michal Valent. With a possible decision on the
horizon to make a trade involving one or more of Martin Biron, Mika Noronen,
and Ryan Miller, it was sensible to add a quality prospect to the depth chart.
It was the third year in a row that Buffalo used a pick on a goaltender at the
draft, for it is GM Darcy Regier’s belief that there is never enough depth
between the pipes.

 

Valent
is big goalie that eats up much of the net with his larger frame. Mixing a
stand-up style with that of a butterfly, Valent’s superior quickness, reflexes,
and agility for a goaltender of his size pose an assortment of problems for
opposing shooters. He clearly demonstrates these attributes by use of his
lightning quick glove hand and solid post-to-post movement.

 

Valent
made his mark at the Under-18 World Championships, where he kept a weak, and
often overmatched Team Slovakia competitive in tournament play. He posted a
record of 1-2-3 in six starts, compiling a 2.51 goals against average, and a
save percentage of .892 while his team was grossly out-shot in every contest.
Accolades would follow, for many of the highlight reel stops in the tourney
came from his pads.

 

Valent
will leave the Martin junior program to play in Prague for Sparta’s junior club
next season, joining a well-respected European organization. While honing his
skills in a new system, Valent hopes to give Sabres fans a glimpse of his game
by challenging for a roster spot on Team Slovakia for the Under-20 World Junior
Championships that will be held on American soil. In the interim, he would like
improve on his playing of the puck, and better his mental focus to eliminate
instances when he gets rattled after surrendering a goal. Nonetheless, Buffalo
is happy to have a promising project manning the crease, even if he is years
away from arriving in North America.

 

Patrick
Kaleta,
Right
Wing

Team:
Peterborough Petes (OHL)

Height:
5-11

Weight:
195

Shoots:
Right

CSS
Rank: 161st overall, North American Skaters

ISS
Rank: 192nd overall

Selected:
Sixth round, 176th overall

 

The
Sabres returned to the Canadian juniors for their selection of hard working,
Buffalo-area native Patrick Kaleta of the OHL’s Peterborough Petes. Molding his
game after his idol, Mike Peca, the 5’11”, 195-pound winger is a punishing
hitter with leadership skills. His reputation was affirmed in the 2004 OHL’s
Coach’s Poll, where he was named second best in the hardest worker and best
body checker categories for Eastern Conference skaters.

 

“Krunch
Kaleta”, as he’s come to be known, is a gritty, rambunctious, energy player. He
thrives in his crash and bang style, but does have some puck skills to
complement his fearless mucking. In 67 games in 2003-2004, Kaleta scored 14
goals for 28 points, including a stretch in January-February that saw him score
ten goals in ten games. He excels in the corners, where he’s usually found
digging at a puck or finishing a check. Kaleta is best when he plays strictly
within himself. Early goings in the 2003-2004 season saw the physical
forechecker get away from his game by trying to do too much offensively. This
led to undue pressure, and Kaleta succeeded only when he reassumed his role as
relentless puck pursuer.

 

The
emotional leader of the Petes will return with his 60 minutes of effort in
2004-2005. Growing up a diehard fan of the team that selected him, thereby
earning a chance to someday play in front of hometown fans, Kaleta has a little
more incentive to improve his overall game than your typical NHL draftee.

 

Mark Mancari, Right Wing

Team:
Ottawa 67’s (OHL)

Height:
6-3

Weight:
225

Shoots:
Right

CSS
Rank: Not ranked

ISS
Rank: Not ranked

Selected:
Seventh round, 207th overall

 

Looking
to add more size down the right side, Buffalo went back to the OHL to choose
Mark Mancari of the Ottawa 67s. Mancari is a big, strong winger with a smooth
skating stride. After showing traits of a grinder over the course of his first
two OHL seasons, the hard working ex-defenseman blossomed into an
offensive-oriented player by more than tripling his production in 2003-2004 by
scoring 29 goals and 65 points. A great deal of the increase in offensive output
was due in part to his being paired with two-time OHL scoring champ Corey Locke
midway through the season.

 

Blessed
with NHL-ready size at 6’3”, 225 pounds, Mancari’s lack of offensive skills led
to him being passed over in the 2003 draft. However, the London, Ontario native
followed up his surprising regular season as the team’s second leading scorer
with a strong playoff series against Brampton, scoring many clutch goals en
route to finishing the seven game series loss with eight points. His newfound scoring
touch, smart defensive play, and grinding size qualities were enough for
Buffalo to realize his value as a seventh round pick.

 

Not
particularly speedy, Mancari is able to be disruptive and create space for more
talented forwards to go to work. A character player who despises losing,
Mancari takes the game very seriously. With Locke moving on to the pro ranks,
Ottawa will be counting on Mancari to use his heavy shot and decent set of
hands to pick up where he left off in 2003-2004. In addition to his offense,
Ottawa coach Brian Kilrea will certainly call on the hearty competitor for an
increased leadership role.

 

Mike Card, Defense

Team:
Kelowna Rockets (WHL)

Height:
6-0

Weight:
190

Shoots:
Right

CSS
Rank: Not ranked

ISS
Rank: 171st overall

Selected:
Eighth round, 241st overall

 

Buffalo
drew a wildcard in Round 8, taking a once can’t-miss prospect who rebounded
with an excellent playoff showing following an extremely disappointing regular
season. After a rookie WHL season which saw the fine two-way defenseman notch
29 points, the Kelowna Rockets Mike Card seemed to have himself in a position
to be a early round draft selection in 2004. A skilled puckhandler with fine
playmaking abilities, the 2002-2003 season saw Card display a fine skating
stride and great offensive instincts, regularly joining the rush without
risking too much defensively.

 

What
a difference a season of a trap-style hockey can make. Card returned to Kelowna
in 2003-2004 looking like a much different player, failing to take the expected
strides of a highly rated prospect. With the Rockets playing a tight defensive
system that was a key to their winning the 2004 Memorial Cup, the 6’0”
190-pound blueliner’s game was somewhat stifled. Card clearly suffered from a
lack of confidence and adverse reactions to pressure. Further contributing to
his falling draft stock, Card often seemed confused in his own zone leading to
numerous costly mistakes. He would finish the 72-game regular season with just
18 points.

 

Card
stepped his game up a bit during the Rockets’ playoff run when the stakes were
highest. His fine play no doubt caught the eye of Buffalo scouts who were
stationed at the Memorial Cup to track the progress of Sabres prospects Daniel
Paille and Clarke MacArthur. He clearly regained form as a dependable two-way
defender at the tournament, using excellent vision to lead his team up ice by
making better decisions with the puck. In an impressive four games in the CHL
championship series, Card registered a goal and an assist.

 

Card’s
offensive upside was too much for Buffalo to pass up in a late round. By
regaining consistency and getting his overall game back on track, there is a
chance that Card could wind up being an NHL regular one day. He will continue
to get bigger and stronger, something that can only help his development cycle.
The 2004-2005 season will be a telling year of what the future holds for the
talented, yet maligned defenseman. Sabres fans are hoping that a bounce back
year will see the Kelowna rearguard upgrade from wildcard to ace.

 

Dylan Hunter, Left Wing

Team:
London Knights (OHL)

Height:
5-11

Weight:
198

Shoots:
Left

CSS
Rank: Not ranked

ISS
Rank: Not ranked

Selected:
Ninth round, 273rd overall

 

The
Sabres closed out their draft by selecting another player passed over in 2003,
London Knights winger Dylan Hunter. The son of Knights co-owner and coach, and
former NHLer Dale Hunter, Dylan was a Third Team OHL All-Star in 2003-2004
after registering career highs of 26 goals, 53 assists, and 79 points. His
point total was good for 13th in the OHL and third on the Knights,
ahead of highly touted 2004 draftees Rob Schremp and David Bolland.

 

Rated
as a surefire prospect for the 2003 Draft, Hunter appeared lazy and overweight
during a poor performance in the 2002-2003 campaign in London. The Petrolia,
Ontario native got the wake-up call, returning the following season at a
lighter weight while posting respectable offensive numbers. While Hunter
clearly has the offensive aspects of the game down, his defensive game leaves a
lot to be desired. His inability to backcheck was a clear detriment to his
being passed over in 2003. Still, the Sabres found good late-round value in
Hunter after his display of newfound confidence as part of the high octane
London attack.

 

Despite
his complete lack of defensive responsibility, Hunter is still considered a
hard worker in the offensive corners with good game sense. He uses decent hands
and strength with good positional sense around the net to finish plays. Lacking
speed and agility, another glaring hole in Hunter’s game is the absence of the
“Hunter mean streak”. Still, Buffalo fans wonder if there’s something to those
offensive numbers.

 

Next
season, questions about whether Hunter was a late round heist or just an
above-average supporting player on a great team could be answered. Hunter’s
skeptics claim he is the beneficiary of alleged nepotism by seeing more ice
time than deserved because of his father’s role as coach. Whatever the case may
be he’ll have a chance to showcase his skills in the CHL spotlight with the
Knights gaining an automatic bid into the 2005 Memorial Cup finals as the host
team.

 

Copyright 2004 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without written permission of the editorial staff.