The Buffalo Sabres entered the 2012 NHL Draft with four of the top 50 picks for the first time since 1998. Sabres brass knew they needed to get bigger and add more depth up the middle and addressed that by selecting five centers, including two in the first round. General Manager Darcy Regier had a clear plan in this draft, which was executed to near perfection.
Flying in the face of the recent practice of staying away from Russian players, Darcy Regier and company opted to make the high risk/reward selection of Mikhail Grigorenko at 12th overall. The Sabres had not picked a Russian in the first round since the forgettable selection of Artem Kryukov in the 2000 draft.
According to Sabres director of pro scouting, Kevin Devine, "He was the number one guy that we wanted. We thought he was the closest one to possibly a number one center so he was a guy that was right at the top of our list."
Grigorenko brings a lot to the table for a Sabres franchise that hasn't had a legitimate number one center prospect since they selected Pierre Turgeon first overall 25 years ago. He has tremendous size at 6'3 and he uses his body well to control the puck when entering the offensive zone. He put up outstanding numbers in Quebec last season, with 40 goals and 85 points in 59 games. His skill level is as good as anyone in this draft and if it weren't for his poor play during the QMJHL playoffs (which later was revealed to be due to Mononucleosis), he likely would have gone in the top five picks of the draft.
Though he has great size already, Grigorenko will need to add some weight to his lanky frame. This could be a major factor in determining whether he makes the team as an 18-year-old, which is another feat last accomplished by Turgeon. Grigorenko will get every opportunity to secure a roster spot in Buffalo but one more year in Quebec wouldn't hurt his development either.
The Sabres didn't take long to make another splash in the first round by moving up seven spots in a deal with Calgary and taking USHL star, Zemgus Girgensons. Besides being a shrewd move by Regier to land another top center, Girgensons provides a failsafe in case the Grigorenko pick flames out. He plays more of a North-South game in contrast to Grigorenko who is a finesse player. Girgensons is also arguably a safer pick as many facets of his game are almost NHL ready.
Girgensons is the type of player that coaches drool over. He has all of the intangible assets that you can't coach, like leadership and desire, while possessing a solid offensive skill set to go with it. In two seasons with Dubuque of the USHL, he averaged about a point-per-game while amassing 115 penalty minutes in a 100 games. He is willing to fight, loves to hit, and has one of the more underrated shots of any forward in the draft.
The Latvian forward was set to go to the University of Vermont next year but chose instead to sign a three-year entry-level deal with the Sabres on July 13th. This likely means he will spend the 2012-13 season in Rochester or the CHL if he doesn't crack the Sabres lineup out of training camp. Girgensons already has a pro frame at 6'2 and 198lbs and he can play both center and wing, so it wouldn't surprise anyone if he is on the Sabres opening day roster.
Jake McCabe, D – University of Wisconsin Badgers (WCHA)
2nd round, 44th overall
Height: 6'0 Weight: 203 lbs
In the second round, Sabres added to their already stocked stable of quality young blueliners by selecting NCAA defenseman, Jake McCabe. While playing on the top pair for the Wisconsin Badgers in 2011-12, the freshman amassed three goals and 12 points in 26 games.
McCabe was fortunate to be paired with highly touted prospect Justin Schultz (EDM) last season and when asked about how that impacted his game McCabe said "He's such a competitor, I mean every practice he's the hardest worker out there, He's always pushing to be better".
With Shultz leaving Wisconsin to play with Edmonton next season, a huge opportunity has opened up for McCabe to play a lot more minutes as a sophomore. The Sabres would love to see him rise to the occasion and add more of an offensive element to his already blossoming two-way game. The depth in the Sabres organization at defense relieves much of the pressure for McCabe to make the jump any time soon and should allow him to play out his time with Wisconsin before coming to Buffalo.
In keeping with their 2012 draft theme, the Sabres selected a third center in their first four picks by taking Justin Kea of the Saginaw Spirit. In Kea, the Sabres are getting a much different player than Grigorenko or Girgensons in that his biggest strength is in his defensive game. Kevin Devine, the Sabres chief scout, called Kea a "better skating Paul Gaustad" when he was asked about Kea's skills at the draft.
At 6'4 and already 212 lbs, Kea is an imposing player who isn't afraid to throw his body around and he willingly drops the gloves on a regular basis. While he only scored three goals and 11 points in 65 games, Kea brings other intangibles to the table besides scoring, most notably solid skating and is his ability to match-up against opponents top lines.
Kea will need to bulk up and improve his faceoffs before he can make the jump to the pro game but the Sabres brass will be patient with him. They expect him to be a shutdown player in the future and with his size and intelligence he could grow into a bottom six specialist type of role in Buffalo.
In the fifth round the Sabres added another young player to their now ample center depth chart in Logan Nelson. The Victoria pivot put together a very good rookie season in the WHL with 23 goals and 62 points in 71 games, good for fifth in rookie scoring. His 70 penalty minutes show a willingness to play with an edge and his elevated play after fellow Sabres prospect, Kevin Sundher was traded is a good indication of his underrated offensive skills.
Nelson doesn't wow you in any particular area but he plays a very sound all-around game. He has good size and is in a great situation with Victoria where he will get top line center minutes and likely play in all situations. With Daniel Catenacci and the aforementioned Sundher making the jump to the AHL next year, Nelson will join Colin Jacobs and Justin Kea as part of the next wave of young centers in the organization.
Nelson is likely to play at least two more seasons in the WHL before getting serious contract consideration from the Sabres but he will be an intriguing prospect moving forward considering the opportunity he has to center the top line in Victoria.
Linus Ullmark, G – MODO J20 (SuperElit)
6th round, 163rd overall
Height: 6'3 Weight: 198 lbs
In the sixth round the Sabres addressed their second most glaring organizational weakness by adding highly touted Swedish goaltender, Linus Ullmark. Though Ullmark was only rated seventh in Central Scouting's final list of European goaltenders, it was widely believed that his potential outweighed any perceived flaws in his game.
In 25 games with Modo's junior squad, Ullmark posted a 2.76 goals against average and a .918 save percentage, both of which ranked in the top 10 among goalies with 25 or more starts. He picked up his game in the playoffs with a 2.24 goals against average and a .927 save percentage to go along with one shutout in five games as well.
Standing 6'3 and 198 lbs, Ullmark possess good lateral quickness for his size but is very raw in his positioning and will need several more years of seasoning with the pro club in the SEL before he is ready to come over to North America. He will be a long term project for the Sabres but as the only goaltender in the system right now that isn't a pro already, he will get ample attention as the possible starter of the future for Buffalo.
Brady Austin, D – Belleville Bulls (OHL)
7th round, 193rd overall
Height: 6'4 Weight: 234lbs
The Sabres went big for their first of two seventh round selections by taking hulking defenseman Brady Austin of the OHL's Belleville Bulls. At 6'4 and 234 lbs, Austin brings an aggressive defensive game to complement his surprisingly good skating ability. It seemed as though Austin really found his game once he was dealt to Belleville from Erie during the offseason last year and his physical attributes and work ethic were too much to pass up in his second season of draft eligibility.
The Sabres will likely monitor Austin this season in Belleville and determine if in 2013 he is ready to make the jump to Rochester as a 20-year-old. Austin will need to improve his foot speed and continue to show his willingness to play nasty if he wants a shot in Buffalo in the future but he could ultimately be a steal if he continues to improve.
Judd Peterson, C/RW – Duluth Marshall (Minn HS)
7th round, 204th overall
Height: 5'11 Weight: 194lbs
For the third year in a row, the Sabres have tapped into the mid-west high schools for a potential late-round steal by selecting Judd Peterson of Duluth Marshall in Minnesota. Peterson posted eye-popping numbers last season with 47 goals and 83 points in just 30 games. He has a quick release and good burst on the puck but is still raw defensively and his play away from the puck needs work.
Peterson will play for Cedar Rapids of the USHL next season before moving on to St. Cloud State in 2013. He is likely at least three or four years away from really competing for a contract or a roster spot in Buffalo but his offensive skills make him a player to watch for the future.