Sabres 2006 draft preview

By Kristofer Baker

Sabres Top 10 Prospects

1.Marek Zagrapan, C
2.Drew Stafford, RW
3.Jason Pominville, RW
4.Daniel Paille, LW/C
5.Andrej Sekera, D
6.Clarke MacArthur, LW
7.Michael Funk, D
8.Marc-Andre Gragnani, D
9.Mark Mancari, RW
10.Jiri Novotny, C

The inaugural campaign of the new and improved NHL produced an exciting, offensive-based game that has left some organizations heading back to the drawing boards to sculpt a new blueprint. One team that could offer a solid template is the Buffalo Sabres, who achieved success in 2005-06 with a balanced attack blending speed, scoring, and checking accompanied by a one-two punch of 20-game winners between the pipes.

The storyline of the Sabres season, and single most contributing factor to their franchise-record 52 wins and run to the Eastern Conference Finals, was the presence of quality depth, especially among the forwards. Most of this depth was acquired the old-fashioned way – via the NHL draft. Of the 31 players who suited up for Buffalo in 2005-06, 19 of them were selected and developed by the Sabres organization.

The Sabres will arrive at the 2006 Entry Draft in Vancouver with pick No. 24 of the first round. Their pipeline is rife with rising talent at the skating positions, making them a natural for applying the “best player available” philosophy to their selection strategy. A few needs do exist, but overall the team has done a rather efficient job at addressing depth issues over the last two drafts.

Team Needs

One of the youngest teams in the NHL, the Sabres constructed a core that looks to be together for quite some time. They boast a strong set of forwards that easily fill four lines and a mobility-laced top-four on the back end that combine as healthy ingredients for an attacking brand of hockey.

If Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier is able to come to terms with all of his restricted free agents, the team will convene for training camp in the fall with 14 returning “regulars” that are 27 years old or younger. This group includes key players such as leading scorer Maxim Afinogenov, sharp shooter Ales Kotalik, breakthrough playmaker Tim Connolly, steady defender Henrik Tallinder, and prized backstop Ryan Miller. Add in the presence of traded-for veteran leaders Chris Drury, Daniel Briere, Jochen Hecht, J.P. Dumont, and Toni Lydman and there simply won’t be many, if any, jobs available next season for the top prospects waiting in Rochester of the AHL.

With a surplus of forwards on hand, Regier could certainly ease the jam by looking for deals that bolster another position. He has openly stated that there is a drop-off in talent after the top 12 players on their list, so a trade to improve their first-round draft position is also within the realm of possibility.

The Sabres blue line corps presents a different situation in terms of depth. The club entered 2005-06 with lots of questions on defense, but the group emerged to be one of the team’s greatest assets. Tallinder, Lydman, Brian Campbell, and Dmitri Kalinin provide a skilled, puck-moving foundation moving forward. Rochester Americans MVP Nathan Paetsch (2003, 7th Round) had a nice spike in his learning curve, and looks set to press for a spot on the big club. The possibility also exists that Doug Janik could re-sign and challenge for a spot in Buffalo after a steady showing in emergency playoff duty.

After the top four or five though, the Sabres find themselves with a significant developmental gap with the remaining rearguards in the system. Heading into the offseason with three NHL roster defensemen entering free agency, all defensive slots for their shared AHL affiliate (with Florida) in Rochester were empty until a pair of 2004 draftees agreed to entry-level deals earlier this spring.

The key to Buffalo’s offseason will be re-signing longtime Sabre and current unrestricted free agent, Jay McKee. While not as gifted a skater as his aforementioned counterparts, he offers a physical and purely defensive dimension that will always have its place in the game. Regier was a “defensive” defenseman during his playing days, so he knows all about the value these types bring to a team.

The numbers game suggests that the Sabres greatest area of need falls squarely between the pipes. With the 2006 deadline deal that sent former first-rounder Mika Noronen to Vancouver, the Sabres cupboard is left pretty bare in net. Now with the pending departure of restricted free agent and 2005-06 backup Martin Biron due to salary constraints, the Sabres will be forced to shop free agency for a more cost-effective replacement. After all, they will be left with very little beneath franchise cornerstone Miller on the organizational depth chart, with no one ready to assume a backup role at the NHL level.

Organizational Strengths

From current farm hands down to players still honing their chops in junior action, the Sabres have a nice mix of scrappy yet productive forwards who don’t mind doing dirty work. Perhaps the greatest asset of the young bunch is the ability to “plug and play” many of them at the wing and center slots, a luxury that creates an even stronger feeder system for the club. This is a direct extension of Lindy Ruff’s coaching mentality, as he is known to freely juggle the lines if it makes the attack and match-ups stronger.

The Sabres are pretty comfortable up front with the leadership, work ethic, and offensive production put forth from former first-rounders Drew Stafford (2004, RW), Daniel Paille (2002, LW) and Jiri Novotny (2001, C), as well as WHL product Clarke MacArthur (2003, 3rd Round, LW). Chris Thorburn (2001, 2nd Round), Mark Mancari (2004, 7th Round), and recently inked Patrick Kaleta (2004, 6th Round) offer a complementary physical element down the wings that puts them in line as call-ups and potential heirs to traditional fourth-line spots currently occupied by bangers Paul Gaustad, Adam Mair, and Andrew Peters.

The Sabres top pick in 2000, center Artem Kriukov, looks poised to finally throw his helmet into the North American mix now that his Russian Super League contract has expired, while German left winger Philippe Gogulla (2005, 2nd Round) will continue to build his two-way power game in the DEL for another season. Both represent intriguing imports that add even more depth to the middle tier of Sabres forward prospects.

A pair of sub-six foot collegians drafted in 2005, right wing Nathan Gerbe (5th Round) and left wing Tim Kennedy (6th Round, originally chosen by Washington), mix third-line skill potential with a tinge of peskiness to their games. Rounding out the forward crop is Andrew Orpik (2005, 7th Round), a defenseman turned wing and teammate of Gerbe’s at Boston College who likes to throw his weight around playing an effective checking game, and 21-year old right wing Branislav Fabry (2003, 2nd Round) whose development has hit a plateau while playing in a second tier Slovakian league.

On defense, the Sabres have addressed their pervious dearth by stockpiling a group of highly mobile, offensively talented players in the past two drafts. The team’s third round pick in 2004, Andrej Sekera, looks ready to break into the professional ranks after being named the OHL’s top defenseman in 2005-06. As referenced earlier, fellow 2004 draftees Michael Funk (2nd Round) and Mike Card (8th Round) are already in the fold after signing deals at the end of their WHL careers. Funk is the smoother of the two, but both are capable of starting a rush and making a good first pass.

Playing a similar style to their 2004 brethren, a talented trio of 2005-drafted defensemen is slated to return to their 2005-06 clubs for one more season. Marc-Andre Gragnani (3rd Round) put up career numbers in the QMJHL this past season, and should be among the league’s top defensemen in 2006-07. The sleek skating Slava Buravchikov (6th Round) recently completed his first professional season in the RSL as an 18-year old. Both Gragnani and Buravchikov are good bets to represent their countries at the 2007 World Junior Championships this winter in Sweden. Meanwhile, Chris Butler (4th Round) will enter his sophomore year at the University of Denver, coming off an impressive freshman season that earned him a spot on the All-WCHA Rookie team.

Organizational Weaknesses

It should be considered a slam dunk that the Sabres use at least one pick in this draft to address their goaltending stable. Twenty-five-year-old AHL veteran Michael Leighton and recently tendered Adam Dennis (2005, 6th Round) are expected to jockey for position this fall, while the Sabres have opted not to tender an offer to the remaining goaltender in the pipeline, Michal Valent (2004, 5th Round), rendering him a free agent. Although Dennis shined this season as the top goalie in the OHL’s virtual shooting gallery, he doesn’t project to be a top caliber NHL goalie. With a restocking necessary to build quality futures, the Sabres could potentially select two goaltenders in a draft for the first time since 1989.

While having an abundance of two-way, middle-line players, the Sabres could always use more natural scoring and playmaking ability in the system. Young guns Derek Roy, Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek, and 2005 first-round pick Marek Zagrapan currently represent the tops in offensive weaponry for the Sabres future. The London Knights all-time assists leader Dylan Hunter (2004, 9th Round) piled up robust offensive numbers in his OHL career, and is viewed as a wildcard as he joins the professional ranks.

The Sabres aren’t short on leadership and grit, so this draft could find them looking for more creative, perhaps even riskier, forwards who can score in bundles. With a new IIHF transfer agreement in place and the Sabres need for slick scorers, it’s possible that the Sabres look to pluck one of the nifty Russian prospects with one of their earlier picks. They’d also fulfill a need by landing any natural left wings and centers, as this would balance the prospect charts from a positional standpoint.

While the top Sabres defensive prospects are all fleet of foot with good offensive instincts and vision, they lack a true aggressive, stay-at-home presence in the pipeline. This could be by design, but one would think the Sabres learned the importance of these role players in the new game built on speed with an average-skating McKee topping the league in blocked shots and being a dominating physical presence inside the circles in his own zone. The Sabres organization has always had a physical stalwart that the blue-collar fan base has embraced. Perhaps, the 2006 draft could see Regier fishing for the next in line during the late rounds.

It’s also worth noting that Card and St. Lawrence sophomore Matt Generous (2005, 7th Round) are the only right-hand shooting defensemen in Buffalo’s developmental makeup. Perhaps Rochester coaches Randy Cunneyworth and Doug Houda were on to something when they used Mancari, a right-hander who once skated as a defenseman in the OHL, on the back end late in the season.

Unrestricted free agents Teppo Numminen (75 games) and Rory Fitzpatrick (56), and restricted free agent Jeff Jillson (2) were the only right-handed point shots to play in Buffalo this past season. Obviously, failing to re-sign any of the three certainly leaves the entire organization in a bit of a pickle. Overall, the Sabres would do well to draft a bruising rock who can skate well. His possessing a right-hand howitzer would be a positional bonus to the overall balance of the system.

Draft Tendencies

Since taking over as General Manager of the Buffalo Sabres on June 11, 1997, Regier has made a total of 85 selections over the course of nine visits to the draft table. By position, Regier’s Sabres have chosen 52 forwards, 26 defensemen, and seven goalies. Their staff of six amateur scouts have picked a high percentage of North American based players, especially those from the OHL and WHL, but also keep a watchful eye on the Czech, Russian, and Slovakian hopefuls.

With a clear-cut need in net and a couple of excellent Finns that fit the bill, perhaps Regier walks away with one after the draft. Only once has Regier chosen a stopper with his first pick, and only once has he selected a player from Finland. These instances happened concurrently as Regier made his first-ever selection as GM of the Sabres by taking Mika Noronen with the 21st pick of the 1997 Entry Draft just ten days after being hired.

The following is a breakdown of Regier Era selections by country:

Canada – 37
U.S.A. – 16
Czech Republic – 11
Russia – 9
Slovakia – 6
Sweden – 2
Austria – 1
Finland – 1
Germany – 1
Slovenia – 1

By North American League:

OHL – 19
WHL – 17
QMJHL – 7
Hockey East – 3
WCHA – 3
USHL – 3
U.S. High School – 2
EJHL – 1
NAJHL – 1
USNTDP – 1

Hockey’s Future staff mock draft result: Riku Helenius, G, Finland, Ilves Tampere

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.