Picking 24th overall, the Buffalo Sabres entered the 2006 draft with their lowest first-round pick in team history. The Sabres had a total of six picks at their disposal, and looked to address needs both in net and on the blue line. At the end of the day, they met their goal by coming away with three rearguards, two centers, and a goaltender who will be vying for the chance to wear the blue and gold sweater in a few years’ time.
The past couple of drafts have seen the Sabres look for a mix of speedy, gritty forwards and mobile, offensive-minded defensemen, and this year’s process didn’t stray too far from that plan. One difference in this year’s strategy was that size didn’t appear to factor into Sabres GM Darcy Regier’s draft logic as four of the six picks stand less than 6’0 tall.
The Buffalo brass used their first two picks on players from the Swedish junior ranks, a first for the Sabres organization and the first time they chose two players from Sweden since 1984. They looked to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for the pair of pivots, while tabbing the Ontario Hockey League and the United States High School system for a player each.
Dennis Persson, D
1st Round, 24th Overall
6’1 180 lbs., Vasteras Jr. (Swedish Jr.)
At their first trip to the podium, the Sabres nabbed themselves the top-ranked Swedish defender in Persson. Smooth and calm, the left-shooting defenseman fortifies an already rising crop of mobile backline prospects in the Sabres system, and adds another Scandinavian to the mix after the successes of fellow countryman Henrik Tallinder and Finland’s Toni Lydman.
“The game is moving to that (European) style of game,” Regier told Hockey’s Future. “European players, the Swedes, the Finns and players like that who have good puck skills are in higher demand because of the way we play the game.”
Projected as a top-four defenseman, Persson is a mature player who sees action in all key situations. He’s a fluid skater who likes to join the rush with his strong puckhandling ability. While not the fastest skater in his class, he does have an extra gear when he needs it. The gifted Swede is an excellent passer, often displaying his keen sense of the game by spotting teammates long up ice with crisp, tape-to-tape feeds. Still, his greatest attribute is his overall steadiness. He’s very effective by keeping the game simple. He knows when to pinch, and when to avoid getting beaten by the opposing rush.
“What we’re looking for from him, and the reason we drafted him where we did was because of his skill level, puckmoving ability, and mobility,” said Regier about his first-round selection. “For us, he’s a very good fit in the new game.”
It is thought that Persson will be a presence on the Sabres power play down the road. He maintains control at all times, and uses a quick release to fire off low, accurate shots from the point. This past season for Vasteras in the Swedish junior league, Persson scored 11 goals and 26 total points in 28 games.
Scouts really like Persson’s attitude. He is seen as a smart, team-first player who puts forth a solid effort nightly. While being known as an offensive defenseman, he is sound in his own end. He’s not physically overpowering by any means, but his acumen in his zone wins him plenty of battles. Being smart is a great start, but now he must develop more upper body strength for his thin frame to give him an edge along the walls and in front of his own net. This shouldn’t be an issue since it’s clear that he wants to be coached, and has the desire to get better.
All signs point to Persson remaining in Sweden for the next two seasons to better his consistency and challenge for a spot on Djurgarden’s top-level club in the Swedish Elite League. The Sabres aren’t lacking in defensive prospects currently toiling in North America with the able-bodied Andrej Sekera, Michael Funk, and Marc-Andre Gragnani forming a line behind Nathan Paetsch as Buffalo’s next wave of defensemen.
“We prefer not to rush anybody because, especially at defense, it takes time,” stated Regier when asked if there was a rush to bring Persson into the fold. “It’s not something we like doing. The reality of most young players is that they have to get stronger and I don’t think it’s any different with him. He’s got all the components and pieces, and we just expect that he’ll get better as time goes.”
Jhonas Enroth, G
2nd Round, 46th Overall
5’10 174 lbs., Sodertalje Jr. (Swedish Jr.)
Enroth, who entered the draft as Central Scouting’s top-ranked European goaltending prospect, was given an early 18th birthday present as he was the sixth goalie claimed in the top 50. The quick and agile netminder is somewhat undersized compared to the recent trend of bigger stoppers, but his balanced set of skills and game-breaking ability show excellent value for the pick, and immediately make him the top goaltending prospect in the Sabres system.
Enroth performed well in regular season play with a 2.33 GAA and .924 save percentage for Sodertalje, but really stepped up and brought his “A” game to the Under-18 World Junior Championships this past April. With a flashy left-glove and the flexibility of an acrobat, he allowed nine goals in five appearances for a 1.81 GAA and a stellar .943 save percentage. His personal tournament highlight was when he was named his team’s best player in a 2-0 shutout win over Canada. It should be no surprise that he’s already penciled in as one of Sweden’s netminders for the U-20 World Juniors held on home soil next winter, giving him another chance to show his wares on the international stage.
Widely regarded as Sweden’s best goaltending prospect since Henrik Lundqvist, Enroth recently signed a deal with Sodertalje that will keep him overseas for the next two seasons. Acquired with the pick that Buffalo received for trading Mika Noronen to Vancouver at the 2006 deadline, the Sabres in essence completed an ironic goalie-for-goalie deal with their first of two second round selections.
Mike Weber, D
2nd Round, 57th Overall
6’2 199 lbs., Windsor (OHL)
Looking to fill a need for a physical, stay-at-home defenseman, the Sabres hit their target with the selection of Weber near the end of the second round. The Pittsburgh native won’t put up sparkling stats, but he’ll try his hardest to do everything else that it takes to win. His style, similar to longtime Sabre Jay McKee, is a welcome component to the Buffalo prospect ranks.
Standing at 6’2, Weber gives the Sabres a tough competitor who skates well and is very strong in his own end. His long-reaching pokecheck makes him difficult to beat one-on-one, and he’s willing to block shots. A tireless worker who posted a +17 this past season, he goes hard every shift, seemingly always against the opponents’ top lines. He isn’t afraid to lay the big hit, and can be nasty when directing traffic away from his net. His 181 PIMs in 2005-06 are indicative of his rugged nature.
A product of the Pittsburgh (Jr. B) Penguins organization, Weber has the ability to move with the offensive flow, and has progressively become more involved with Windsor’s up-ice attack. Climbing through the junior ranks, he’s always been focused primarily with working his own end but he emerged this season with a five-goal, 26-point campaign. He can make a good first pass and skates well enough with the puck through the zone, but you won’t see anything flashy unless it’s one of his blistering left-handed point shots. A participant in the CHL Top Prospects game, he posted the hardest slap shot in the skills competition
As Weber returns to juniors to refine his overall game, he’ll be looked to for leadership on a relatively inexperienced Spitfires club. It remains to be seen whether it will be a one or two-year term in the OHL before he turns pro.
“Well I hope I’m in Buffalo soon, but I don’t really know. I’ll probably be back in juniors next year,” Weber explained to Hockey’s Future. “I’ll just have to step up my game and have another great season in Windsor. I’m just looking forward to getting back to camp now.”
With the new NHL built on speed and mobility, it is imperative that defensemen can handle the pace of the game going both ways. Weber agrees with this assessment.
“Probably my stickhandling and moving the puck,” opined Weber when asked what he could improve on. “You can always improve on skating. It’s a fast game now, and you just got to be able to move and stuff. So work on my transition game, pivoting, stuff like that.”
Felix Schutz, C
4th Round, 117th Overall
5’9 181 lbs., Saint John (QMJHL)
For the second straight year, the Sabres looked to Germany for a gritty, two-way forward to add to the prospect ranks. While employing an agitating style of play, Schutz also brings an underrated set of playmaking skills to the table that has many calling him one of the “sleepers” of his draft class.
Schutz carried the expansion Saint John Sea Dogs this past season with a no-quit attitude and creative offense to earn a spot on the QMJHL’s All-Rookie team. Top-notch offensive potential is evident by his 21 goals and 52 points with little help in his first North American season. His skating and speed are well above average, and as is typical for quick yet small forwards, he’s very elusive with the puck. The left-hander keeps his head up and can see plays develop before they happen, and banks on a low center of gravity to confidently join traffic around the net.
The skilled pivot had a nice showing at the Under-20 Group A World Junior Championships last December in Slovenia. Skating on a line with Sabres prospect Philippe Gogulla, he notched a goal and three assists while displaying one of the best overall sets of skills in the tournament. In May, he put himself on the map as an offensive leader for Germany at the Group A World Championships by tying Marco Sturm as the team’s second leading scorer with seven points.
Schutz possesses soft hands and an accurate shot, and working to get stronger will only generate the much-needed velocity necessary to become a deadly shooter. There’s no question the Sabres would love to see more talented linemates join the undermanned Sea Dogs, as he likely will remain in the QMJHL for another two seasons. Regardless, Schutz will continue to lead by example with timely scoring and relentless backchecking.
Pesky. Nifty. Feisty. These are just a few words that describe the game of the Sabres fourth-round pick. One more word to describe Schutz: under-scouted. Despite being lauded as a middle-line character player with a great mind for the game, the diminutive German was left off of Central Scouting’s list of ranked skaters leading up to the draft.
Alex Biega, D
5th Round, 147th Overall
5’10 191 lbs., Salisbury (United States High School)
The Sabres found themselves a tough, offensive-minded defenseman who can fly with their fifth-round selection. A Montreal native attending Salisbury Prep, Biega has some of the best wheels in his draft class. He loves to dangle from end-to-end, leading the offensive attack with good vision, passing skills, and smarts. His top-notch foot speed also allows for a quick and easy recovery. Completing his arsenal is a heavy, right-handed cannon from the point.
As his vitals suggest, Biega has a very stocky frame. The RSL Lions (Midget AAA) product has an aggressive, competitive spirit about him, and doesn’t shy away from taking physical risks in his own end. His qualities make him very difficult to go around one-on-one. In fact, Salisbury coach Dan Donato claims that Biega hasn’t been beaten in two years worth of games and practices.
His senior season at Salisbury saw him net 27 points on 10 goals, and an astonishing +45 rating. He was the team captain and earned MVP honors by leading the Crimson Knights to the New England Prep Championship. A vocal leader on the ice, Biega spread that asset across campus as he was also the Vice President of his class.
Biega had an opportunity to play in Saint John of the QMJHL with fellow Sabres draftee Schutz, but felt that the NCAA was better for him in terms of developmental time. Being a talented student as well, the blazing rearguard will enroll in Harvard this fall to play under Head Coach Ted Donato.
Benjamin Breault, C
7th Round, 207th Overall
5’11 195 lbs., Baie-Comeau (QMJHL)
Much like 2004 eighth-round pick Mike Card, the Sabres used a late-round selection to net themselves a once highly-regarded prospect whose stock plummeted throughout his draft year. Early prognostications suggested that Breault was a can’t-miss, top-50 talent. He was awarded an appearance in the 2006 CHL Top Prospects Game, but drifted in the eyes of scouts after he didn’t show the top end skills that more naturally gifted centers put on display.
Drafted fourth overall by the Drakkar in the 2004 QMJHL Priority Draft, the Pembroke, Ontario native developed into a point per game player with 30 goals and 68 points in his second season in the league. He is regarded as more of a set-up guy with adequate hands around the net. He’s not a natural goal getter and doesn’t make dazzling moves with the puck, but he’s willing to work his thick frame into scoring position to use his quick wrist shot.
Unlike many whose stock falls leading up to the draft, Breault’s work ethic is intact. Not overly physical by any stretch, he’s willing to pay the price along the boards and in front of the net to free up space for his linemates. The fine skating forward consistently uses his quick burst to get up ice and make plays, and comes back equally as aggressive on the backcheck. With a fair deal of offensive potential, the Sabres seem to have gotten good value out of their final pick in the draft.
Dustin Nielson, Matt MacInnis, Phil Laugher and Johan Nilsson contributed to this article. Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.