With only two playoff appearances in the past six seasons, it is abundantly clear the Buffalo Sabres need to retool their roster and head in a new direction. Finishing last in the Northeast Division, the team's worst showing since the 2003-04 lockout, general manager Darcy Regier is preparing to usher in the post-Lindy Ruff era of Sabres hockey.
As in the 2012 NHL Draft, the Sabres have two picks in the first round. The Sabres will pick eighth overall, which is the highest they have drafted in a decade, and 16th overall, the latter pick acquired in a trade from Minnesota for former team captain Jason Pominville.
Last year, Regier moved up seven spots, from 21st overall to 14th overall, to draft Zemgus Girgensons with their second pick in the first round. There is no guarantee Regier will be able to move up in this year's draft, but with the draft and free agency so close together and two compliance buyouts still available for most teams, do not be surprised if significant moves are made.
There are players on Buffalo's current roster that will not figure into the team's long-term plans. The Sabres are reportedly looking to move up from eighth overall and could dangle key veterans such as Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller, though team owner Terry Pegula said he intends to keep both of them.
Top 10 Prospects:
1. Mikhail Grigorenko, C
2. Brayden McNabb, D
3. Jake McCabe, D
4. Joel Armia, C/RW
5. Johan Larsson, C/LW
6. Matt Hackett, G
7. Mark Pysyk, D
8. Zemgus Girgensons, C
9. Daniel Catenacci, C
10. Andrey Makarov, G
Goaltending depth was a major need, but that has since been addressed by signing Andrey Makarov as an undrafted free agent and acquiring Matt Hackett from Minnesota for Pominville. Though the Sabres are not thin on defense, their best prospects, including Jake McCabe and Mark Pysyk, are more offensively inclined and do not project to be physical defensemen in the NHL. Clearing the crease and asserting their presence in the defensive zone have been problematic for the Sabres in the past, and there are more than a few intriguing defenseman in this year's draft who can certainly fill that need. The team also lacks a bona fide number one defenseman.
The Sabres always seem to be loaded with offensive weapons and next year will be no different with the addition of Finland's Joel Armia for the 2013-14 season. Mikhail Grigorenko, Johan Larsson, and Girgensons now have some pro experience under their belts and are expected to be major pieces moving forward. The true strength of Buffalo's young forwards, however, is their versatility. Grigorenko and Armia represent the pipeline's best talent, but blue-collar players such as Larsson, Dan Catenacci, Marcus Foligno, and new college signee Tim Schaller, all project to be solid role players.
Buffalo's weakness has always been its inability to ratchet up the physical part of their game. Part of it stems from the fact that the team does not have any particularly physical players, especially after trading Robyn Regehr to Los Angeles. Though Steve Ott added some grit, he is not an imposing physical force.
The other weakness is the development of the Sabres' young NHL players, which seems to have slowed this season. Cody Hodgson and Tyler Ennis' point totals were not particularly disappointing, but the general feeling is that their game should be more well-rounded and consistent by now, especially since the pair spearhead the team's offense.
The Sabres currently have 10 picks in the 2013 draft, including two each in the first and second rounds. They own the 8th, 16th, 38th, 52nd, 69th, 129th, 130th, 143rd, 159th, and 189th picks. The last time the Sabres drafted 10 players was in 2003, but only four played in the NHL.
The Sabres held two first round picks last year as well, one of which was traded in order to move up in the draft.
From 1997 to 2001, in four of those five years Regier used the Sabres' first round picks on players in European leagues. None of the players drafted were considered successful picks. From 2002 on, the Sabres have mostly drafted players in North American leagues. In the past three drafts, the Sabres have taken only two players from European leagues: Armia in 2011 and Linus Ullmark in 2012.
8. Elias Lindholm, C, Brynas (Elitserien)
A high-end playmaker with good skating ability, Lindholm was one of Brynas' top players, playing roughly 20 minutes a night as an 18-year-old. Lindholm sees the ice exceptionally well, possesses good stickhandling ability, and plays both ends of the ice. Scoring 30 points in 48 games, Lindholm finished third in team scoring and also the only regular to finish with a positive plus-minus. Lindholm's point-per-game average in his draft year (0.625) compares favorably to Washington's Nicklas Backstrom (0.565), who also played with Brynas.
The criticism against Lindholm is his lack of size and strength, a tune all too familiar for the Sabres. Drafting another center may be redundant and other players may have better physical dimensions to their game, but Lindholm is too talented to pass up at eighth overall. He projects to be a first-line center who could be invaluable on the power play.
At 6'5 and 228 points, Russian Nikita Zadorov is one of the draft's biggest, most imposing physical defensemen, which is exactly what the Sabres need. An above average skater, Zadorov is a sound defensive player with good gap control but also loves going for the big hits. His play steadily improved over the course of the season, no doubt getting more comfortable with the North American-style game, though like most young players, his consistency leaves something to be desired.
What makes Zadorov a risk, however, is the lack of consensus on just how good he can be. He already possesses good passing ability and at his current rate Zadorov projects to be a steady, defense-first top four defensemen. But some scouts do believe that if Zadorov can further develop his technical game, he has the tools to be a top-pairing defenseman.
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