With the eighth and 16th overall picks, the 2013 NHL Draft was the third in six years where the Buffalo Sabres have selected twice in the opening round. This year, general manager Darcy Regier decided to load up on the blue line, adding some much needed size and grit.
With 11 picks in the draft, including five in the first two rounds, the Sabres knocked it out of the park. Finland's Rasmus Ristolainen, the highest ranked European defenseman in the draft, was taken eighth overall. Nikita Zadorov, widely considered the meanest and most physical defenseman available, was drafted 16th overall from the London Knights.
The Sabres also picked up the 35th pick and defenseman Jamie McBain from Carolina in exchange for Andrej Sekera. McBain, the 2009 WCHA Player of the Year, fell out of favor in Carolina. Known for his offensive vision and skating ability, McBain has yet to produce consistently at the NHL level, though he is more talented than the solid yet unspectacular Sekera. McBain can be an adventure to watch in his own zone and even though his mistakes can be minimized with his ability to get around the ice, he needs to be paired with a veteran defenseman.
Rasmus Ristolainen, D, TPS Turku (SM-liiga)
1st round, 8th Overall
Height: 6'3 Weight: 201
The highest ranked European defenseman in the draft, Rasmus Ristolainen led all TPS defensemen in scoring despite the team having an up-and-down season which cost head coach Pekka Virta his job in October.
Scouts describe Ristolainen as a steady and calm player with a very good skill set. He skates well, makes good passes and generally makes good decisions with the puck. He is a well-rounded defenseman who possesses a heavy shot from the point, though he could fill out his 6'3 frame a little more. This scouting description sounds very similar to Shea Weber's in 2003, who is coincidentally the player Ristolainen models his game after.
"He's my idol," said Ristolainen of the Nashville Predators captain. "He's a leader on the ice."
Though Ristolainen is not as physical as Weber, his presence on the blue line is certainly worth noting for opposition forwards, especially those on the forecheck who are unaware of Ristolainen's skating and passing ability.
Ristolainen says his goal is to play in the NHL this coming season, but it is more likely he will spend one more year with TPS before moving to North America.
If Ristolainen wants to play in the NHL right away, he has to play well in every situation. For a team that lacks a bona fide number one defenseman, he will be tested early on by the Sabres to see if he can adjust to the NHL. Once mature, Ristolainen will be counted on to log lots of minutes in all situations.
Nikita Zadorov, D, London Knights (OHL)
1st round, 16th Overall
Height: 6'4 Weight: 200
With the eighth pick, the Sabres opted to bolster their defensive corps even more by taking Nikita Zadorov from the London Knights.
Zadorov battled some inconsistency issues with the Knights, but this is his first year in North America after leaving CSKA's junior team in the MHL, Russia's top junior circuit. Used primarily as a shutdown defenseman against top forwards due to his size and physicality, Zadorov had to round out his game in order to be successful in the OHL.
"I didn't play an offensive style in Russia," said Zadorov. "But here, if you play defense, you have to play offense."
Zadorov finished with 25 points in 63 games and named to the OHL First All-Rookie Team. That Zadorov did not focus on scoring in Russia but still managed to make such an impact on offense for the Knights is what makes some scouts believe he can be an elite, do-it-all, first-pairing defenseman. The Knights were a strong hockey club and could overlook certain adjustments or deficiencies in Zadorov's game, allowing him to focus on doing the right things. Going forward however, he is the Knight's go-to guy.
"It's a different country," said Zadorov. "They helped me a lot on-ice, off-ice. We won the championship and won 24 games in a row. You just play."
Zadorov, however, has greater aspirations than playing for London in 2013-14.
"I think I can play (in Buffalo) next year," he said. "I want to play just in the NHL," he added, ending any speculation of a potential return to the KHL.
Zadorov's own timeline is not too far off. His untapped potential could be realized even further with one more year in London. With a deep crop of young blueliners, Regier can afford to be patient with Zadorov.
Hockey's Future shot video of the Sabres' two first round picks, Ristolainen and Zadorov, at the 2013 NHL Draft. You can view their extended remarks in this HF video.
JT Compher, F, USNTDP
2nd round, 35th Overall
Height: 6'0 Weight: 165
The 35th pick was acquired from Carolina after trading Sekera, and the initial belief was that the Sabres were targeting Halifax Mooseheads goalie Zachary Fucale (MTL). Instead, Regier opted for J.T. Compher, an undersized player who competes hard and possesses above average skill in all facets of the game.
Compher's best skill is his skating, which allows him to forecheck and backcheck with good effectiveness. Though he has skill with the puck, he often plays his best away from it. Once the puck is on his stick, he can stick-handle and shoot with relative ease, though because he is focused on maintaining control at high speeds and engaging physically he does not possess the requisite vision to make him an offensive playmaker. Compher is the type of player who is not afraid to go into corners by himself, though to do that consistently at the NHL level he will need to build more muscle.
This fall, Compher will be at the University of Michigan, just a stone's throw away from the NTDP's home at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube. "We play some tough college teams so it's great for my development," said Compher.
The Wolverines are moving into the Big Ten Conference this year after 22 years in the CCHA. "(College players) are bigger and stronger which makes us work harder and helps us develop," says Compher, who is just under 170 pounds.
Having spent two years with the NTDP, which can be a very challenging program in itself, Compher is ready to go through that grind. Last year, the Wolverines finished under .500 (18-19-3) for the first time since 1987.
"Hopefully, I'll be in the middle and be able to play on the second or third line eventually," Compher said about his role at Michigan.
Though listed as a left winger in the draft, Compher's preference is center and he has played a lot of games at that position.
Compher is already familiar to the Sabres. The Northbrook, Ill. native was recruited by Ron Rolston, then the NTDP's head coach, to play in Ann Arbor, though Rolston was hired away by the Rochester Americans before Compher played a game for him. Compher projects to be a quality depth forward with speed and offensive upside.
Connor Hurley, C, Edina High (Minnesota high school)
2nd round, 38th Overall
Height: 6'1 Weight: 172
The first Minnesota high school player taken in this year's draft, Connor Hurley is a lanky, two-way center who possesses very good playmaking and puck-handling ability. He has a long reach, making it difficult for defenseman to knock the puck away. He loves creating space for himself with his size and often stick-handles through his opponents to thread passes into the slot for good scoring chances. He is big enough to stay on his feet and bowl through high school defenseman, but that will be difficult to do once he plays against bigger, stronger players in the USHL and NCAA.
Hurley's play dipped by the end of the year, but most scouts attribute it to the amount of hockey and moving around Hurley has endured. In September, Hurley played for Team Southwest in the Midwest Elite League, scoring 16 points in 11 games before joining the NTDP for a handful of exhibition games. In late October, Hurley joined older brother Cullen for two games with the Muskegon Lumberjacks before re-joining the NTDP for the Four Nations Tournament where he won gold. He returned to the Edina Hornets afterwards and notched 43 points in 25 games en route to capturing the Class 2A Minnesota State High School Championship. He capped off the season by re-joining the Lumberjacks for nine games.
Hurley will play with the Lumberjacks for a full season before moving to South Bend to attend Notre Dame for the 2014-15 season. Considered a project player, Hurley is not expected to turn pro for another few years. He needs to pack on more muscle on to his 6'1 frame and projects to be a second line forward in the future.
Justin Bailey, RW, Kitchener Rangers (OHL)
2nd round, 52nd Overall
Height: 6'3 Weight: 186
Justin Bailey hails from Williamsville, N.Y., just a 20-minute drive from Buffalo. Bailey was raised by his mother, Karen Buscaglia, who was a Sabres fan and lived in the same neighborhood as Mike Peca and Matthew Barnaby, all of whom helped foster Bailey's love for hockey. Bailey's athletic bloodlines and 6'3 frame comes from his father, Carlton Bailey, a former linebacker for the NFL's Buffalo Bills.
"(Getting drafted by Buffalo) was amazing for my family and for myself," said Bailey, who had a group of more than 30 family members accompanying him at the draft. "Especially for me, loving the Sabres and knowing every guy on the team and growing up with them as well. It's just absolutely amazing."
A budding 6'3 power forward, Bailey's OHL career started with a bang when he was hammered by Windsor Spitfires defenseman Patrick Sieloff (CGY) in a devastating open-ice hit. Bailey missed three weeks with a concussion, but had a good rookie season and progressed steadily as the season went on. Used more as a role player on an older, experienced Rangers team, Bailey is expected to be a major piece of the Rangers offense next year.
Like Hurley, do not expect Bailey to join the Sabres soon. He is still very raw. Prior to joining the Rangers, he spent most of the year with the Long Island Royals of the Atlantic Youth Hockey League and played just two games with the USHL's Indiana Ice. His first step is getting quicker, but he relies more on his strong stride and once he hits his top speed his size makes him difficult to contain. He goes into corners often and consistently battles for pucks. When he is around the net, he is a very adept finisher. However, these flashes of talent come in spurts and he will need more OHL seasoning to put it all together.
Nick Baptiste, RW, Sudbury Wolves (OHL)
3rd round, 69th Overall
Height: 6'1 Weight: 189
The sixth overall pick in the 2011 OHL draft, Nick Baptiste improved by leaps and bounds in his second season, improving his goal total from eight to 21 and points from 27 to 48. He was also named to Team Canada at the U18 WJC where he won gold and finished tied for second in team scoring with three goals and eight points in seven games.
Despite the increased offensive output, it was Baptiste's willingness to play defense on a nightly basis which had scouts raving about him. Seen primarily as an offensive winger in his first year, Baptiste's overall game had major holes. To become a well-rounded hockey player, he had to change up his routine and focus on defense. "I had to take the right approach on and off the ice," says Baptiste.
By the end of the year, Baptiste jumped 44 spots to rank 61st in Central Scouting's final rankings. He now projects to be a two-way winger who can play in the top nine. He has the size and willingness to play in the dirty areas as well as the ability to throw punches and score goals with finesse. He models his game after players such as Wayne Simmonds (PHI) and Ryan Kesler (VAN), which is good for a Sabres team that has loaded up on size and grit this year at the draft.
Though Baptiste's goal is to make the Sabres out of camp, at this point it is unlikely that he does so. Baptiste improved significantly under head coach Trent Cull and another season with the Wolves certainly would not be a bad idea. Some scouts believe that Baptiste's defensive play took a little away from his offense and believe he will score at a much higher rate next year.
Cal Petersen, G, Waterloo Blackhawks (USHL)
5th round, 129th Overall
Height: 6'1 Weight: 175
Ranked as the fourth best North American goaltending, Cal Petersen posted an impressive 21-11-3 line while platooning with Eamon McAdam for his hometown Blackhawks. Though Petersen's 2.97 goals against average and .906 save percentage is rather pedestrian, his play vastly improved at the end of the year. The Blackhawks won eight straight to finish the season with Petersen winning his final four starts, allowing just six goals in that stretch. During the regular season, the Blackhawks did not have a particularly strong blue line despite featuring defenseman Ian McCoshen (FLA).
However, Petersen struggled in the playoffs and posted a 4.26 goals against average and .881 save percentage in four games.
A quick, athletic, butterfly goalie, Petersen said he got the feeling the Sabres were interested in drafting him despite his poor finish to the season. He had a good combine and was happy with how it went, and even happier that he was drafted by the team of his idol, Ryan Miller. Petersen has committed to Notre Dame, but will play in Waterloo for another season.
Hockey's Future shot video of Bailey, Baptiste, and Petersen at the 2013 NHL Draft. You can view their extended remarks in this HF video.
Gustav Possler, LW, Modo Jr. (SuperElit)
5th round, 130th Overall
Height: 5'11 Weight: 167
A scoring winger with good skating ability, Gustav Possler led Modo's J20 squad with 19 goals and finished second in plus-minus with a plus-14. He led the team in scoring in the playoffs with four goals and eight points in seven games. Known more as a scorer than a setup man, Possler is clever with the puck and can easily stick-handle his way through traffic. Some describe his scoring ability as "opportunistic," using his explosive first step to give him the edge. Generally speaking, Possler's offensive potential ranges from good to great, with some scouts believing he could be a "sleeper" pick.
Possler possesses a good hockey sense for his age and has already played nine games in the Elite League, two of which were last year when he was 16 going on 17. He scored his first Elitserien goal last year and added another this year. With a rather straight north-south game, Possler back checks well and can force turnovers with his speed. Not often is he a liability on the ice, though when the puck is not on his stick he is known to float a little.
The maturity of Possler's game at his age is encouraging because if he shows he can play in a senior league at a consistently high level, there is a chance he moves to North America sooner than his peers. Possler has the talent to be a top six winger in the NHL.
Anthony Florentino, D, South Kent (Connecticut prep)
5th round, 143rd Overall
Height: 6'1 Weight: 220
Ranked 75th among North American skaters, scouts and coaches like Anthony Florentino's big hits and physical game. Florentino captained the Selects Academy U18 team this year in the United States Elite Hockey League, where he notched 53 points in 62 games. The Selects made it to the championship game but lost to the Boston Jr. Bruins in a close 2-1 game.
Florentino can shoot the puck, as evidenced by the 21 goals he scored this year, but also has the ability to skate the puck out of danger. Next year, Florentino will attend Providence College, a program that is stockpiling a lot of talent and gives Florentino a chance to play with good players.
Florentino already has the size to play in the NHL, but his hockey sense and technical skills need a little more development. Most scouts agree that Florentino should spend a couple years in college to fully realize his potential. Down the road, Florentino could become a dependable, hard-hitting defenseman on the second or third pair. If he does make the pros, he will be another big body on Buffalo's blue line.
Although Hockey's Future didn't catch up with Florentino at the NHL Draft, we did interview him at the 2013 NHL Combine. You can view that conversation here in this HF video.
Sean Malone, C, USNTDP
6th round, 159th Overall
Height: 5'11 Weight: 183
Like Bailey, the Buffalo Sabres did not have to go looking very far to find Sean Malone from nearby West Seneca, N.Y. A first year player on the NTDP, Malone transferred from Nichols School and posted 16 goals and 33 points in 50 games. Some wondered if Malone would struggle making such a big leap into Junior A, but he adjusted well and made strides throughout the year. Malone also played four games for Team USA at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament where he notched one assist.
At 5'11, Malone is undersized for an NHL center, but coaches rave about his leadership qualities and desire to outwork his opponent. He is a player who does not have a high offensive ceiling and will have to depend on very strong two-way play to get noticed. He projects to be a depth center, though he has plenty of time to develop in college. Malone has verbally committed to Harvard and will join them in the fall of 2014.
Malone and Florentino follow the trend of Buffalo selecting high school players in the later rounds. The idea is to draft the players now and give them a chance to develop in the NCAA because rights to college players can be held for longer. Judd Peterson (2012), Brad Navin (2011) and Christian Isackson (2010) are other such examples.
Eric Locke, C, Saginaw Spirit (OHL)
7th round, 189th Overall
Height: 5'8 Weight: 182
Do not let Eric Locke's height fool you, he is as sturdy and tough as they come, having collected four fighting majors and 84 penalty minutes last year. Saginaw's leading scorer with 44 goals and 97 points in 68 games, Locke's sudden increase in production this year led him to be voted as the Western Conference's Most Improved Player. In previous years, scouts raved about his speed, skill, and energy, but Locke was also considered a passive, complementary player.
This year, as the alternate captain, Locke fashioned himself into a leader on the ice, playing more aggressively, taking more chances, and using his speed and skill to much better effectiveness. His penalty minute totals skyrocketed, but it showed he was very involved in the play and became a better overall player for it.
If Locke continues this progression, he has a good chance of making the pros. His size will always work against him but his offensive skills are very good. He will never make the NHL with his fists though his willingness to engage physically is a good sign he can take the hits. There is a lot of boom or bust potential here, since Locke is not suited for a bottom six role.