2014 NHL Draft: Buffalo Sabres draft review

By Jason Chen
Sam Reinhart - Buffalo Sabres

Photo: Forward Sam Reinhart was selected second overall by the Buffalo Sabres. Reinhart is the highest selection the Sabres have made since they picked Pierre Turgeon first overall in 1987. (courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

General manager Tim Murray was all business at his first NHL Draft, wasting little time making his picks. The Buffalo Sabres are quite deep at every position, but since the focus was on defensemen last year with Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov, the attention shifted toward forwards this year. The Sabres used seven of their nine draft picks on forwards, including four in the first two rounds.

The Sabres strategy certainly was interesting. Knowing that CHL players often make the NHL at a much earlier stage than their peers, Murray used his first four picks on CHL players and then drafted two high school players and two Europeans with four of their final five picks. Rights to non-CHL players can be held for up to four years, which means the Sabres are able to be patient and allow raw prospects plenty of time to develop before committing to them professionally. Murray spoke before the draft about how the Sabres will need to find value with their mid- to late-round picks, and this strategy certainly helps in that regard.

Sam Reinhart, C, Kootenay Ice (WHL)
1st round, 2nd overall
Height: 6-1 Weight: 186 lbs

Though equally strong cases could be made for the Sabres to pick Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett (CAL), or Leon Draisaitl (EDM), Murray was in the hunt for intangibles, since the team’s prospect pool was already deep in talent. The choice was clear, and the Sabres entered their pick well before their allotted time was up.

The youngest of the three Reinhart siblings, Sam was the highest drafted and boasts an off-the-charts hockey IQ. “A lot of times you get asked if you feel any pressure,” said Reinhart at the draft. “But to be honest…I’ve been fortunate enough to watch [my brothers] go through [the draft] and see how they handle things, so it only makes it easier from my perspective.”

Perhaps being the son of a former NHL defenseman also helped shed light on how to play both ends of the ice, because Reinhart is constantly moving on the ice and is effective with or without the puck. The Sabres loved the fact that he shows up in big games. A captain for the Ice, Reinhart will wear a letter some day. Once he becomes a full-fledged NHL player, Buffalo expects him to lead the charge.

“I picture myself in this uniform for quite some time,” said Reinhart, who has a good chance to make the team. “I’m excited to step in there and play right away, but I know it’s not going to be given to me…I’m going to do everything I can to step in and make an impact and take advantage of every opportunity.”

Reinhart met with the media following his selection by the Sabres, with some of that conversation being captured in this HF video.

Brendan Lemieux, F, Barrie Colts (OHL)
2nd round, 31st overall
Height: 6-0 Weight: 206 lbs

Like father, like son – though a little smaller in stature, there is no denying that Brendan plays with the same fire and passion that Claude Lemieux brought to the ice during the height of the AvalancheRed Wings rivalry. In his second season with Barrie, Lemieux quadrupled his goal total and tripled his penalty minutes, finishing with 27 goals and 145 penalty minutes in 65 games.

The younger Lemieux idolized the way his father played and is one of the few young players who may relish being a villain on the ice. Having a strong support group of former NHL players certainly helps, but what may drive Lemieux the most is being snubbed in the first round.

The Sabres have tons of talent, but they need their young players to be more aggressive and assertive. “You’re gonna see a steady incline of progression throughout my career,” a confident Lemieux said at the draft. “I’m a hard worker and I take pride in that. As far as playing next year, I’m going to go into camp and make an impact as quickly as I can.”

Lemieux is not expected to join the Sabres as a lineup regular for another few years, but he is certainly the type of player can make an impact with his physical style and tenacious two-way game when he is not scoring. He has the ability to be a second-line winger with more scoring responsibilities or a third-line winger who agitates and gets under the opponents’ skin.

Following his selection, Lemieux spoke with the media about being chosen by the Sabres, with some of his comments being captured in this HF video.

Eric Cornel, C, Peterborough Petes (OHL)
2nd round, 44th overall
Height: 6-1 Weight: 186 lbs

Like Lemieux, Eric Cornel improved by leaps and bounds in his second year in the OHL, jumping from four goals to 25 and 16 points to 62. A third overall pick in the 2012 OHL Draft, Cornel seemed overwhelmed in his first year of junior hockey, and continued to struggle when the Petes made a coaching change midway through the season. Cornel did not have the requisite strength or confidence to compete with some of his older peers, and the team relied on more experienced players down the stretch. Now at 6’1 and inching closer to 190 pounds, Cornel’s offensive explosion should not have come as a surprise. Peterborough head coach Jody Hull has waxed poetic about Cornel’s improvements from last year.

Few players possess Cornel’s mix of size and mobility, which certainly got a checkmark from the Sabres. Given his improvement, there is a chance Cornel becomes one of the better picks in the second round, despite being projected to go mid- to late-second round prior to the draft.

Vaclav Karabacek, W, Gatineau Olympiques (QMJHL)
2nd round, 49th overall
Height: 5-11 Weight: 196 lbs

The one thing that most scouts agree on with Vaclav Karabacek is how easily he has adapted to playing in North America, scoring 47 points in 65 regular season games and another 12 points in nine playoff games as a rookie in the QMJHL. Drafted 18th overall in the CHL Import Draft, the Czech winger is a goal scorer who is strong along the wall and protects the puck well. Karabacek still has room to grow, though he is not too far off from his playing weight, which should be closer to 200 pounds.

Players picked in the second round tend to have flaws in their game, and skating is something that Karabacek will have to improve to play on the Sabres. He projects to be a scoring winger on the second or third lines, and will certainly need a few more seasons of major junior before turning pro. It is not inconceivable to see Karabacek score 35-40 goals next year.

Jonas Johansson, G, Brynäs IF (SuperElit)
3rd Round, 61st Overall
Height: 6-3 Weight: 198 lbs

Goalies are always a hot commodity and the Sabres are building a significant inventory. One of Sweden‘s top players at the under-18 level, Jonas Johansson is a goalie with a big frame who likes to play deep in his net, a style popularized by fellow countryman Henrik Lundqvist. Johansson played sparingly for the senior team, appearing in four games with a .914 save percentage, and spent most of the season with the team’s junior squad, appearing in 23 games and started all seven playoff games.

The Sabres did not qualify Connor Knapp, but still have Matt Hackett, Andrey Makarov, Nathan Lieuwen, and Linus Ullmark under contract to compete for minor league jobs. How soon Johansson turns pro will be largely up to him, but given his limited experience and exposure to elite competition, he is a few years away.

Brycen Martin, D, Swift Current Broncos (WHL)
3rd Round, 74th Overall
Height: 6-2 eight: 195 lbs

The Broncos relied heavily on their defense this past season, spearheaded by the offensively gifted Julius Honka (DAL), but it was defensive partner Brycen Martin, one of the best safety blankets in the WHL, who provided the steady presence. Drafted second overall in the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft and ranked 26th by Central Scouting among North American players, Martin’s best assets are his skating and ability to make the first pass. His mistakes come few and far between, and there have been games where Martin’s hockey IQ and maturity seems well above his peers.

“I’m a two-way, more offensive defenseman,” said Martin. “I model my play after Alex Pietrangelo. I know it’s kind of a high bar, but he’s trusted in the [defensive] zone, in all situations, and he plays a lot of power play minutes and chips in offensively…It’s big shoes to fill but hopefully I can amount to even half the player he is.”

Martin may want to play like Pietrangelo, but the kind of player he projects to be is still up in the air, mostly due to his uneven performance at the Top Prospects game where Honka overshadowed him. Perhaps putting the pressure on Martin to score a little more and moving him away from Honka will unlock his offensive potential. Given Buffalo’s deep blue line, Martin will have plenty of time to develop in the WHL and AHL. He is not expected to compete for a roster spot for another few years.

Martin met with the media for his post-selection scrum, with some of his comments being captured in this HF video.

Max Willman, W, Williston Northampton (Massachusetts High School)
5th Round, 121st Overall
Height: 5-11 Weight: 181 lbs

Max Willman nearly quit hockey after his senior year at Barnstable High School, but was convinced by Williston Northampton School head coach Derek Cunha to play one more year of high school hockey.

Willman was superior to his competition and excelled, particularly at the Beantown Classic and the East Coast Tournament. He finished the year with 44 points in 25 games and will attend Brown University next year.

His road to the NHL Draft and Division I hockey is certainly quite unconventional. Most prospects, such as 2013 draft picks Cal Petersen and Connor Hurley, spend a year in the USHL before moving on to NCAA hockey.

The Massachusetts high school league does not offer much elite competition, and it will be interesting to see how Willman adjusts to the NCAA in his first season. He will certainly get many opportunities to shine for the Brown Bears, who had only one NHL drafted player on their roster last year. A smooth skater with a flair for the offensive side of the game, Willman is considered a project and will take a few years to fully develop. He improved by leaps and bounds after going from Barnstable to Williston Northampton, and the Sabres are hoping that trajectory continues.

Willman talked about being chosen by the Sabres after his selection, with a portion of his comments being a part of this HF video.

Christopher Brown, F, Cranbrook Kingswood (Michigan High School)
6th round, 151st overall
Height: 6-0 Weight: 179 lbs

Murray went for another high school player in the later rounds, playing the long game as they wait patiently for Willman and Christopher Brown to develop into potential pros. Brown certainly has the hockey bloodlines – father Doug was a long-time Devil and Red Wing with two Stanley Cup rings, uncle Greg played 49 games for the Sabres, and older brother Patrick signed an entry-level deal with Carolina in April.

Brown blew away the high school competition in Michigan, scoring 84 points in 28 games, but will test his strength and ability in the USHL with Green Bay first before heading to Boston College for the 2015-16 season. It should be no surprise that Brown is a Boston College commit, where his father, uncle, and brother played. Uncle Greg is currently the Eagles’ associate coach while Patrick served as team captain last year. Like Willman, Brown is not expected to turn pro for another few years.

Victor Olofsson, W, MODO (SuperElit)
7th round, 181st overall
Height: 5-11 Weight: 175 lbs

When the NHL first released its draft rankings, Victor Olofsson was listed at just 5’7 and 157 pounds. He has grown since then and now stands 5’11 and weighs 175 pounds. Despite being smaller than his peers at the start of the season, Olofsson still managed to wreak havoc in the Swedish junior league with his hometown club, finishing fourth in league scoring with 32 goals and 53 points before adding another nine points in five games in the playoffs. Olofsson’s added size and muscle can only serve him better as he moves up the Swedish leagues to face more physically mature players. In 11 games with MODO’s senior team as an 18-year-old, Olofsson was held pointless. The Sabres seem to have claimed a monopoly on MODO’s speedy young snipers, having drafted Gustav Possler in the fifth round last year. Both players have the ability to be top-six scoring wingers in the NHL, though they are a few seasons away from turning pro in North America.

Sabres’ GM Tim Murray met with the media folllowing the completion of the 2014 NHL Draft. His comments on some of the players the Sabres chose at this draft are included in this HF video.