Buffalo Sabres 2011 draft preview

By Tony Musso

Photo: With the 23rd overall pick last season the Buffalo Sabres drafted defenseman Mark Pysyk. The Sabres often draft the best available athlete, regardless of needs. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

Top 10 prospects

1. Zack Kassian, RW
2. Jhonas Enroth, G
3. Luke Adam, C
4. Drew Schiestel, D
5. T.J. Brennan, D
6. Mark Pysyk, D
7. Marcus Foligno, LW
8. Brayden McNabb, D
9. Corey Tropp, RW
10. Marc-Andre Gragnani, D

Team Needs

Surprisingly enough, the team needs from last year’s draft are almost identical in 2011. Holding true to the best player available approach the Sabres did not reach last season on a lesser valued center at the 23rd pick and instead opted for smooth skating defenseman Mark Pysyk from the WHL. This season, there is a change in culture with management and the possibility of taking a higher risk/reward player seems to be in play. Buffalo will likely address the center position at the 16th spot but if the top six to eight players are already taken, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see them take the highest ranked player on their list regardless of position.

Buffalo has other holes in their farm system that they will try to address in this year’s draft including trying to add a goaltender at some point. The Sabres are thin at the position outside of Jhonas Enroth who will probably back up Ryan Miller next season and the collegiate duo of Bradley Eidsness and Connor Knapp, both of which will be back in the NCAA next year. They will also attempt to stock the cupboard with some talented offensive players this year as they are without any real potent weapons in the system outside of the scoring prowess of Luke Adam.

Organizational Strengths

The Sabres are generally regarded as one of the top drafting teams in the NHL as they consistently ice homegrown talent year in and year out. The current crop of prospects is particularly deep at defense and boasts a lot of grit and toughness on the wings. Leading the charge of NHL ready defenseman is Marc-Andre Gragnani who’s 2011 playoff performance all but guarantees him a spot in Buffalo’s top six next season. After Gragnani the Sabres have several defensemen in Portland who have made a lot of progress in the last two years including Drew Schiestel, T.J. Brennan, Nick Crawford, and Dennis Persson. Next season they will add WHL star Brayden McNabb and will expect huge development out of 2010 draftee’s Mark Pysyk, and Matt MacKenzie.

The Sabres other organizational strength would probably be the toughness that they have at both left and right wing. You need look no further then the Sabres top ranked prospect, Zack Kassian. He boasts great size, a good scoring touch, and an insatiable nasty streak. His fellow 2010 World Junior teammate, Marcus Foligno is most known for his toughness, size and leadership abilities as he captained Sudbury last season to a surprising second round berth in the OHL playoffs. After those top two agitators, the Sabres have former Michigan State right winger Corey Tropp, who is no stranger to the physical game and Portland Winter Hawks Left Winger Riley Boychuk, who surprised many in the 2011 WHL playoffs where he chipped in some offense to go along with his intimidating game on the ice.

Organizational Weaknesses

Look no further than the depth down the middle for the Sabres biggest organizational weakness. With Luke Adam as the only legitimate top six center, Buffalo needs to stock up on talented pivots in the coming drafts. Paul Byron will probably end up as an energy type of player and while Kevin Sundher is an intriguing prospect with his playmaking abilities, he hasn’t been able to show that he can be a difference maker every night and until he does it would be unfair to project him as a future first or second line center.

Another glaring weakness is the absence of a developmental future number one goaltender in the system. With the likely graduation of Jhonas Enroth, the Sabres are left with just Connor Knapp and Bradley Eidsness. Both goalies have struggled of late as they haven’t been able to get consistent playing time and have often been outplayed by their respective goalie partners at Miami of Ohio and the University at North Dakota. Until they show that they have anything more than back up potential at the NHL level, the Sabres will need to add more goalies to the mix.

The last major weakness for the Sabres would have to be their lack of any real high end offensive threats. This is in part due to the relative later draft position that they have had over the last couple years but also represents a team philosophy on drafting safe players with very little risk.

Draft Tendencies

The draft tendencies of the Sabres have remained relatively constant over the last five years. The most obvious trend touched on is that the Sabres tend to draft the best player available in the first three rounds in almost every instance. Case in point was last season when at the 23rd spot they felt that Mark Pysyk was too good to pass up, even though they had a glut of defensive prospects already in the system and lacked scoring punch and center depth. This philosophy usually works in the long run as it almost always balances out over a couple of years. Buffalo will continue to take this approach this year and even with some quality offensive players believed to be available in the first 20 picks, it wouldn’t surprise anyone if Darcy Regier and company took a defenseman, should a top rated rear guard slip to them at 16.

Another major draft tendency which was discussed around last year’s draft was the fact that Buffalo hasn’t drafted outside of North America since 2006. While that will surely change with a new owner that is committed to spending more money in the scouting department, it will take time. The 2011 draft will likely not be the year Buffalo starts taking Europeans and Russians again, simply because they haven’t spent a lot of time scouting players outside the U.S and Canada. The Sabres scouting will change in the future and the draft tendencies will probably change with it. The biggest difference this year might be that they can focus on taking a gifted offensive player, regardless of size or physicality. The development of Kassian and Foligno has afforded them the ability to worry less about size and more on creativity.

Hockey’s Future staff mock draft result:

No. 16: Jamie Oleksiak, D

While the Sabres will likely elect for the best available player, they could lean towards a forward with the 16th pick. However in some scenarios, the best player available will be a defenseman and the 6′ 7 244lb Jamie Oleksiak could be an ideal fit for the Sabres. He possesses a similar skill set as Myers, is considered a little nastier, and more defensively responsible.