2003 Buffalo Sabres Draft Review, Part 1

By Ken McKenna

Vanek a #1 Hit in Music City for the Sabres

Was there ever any doubt?

For the Buffalo Sabres, the choice of how they would use their first round pick, fifth overall, in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft held in Nashville this past weekend has been a foregone conclusion since April. The MVP performance of University of Minnesota left winger Tomas Vanek during the NCAA’s Frozen Four Tournament, in front of many Western New York hockey fans, left Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier little wiggle room when it came time to make this very important selection. For his part, Regier had no complaints about the choice that fate had thrust upon him.

“He’s a good player, and we’re very happy to get him,” said an obviously pleased Regier of Vanek. “We think he’ll have a professional career, and we think it will revolve around scoring goals, and hopefully they’ll be big goals.”

For his part, Vanek also expressed pleasure at being selected to play in the city where he first gained national, and international, attention.

“It’s great (to be selected by the Sabres),” stated a relieved Vanek. “I love the rink, I won a championship there already, and I hope there is more to come. I’m happy that I’m in Buffalo.”

For Regier, the selection of Vanek does provide some mixed emotions, considering what his team had to go through to be in the position to chose college hockey’s top young player. In the end, though, bringing Vanek into the fold certainly fills a need for the Sabres.

“It’s very tough to get a goal-scorer,” acknowledged the GM, “and, unfortunately, a lot of the time, you have to get to the front end of the draft to do that. You pay a price for (having the high selection) by not doing as well as you wanted to the previous year. When you have the opportunity to get a player like (Vanek), though, you have to take it.”

With players like Milan Michalek, Braydon Coburn, Ryan Suter and Andrei Kastsitsyn still on the board when the Sabres selection arrived, there were certainly other viable selections available to the team at that moment. But some legwork done by the entire scouting staff prior to the NHL Draft set the wheels in motion for the selection of Vanek.

“We went to the University of Minnesota as a group,” said Regier. “We spent a lot of time with the coaching staff and Tomas, got a sense of his testing, where he was going to test out at. We spent a whole day there, and got a real strong feeling about him. He happens to fit with the needs of our hockey club. So, when we looked at the draft, we were hopeful that we would have a shot at him, and, when we did have that shot at him, we weren’t going to pass that up.”

With Vanek being almost a year older than many of the players chosen in the draft, there may have been some trepidation amongst some of the NHL teams in selecting the star forward amongst the top ten selections. The Sabres clearly had no qualms in making the pick, however, as they feel they landed themselves both a talented and mature hockey player.

“Tomas has shown a lot of maturity for his age,” stated the Sabres GM. “He’s done some pretty big things, including being on a championship team, and scoring some of the biggest goals, as he did for the University of Minnesota last season. I think, when you look at those types of things, that gives you an indication of what type of competitor he is; he gives you an indication of being a player who wants to make a difference, and we think that’ll carry over to his pro career.”

As is the case with all the players selected in the NHL Draft, there are parts of Vanek’s game that need some work to ensure that he makes the grade as a NHL player. While the Sabres’ top selection wasn’t overly forthcoming on this subject, he did stress one aspect of his game that could use some work.

“The biggest part (of my game that needs improvement) is (my) consistency,” said the young goal-scorer. “It’s the same for every player here (at the NHL Draft). With 82 games in the National Hockey League season, that’s a pretty good grind in-and-out every night. That’s going to be the toughest part, but I think I can do that.”

In terms of the Sabres overall strategy at the NHL Draft, they seemed to devote their picks in rounds 1-3 on more offensively oriented players, while focusing more on defense and goaltending in the remaining rounds. For the most part, this result was not an accident of drafting, but was instead a plan of attack.

“Well, it was a little bit (of a) conscious (decision),” acknowledged Regier. “You certainly don’t want to pass up a defenseman who you think is going to be a better pro than a forward. But, we felt that, early on in the draft, that there were some skilled players available. We wanted to focus in on that, and then, once we acquired the skilled players, we focused back a little bit on the defense side.”

One of those skilled players was second round selection Branislav Fabry, a right wing currently playing in Slovakia. Fabry is a player who was not as highly rated by various scouting services, but the Sabres’ scouting staff didn’t let that deter them.

“David Volek, our scout over there, felt very strongly about (Fabry),” stated the Sabres GM, “and he thinks (Fabry) could be a good player. Sometimes you go out a little bit more for certain attributes that you feel strongly about, and we feel that (Fabry) has some of those.”

Day 2 of the NHL Draft saw the Sabres choose five defensemen consecutively, including former Washington Capitals prospect Nathan Paetsch, who went back into the draft pool after not signing a contract with the Capitals by the June 1st deadline. Regier felt that his team’s ability to land the offensive defenseman was a bit of s surprise.

“(Nathan) was on the Canadian World Junior team, and he was there in the seventh round,” said a pleased Regier. “There are reasons why, probably more skating-related, but he’s smart, and moves the puck well. The fact that he was on the World Junior team, in his case, two years, I think bodes pretty well. But, we’ll see.”

The Sabres also continued adding to their stable of young goaltenders with the selection of the Plymouth Whalers Jeff Weber. Regier acknowledged that the goaltending position is an important one to have stocked, regardless of how much depth a team may have.

“You do have to continue to select goaltenders,” said the Sabres draft honcho, “because, aside from the obvious guys that go in the front end of the draft, some of these guys take a little more time to develop. They need an opportunity to play, and a lot of times it’s a four, five or six-year process for a goaltender. So, to project six years out is difficult, so I think you keep adding them, and making sure that in that position, the most critical position in the game, that you have depth.”