Sabres 2004 draft preview

By Ken McKenna

Sabres Top 10 Prospects

  1. Ryan Miller, G
  2. Thomas Vanek, LW
  3. Jason Pominville, RW
  4. Dan Paille, LW/C
  5. Milan Bartovic, LW
  6. Clarke MacArthur, LW/C
  7. Paul Gaustad, C/LW
  8. Chris Thorburn, W/C
  9. Branislav Fabry, RW
  10. Denis Ezhov, D

The Buffalo Sabres enter the 2004 NHL Draft with a prospect list that looks very familiar towards the top, but is a mad scramble beyond the top five. Overall, however, the needs for this team in terms of prospect depth should be obvious with only a cursory glance at the prospect chart.

Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier will preside over his eighth NHL Draft with this club. The team’s performance at the draft table has been spotty during Regier’s tenure, with the Sabres missing on a few first round selections, but also finding some solid talent in later rounds. Upon further review, though, this draft record is not out of line with that of previous Sabres’ GMs, so the mediocrity of Regier’s time in Buffalo may be less a reflection of his abilities than it is an affirmation of the personnel department’s inability to help build a true contender.

The Sabres have eight picks in this draft, including picks in all rounds except the fourth. The club will be drafting 13th in the order, except for picks acquired from other teams.

Team Needs

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In terms of prospect depth, the Sabres lack quality at defense and in goal. Pronouncing defense as a need shouldn’t come as a surprise, but labeling the goaltending depth as being needy may seem puzzling to some given the presence of young goaltenders, Martin Biron, Mika Noronen and Ryan Miller.

While the Sabres may be set between the pipes for the next few years, that depth can be depleted quickly though trades, free agency or injury. The general feeling among NHL personnel aficionados is that a team can never have enough depth in goal, a theory that the Sabres GM subscribes to. Given this approach, it would not be surprising to see the Sabres select a goaltender with one of their first three selections.

As for the defense, the only known quantity of note in the pipeline is former University of Maine rearguard Doug Janik. Janik could make a push in camp for the sixth or seventh defensive slot on the Sabres roster, which would leave the team with mostly questionable depth throughout the rest of the organization. Prospects such as Denis Ezhov, Thomas Morrow and John Adams, while intriguing, are currently unknown quantities when it comes to assessing their NHL potential.

Beyond these two positions, the Sabres still need to find a top-flight offensive center with some size. In a conference that features such talented, not to mention large, pivots as Joe Thornton, Vincent Lecavalier, Eric Lindros, Keith Primeau and Mats Sundin, to name a few, the Sabres cannot afford to ice a center ice contingent that could collectively fit into a mini Cooper with room to spare.

Organizational Strengths

The obvious strength is in goal, where they have Martin Biron entering his prime, and solid young goaltenders Mike Noronen and Ryan Miller waiting in the wings should Biron falter. Recent failed picks like Ghyslain Rosseau and Marty Majers have left the Sabres in a position of having to use a higher selection on a goaltender, however.

Another area of this club that has improved is the offensive ability of some of their prospects. The selection in 2003 of University of Minnesota sniper Thomas Vanek provides the Sabres with a potential scoring threat off the left wing, while the emerging Jason Pominville of the Rochester Americans could also provide some offensive pop from the right side. In the junior ranks, 2003 third-rounder Clarke MacArthur of the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers could potentially provide future offensive returns from either the wing or at center.

Organizational Weaknesses

As outlined above, the Sabres need to add quality depth to their defensive ranks. The team did use a first round selection on Keith Ballard back in 2002, but the trade of Ballard last summer means that the last first round pick used on a defenseman was back in 1998 (Dimitri Kalinin).

Also, with former first round selections Jiri Novotny and Artem Kriukov looking questionable in terms of their long-term ability, the Sabres could stand to add some quality depth at center. There are a few players in the system that can play the center position, but none that can control a game.

Draft Tendencies

During Regier’s tenure as GM, the Sabres have used just one first round selection (Daniel Paille) on a player from the CHL, with the other selections coming from the college or European ranks. This is no doubt a reflection of the troubled financial times that the club has experienced in recent years, since college and European player tend to arrive on the scene well after players drafted out of the top junior leagues.

Overall, the team seems to favor players from the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Russia, while the main source of talent from the CHL has been the WHL. The OHL may be gaining in this respect, however, since recent picks Derek Roy (Kitchener Rangers) and Daniel Paille (Guelph Storm) appear to be solid prospects on the rise. And, while the team has chosen the occasional college prospect, there does not seem to be a strong conviction in the Sabres scouting department regarding players from any one NCAA league.

Player most likely to be taken (Hockey’s Future mock draft result): Boris Valabik, D