7 years. Barring a miracle, this April the Buffalo Sabres will again miss out on the NHL playoffs making it seven years since the underwhelming 2010-2011 first round exit.
What gives? How have other teams gone on to rebuild and find success and the Sabres have not?
Some people start at the top and blame ownership. Others blame the coaching. While those factors may contribute, this article will exam the draft picks.
The Sabres drafts from 2010 until 2015 were brutal. That is why the Sabres have been so bad the past 7 years. Without a strong draft, the whole franchise becomes inept. Free agency misses were another reason for the abysmal trajectory of the franchise. But, there is reason to be excited about the drafts of 2015, 2016, and 2017. The problem, draft prospects take time and are never a sure fire thing. Hopefully, come 2019 and beyond, the Sabres roster will be ready to compete. In the meantime, have a few beers and embrace the tank 2.0??
Possibly the worst draft in Buffalo Sabres history.
1 player from that draft is still in the NHL: Mark Psysk
While some may like the player, his contributions to the Sabres were limited. He played a total of 125 games for the Sabres over the course of four years and contributed 26 points.
Big misses: no other player selected by the Sabres in that draft ever played in an NHL game.
Sure, the rest of the NHL draft class may not have been stellar, but there were big contributors found in late rounds.
John Klingberg, round 5 131st overall, Dallas
Brendan Gallagher, round 5 147th overall, Montreal
Dalton Prout, round 6 154th overall, Columbus
Jesper Fast, round 6 157th overall, Rangers
Mark Stone, round 6 178th overall, Ottawa
Biggest blunder: the Sabres selected Mark Psysk 23rd overall, three spots ahead of stud Evgeni Kuznetsov
Another really tough draft year.
Total number of NHL games played by the five Sabres picks: 119
First round pick Joel Armia (16th overall) never panned out to the hype
Guys the Sabres missed out on:
Boone Jenner (2nd round)
Brandon Saad (2nd round)
Nikita Kucherov (2nd round)
J-G Pageau (4th round)
Johnny Goudreau (4th round)
Andrew Shaw (5th round)
Ondrej Palat (7th round)
Better, but still tough considering we had two first round picks. Who did we select: Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons
Linus Ullmark could make this a better draft if he breaks into the Sabres lineup
Guys the Sabres missed out on and could have selected:
Tom Wilson (16th overall)
Thomas Hertl (17th overall)
Olli Maata (22nd overall)
Mike Matheson (23rd overall)
Colton Parayko (86th overall)
Frederik Anderson (87th overall)
Biggest Miss: selecting Mikhail Grigorenko
Biggest positive: Jake McCabe in the 2nd Round
Sabres finally selected a building block that is a big part of the future: Rasmus Ristolainen
Jury is still out on if he is the big D man we all hope he is
Our other first rounder Nikita Zadorov did not work out. Justin Bailey could have a future on the team. Nicholas Baptiste is still lurking in the shadows as are NCAA studs Anthony Florentino and Sean Malone.
Overall not a bad draft.
Players the Sabres missed out on:
Andre Burakovsky (23rd overall)
Brett Pesce (66th overall)
Oliver Bjorkstrand (89th overall)
Anthony Duclair (80th overall)
Ryan Hartman (30th overall)
Biggest regret: Not signing goaltender Cal Petersen. Could be a real tough pill to swallow if he turns into an NHL goaltender. Petersen refused to sign and walked. He has a .939 save % for the Ontario Reign in the AHL in 6 games (that was a tough stat to even type given the Sabres goaltender fiasco)..
The Sabres thought they got a prized possession. Samson Reinhart was a consensus top 5 pick. Unfortunately, it does not look like he is part of the long term future. He is a smart, crafty player. He just does not have the skating speed to be as effective as he could be. Unfortunately, players drafted later have had a better start to their career, and it looks like the Sabres will move on from their 2nd overall draft pick.
No other player drafted by the Sabres has even played for Buffalo. Brendan Lemieux received a lot of hype and he was a trade piece for the Sabres. He finally touched NHL ice this season for the Winnipeg Jets. He could develop into a solid NHLer.
Players the Sabres missed out on:
Leon Draisaitl (3rd overall… ouch!)
William Nylander (8th overall)
Dylan Larkin (15th overall)
David Pastranak (25th overall)
Brayden Point (79th overall)
Viktor Arvidsson (112th overall)
Biggest takeaway: In hindsight, Leon Draisaitl is a much more explosive hockey player than Samson Reinhart. Sam will forever be compared to Leon and Sabres fans will always feel they missed out on an NHL stud.
Tank! The next one…. and nope.
The Sabres lose the draft lottery once again. Of course, we all said that Jack Eichel was not a consolation prize. Yet, he will never be Conor McDavid. Conor is an all-time guy. Eichel could be the next Modano or Toews, but we are still waiting to take over games the way Conor does. Maybe Jack needs better teammates. That may be so; we are waiting on a true left winger that can play the way Jack does. Too many times he sets guys up and they don’t finish. His point total should be greater than it is. But, McDavid took a failing Oilers franchise and made it relevant once again. Keep grinding though, Jack. Until we get a better roster, we cannot fairly judge you or criticize you.
Brendan Guhle may be the guy we are hoping on. It is smart of Sabres GM Jason Botterill not to rush him. He is still so young and the roster is not to the point where we need him to take the next step right away. Allow him to learn what it takes to be a professional.
Will Borgen could be a real solid NHLer too. He is killing it in the NCAA at St. Cloud State. He looked the part on the 2016-2017 USA World Junior Team. Only a 20 year old junior at St. Cloud State, perhaps he will turn into that steadying presence on the blue line the Sabres so desperately need. Maybe he will leave school early to join the professional ranks after this year? Perhaps it is the realist in me that wonders whether he will sign with the Sabres. I sure hope he does.
Cannot yet evaluate the rest of the crop given the age of the prospects and how soon it is after the draft.
Biggest takeaway: Sabres fans we got a stud. Jack Eichel has 131 points in 164 games. Imagine if he had a better roster with true finishers. He is here for the long haul. Allow him to have his growing pains without calling for his head on a silver platter. He is the franchise. The plays he makes are far beyond much of the current Sabres roster.
The year of Nylander, Asplund, and Pu.
Sabres fans are high on all three prospects. Without being too optimistic and celebrating something that has not even happened yet, there are plenty of reasons to be excited.
Only time will tell. Alexander Nylander is just coming off his injury and currently playing for the Rochester Americans (AHL). Nylander tore up the World Juniors in 2016-2017. He is even eligible to play in this year’s WJC in Buffalo. At 19 years old, he clearly needs time to develop. Rather than compare him to his brother and complain that he is not NHL ready like his older brother William, we need to be patient with him. He clearly has the skill. He needs time. Maybe he won’t be what he think he is, but regardless don’t jump to a conclusion until he grows and gets more mature.
Rasmus Asplund is promising. He is producing in the professional SHL as he has 13 points (4 g, 9 a) in 22 games. He is potentially NHL ready and may be ready to join the Sabres after this year. At only 19 years old, he is playing against grown men and playing well. This is his third year in the SHL. He should also play in the WJC this year in Buffalo. A complete player, he looks like a solid 2nd or 3rd line center.
Possibly the most exciting and fan favorite Cliff Pu. The third round pick was signed by the Sabres and is still back with his Junior club the London Knights. At only 19 years old he is tearing up the OHL. The London Knights are known for pumping out NHL superstars (Pat Kane and John Tavares among others). While Pu may never reach that level, he pumped out 86 points in 63 games last year and has 28 points in 22 games this year. A natural goal scorer, it looks like he has a bright future. Hopefully he makes Canada’s highly competitive World Junior team and Buffalo fans get to see him shine in his future hometown.
Casey Fitzgerald gives the Sabres even more reason to be excited about the 2016 draft class. He is a stud defenseman and the current Captain of Boston College where he has 9 points in 13 games. A true warrior, he showed what he could do on the World Junior stage in 2016-2017 where he helped the Americans to a gold medal. At 5’11” he is a little undersized, but he could thrive if given the right opportunity. We can only hope he signs with the Sabres and develops into a solid blue liner. He has all the intangibles and the fight to make up for his lack of size. Pretty impressive that he was named captain of BC as a junior.
Overall: a lot to like from Tim Murray in this draft. Murray’s legacy may change if this class produces the NHLer’s that it could. In a few years we may be thanking him for his drafts, especially given the drafts in years before he was named GM.
The future? Casey Mittelstadt could be that guy. Mr. Minnesota Hockey, Mittelstadt is a natural goal scorer and playmaker. Silky hands and great vision. Often double and triple teamed in high school at Eden Prairie (Ma.), he still produced 64 points in 25 games. The big story was that he returned to his high school from the USHL in order to win a HS State Championship. While Eden Prairie was upset, you cannot knock him for returning to his best friends and chasing a dream that they had since young kids. Minnesota’s hockey darling, he of course signed to play at the University of Minnesota. The U lucked out with his commitment to his state and family. He currently has 12 points in 13 games for the 6th ranked Gophers. The biggest question is when will he leave NCAA for the NHL. If the Gopher’s win the National Championship and he continues his success, maybe he would consider it after this year. If they don’t win, perhaps he will try to return for unfinished business? Counting down the days until we see Casey Mittlestadt in a Buffalo Sabres uniform. He should be a lock on the USA World Junior Team in Buffalo.
Marcus Davidsson is another professional SHL pick. With professional experience, his transition time should not be as long. A solid two-way center, he has all the tools to be a possible option at the second and third line in the coming years. While in no way is he Jonathan Toews, he has a similar defensive zone awareness and presence around the net. He has 8 points in 18 games in the SHL.
Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen could be what the Sabres need desperately, a stud goaltender. While it is very hard to project whether goalie’s can make it in the show, he has a lot of tools that can make a goalie into an NHL number 1 netminder. At only 18 years, he should only get better. At 6’4” he is a large butterfly goaltender that covers a lot of the net. He could follow in the line of dominant, big Finnish NHL goaltenders (Tuukka Rask and Pekka Rinna come to mind). Here’s to hoping he can be similar to them.
Oskari Laaksonen and Jacob Bryson are also interesting prospects that could burst onto the scene in the coming years. Too soon to tell, however, and not enough body of work to say one way or the other. Bryson is undersized, but he is assistant captain and has 9 points in 12 games as a sophomore.
By: Matthew Benedict
Stats provided by eliteprospects.com and hockeydb.com