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Building the Pipeline: Sabres Draft Review

The NHL Entry Draft is always an exciting time for teams, players and hockey fans. Not everyone, however, is happy all the time.

Reading fans’ reactions to the picks made by Sabres GM Darcy Regier and company, it’s clear there are mixed feelings. Most fans approve of the path taken by the Sabres in the draft, but some aren’t so supportive, with one even calling it the worst draft of Darcy’s tenure.

And while I cannot predict the future, I find that hard to believe.

When you look at the team’s current wealth of prospects, along with the players taken on draft day, the formula begins to take shape. The Sabres system is stacked with players ready to jump into everyday duty in either the NHL or AHL.

At forward, you have Mikhail Grigorenko, Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson, Joel Armia and Daniel Catenacci. On the blue line, there is Chad Ruhwedel, Mark Pysyk, and Braden McNabb. In net there is Andrey Makorov, Matt Hackett, Nathan Lieuwen and Connor Knapp.

Now you add two of the best defensemen available in the draft – Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov. Ristolainen may find himself in the NHL this season, while Zadorov may take only a few years before he’s a regular on the Buffalo blue line.

To start the second round, Buffalo treated fans to a trade that sent Andrej Sekera to Carolina for Jamie McBain and a second round pick, the 35th overall, giving the Sabres 35th, 38th and 52nd overall in the second round.

McBain, a 25-year-old defender, is a former 30-point scorer, who has spent at least part of four seasons in the NHL. Offensive-minded with good size, McBain only carries a $1.8 million cap hit.

Rumors of his availability date back to last season, and many believe he can turn around his career in Buffalo.

But back to the draft and the “formula.” Buffalo used its’ final nine picks to select two ’95 born OHL forwards, five collegiate commits (three forwards, one defenseman, one goaltender), one European forward and one overage player from the OHL. This nice mix gives the Sabres a group of players that will move into the AHL or NHL at different times, creating a good cycle of players and keeping the system stocked.

To start the second round, at 35th overall, Buffalo took left wing J.T. Compher of the USA U-18 National Team Development Program. At 6-foot, 178 pounds, Compher doesn’t possess great size, but the University of Michigan commit plays a big game. And while he projects to be productive offensively, he is more of a two-way player.

Extremely competitive and driven to win, Compher is a tough player to play against. With his unmatched compete level and package of skill, speed and an ability to agitate, he gives the Sabres a great player who has time to continue developing in college before joining the pro ranks.

With its’ second pick in the second round, 38th overall, Buffalo dipped into Minnesota’s crop of young talent to select the player considered to be the best high school player in the entire draft, Connor Hurley. The center from Edina High School is a great skater and excels offensively, thanks to smarts and great vision. The youngest player in the entire draft, Hurley has been lauded for his versatility and projects to develop into an offensive center, one who makes bones as a playmaker.

After a year in the USHL, Hurley plans on attending the University of Notre Dame, where he’ll continue polishing his game and adding strength to his frame.

For the Sabres third pick (52nd overall) in the second round, Justin Bailey, being drafted by Buffalo was a homecoming. The Williamsville native, who turned down an opportunity to play at Michigan State, had a solid first season with the Kitchener Rangers, totaling 36 points in 57 games.
A player with power forward potential, the right wing possesses a great shot, strong skating ability and excellent athleticism. He still has some work to do in terms of filling out his frame, but Bailey should progress during his second season in the OHL. The fact that he couldn’t have picked a better team bodes well as he works toward his ultimate goal.

With it’s only pick in the third round, 69th overall, Buffalo looked back to the OHL, selecting Nicholas Baptiste, a right wing with the Sudbury Wolves. Another two-way forward known for his work ethic, Baptiste is solid offensively, but a dedication to improving his defensive game boosted his draft stock. He prides himself in putting in the work and doing whatever his team needs.

With good size at 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, Baptiste brings a package of skills and intangibles to the table.

With no pick in the fourth round, Buffalo next looked to its’ three fifth round selections, the first of which came in the form of goaltender Cal Peterson at 129th overall. The Waterloo goalie spent one full season in the USHL and will be joining the University of Notre Dame after another year with Waterloo.

An athletic ‘tender,” he has decent size and good footwork. Scouts like his aggressive style along with his ability to remain calm and poised. The left-handed Peterson, one of the top goalies in the USHL this season, tries to model his game after current Sabres netminder and Olympic MVP Ryan Miller.

One pick later, Buffalo looked across the water to take Swedish junior player Gustav Possler. The right wing rose in the draft thanks to his strong performance at the U18 World Junior Championships (four goals, four assists in six games). With MODO J20, Possler has had back-to-back 40-point seasons, scoring more than a point per game in each.

Another player with two-way ability, Possler has strong puck skills and is a good skater. His offensive ability is aided by his quick release. It’s believed he’ll play for MODO in the top league next season.

With the 143rd overall pick, its’ last in the fifth round, Buffalo went back to the blue line to select South Kent Prep star and Providence College commit Anthony Florentino. With good size at 6-foot-1 and 209 pounds, Florentino says he “thrives on being mean,” something fans in Buffalo are sure to appreciate.

And while this physical, defensive-minded game is what he’s most noted for, he’s also very capable on the offensive side of things. A good skater, Florentino has good hands and shooting ability. Last season with South Kent, he had 53 points in only 62 games.

In the sixth round, at 159th overall, Buffalo’s roots shone bright again. From the USA U-18 NTDP, the Sabres selected West Seneca’s Sean Malone. The former Nichols center had a prolific high school career before joining the National Development Program. If hard work and ability to play a two-way game were prerequisites for the Sabres in this draft, Malone would have no problem gaining admittance, just like he did with Harvard University.

His former coach lauded his ability to not only set up plays, but also finish. With great speed and agility, Malone is on the fast track after being selected by his hometown team.

With its’ final pick in the draft, 189th overall, Buffalo returned to the OHL to select overage center Eric Locke. Bouncing from Windsor to Barrie and finally Saginaw, Locke was able to finish the season fourth in scoring with 97 points in 68 games. And while there are some concerns over his size, 5-foot-9, 182 pounds, Locke is a player with a great work ethic, a player willing to put in the necessary work to make it to the NHL.

The Saginaw center, no doubt, has some elite scoring ability. Now, he has a chance to prove his worth to an NHL front office as he moves up the ranks.

Summary

Looking back on the players the Sabres selected this year, I would say I’m very happy with this draft. They have a couple guys who might be ready to jump into the pro ranks right away, some who will be ready in the next few years, and some who will make the jump after continuing to develop in the collegiate ranks.

This mix creates a cycle that will keep the Sabres supplied with young players, Rochester stocked with AHL-ready prospects and a pipeline to feed both.

This “formula” makes sense, so much easier than calculus!

-Mike Repertorio

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