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The Sabres- A New Hope

A Buffalo Sabres prospect primer, draft review, and recent (tank years) history...

Author:  Cameron McCarty

Does this sound like you before the season started? – “I’m pretty sure Jack Eichel is going to be a 90-point guy this year”.  How about this? – “The Sabres might not make the playoffs, but I bet you they make a really strong push for a Wild Card spot”.  Have you mastered the art of fast forwarding through games, only stopping when you see the Sabres score jump by one, rewinding and re-watching the goal?  Admit it, that’s you and it sucks.  Why are we so bad, and how do we fix it?  What are the models that work in the NHL and who are we trying to mimic?  Who are the good players in this year’s draft?  I got you fan.

I propose to you that the reason that the Sabres are bad is because they are bad at drafting players, bad at developing players, and bad at evaluating their current players.  It’s a really easy explanation. I bet you’d have a hard time picking 5 guys that played more than 40 games this year to start your rebuild with.  The good news is that teams can turn it around quickly.  Look no further than the Las Vegas Knights.  They’re a team  comprised of players that other teams did not want and they still finished with 109 points.  So considering the Sabres have two players under the age of 23 with 25 goals this year (Eichel and Reinhart), one of the best prospect pools in the NHL, and a chance to land another once in a life time player in the 2018 draft, there has to be hope.

If you’re the sort of fan who cares about prospects and drafts, my guess is you had an easier time coasting through the year. The casual fan who turned on the TV and expected to be entertained by actual hockey was no doubt disappointed.  My advice to that fan would be: learn about the young players, the prospects- they are what makes this team interesting. Find a “dark horse” prospect that you think can really make a difference next year.  This organization is loaded with them.  Mine is Cliff Pu.  He was drafted 69th overall by the Sabres in 2016 and has been destroying the OHL.  Last year he had 86 points in 63 games, this year he had 84 points in 65 games.  He’s big, he’s fast and when he scores people yell “Puuuuuu”. What do you know about the 2018 NHL draft?  Dahlin, Svechnikov, and Zadina are some of the names you’re going to want to know. One of them might be the reason the Sabres are good again soon.  In your opinion, which NHL team has the best model for success?  Pittsburgh?  Chicago?  How about Nashville?  After all, that’s where Phil Housley came from.

Let’s rewind the clock 6 years. In 2012, we drafted 3 players that might have given us some insight into what kind of NHL team we were going to model ourselves after. With the 8th overall pick, we selected Finnish defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, with the 16th overall pick we selected a big Russian defenseman Nikita Zadorov, and with the 35th pick we drafted a role playing American forward JT Compher.  That signaled to me that we were going to try to follow the Chicago model:  Two core Forwards (Kane, Toews), and two core defensemen (Seabrook, Keith).  The rest of the team would be filled in by cheap role players. Considering the success that they were having, that seemed like an exciting and smart way to build a team.  This was even further evident when we drafted Canadian center Sam Reinhart 2nd overall. He would, no doubt, be the dynamic forward we so desperately needed.

Things were really looking up in 2015 when we drafted mega prospect Jack Eichel. That gave us two top picks on offense and two top picks on defense. But wait a second. The Sabres then traded Zadorov, Compher, and the 31st overall pick for Ryan O’Reilly that year. What happened to the Chicago model?  Now we have 3 top forwards and 1 top defenseman?  Oh, I get it, we are trying to be Pittsburgh. The only problem is that one of those player needs to be Sidney Crosby and the other has to be Evgeni Malkin. The Sabres put all their eggs into trying to get good down the middle and now lack balance. Ristolainen has spent the majority of his tenure playing with guys like Gorges and McCabe who are not good enough to play on a top pair. Like it or not, Ristolainen has had historically bad possession numbers, playing for a historically bad defense. Makes you wonder if he really is a part of the future.

We move on now to 2017-2018. All smart hockey people will tell you that offense is generated from defense. Specifically, defensemen who play like forwards and rush the puck. Look at Nashville. Let’s hire their assistant coach and we will be like them. Do we have any good defenseman? Absolutely not, but we will play like them…and we’re in last place.

Depressed yet? Well how about this nugget. The Sabres have really good prospects. I mean really great prospects…except at defense. Aside from Brendan Guhle and Will Borgen, that cupboard is bare. Of any team in the NHL trying to model Nashville, the Sabres are by far the most ill-equipped team to do it. When they were drafting guys like Alex Nylander 8th overall, they should have been picking Mikhail Sergachev. Who’s he? He is a 19-year-old defenseman that had 40 points in 79 games for Tampa this year. Guess when he was drafted…9th.  I know that screws up my timeline a little bit because Tim Murray drafted Nylander and that was before Phil Housley and Jason Botterill were here, but it leads me to my next point. The Sabres are terrible at drafting.

The Sabres have great prospects, but they are bad at drafting. Does that make sense?  Probably not. But that’s not the point.  They have a lot of exciting young players but they have been picking at the bottom of the draft for 6 years now. Of course they have exciting young players. But who was the last player the Sabres drafted outside of the first round that made an All-Star team? For other teams, that happens all the time. Teams choose guys late in the draft that end up being really good, I swear. It almost never happens in Buffalo.  Brian Campbell would probably be the last example of that- in 1997.

The Sabres finished last this year. They have an 18.5% chance of winning the draft’s #1 overall pick, 16.5% chance of picking 2nd, 14.4% chance of choosing 3rd and thus a 50.6% chance of choosing 4th.  In other words they have about 50% chance of getting a top 3 pick and about a 50% chance they pick 4th.  These are the top three prospects in the draft:

Rasmus Dahlin (Sweden).  Defense, 6’ 2”, 181 lbs. The most hyped defensive prospect of all time. He is everything the NHL is gravitating towards. Big, fast, creative and plays with an edge.  He is the Connor McDavid of defensive prospects. He will change your franchise. Whoever wins the lottery and chooses first will draft this player- end of story. Whatever, he’s really good.

Player Comparison: Erik Karlsson

Andrei Svechnikov (Russian). Right Wing, 6’2”, 187 lbs. A phenomenally talented winger, he is a smooth skater who can flat out score. He had 31 goals and 22 assists in 13 games playing in the Russian U16 league. If he were a year older, he probably would have been drafted first overall in 2017. As an 18-year-old he scored 40 goals in 44 games (.91 GPG) playing for the Barrie Colts in the OHL. To give that some context, Taylor Hall scored 40 goals in 57 games (.70 GPG) for the Windsor Spitfires, Nate MacKinnon scored 32 goals in 44 games (.72 GPG) for the Halifax Mooseheads, and Tyler Seguin scored 48 goals in 63 games (.76 GPG) for the Plymouth Whalers.

The Sabres would love to get their hands on this kid. It’s ideal that Jack Eichel is paired with a great goal scoring winger. Last night Eichel skated with Kyle Okposo and Scott Wilson…Sad.  Svechnikov projects to be the guy they need.

Player Comparison: Marian Hossa

Philip Zadina (Czech Rep) Right Wing, 6’0, 196lbs. He’s a step behind Svechnikov but is a dynamic offensive player in his own right. Zadina has as good of a release as anyone in the draft this year and thinks the game like a pro. His shiftiness and decision-making ability separates him as a goal scorer. He scored 44 goals (82 points) in 52 games in the “Q” (QMJHL) this year for the Halifax Mooseheads. On the world stage at the World Juniors, Zadina solidified his spot as a top 3 prospect by scoring 7 goals (8 points) in 7 games and outshining projected 2nd overall pick Andrei Svechnikov.

Player Comparison: Jacob Voracek

So if those are the top 3 prospects up for grabs, it begs the question, who do we already have?  I’m glad you asked.

Casey Mittelstadt (American) Center, 6’0, 185 lbs., drafted in 2017 8th overall.  If you’re not familiar, shame on you. He played for team USA in the World Junior tournament that took place right in your back yard. He was awarded the tournament MVP and is by far our most coveted prospect. The Hockey News recently rated him as the #1 NHL prospect.  Eichel and Mittlestadt should prove to be a special 1-2 punch down the middle for many years to come.

Player Comparison: Daniel Briere

Alex Nylander (Swedish) Right Wing, 6’ 1”, 191 lbs., was also drafted 8th overall.  Alex is an ultra-talented prospect who possess hands, speed, and hockey IQ. This year in the World Junior tournament, he was also a stand out, scoring 7 points in 7 games. Alex got off to a slow start in his first year playing pro hockey. In part, because of a groin injury suffered early in training camp. I expect him to make a push for a roster spot next year.

Player Comparison: William Nylander

Brendan Guhle (Canadian) Defense, 6’ 2”, 196 lbs., drafted 51st overall the same year as Jack Eichel.  Tim Murray made a lot of really bad decisions before he was finally shown the door, but this might have been his greatest gift. Talk to any scout who has seen Guhle play live and they all say the same thing: He is one of the best skaters they have ever seen. Hard to believe a player like him made it to the second round, but kudos to Murray for finding him. Buffalo is really counting on Guhle to be a big part of the new style of defense that is so sought after in today’s NHL.

Player Comparison: Olli Matta

Victor Olofsson (Swedish) Right Wing, 5’ 10”, 180 lbs., drafted 181st in the 2014 draft. This is probably a guy you have never heard of unless you’re really a draft geek. Playing in the men’s Swedish professional league (SHL), Olofsson posted a league leading 27 goals in 50 games.  Prospects who put up really big numbers in international pro leagues tend to translate very well to the NHL. Olofsson is quick, elusive, and has a knack for scoring highlight-reel goals. The one knock on him is that he plays soft and doesn’t go into gritty areas.

Player Comparison: Martin St. Louis

Rasmus Aslplund (Swedish) Center, 5’ 11”, 176 lbs., drafted 33rd overall in 2016.  Asplund plays in the ultra-competitive Swiss men’s professional league. This year he scored a career high 28 points in 50 games. Asplund is known as a speedy playmaker who is extremely hard working.  He plays a 200 foot game and projects to be a 3rd line center. If Asplund makes it to the NHL, he will quickly become a fan favorite.

Player Comparison: Ryan Spooner

Projected Sabres Lines- 2018-2019

Forwards:

Rodriguez -Eichel- Reinhart

Mittlestadt-O’Reilly- Okposo

CJ Smith-Bailey- Baptiste

Wilson-Pu-Pominville

Defensemen:

Ristolainen- Dahlin

McCabe- Scandella

Guhle- Nelson

Or:

Forwards:

Rodriguez-Eichel-Svechnikov

Nylander-O’Reilly-Reinhart

CJ Smith-Mittlestadt-Okposo

Bailey-Pu-Baptiste

Defensemen:

Ristolainen-Scandella

Nelson-Guhle

McCabe-Borgen

OK that might not be a playoff team but at least it’s interesting.  When it comes to rebuilding this team, there is really only one way to get it wrong- more of the same. These 2 rosters are young, fast and exciting. They should make Buffalo fans want to watch hockey again (in real time), and besides we literally can’t get any worse.

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