With the NHL Draft less than one week away, it's time to look at a team that is in a position to make some of the biggest headlines early on Sunday—the Buffalo Sabres.
With four picks in the first two rounds (No. 8, 16, 38 and 52), the Sabres have more than enough ammo to continue to build up their already deep prospect pool, or try and use some combination of those picks to move into the top five.
The value of their first four picks is exponentially larger this year thanks to the depth of the 2013 class. Players who would normally come off the boards between picks 15-30 in an average draft will be available in the late 30s and early 40s this year, and a team like Buffalo is in a great position to capitalize on this.
If one thing has become clear over the past season, it’s that Buffalo has fallen from a perennial playoff contender to a rebuilding team that needs to build a new core. Longtime Sabres like Ryan Miller, Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville are either gone or on their way out the door and they are being replaced with new faces like Mikhail Grigorenko and Cody Hodgson. The glory days are long gone, and it may take a while before they’re back.
By the end of the 2013-’14 season, Buffalo will look nothing like the team that went to two straight Eastern Conference Finals before falling into mediocrity for the last three seasons. That transformation starts with the draft.
General manager Darcy Regier has made no secret of the fact that he is looking to move up into the top three selections this year, but after his comments last week, that possibility is looking increasingly unlikely.
“I would characterize the draft and primarily the ability to move in the draft—to move up into those top spots—will be extremely difficult if not impossible given the conversations that I have had as recently as [Wednesday],” Regier said in his pre-draft press conference.
With that in mind, Sabres fans can probably stop dreaming about picking up Halifax Mooseheads forwards Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin, or Portland Winterhawks defenseman Seth Jones, who are the consensus top three prospects in this draft class.
However, just because Buffalo will most likely not be in a position to pick up a five-star prospect doesn’t mean that they won’t be able to find a player or two who can make a significant impact in the not-so-distant future.
Before we begin looking at specific players, I should note that I would be shocked if Buffalo actually kept each of their first four picks. Even if a trade into the top-five is impossible, if recent history is any guide, Regier will surely make some sort of move with those picks.
Assuming Buffalo keeps the No. 8 pick, they should be looking at a group of players that includes Swedish forward Elias Lindholm, Ottawa 67's center Sean Monahan and Russian winger Valeri Nichushkin.
Lindholm, a strong two-way player who put up 30 points in 48 games against grown men in the Swedish Elite League this year, seems to be the most likely pick. It has been said that in most other drafts, the 18-year-old would garner top-three consideration, so picking up a player of that caliber would be nothing to sneeze at with the eighth pick.
That said, Buffalo already has a couple of strong two-way players in Rochester in Zemgus Girgensons and Johan Larsson, so the positional need for another center is not that strong.
What the Sabres do not have is a player like Sault Ste. Marie defenseman Darnell Nurse. You won’t see a lot of offensive production in any of his highlight videos, but what you will find is a guy with the toughness and shutdown ability to take an opponent’s best player out of the game on a nightly basis. What you’ll find is exactly what the Sabres’ current defense corps is missing.
Buffalo has plenty of smooth-skating, offensive minded defensemen in the pro ranks, but they don’t have that guy who can poke check, block shots, drop the gloves and lead his teammates in clutch situations. Nurse can do all that and more. He is the type of player who can take over a playoff series and put the team on his back.
The nephew of former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, Nurse is already 6'5", 185 pounds at 18 years old, and he has the frame to add on another 20-30 pounds to give him the ideal size needed to be a top flight defenseman in the NHL.
He has been compared to future Hall of Famer Chris Pronger, and if he is even half that good, Nurse would be an absolute steal at pick No. 8.
Taking a defenseman with their first pick opens up the possibilities for Buffalo when they head back to the podium with the 16th pick. They could go the defenseman route again, but with the other positional needs, that is unlikely, even if Rasmus Ristolainen and Bo Hovat are still available. Look for a forward or Halifax goaltender Zach Fucale to come off the board at 16, especially if Miller is no longer on the roster come draft day.
The best bet for the Sabres with their second pick could be Quebec Ramparts power forward Adam Erne. A former teammate of Buffalo’s first pick from last year, Mikhail Grigorenko, Erne brings a toughness and scoring touch that would fit in well with a Boston Bruins-type system—something that the Sabres could sorely use.
Together with Marcus Foligno, Erne would help change Buffalo’s perception around the league from a soft team to a one that is tough as nails with the offensive ability to match it.
With the 38th pick, Buffalo can add more offensive firepower to their prospect pool with winger Andre Burakovsky. The Swedish sniper can do almost anything with the puck, and with Vanek’s days in Buffalo seemingly numbered, Burakovsky could act as his replacement a few years down the road.
Weighing in at just 176 pounds, Burakovsky will need to add weight to his slim frame, but if he is available at pick No. 38, Buffalo would be able to pick up their third first-round caliber player in this draft.
As it stands, Buffalo has 10 picks in this year’s draft, and while that number is likely to change, Buffalo should come away with a number of players who could make an impact at the NHL-level soon. Regier has come under fire from fans for his inability to acquire any superstar talent, but he has done a fine job of putting his team in position to build through the draft as they work through this rebuild. Even if he won’t call it that.
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