With the Buffalo Sabres unable to score goals once again in the still relatively young season, the reality has likely settled in for most who follow the team: They'll be picking very, very high in next year's NHL Entry Draft.
How high? Jeremy White of Buffalo's local WGR 550 radio station tweeted that SportsClubStats.com gives the Sabres a 97-percent chance of picking in the top three.
So to start, the Sabres will have an all but guaranteed top-three pick. Then comes the saga that will surround the first rounder obtained from the New York Islanders for Thomas Vanek that can be deferred to next season if the Isles finish poorly enough to pick in the top 10.
The story will involve the Islanders' internal debate of whether or not to defer the pick given what is on the horizon in terms of prospects next year.
As of Friday, the Islanders would pick second in the upcoming draft—assuming the Sabres win the lottery. Aside from John Tavares, the Islanders don't seem to be getting much better anytime soon either, especially with their current situation between the pipes. With that in mind, it is not a stretch to think the Isles will be as bad, if not worse next year, especially if they part ways with Vanek.
With Connor McDavid as the top prize in 2015, and names like Dylan Strome, Mitch Marner and Travis Konecny behind him, the Isles may not want to forfeit their chance to acquire one of them, so a top-three, let alone a top-10 pick, in this year's draft is not guaranteed to be deferred.
This means that the Sabres have the ability to have two top-three picks on top of three second rounders in 2014. As discussed before, this does not include any picks acquired in trades including potential UFAs Ryan Miller, Matt Moulson and Steve Ott, all of which would likely be at least second rounders.
If the Sabres are going to get better anytime soon, these picks, however they are utilized, will need to play a huge part in the future of the team. There is no way Pat LaFontaine and the new general manager will draft five players as Darcy Regier did last year. While Darcy's haul was impressive, the three second rounders, J.T. Compher, Justin Bailey and Connor Hurley, are each at least three years away from being in the conversation for an NHL roster spot.
The Sabres need to start adding "right-now" players, and the players available at the top of the next two drafts—Sam Reinhart and Connor McDavid—certainly fit that bill. The players in the mid-first and second rounds likely do not.
As Sabres President Ted Black has said many times this season, draft picks are a special kind of currency in the NHL and should be treated as such. There's more than one way to spend money, and there's certainly more than one way to use a draft pick.
Continually drafting five or six guys in the first two rounds can only get your team so far. Sure, those prospects themselves become their own currency, but the picks typically have a lot more value.
If the Sabres were to net themselves another first-round pick(s), likely in a Miller and/or Moulson trade, it's likely they'll come from teams making a playoff push and will be later in the round. Those picks can be swapped for immediate, top-six goal-scoring talent.
There are a number of soon-to-be restricted free agents that may have trouble re-signing given their team's cap situation like Derek Stepan of the New York Rangers and both Craig Smith and Colin Wilson of the Nashville Predators. They should be targets of the new Sabres GM.
The common theme in all of this is that the basis laid in 2014 will tell the tale of how well, or poorly, this rebuild will go. The new regime in the front office may have walked into a bad situation on the ice, but there is no denying that Regier has done a good job stocking the player cupboards, especially on defense.
LaFontaine and his GM choice need to take that and build on it this offseason, and that will almost certainly happen around the draft.
So whether Reinhart is wearing the blue and gold or not, the team needs to be able to take a step forward, and it needs to start in June.
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