We all knew from the start that the 2013-14 season would be about looking ahead for the Buffalo Sabres.
With 49 games still remaining in a year that is going down in history for its futility, it's already time to start gazing toward June 27 in Philadelphia when the Sabres will start building for their future through the draft.
The team looks likely to finish the season with the worst record in the league, which would guarantee it a top-two pick after the draft lottery is completed. Buffalo also may have a second high first-round pick courtesy of the New York Islanders.
The pick dealt in the Thomas Vanek trade could stay with the Sabres, or it could be deferred to the 2015 draft if it's a top-10 pick.
Some speculate the Islanders may allow the Sabres to have the pick wherever it is, however, to hold onto what may be a more valuable pick in the following year's draft. What happens there remains to be seen.
But with one very high pick guaranteed, and another possible, let's take a look at five prospects the Sabres should be considering once this season is over and rebuilding can officially begin.
Sam Reinhart has hockey in his blood.
His father, Paul, was an NHL defenseman for 11 seasons after being drafted in the first round by the Atlanta Flames in 1979. His brother Griffin was also a first-round pick—fourth overall by the New York Islanders in 2012. And his oldest brother, Max, is following their father's footsteps in the Calgary Flames organization after being drafted in the third round in 2010.
Sam, the youngest, may be the most talented of the bunch, though. Elite Prospects says he has "a nice blend of poise, maturity and a high hockey IQ."
He's got creative hands, excellent vision and superb instinct in the offensive end. He's able to slow things down and dissect the play. He battles hard and is a true team leader.
Currently a member of the Western Hockey League's Kootenay Ice, the 18-year-old Reinhart has tallied 16 goals and 34 assists through 33 games so far this season.
He will suit up for Team Canada in the 2014 World Junior Championships, set to begin in Sweden next week, where he will hope to lead his home country to the gold and wow NHL scouts in the process.
If the Sabres win the lottery and get the top pick in the 2014 draft, it is almost a no-brainer they will go with Reinhart.
While defenseman Aaron Ekblad is also seen by some as a potential No. 1 overall pick, the goal-starved Sabres are looking for a player who can make a difference on the scoresheet immediately. Reinhart has the ability to do that and will be one of the most NHL-ready players available in June. He has to be the top name on the Sabres' draft board.
Even if the Sabres don't end up with Reinhart, there are plenty of other talented forwards available near the top of this year's crop of draftees.
Another is Sam Bennett of the Ontario Hockey League's Kingston Frontenacs.
The 17-year-old Bennett should be in the discussion for the No. 1 overall pick, says Craig Button, TSN's director of scouting, calling him a "a well-rounded player who is impacting the game in so many positive ways and (who) continues to get better."
Like Reinhart, Bennett is leading his team in scoring so far this season—Bennett with 19 goals and 26 assists in 31 games. At 6'0", 168 pounds, he is a bit on the small side, but projection sites such as Elite Prospects say he makes up for his lack of size with his energy on the ice.
Bennett is an energetic, skilled winger who is quick on his feet and has deceptive speed. He generates chances with his quickness, awareness and constant effort. He's not flashy, but energetic and does possess an excellent release.
Bennett may not be as NHL-ready as Reinhart, but he may turn out to be just as dynamic. Sportsnet's Gare Joyce, in a recent profile of Bennett and the Frontenacs, said the youngster "does a passable impression of Patrick Kane."
Of this viewing and a look at a couple of games on the tube, I’m not sure if he has the speed to separate himself from checkers at the next level, but, then again, he does get to where he has to go. When his d-men weren’t coughing up fur balls, the puck would find Bennett’s stick and stay there until a chance developed. He doesn’t play the game in a full sprint but is able to wheel, deal and control tempo of play.
Any comparison to Patrick Kane is one Buffalo fans should want to hear. After all, the only time the Stanley Cup has made any appearance near the Queen City in recent years has been when the South Buffalo native has brought it home in celebration.
Bennett won't be an NHL superstar next year, but he may very well be in the near future.
Should the Sabres' lottery result not net them Reinhart—or should the first-round pick they receive from the New York Islanders give them the opportunity for a second lottery chance—Bennett might be the best option available.
The top-ranked foreign player on most draft rankings, including TSN's Bob McKenzie's and those of the International Scouting Service, William Nylander has shown he can make things happen on the ice at a moment's notice.
Like Reinhart, Nylander comes from a hockey family.
His father, Michael, played 15 seasons in the NHL and is still active in the Swedish Elite League. Uncle Peter had a lengthy career in Europe as well, while brother Alexander is currently making his way up through the Swedish youth divisions.
Nylander's defensive skills need work, reports Elite Prospects, but his offensive game is already highly honed.
Nylander skates very well, has impressive hands and is excellent at handling the puck at high speeds. Hockey sense is very impressive and he likes to shoot the puck a lot, but is also capable of delivering perfect passes. A very agile player that protects the puck well and skates hard in the offensive zone.
Button, in his scouting report on the 17-year-old, heaped on the praise as well.
William exudes confidence when he plays. Exceptional poise with the puck and is always looking to make threatening plays in the offensive zone. Excellent skater who is very difficult to check because of his agility and because he is always changing pace. Can make pinpoint passes in traffic and if you are his line mate, best be ready, as he will provide opportunities. Top line type player.
Drafting a European player always comes with risks, however. The quality of competition is different across the pond from what it is in North America, and scouting can be spread thin—just five of the Sabres' nearly 30 scouts are designated to Europe.
Whenever Sabres scouts are in Sweden, their eyes should be focused on Nylander. Depending on where—and how many times—the Sabres are drafting in the first round in June, his name may come up in the war room.
Back in North America, another player who is being highly touted as the draft gets closer is Michael Dal Colle of the OHL's Oshawa Generals.
At 6'2", 170 pounds, the 17-year-old may still need time to grow into himself. But Elite Prospects says, at least at the junior level, he throws his body around well.
Dal Colle is a bull who uses his natural talents well. He's got an imposing frame and already shows great balance and strength on his skates. He plays a two-way game, battles hard and displays quick hands for his size.
In his official scouting report, Button says Dal Colle has the kind of attributes that are coveted in a young player.
Michael has the abilities to impact the game in multiple ways. Very good skater with speed and power and with his size, is the type of player who can 'go where he wants.' Smart and can make plays and has good puck skills in passing and shooting. Appears to be very comfortable on the wing and can create advantages for the team along the boards, at the net and with his skill.
So far this season in Oshawa, Dal Colle leads the team with 23 goals and 33 assists in just 35 games.
Like Bennett, Dal Colle may need extra time at the junior level before he is ready to compete with the big boys in the NHL. In a recent profile with Hockey's Future, though, Dal Colle said that he already has an idea whose level he'd like to be on once he arrives.
“My favorite player is [Evgeni] Malkin,” Dal Colle said. “I think I play more of an Eric Staal type of game, but I really like Malkin and the way he plays. He’s a good two-way player, but he’s good offensively.
“All of those guys like Staal, [Rick] Nash have the ability to create offensively, but also focus on defense.”
Lofty goals, but reasons for excitement and something to look forward to should the Sabres call his name on draft day.
One name that has been rocketing up draft boards in recent weeks is that of Prince Albert Raiders forward Leon Draisaitl.
In his second year in the WHL, the 18-year-old is having a breakout season.
The recent surge in scoring has resulted in a surge in Draisaitl's draft stock. Button says the 6'2", 178-pound player's game is a blend of skill and power.
His skill derives from excellent hockey sense and the ability to make plays and recognize what is unfolding. His power is more along the lines of being hard to deter and imposing himself on opponents, with a serious determination to make a difference. Skating is good with much room to improve. A Top 2 line type forward.
Much like Dal Colle, Draisaitl may still be a bit undersized for his frame. Elite Prospects notes physicality is not the biggest part of his game, but that he is aware of how to use his size.
Draisaitl is a playmaking center who isn't overly physical but uses his size effectively to shield himself and the puck. He has excellent vision and knows where his options are. He has soft hands and a steady stride, but his smarts are his most important asset.
German-born, Draisaitl will likely have the opportunity to play at the 2014 World Juniors. He is a veteran of the tournament, scoring six points in six games to lead the Germans in last year's event.
A strong performance in Sweden at the WJC will only solidify Draisaitl's position as a top 10—and perhaps top 5—pick in the upcoming draft.
The Sabres could take a chance on him if they get the short-end of the draft lottery stick, or they could cash in on him with the Islanders' pick if it stays in their possession.