Charging Forward: Buffalo Sabres 2011 NHL Draft Weekend Review and Grades
It was a busy, exciting and for awhile, stressful weekend for Sabres fans and the front office, but in the end, it's hard not to come away pleased with what has transpired over the last 72 hours. Both of the Sabres two major needs heading into this offseason, defensive leadership and a No. 1 center, were addressed (although to different degrees).
The new management under owner Terry Pegula did their best to make their mark on this franchise and gear up the Sabres for a run at the Stanley Cup in 2011-2012. It's clear to fans that this is no longer the old Sabres front office, where draft day trades were about as frequent as a Haley's Comet sighting and North American skaters were the only players considered in the draft. This is a brand new world for Sabres fans, and an exciting one at that.
First Round Selection: No. 16 Joel Armia
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Despite the temptation to pick solid center prospect Mark McNeill with the No. 16 pick, the Sabres' brass decided to go with the skilled and flashy winger Joel Armia from Finland. Before I analyze the Armia pick, it is important to note that this was the first European player selected by the Sabres in an entry draft since goalie Jhonas Enroth was taken in the second round in 2006. Think about that for a second—five full years of selecting only North American players. That was the type of conservatism that dominated the old management, but this is a new staff and they are willing to take the risks needed to succeed.
Now on to Armia. While he is a winger (a position that the Sabres have significant depth at), he has an excellent combination of size and speed to go along with a goal scoring touch that has been compared to Finnish great Teemu Selanne. Armia has room to grow into his 6'3'' frame, and when he does, he will be an even more solid player who should be hard to move off of the puck.
Playing in the Finnish Elite League as just an 18-year-old against grown men, Armia put up an impressive 29 points in 48 games as a rookie, including 18 goals. For comparison, Selanne has 12 points in 11 games during his rookie season in the same league.
The fourth rated European skater in the draft, Armia was a bit of a steal at pick No. 16. Despite trying to trade up into the top 10 picks, the Sabres were happy to have Armia fall into their laps at the mid-point of the first round. "This is the guy" said head scout Kevin Devine "we're crossing our fingers that he'd be there."
Joel Armia will be a terrific addition to the Buffalo Sabres pool of prospects, and while he will most likely not see the ice in the NHL for another year or so, his raw goal scoring skill and big size makes this a very good selection.
Trade: Robyn Regehr Comes to Buffalo
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While this may not be a draft selection, this was easily the biggest move the Sabres made during the draft weekend. While it took a significant amount of convincing from Terry Pegula, GM Darcy Regier and Head Coach Lindy Ruff, the big, bruising defenseman Robyn Regehr finally waived his no-trade clause and accepted his dealing to Buffalo.
Along with Regehr, former Sabre Ales Kotalik and a second round pick in 2012 head Buffalo's way, while the Sabres shipped prospect Paul Byron and defenseman Chris Butler out to western Canada.
Buffalo has significant depth at the defensive position in their talent pool, but the one thing they don't have was a big, powerful, stay-at-home defenseman to staple gun forwards to the boards (see picture). Regehr may not be offensively skilled (just four goals in his last three seasons combined), but he is not afraid to hit, and hit hard. He adds some much needed grit to the defensive corp and will make an excellent pairing with rising star Tyler Myers. His wealth of experience will also give him the ability to mentor Buffalo's young defensive group, but don't get me wrong, he isn't here to be Craig Rivet Part II. The 31-year-old Regehr is expected to play a major role defensively into the future.
While the Sabres will have to take on some added money with one year and $3 million left on Kotalik's contract, he will likely be bought out or spend the season in the minors.
To get a No. 2 defenseman and a high draft pick for two somewhat mediocre players was a steal from the Sabres perspective, making this one of the best trades in years for Buffalo.
Round Three Selection: No. 77 Daniel Catenacci
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The Sabres next pick came in the third round, as they traded this year's second round selection to St. Louis for winger Brad Boyes.
While landing Joel Armia at No. 16 may have been a minor coup, finding Daniel Catenacci still available in the third round was absolute highway robbery.
The former No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 OHL draft, Catenacci may be a bit undersized (5'10'', 183 lbs), but he has a solid offensive upside and blazing speed, winning the fastest skater competition at the 2011 Top Prospects game. What makes this an even better pick is the fact that he is a center, which is easily Buffalo's biggest need.
Catenacci was ranked as the 37th overall North American skater going into the draft and was seen as a late first/early second round pick, so the fact that he was selected midway through the third round at pick No. 77 was incredible.
Once again, scout Kevin Devine spoke very highly of their selection. "We had him in the second round. He's put up a lot of points this year... really solid on his skates, explosive speed, great wrist shot."
A very solid player with great speed, who should, at worst, develop into a decent NHLer is all you can ask out of a third round pick.
Forth Round Selection: No. 107 Colin Jacobs
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Another much needed center prospect, Colin Jacobs adds better size than Catenacci (6'1'', 197 lbs), but does not have the same offensive upside. Jacobs is a strong two-way player who had 44 points and 69 penalty minutes in 68 games this season for Seattle of the WHL.
Ranked as the 61st North American skater, Jacobs was another excellent pick up in the forth round.
Don't expect to see the Dallas native in a Sabres uniform anytime soon (um, except for the picture), as he will need a few more years of seasoning in the juniors and the AHL before he is ready for the NHL.
Fifth Round Selection: No. 137 Alex Lepkowski
The Sabres are known for selecting local talent in recent drafts (i.e. Tim Kennedy, Patrick Kaleta), so it should come as no surprise that the front office went off the boards to select West Seneca's own Alex Lepkowski in the fifth round.
Lepkowski was unranked as a prospect going into the draft, but he has great size (6'4'', 212) and isn't afraid to use it. Adored by his coaches for his hard working, blue-collar attitude, should Lepkowski ever make it to the NHL, he will be a fan-favorite for his toughness and grit.
A large, stay-at-home defenseman who isn't afraid to drop the gloves is never a bad thing to add at this point in the draft, though Lepkowski's journey to the NHL will most likely be a long one.
Late Round Selections
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Round Six Selection: No. 167 Nathan Lieuwen (pictured)
Round Seven Selection: No. 197 Brad Navin
Adding more depth to a depleted corp of goaltenders and centers, the Sabres final two picks made sense for their position, but were nothing to write home about.
Selecting goalie Nathan Lieuwen makes sense, because after Ryan Miller and Jhonas Enroth, the Sabres only have David Leggio in the AHL and almost no goaltending talent behind him.
Brad Navin, another center, hails from Wisconsin and, much like the majority of players taken by the Sabres, adds size (6'2'', 183 lbs) and scoring ability (29 goals in 14 games for Waupaca High School)
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While there is still free agency to come (hello, Brad Richards?), the Sabres have gotten themselves off to a tremendous start to the first offseason under new owner Terry Pegula. With all financial restraints removed and a renewed "win now" attitude in the front office, Buffalo has set themselves up to be a major player in the NHL now and for years to come. This weekend should give Sabres fans encouragement that the organization is truly willing to practice what it preaches—to finally bring the Stanley Cup to Buffalo.
Expect more action to come on July 1 (first day of free agency), and do not be surprised when Buffalo gears up for a serious run at the Stanley Cup this season and beyond.
Overall Grade: B+