1st Round Draft History: Buffalo’s Busts & Beauties Part III

In the final piece of “Buffalo’s Busts & Beauties” we will take a look at the last four years, which possibly can allow us a sneak peak into the Sabres future.  As we learned in the last installment (found here), you won’t be able to tell right away what side of the coin a player is on, but with a little bit of luck (and tons of scouting) these picks can help hoist a banner in the rafters and a parade in the streets.

With some maneuvering, the Sabres were able to make six first round selections the past four years.  The multiple first round pick trend continues this offseason as the Sabres hold three first rounders (for now anyway) in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft.

2011 – Joel Armia (F) 16th Overall

After selecting two defensemen the year before with their first two picks, the Sabres looked to try and get some offense for a team that struggled there.  This was another draft that having a pick in the middle made things tricky.  Plenty of talent was flying off the board before Buffalo was able to make their first selection.  All but one player in the top 15 have played in the NHL already, and 17 of the top 20 have made the leap, while Joel Armia hasn’t.  Yet.

Several players drafted out of the first round have had some success like Brandon Saad, Boone Jenner, and Tomas Jurco, but nobody after Armia in the first round has been a “Oh I wish they took that guy instead” player.  Armia played his first season in North America last year with the Rochester Americans.  In 54 games he scored seven times and had 20 helpers.  He will be at Sabres training camp this year, but there is a traffic jam for forwards so breaking camp with the team is a stretch.

Armia will make an impact in the NHL when his time comes.  It just remains to be seen when that will be.

2012 – Mikhail Grigorenko (F) 12th Overall, Zemgus Girgensons (F) 14th Overall

The Sabres had two picks in the first round in 2012.  They had their own which was the 12th and they had Nashville’s first rounder they acquired in a trade for Paul Gaustad at the deadline.  With the re-build project in its infancy stages, the Sabres again focused on offense to compliment the players that were already there, like Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek.

Mikhail Grigorenko hockey
Sabres need to be delicate with Grigorenko (Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports)

The Sabres selected Mikhail Grigorenko with their first pick.  I remember watching the draft (as I always do) and was surprised to see Grigorenko slipping like he did.  I was wondering if Buffalo should make a move to try and grab him before someone else did, but as we saw it play out they didn’t need to.  Grigorenko was a Sabre and some internal excitement was starting to brew.

Sometimes, teams can mishandle a prospect which hinders their development.  Grigorenko was thrown into the fire and really struggled and hasn’t had the opportunity to really show his value.  He made the Sabres after his first training camp but never really found a comfortable spot to stay and grow.  Since his draft day, Grigorenko has played in the NHL, the AHL, and was sent back to Junior.  The next few steps he takes are critical for both him as a player and the Sabres as an organization.

Buffalo made another move that draft moving up from 21st to 14th.  They took the pick they acquired from Nashville and traded it to Calgary (while adding a 2nd rounder) to pick Zemgus Girgensons.  Girgensons is another one of those players that on draft day I was excited for them to get.  It wasn’t until last season that I realized why I was so excited.

Girgensons made his NHL debut last season with the Sabres appearing in 70 games.  He tallied 22 points on an awful offense, but won me over (and probably everyone else) with his heart and his effort.  On a team that was as bad as Buffalo was last season, Girgensons was one of the bright spots.  He left us all with a little to think about in terms of how good this team is going to be eventually.  He impressed me so much that I am trying to make a case for him to become the newest captain of the team.  Sure that is a pretty lofty goal at this point but crazier things have happened.

As a top six forward on the Sabres, Girgensons could find himself centering the top line between Matt Moulson and Brian Gionta this season.  With the veteran presence on both sides of him the sky is the limit.

2013 – Rasmus Ristolainen (D) 8th Overall, Nikita Zadarov (D) 16th Overall

With the slide in the standings continuing and veteran players being traded away for picks and prospects, the re-build is on.  After selecting offense with their first few picks the last several years, the Sabres turned to defense in a big way.

2013 seemed to be pretty heavy on defense with players like Seth Jones and Darnell Nurse were taken before the Sabres pick.  With plenty of real good players on the board, Buffalo went with Rasmus Ristolainen.  I was fortunate enough to be at the draft in person in New Jersey and was thrilled to hear his name selected.  Many mock drafts had the Sabres selecting him or Darnell Nurse.  With Nurse off the board the pick before them, Ristolainen was the next obvious choice.

(Ross Bonander/THW)
Rasmus Ristolainen (Ross Bonander/THW)

Rasmus made his debut last season for the Sabres appearing in 34 games.  I like what I saw and am looking very forward to seeing him again this season.  Even with the additions Buffalo made this offseason, there still is a very good chance that Ristolainen breaks camp with the Sabres and is penciled in the bottom defensemen pairing.

After trading captain Jason Pominville away to Minnesota for quite a large package, the Sabres held the Wild’s first round pick at number 16.  Buffalo got nasty selecting Nikita Zadarov with that pick.  Zadarov is big and is certainly not afraid of anyone.  We were given a small sample size last season as Zadarov played in seven games for the Sabres.  What we learned is that he is a talented young player that needs a bit more seasoning.  The rest of the league should be put on warning once he makes the leap for goo.

2014 – Sam Reinhart (F) 2nd Overall

It has been well documented in every facet of the media, and with me included, that the Sabres are re-building.  It also has been said many times that in order to get a real franchise changing player in the draft you have to be bad first.  All that happened last year as Buffalo found themselves picking second overall.  With that pick Buffalo selected Sam Reinhart.

Picks like Sam Reinhart will now get tested at the combine in Buffalo the next two seasons. (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)
NHL or Junior?  Sabres have decision to make as camp is set to open. (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

We have been able to see what he has done in the CHL improving on his point totals over the last three seasons.  We may have to wait a bit to see what he does in the NHL.  Buffalo will have a decision to make during camp or right after it ends with what to do with Reinhart.  Will he get sent back to junior to get a bit more seasoning or will he be learning his craft in the NHL?  Either way it is exciting times in western New York.

Buffalo has stocked up the farm and have be doing things the right way in terms of turning their fortunes around.  They are still some pieces away from being a playoff team, but they have left the fanbase with plenty to look forward to in the years to come.