The Buffalo Sabres currently hold the NHL’s second-longest active playoff drought (Carolina Hurricanes) and for the past seven seasons, the entry draft is really all fans had to look forward to. As the team finds itself in the league basement yet again, the blue and gold faithful have turned their attention toward the Sabres’ impressive prospect pool for encouragement.
Despite parting with several talented youngsters during Tim Murray’s reign as general manager, the Sabres still boast a relatively deep developmental core, especially at forward. With the 2017-18 season all but lost, the front office will soon turn its attention toward the draft.
With a relatively good chance at landing a lottery selection, Jason Botterill and his staff will be hard at work scouting players like Adam Boqvist, Filip Zadina, and dare we say, Rasmus Dahlin?
Until then, let’s take a look back at some of the Sabres’ recent NHL Entry Draft classes.
2013 – Rasmus Ristolainen & Nikita Zadorov, Defensemen
At one point, Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov were viewed as the Sabres’ future lockdown tandem. On a team desperate for defensive reinforcements, both players got their first taste of NHL action as teenagers.
In his first season after being selected eighth overall, Ristolainen split the year between Buffalo and their AHL affiliate, the Rochester Amerks. At 6-foot-4, 218-pounds, he was undaunted by the physicality of an NHL game, often called upon to be a net-clearing presence in his own end. In 34 contests during his rookie season, he averaged over 19 minutes of ice time per game.
Fast-forward five years and Ristolainen remains entrenched on the Sabres’ top defensive pairing. While critics will point to his abysmal Corsi statistics, he plays an integral role on the Sabres’ blue line, ranking third in the NHL in ice time per game. On a roster that has struggled on the back-end for the better part of a decade, he is called upon in every situation. Ristolainen quarterbacks the team’s top power-play unit and provides a steady presence on the penalty kill.
Currently signed through the 2021-22 season, barring the unlikely event of a trade, expect to see him in blue and gold for the foreseeable future.
Nikita Zadorov’s NHL experience has been a little less consistent. The Buffalo brass felt that they got a steal when the team selected the big-bodied Russian bruiser 16th overall. After spending another season with London of the OHL, he was called up to the big club in 2014-15. In his inaugural campaign with the Sabres, he registered 15 points in 60 games.
Following the conclusion of a season that would go down in infamy as “the tank”, Zadorov was sent to the Colorado Avalanche as part of a package in exchange for Ryan O’Reilly. In three seasons with Colorado, it seems he has finally established himself as an NHL regular. With Tyson Barrie sidelined due to injury, he currently serves on their top defensive pairing beside NHL veteran, Erik Johnson.
While Zadorov and Ristolainen are the biggest names to come out of this draft for the Sabres, players like JT Compher (35th overall) and Cal Petersen (129th overall), look like long-term NHL contributors as well, though they are no longer part of the organization.
Compher was sent to Colorado along with Zadorov, and Petersen opted to become a free agent following his senior year at Notre Dame, eventually signing with the Los Angeles Kings.
Justin Bailey (52nd overall) and Nic Baptiste (69th overall) remain in the Sabres’ farm system. Both players have been given multiple opportunities to prove themselves at the NHL level, however, they have failed to secure a permanent spot on the roster. Players like Evan Rodriguez and Hudson Fasching have seemingly passed them on the organizational depth chart.
2014 – Sam Reinhart, Center
Despite having the best draft lottery odds after finishing last in 2013-14, the Sabres lost out to the Florida Panthers for the first overall pick (Aaron Ekblad). With the second overall selection, former general manager, Tim Murray acquired Sam Reinhart, referring to him as “Einstein on skates.”
Once regarded as the top forward prospect in the draft, Reinhart has struggled as of late. After finishing the 2016-17 season with 42 points in 79 games, the 22-year-old is on pace to close out the 2017-18 campaign with a paltry 25 points. At the beginning of the year, Phil Housley tried putting Reinhart back at his natural center position but it became clear rather quickly that he is best suited on the wing.
As players like David Pastrnak, William Nylander, and Leon Draisaitl continue to produce at impressive rates, Murray’s selection looks even more dubious. Housley recently elected to put Reinhart back on Jack Eichel’s right side in an attempt to boost his production, but that experiment didn’t last long. He now sits on the third line, creeping closer and closer to bust territory.
Recently, Reinhart’s name has surfaced on the rumor mill. It has been speculated that Botterill will purge the roster of under-performing players from the last regime. If this is the case, Reinhart’s days could be numbered.
To make matters worse, the remainder of the 2014 draft hasn’t yielded any other roster players for the Sabres. In fact, the only other selection from Murray’s inaugural draft class that has seen NHL action is Brendan Lemieux (31st overall), who was dealt to the Winnipeg Jets as part of a deal for Evander Kane.
Players like Eric Cornel (44th overall), Vaclav Karabacek (49th overall) and Max Willman (121st overall) continue to flounder in obscurity, though there is a faint silver lining across the pond. Seventh-round pick, Victor Olofsson (181st overall) is producing at just under a point-per-game clip for Frolunda HC of the SHL.
Though it is not atypical for a 22-year-old prospect to flourish overseas, Olofsson has shown improvement every season as a pro and projects to contribute in a big way for Rochester next season.
2015 – Jack Eichel, Center
Sabres fans suffered through one of the most embarrassing seasons in franchise history for a chance at a guaranteed top-two selection in the 2015 entry draft. While generational superstar Connor McDavid was seen as the grand prize, Jack Eichel was an incredible consolation.
Despite Murray’s deflated demeanor after losing the draft lottery to the Edmonton Oilers, Eichel has embraced the blue and gold, becoming the undisputed face of the franchise. In the season leading up to the draft, he won the Hobey Baker award as the nation’s top collegiate player, becoming only the second freshman ever to do so (Paul Kariya).
Sabres fans rejoiced when Murray unceremoniously announced Eichel’s name at the podium. A weight had been lifted off of their collective shoulders. Their superstar had arrived. The suffering was over.
Or so they thought.
Two and a half seasons into his NHL career, Eichel has performed exactly as advertised. With 149 points in 184 games, it appears that he has found his scoring groove, averaging just under a point per game since the start of last season. Despite all of his individual success, Buffalo has found out in short order that one player cannot carry an entire franchise.
Entering the 2017-18 season, fans expected vast improvement in the standings. The organization finally rid itself of the perpetually milquetoast, Dan Bylsma in favor of Housley who pledged a high-octane offensive strategy, the likes of which fans hadn’t seen in nearly a decade. Just days before the season, Eichel signed an eight-year, $80 million extension, making him the highest paid player in franchise history.
At the halfway point, Eichel leads the team with 36 points and has been selected to the 2018 NHL All-Star Game in Tampa Bay. Despite his individual success, the Sabres currently sit in 30th place, and the franchise continues to trudge through what seems like a decade-long rebuild.
In the second round of the 2015 draft, the Sabres selected defenseman Brendan Guhle. Over the past two seasons, the 20-year-old Alberta native has been the consensus top prospect in the Sabres system. With 20 points in 35 games for the Amerks this year, he ranks second behind veteran Zach Redmond in points among defensemen.
Guhle made his season debut last night against the Winnipeg Jets in a long-awaited opportunity at NHL ice time. On a team that has lacked promising, young defenders, it is all but certain that Guhle will be a permanent fixture on the Buffalo roster next season.
In the later rounds, Murray continued to bolster his defensive depth, selecting Will Borgen (92nd overall) and Devante Stephens (122nd overall), Last week, Borgen was selected to represent Team USA at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. He currently has eight points in 19 games as a junior at St. Cloud State.
Stephens has spent a majority of the year on the top defensive pairing for the Sabres’ ECHL affiliate, the Cincinnati Cyclones. Early in the season, he was called up to Rochester for a four-game stint while the team battled injuries.
2016 – Alex Nylander, Left Winger
Perhaps the most polarizing, and fiercely debated prospect in the Sabres farm system, Alex Nylander was selected eighth overall in 2016. After a lower-body injury derailed the start of a critical developmental season for him, Nylander has slowly regained his stride, producing seven points in as many games en route to a silver medal for Team Sweden at the 2018 World Junior Championship in Buffalo.
Some fans continue to lament the selection, especially given the recent success of players like Charlie McAvoy and Jakob Chychrun, both of whom were available when the Sabres were on the clock.
With only a few high-potential players on defense, the selection of yet another first round forward prospect seemed ill-advised at the time. In 80 games with the Amerks over the past two seasons, he has posted a pedestrian 34 points, leading some fans to doubt his viability as a future top-six forward.
It is important to remember that Nylander is only 19 years old, and while he may never be the same caliber player as his brother William (Toronto), there is still a very good chance that he becomes a consistent contributor at the NHL level.
Despite the ongoing uncertainty with their first-round selection, the Sabres did an excellent job of acquiring high-end talent throughout the draft. Forwards Rasmus Asplund (33rd overall) and Cliff Pu (69th overall) have made phenomenal strides in their development since being drafted.
Asplund currently serves as an alternate captain for Färjestad BK of the SHL, and in just 32 games this season, he has already surpassed his career-high scoring totals. He will undoubtedly serve as a regular in Rochester next season.
In less than two years as a member of the organization, Pu has emerged as a fan favorite. At 6-foot-2, 200-pounds, he has been able to physically dominate his OHL competition. Last week he was traded to the Kingston Frontenacs as they prepare for a deep playoff run. In just three games with Kingston, he has already registered six points. Like Asplund, Pu is expected to crack the Amerks roster in 2018-19.
Defenseman Vojtech Budik (130th overall) has quietly worked his way up the organizational depth chart after an impressive performance for the Czech Republic at the World Junior Championship. His shutdown ability helped lead the Czechs to the bronze medal game, where they ultimately fell to Team USA.
2017 – Casey Mittelstadt, Center
When Botterill made Casey Mittelstadt his first draft selection as general manager, the move was met with extremely harsh criticism amongst the Sabres fan base. After famously failing to complete a chin-up at the combine, there was uncertainty surrounding his physical ability.
Just six months later, Mittelstadt has taken the hockey world by storm, winning the tournament MVP award at the World Junior Championship, leading all players with 11 points.
With all of his recent success, fans are left wondering if he will be ready to make the jump to the NHL as early as next year. After being drafted, he expressed a desire to stay at Minnesota for more than just one season. Botterill is known for slowly bringing players up through the minor league ranks, so where Mittelstadt plays in 2018-19 is anybody’s guess. The Sabres could certainly use the added firepower. They rank last in the league with 92 goals through 42 games.
It remains unclear whether or not the Sabres brass sees Mittelstadt as a long-term center or left wing. The thought of he and Eichel skating on the same line is quite intriguing, his talents could be wasted on the left side.
While Mittelstadt looks like the steal of the draft, several of the Sabres’ selections have shown a great deal of promise.
Second round picks Marcus Davidsson (37th overall) and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (54th overall) both appeared in the World Junior Championship for Sweden and Finland respectively.
Davidsson has produced nine points through 23 games in his rookie season for Djurgårdens IF of the SHL. At just 19-years-old, he will need to spend at least another season playing in Europe before he is ready to make the jump to North America.
Widely regarded as the top European goalie prospect in the draft, Luukkonen was immediately embraced by fans, due in large part to his peculiar name. During the World Juniors, he appeared between the pipes in all five games for Team Finland, posting a .879 save percentage. While his performance left something to be desired, he is still only 18 years old. He has a lot of development time ahead of him, and time will tell whether he becomes the next Pekka Rinne, or the next Mika Noronen.
A passionate supporter and lifelong fan of the Buffalo Sabres. Former Admin and Staff Writer at buffalohockeycentral.com.