The NHL Draft Lottery was full of surprises on Saturday night in Toronto. A few teams left the event pretty disappointed with the results. Most notably perhaps were the Colorado Avalanche. You know, the team that finished with 48 points this season, the lowest since the Atlanta Thrashers who recorded 39 points in the 1999-00 season. The Avalanche were rewarded for this awful season by selecting fourth overall in the upcoming draft in Chicago.
If you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t seen the results yet, the New Jersey Devils were the big winners landing the first overall pick. The Philadelphia Flyers who missed the playoffs by seven points made the improbable jump from 13th to second overall. Lastly, the Dallas Stars came up from eighth to land the final lottery spot at third overall.
Speaking of eighth overall, due to all the movement the Buffalo Sabres slid back two spots from sixth to eighth. Two spots don’t seem like a big deal until you take a look at how the draft board in front of the Sabres sets up now and the needs of the team.
The biggest need for the club is help on the blue line. Outside of Brendan Guhle and the 2015 fourth-round pick Will Borgen, the organization lacks depth at the position. Combining that with the worst defense group in the NHL last season, defense is a huge need for the Sabres.
The consensus is trending towards Brooks Bandits defenseman Cale Makar and Finnish defender Miro Heiskanen as the top two blue-liners in the draft this June. At the sixth spot, the Sabres were poised to scoop up one of the two players to bolster their back end. Now, with defense-needy teams like the Stars, Avalanche, Vancouver Canucks and Arizona Coyotes ahead of them, it’s unlikely either player will slide down to eight.
The Sabres can stay at eight and still pick up Timothy Liljegren of Sweden who was touted as a top-three pick to start the season. However, inconsistencies in his game have caused his draft stock to drop significantly. Drafting Liljegren will have to come with the understanding that he’ll likely need another year or two before making any type of impact at the pro level.
The Sabres are left with a question: Draft a defenseman and wait or get an immediate defense upgrade right now? The team can stay where they are and pick a forward, but that seems like a counterproductive move. They’d be ignoring a need that teams like the Edmonton Oilers were criticized for failing to address for years.
It may be hindsight, but if you ask former Sabres general manager Tim Murray, I bet he wishes he pulled the trigger on the rumored deal for Cam Fowler that involved the club’s first-round pick last year, instead of drafting forward Alex Nylander. I digress.
If the new general manager believes the Sabres are close to being a playoff team and wants to get help now, the wise decision would be to trade their first round pick. Due to the upcoming expansion draft, a few teams are in a position where they’ll need to move a defenseman or risk losing them for nothing. The Anaheim Ducks, Nashville Predators and Minnesota Wild are a few teams the Sabres should target.
Instead of losing a player like Sam Reinhart or Evander Kane in a trade for a top four defender, the Sabres can use the first round pick as the main piece in a package to pry a player like Josh Manson, Jonas Brodin, Brandon Montour or Ryan Ellis free. You get a young player that can have an immediate impact and essentially become your 2017 first round pick.
Adding one of the aforementioned players along with returning players like Rasmus Ristolainen, Jake McCabe, and Zach Bogosian (maybe) you have four pretty decent defenders. Then throw in Brendan Guhle who will surely crack the NHL lineup and KHL defenseman Viktor Antipin who appears poised to sign with the Sabres and, Voila! They’re on the way to reshaping a once awful defense group.
With the draft lottery results falling the way they did, it seems like the best way for the Sabres to maximize their assets is to move the pick. Get the help now for a team that is not that far off from competing.