Fans of the Buffalo Sabres were in a panic after the 2012-13 NHL season. The team had fired long-time head coach Lindy Ruff during the latter half of the season before trading captain Jason Pominville to the Minnesota Wild at the trade deadline.
Sabres fans knew more changes were coming. The Buffalo faithful had been calling for the firing of general manager Darcy Regier throughout the entire season, and they knew that star winger Thomas Vanek and former Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Ryan Miller would likely be dealt soon.
The 2013 NHL Entry Draft was really the start of the Sabres’ rebuild. Had they botched their draft picks, it’s possible that the team’s future would still look as bleak today as it did in the summer of 2013. However, Regier would put together a solid draft class in what would prove to be his final draft at the helm of an NHL franchise, with a number of his draft picks turning into budding superstars for the Sabres or serving as key pieces in trades that would drastically improve Buffalo’s roster.
Selecting the Franchise Defenseman
The Sabres finished with the eighth worst record in the NHL in the 2012-13 season and failed to win the draft lottery. They went into the 2013 NHL Entry Draft with the eighth overall selection.
There were a number of options the Sabres could have taken with the pick. They could have selected Max Domi, the play-making winger who could have served as a replacement to Jason Pominville. Some expected Buffalo to take Russian forward Valeri Nichushkin, a scoring winger who would have fit nicely on a line next to Buffalo’s 2012 first round draft pick Mikhail Grigorenko.
Despite speculation that the Sabres would add a forward, Buffalo went in a different direction, drafting Finnish defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen with the eighth overall pick.
After spending time with both the Sabres and the AHL’s Rochester Americans during the 2013-14 season, Ristolainen emerged as a talented young defenseman with loads of potential during the 2014-15 campaign, his first full season with the NHL club. The third defenseman taken in the 2013 draft finished the season with 20 points in 78 games, becoming the team’s number one defenseman after former first round draft pick Tyler Myers was traded to the Winnipeg Jets along with other assets in exchange for Evander Kane.
In a 2015-16 season highlighted by the breakout performances of Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Ryan O’Reilly, Ristolainen proved he could be Buffalo’s anchor on the blue line for the next two decades. The 6’4″ defenseman finished the season with 41 points in 82 games and averaged over 25 minutes of ice time per game, good for tenth in the league.
Ristolainen’s consistent production combined with his immeasurable potential earned him a monster contract after the 2015-16 season, as the then 21-year-old signed a 6 year, $5.4 million AAV contract extension during the offseason.
The 2016-17 season will perhaps be the strongest of Ristolainen’s young NHL career, as the former IIHF World Juniors gold medalist is currently second in team scoring with 21 points in 30 games. Ristolainen is also fifth in the NHL in ice time per game, as the Finn is currently averaging over 26 minutes.
Ristolainen has proven that he will be a key piece of the Sabres’ roster moving forward, and had Buffalo not taken him with the eighth overall selection in the 2013 NHL Draft, there is a strong possibility that the team would still lack the franchise defenseman it had been searching for since the departure of Phil Housley.
Strong Depth in Later Rounds
One thing that the Buffalo Sabres struggled with in the mid-to-late aughts was drafting, especially in the later rounds. The team rarely drafted players in the final rounds that made an impact on the team, with 2009 fourth round draft pick Marcus Foligno being the only real exception.
Thankfully, this changed with the 2013 NHL Draft. With one of their three second-round picks in the 2013 Draft, Buffalo selected Williamsville, New York native Justin Bailey, a forward that will likely be a consistent NHL player in the coming years. In the final two seasons of his Ontario Hockey League career, Bailey finished with 112 points in 111 games, averaging more than one point per game. In his first season with the Rochester Americans, the power winger finished with 45 points.
Bailey has 18 points in 28 games with the Americans this season and has spent some time with the Sabres. While he hasn’t been able to earn a permanent spot in the Sabres’ top six, his consistent production throughout his career suggests that he will earn that spot soon.
Another player that has spent some time with the Sabres this season is Nicholas Baptiste, who was selected in the third round of the 2013 NHL Draft. Baptiste made a name for himself in the 2013-14 OHL season, when he finished the year with 89 points for the Sudbury Wolves.
Early on in the 2014-15 season, Baptiste was traded to the Erie Otters, where he played on a line with young sensation Connor McDavid. Baptiste finished his career as an Otter with 53 points in 41 games, and his production hasn’t slowed down.
The Ottawa-native spent the last two seasons with the Rochester Americans, and has played a number of games for the Sabres this season. Both Baptiste and Bailey have proven that they have the potential to be solid forwards for Buffalo in the future, making the Sabres’ 2013 draft class one of their strongest in recent memory.
Trading the Future for the Present
Two of the Sabres’ more high-profile picks in the 2013 NHL Draft were defenseman Nikita Zadorov and center J.T. Compher, who were selected in the first and second rounds, respectively. Both players looked as though they could be solid contributors in the future.
Although both players had potential, they were dealt in a package also involving Mikhail Grigorenko and a second round draft pick in the 2015 NHL Draft to the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for Ryan O’Reilly and Jamie McGinn. While McGinn has since left Buffalo, O’Reilly has emerged as one of Buffalo’s better players offensively and defensively, and has, in many ways, become the heart and soul of the Sabres roster. Had the Sabres never selected Zadorov and Compher in the 2013 Draft, the team likely wouldn’t have what some would say is their most well-rounded player.
The 2013 NHL Draft could have gone one of two ways for the Sabres. The team could have botched their draft picks, as they had done previously and harmed themselves going forward, or they could have selected a number of players in both the early and later rounds that would have an impact on the team in the coming years. Thankfully, the team accomplished the latter.
Rasmus Ristolainen, Justin Bailey, and Nicholas Baptiste look like they will lead Buffalo into the future, while Nikita Zadorov and J.T. Compher turned into a player that many believe will be the Sabres’ captain in the coming seasons. The 2013 NHL Draft is where the Sabres acquired a number of players that will be difference-makers for the team moving forward, and will hopefully be considered as one of the Sabres’ most successful drafts in franchise history.