The Buffalo Sabres lost the NHL’s draft lottery – again.
Sure they didn’t have the best odds in the field (approximately an 8 percent chance of moving into the top three), but they won’t even pick in the same spot that they finished in the standings (sixth worst). That’s because the Philadelphia Flyers and Dallas Stars jumped over them when they won the second and third picks during Saturday’s ping-pong-palooza. New Jersey, who finished one spot behind Buffalo in the standings, won the first overall pick.
Now armed with the eighth pick in the 2017 amateur draft, what player(s) will Buffalo’s next general manager set his sights on?
Unlike drafting second overall and nabbing Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, it’s doubtful the Sabres will be able to select a player, for the third straight season, who can step into the NHL right away.
The next GM will need to examine the current roster as well as that of their AHL-affiliate in Rochester to determine what holes need to be plugged. While many fans may scream that defense is the most pressing issue, secondary scoring and forward depth may be just as vital given the stable of prospects in the Buffalo system.
The Sabres have one player (Alex Nylander, 11th overall) ranked within the top 100 NHL prospects prior to the season according to ESPN. By comparison, fellow Atlantic Division teams have a steady stream of NHL-caliber players in the pipeline. This includes Toronto (seven top-100 ranked players), Montreal (six), Detroit (four), Tampa (three), Ottawa (three) and Boston (two).
With apologies to Rasmus Asplund, Justin Bailey, Nic Baptiste, Will Carrier and Hudson Fasching, the Sabres need more help replacing Matt Moulson, Tyler Ennis and Zemgus Girgensons in the next few seasons.
However, the team is also in desperate need of help on the blue line. Buffalo must offset the likely departures of Cody Franson and Dmitry Kulikov this season and then Zach Bogosian and Josh Gorges the year after. Prospects Brendan Guhle and Casey Nelson could make a push to play in the NHL next year. As could KHL defenseman Victor Antipin, who is rumored to be heading to Western New York.
Given these roster needs, here are a few potential first-round draft picks the Sabres should consider when the draft gets underway on June 23 at the United Center in Chicago.
Casey Mittlestadt-The consensus among scouting reports is that this high schooler from Minnesota has all the tools to be a top-two centerman in the NHL within a few years. A deft passer with great speed, Mittlestadt will take his game to the University of Minnesota next year.
Michael Rasmussen– Rasmussen is a huge kid (6’6” 215 lbs.) who, according to scouts, combines an amazing shot with great hands. Common view is that he could be a 30-goal scorer in the NHL and will be a top 10 pick.
Owen Tippett – Tippett is widely regarded as one of the best pure goal-scorers available in the draft. Unfortunately, the knock on him is that he’s not a hard-worker away from the puck. As he tries to overcome that stigma, Tippett is pacing the OHL in scoring. Interesting note: He’s a former teammate of Buffalo’s Nylander.
Defensemen on the Board
Timothy Liljegren – For more than a year, Liljegren was considered by many to be the top defensive prospect in this draft class. But the shine wore off and he’s no longer considered a top 10 pick. Why? Part can be attributed to missing time and having trouble coming back from a bout with mononucleosis during the early part of the season. The other, is that his decision-making and skating abilities, two traits that had long set him apart, have been matched or even eclipsed by his peers.
Miro Heiskanen– Perhaps NHL prospect guru Grant McCagg , who runs Recrutes.ca, said it best: “No other defenceman combines smarts, poise and mobility in such a complete package.” That’s effusive praise for the Finnish defender. Heiskanen is considered one of, if not the best skater in the draft and is lauded for his defensive awareness. He is unlikely to be available for Buffalo, but you never know.
Cale Makar– With the focus on puck-moving defensemen, Makar could be a no-brainer if he falls to Buffalo at eight. Words used to describe the 18-year-old’s game include “dynamic,” “amazing skater” and “top pairing defenseman.” Despite the knocks on the defensive aspects of his game, his stock is rising. He is committed to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst next year.