Believe it or not, it’s been over eight months since Jason Botterill took the stage in Vancouver to welcome six new members to the Buffalo Sabres’ organization. We certainly know much more about some of these players now than we did in June. Before we put our focus on the upcoming draft, let’s take some time to catch up with last year’s class.
Sabres Find Potential Goaltender of the Future
The Sabres entered the draft knowing they needed to build depth in goal. After drafting the heir apparent in Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen with the 54th pick of the 2017 draft, the Sabres neglected to pick a goaltender in 2018. In order to keep the pipeline filled, they needed on in 2019.
With the 67th pick of the draft, the Sabres selected Erik Portillo. Although he was not one of the premier hyped prospects entering the draft, they look to have found an absolute steal.
Portillo has had a stellar season with the Dubuque Fighting Sants, posting a 19-5-1 record with a 2.11 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage. He ranks second in the league in wins, first in goals-against average and third in save percentage.
Portillo has already been named goaltender of the week twice this season. While few successful NHL goaltenders have really made a name for themselves at the USHL level, Portillo will be joining the University of Michigan Wolverines next season. At that stage, we can really begin to see what he’s all about. To this point, we’ve seen him excel at every level he’s played at. We can hopefully see him in the AHL at some point in the next three to four seasons.
Three Long-Term Projects
As with any draft class, the Sabres selected some players that we may not see for a long time, if ever. With the 102nd pick, they selected Aaron Huglen from Roseau High in Minnesota. Huglen has shown tremendous skill in his young career.
Unfortunately, Huglen suffered an injury over the summer and has yet to be able to suit up for the Fargo Force of the USHL. Missing development time at this age can be debilitating for a young prospect. If he is able to regain health this season, we can assess his growth. Otherwise, we may not see him skate again until Sabres rookie camp in July.
Filip Cederqvist was selected by the Sabres 143rd overall. He has struggled to find his footing in the SHL this season and has spent time in the Allsvenskan and SuperElit junior league. Cederqvist will take at least another two years in Sweden before attempting to come to the Rochester Americans. If he does ever make it over, he will likely fill a bottom-six role.
Finally, with the 160th pick, the Sabres selected Czech forward Lukas Rousek. An over-ager when drafted, Rousek has had a nice season with Sparta Praha in the Extraliga, tallying 13 goals and 14 assists in 49 games. Rousek is under contract until the end of next season. At that time, he will be 21 and could be poised to join the Americans. With continued maturation, Rousek may be able to help the organization in the next three seasons as a middle-six winger.
Much Needed Top-Six Centre and Another Defenceman
The Sabres were fortunate to have two picks in the first round. With the 31st pick, they selected defenceman Ryan Johnson.
Johnson has had a solid, though unspectacular freshman campaign with the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Not projected to ever put up massive point totals, Johnson has accumulated 8 assists in 32 games. He continues to display his excellent skating which is without a doubt his greatest asset.
His point totals may not ever become elite. What is strong is his ability to defend. Johnson will likely spend at least two more seasons with the Golden Gophers. The disappointment of not making Team USA at the World Junior Championship can hopefully bolster him to improve his game going forward.
The Sabres’ defence will look very different by the time Johnson is ready to make the jump to the NHL. What we do know is if he makes it he will be behind Rasmus Dahlin. Just how far down he is below that remains to be seen.
Easily the most heralded pick of their draft, Dylan Cozens was drafted seventh overall. The big centreman from the north has had an absolutely dominant season with the Lethbridge Hurricanes. In 45 games he has amassed 32 goals and 44 assists, good for fifth in points in the WHL. The four players above him have all played at least seven more games than he has.
The main reason Cozens has played fewer games is due to his involvement with Team Canada at the World Junior Championship. He was commanding during the tournament, registering nine points in just seven games. With each game, he appeared to be gaining more and more confidence. The same is true of his season in general. He has truly shown himself to be a potential monster up the middle of the ice.
Cozens’ main focus now is on pushing the Hurricanes through the playoffs. And he better enjoy it because this will likely be his last attempt at winning a WHL title. Once his season is finished, he will no doubt get a look with either the Sabres or Americans if they have games remaining.
Related: Dylan Cozens – 2019 Draft Profile
As for next season, Cozens will most assuredly be with the Sabres. The plan is to have him be a long-term solution behind Jack Eichel in the lineup. While he may not be ready to handle that much responsibility in 2020, he may begin on the third line or perhaps on the wing. In any event, the hulking Cozens will be with the Sabres next season and that’s something that fans should be very excited about.
Sabres 2019 Draft a Mixed-Bag
As we can see, the draft really was a mixed bag. On the low end, there are some intriguing prospects that will have plenty of time to cook before we ever potentially see them. Rousek and Huglen certainly seem interesting and if they pan out offensively, could one day be contributors.
On the high end, the Sabres absolutely knocked it out of the park with their first pick. Cozens will be an unadulterated monster in the NHL and his artillery of size, speed and skill will make him an unbelievable asset for the Sabres in their future battles with the murderer’s row of centres in the Atlantic Division.
Portillo really looks like he can one day be relied upon in the Sabres’ crease. With a couple more seasons to marinate with the Wolverines, he can eventually move on to the Americans and continue to fill the goaltending pipeline. Johnson finds himself buried in the glut of defencemen the Sabres currently have. By the time he is ready, however, the scene can be totally different and the Sabres may be primed to add the modern-day defender.
Like any draft, we can’t really know the results for a couple more seasons. After eight months, the Sabres look to have found some difference-makers that will benefit them in the months to come. Let’s enjoy the playoff for these prospects and hope they help us enjoy some Sabres’ playoff games soon.