It’s a foregone conclusion that after stepping up to the podium and exchanging pleasantries with the Dallas Stars organization for hosting the event, Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill will utter some version of the following: “The Buffalo Sabres select Rasmus Dahlin.”
Dahlin, a Swedish defenseman, has been on top of the draft board all year. He’s a consensus, no-brainer No. 1 pick. Any player but the cornerstone piece would send shock waves throughout the hockey world. Fumes would emanate from fans one hundred-fold more than if they ate Duffs “Atomic” Wings.
Really, at this point, the only question is whether Botterill will use fewer syllables to make the selection than his predecessor, the always blunt and to-the-point Tim Murray. If Murray was still around, there’s a good chance he’d just point to Dahlin and grunt “him.”
So much has been written about Dahlin. There’s his poise on and off the ice. There’s his playmaking, stickhandling, and smooth skating. Not to mention the comparisons to NHL Hall of Fame defensemen. He’s exactly what the Sabres need to anchor their blue line for the next decade.
Sabres Have Missed on Later Picks
It’s pretty easy to select first or second overall. Eichel and Reinhart were forgone conclusions during their draft years. Had Tim Murray chosen anyone else, Western New York may have exploded. Riots would have taken over downtown.
For the Sabres to realize any measure of success, they need to hit on a few picks in rounds two through seven. After the obvious first round selection, the Sabres haven’t found an impact player in subsequent rounds in years.
Going back to 2010, the Sabres have a total of seven goals representing the third round or later. And to make matters worse, they’ve all come from 2013 third-round pick Nick Baptiste. No other later selection has produced a single goal. Swing. Miss. Repeat.
Even more astonishing: only one Sabres skater since 2006 that was drafted outside the second round has played in more than 50 games for the Sabres: Marcus Foligno. He was taken with the 104th pick in 2009.
Hitting on Late Round Picks
It’s easy to play the coulda-woulda-shoulda game when looking back at draft histories. The Sabres selected Ric Seiling with the 14th pick in 1977, one slot before Mike Bossy. In 2007, the Sabres chose T.J. Brennan at No. 31 to start the second round, thirteen slots before P.K. Subban was taken by the Montreal Canadiens at No. 43. More recently, in 2010, they picked Mark Pysyk three picks before Evgeny Kuznetsov.
Some teams have had some good luck to go with their good scouting. For example, the Boston Bruins, snagged Patrice Bergeron at No. 45 in 2003, David Krejci at No. 63 in 2004 and Brad Marchand at No. 71 in 2006. They all hoisted the Cup in 2011.
What Needs to Improve
The blame can mostly be shared by the scouting staff, the development process and the organization’s model. It’s no wonder that Botterill mentioned Rochester as a key area for improvement when he was introduced as the Sabres eighth GM in May of 2017. Teams must have a strong organization at the farm team level as well as the NHL level. “[Our goal] is not to just build a winner in Buffalo, where the Sabres haven’t been to the NHL playoffs in six consecutive seasons,” said Botterill at the press conference announcing his hire. “It’s also to build a winner in Rochester where the Americans, the organization’s top farm team, haven’t been to the AHL playoffs in three seasons, haven’t won a playoff series in 12 and last won a Calder Cup 21 very long years ago.”
The success of the Amerks is critically important. Players take time to find their groove as they adapt to new teams, new coaches and new expectations. It doesn’t matter if they’re playing in college, junior or the AHL.
Learning from Botterill’s Time With the Penguins
The Pittsburgh Penguins went to the Stanley Cup Final four times in ten years while Botterill was in their front office, from 2007-2017. They won Cups in 2009, 2016 and 2017. Their success was in large part due to their drafting ability.
Aside from taking Marc-Andre Fleury (2003, first overall), Evgeni Malkin (2004, second overall), Sidney Crosby (2005, first overall) and Jordan Staal (2006, second overall), the Penguins found some gems in later rounds that contributed to their success.
Here are a few:
- 2002, Max Talbot, F, eighth round (the draft now only goes seven rounds)
- 2004, Tyler Kennedy, F, fourth round
- 2005, Kris Letang, D, third round
- 2010, Bryan Rust, F, third round
- 2010, Tom Kuhnhackl, F, fourth round
- 2011, Scott Wilson, F, seventh round
- 2012, Matt Murray, G, third round
- 2013, Jake Guentzel, F, third round
In general, Botterill believes in taking the best player available. He’s told his staff in Buffalo not to think about what the organization needs now, but to ask who’s the best player at that moment.
Botterill’s First Draft
This weekend marks the second time Botterill will be drafting for the Sabres. His first draft already looks like progress. He was giddy with excitement when he snagged forward Casey Mittelstadt with the eighth overall pick last year. In the second round, he went on to choose Marcus Davidsson and goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. The oversized goalie recently signed his entry-level contract.
Such an huge honor to sign my first NHL contract with the Buffalo Sabres. I want to thank all the coaches, teammates and everyone I have worked with along the way. The biggest thanks goes to my family. I couldn’t have done it without you. So excited to be a Sabre. #Sabres pic.twitter.com/C1MbBE9QmX
— Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (@ukkopekkaluukko) June 15, 2018
It doesn’t end there. Fourth-round pick, defenseman Jacob Bryson, plays for Providence and is doing well as is seventh-rounder Linus Weissbach, a winger playing at Wisconsin. Consistently hitting on players is a sure-fire way to building an organization.
Botterill, if anyone, knows this. He helped build Pittsburgh’s 2009 Stanley Cup-winning squad as Assistant GM and saw Pittsburgh capture the Cup again as Associate GM in 2016. Everywhere he goes he seems to win–his success at both the NHL and AHL levels speaks for itself.
Barring any trades, there are many good options after the Sabres name Dahlin their first overall pick.
They have the 32nd pick (the first pick of the second round), followed by No. 94 and No. 117 in the fourth round, No. 125 in the fifth round, No. 156 in the sixth round and No. 187 in the seventh round. They traded their third round pick to Minnesota last year.
Currently, at the NHL level, the Sabres biggest needs are defense, scoring wingers and a goalie. Players selected after Dahlin will likely take years to mature and develop. With that in mind, it’s usually best to snag the best player available. The following are some players that could be available for the Sabres’ second round pick.
Isac Lundestrom, C, Lulea (SHL)
Another smooth-skating Swede, Lundestrom played has great puck control and good skill.
Dominik Bokk, RW, Vaxjo (SHL)
This German-born sniper shredded international competition and is could be ready for the NHL soon.
Grigori Denisenko, LW, Loko Yaroslavl (MHL)
Denisenko is an electrifying talent in the mold of William Nylander. He makes ridiculous plays with a high degree of difficulty.
Jonatan Berggren, RW, Skelleftea J20 (Superelit)
A small, speedy skater with great passing skills.
K’Andre Miller, D, U.S. U18 (NTDP)
Miller is a converted forward with both size and speed. He’s a terrific skater and is tough to play against, as he maintains a tight gap and plays with a physical edge.
Akil Thomas, C/W, Niagara (OHL)
Thomas is a versatile forward who can play center or wing. He’s a strong skater who handles the puck like it’s tied to his stick. He has a great shot with a quick release. His entire skill set hasn’t completely come together yet but once it does, his ceiling becomes even higher.
Rasmus Sandin, D (Sault Ste. Marie, OHL)
A nimble puck mover with soft hands and a hard shot.
Serron Noel, RW, Oshawa (OHL)
One of the top North American forwards for this draft. He’s a 6-foot-5 man-child with a massive wingspan and long stride. Soft hands, too.
Jonathan Tychonick, D, Penticton (BCHL)
Tychonick is an undervalued speedster with high-end playmaking abilities.
Ryan McLeod, C/W, Mississauga (OHL)
McLeod is a strong mix of speed, skill and size. The playmaker’s smooth, effortless speed, agility and excellent vision are all bona fide elements of his game. Each element on its own is solid, but they haven’t quite come together yet.
Mattias Samuelsson, D, U.S. U18 (NTDP)
For those old enough to remember, Mattias’ father, Kjell played defense, spending most of his career with the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins. He’s a mobile two-way defenseman with size and creativity. He has top-pairing potential.
Alexander Alexeeyev, D, Red Deer (WHL)
Alexeeyev is big, mobile and incredibly smart. That said, he hasn’t developed any “elite-level” attributes yet.
Jacob Olofsson, C, Timra IK (Allsvenskan)
Olofsson has size, strength and speed. Named the best rookie in Sweden’s top minor league, he has the makings of an elite checker in the mold of Patrice Bergeron or Anze Kopitar.
Serron Noel, RW, Oshawa Generals (OHL)
Noel is a power forward that takes advantage of a huge 6-foot-5, 209lb frame. He’s strong on the forecheck and finds the open ice in order to make the most of his scoring chances. In transition he can move with speed after some strides and that is with or without the puck.
Related: 2018 NHL Draft Guide
Sabres Draft Party
The Sabres will host a free Draft party on Friday, June 22 at KeyBank Center, starting at 6 p.m. The party will take place in Alumni Plaza with national coverage of the draft shown on large screens. The first 3,000 fans in attendance will receive a scratch-off card that will grant them one of a variety of prizes, including a jersey of the team’s first-round pick.
The team stated several Sabres alumni will be on hand to sign autographs. There will be a live DJ, a mock NHL Network television set and plenty of activities for kids.