When Brandon Hagel was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning for two first-round picks, Boris Katchouk and Taylor Raddysh, hockey fans had mixed reactions. For Sabres fans, in particular, there was a sense of frustration. Hagel was a sixth-round pick by the Sabres in the 2016 NHL Draft, but they failed to sign him, leading to the Blackhawks signing him in 2018. The Sabres have certainly drafted better recently with players like Casey Mittelstadt, Jacob Bryson and Dylan Cozens on the roster, and JJ Peterka and Jack Quinn looking like future NHLers. However, Buffalo has also had their share of draft pick failures, whether it be from failed player development or players moving on to flourish in other markets.
Looking back at past draft classes in judgment is always easy for someone on the outside, and we all understand how often first- and second-round picks don’t make it to the NHL. But the Sabres draft failures of the past 10 years have been staggering. The tenures of former general managers Tim Murray and Jason Botterill have been scrutinized for the on-ice results, but their draft woes were no different. For Murray specifically, draining the prospect cupboard too early and failure to build a winning culture in Rochester fostered an era of failed player development.
Sabres’ Inability To Retain Prospects
Let’s start with some of the players who the Sabres drafted yet failed to sign. Brandon Hagel is the most recent, and the scenario around him is one of dissatisfaction for Sabres fans. The return was certainly a factor, but Buffalo doesn’t have a lot of players who play like him, and they could sure use him. Hagel had 24 points in 52 games during his rookie season and has 21 goals and 37 points this season. In addition to putting up points and being an effective offensive zone player, he is also a reliable defensive player and penalty killer. Plus, he’s versatile and can succeed anywhere he plays in your lineup. The Sabres have been longing for a player like Hagel for their penalty kill and bottom-six, and seeing him excel with another NHL team is disappointing.
Trading such a haul for Hagel will receive criticism for the foreseeable future, but if the Lightning are able to win a fourth Stanley Cup, who’s to argue with it? Tampa Bay looks to be rebuilding the line of Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde and Barclay Goodrow that was so impactful for them during their Cup runs, and it speaks volumes to Hagel’s play that they felt he was capable of filling that role. Having him in Buffalo would have paid massive dividends for a team looking to get back into the playoff conversation and a team on the rise.
Going back a few years from the 2016 draft, Cal Petersen was the Sabres’ fifth-round pick in 2013. They failed to sign Petersen after his tenure at Notre Dame, and he chose to sign with the Los Angeles Kings. He, like Hagel, has become an NHL-level goaltender with the Kings. He has a career .911 save percentage and a 2.74 goals-against average. Given the Sabres’ goaltending woes over the past few seasons, having someone like Petersen blossoming for them now would have been a huge plus for the organization.
Buffalo’s History of Failed Development and Draft Misses
The Sabres’ first-round pick in the 2016 draft, Alex Nylander was viewed as Jack Eichel’s future winger, but the Sabres failed to properly develop him into the player they drafted him to be. He was able to show promise when playing for the Rochester Americans, scoring 86 points in 165 games for them.
But the issue with Nylander was the inability to translate his AHL production to NHL production. He failed to carve out any role with the Sabres and was ultimately dealt to the Blackhawks.
A name that some may not be familiar with, Marcus Davidsson was the Sabres’ second-round pick in the 2017 draft. His situation is similar to that of Hagel and Petersen, where the Sabres did not sign him and relinquished his rights. However, Davidsson has not come anywhere close to the NHL level, and he remains unsigned. While it is easy in hindsight to look at some of the players the Sabres could have selected instead, you can’t help but wonder what could have been if they selected Jason Robertson or Mario Ferraro instead.
Eric Cornel and Valcav Karabacek
While the Sabres managed to hit on their seventh-round pick in 2014 with Victor Olofsson, two of their three second-round picks failed to reach the NHL. Eric Cornel and Vaclav Karabacek were drafted 44th and 49th overall, respectively. Drafted in the same year as Sam Reinhart, having two second-round forwards developing on the same timeline as Eichel and Reinhart could have been a huge swing for the franchise. Alas, both had the same fate as Davidsson, failing to reach the NHL in any capacity.
Reasons for Optimism
Not all selections by Murray and Botterill went up in flames. Murray was able to find Olofsson in the seventh round, and Casey Fitzgerald, Rasmus Asplund and Brett Murray are all still with the Sabres. Botterill had some of his greatest success in Buffalo at the draft, with Mittelstadt, Dylan Cozens and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen being a few.
While Botterill’s tenure in Buffalo was certainly flawed, his emphasis on building both a winning culture and solid development system in the minors provided a solid framework for Kevyn Adams to build off of. Buffalo has a renewed insistence on letting players find their way in Rochester, with the Sabres keeping Quinn, Peterka and Luukkonen with the Americans for most of this season, allowing them to experience a playoff push this season. Sabres fans have fond memories of Ryan Miller, Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek and Derek Roy graduating from Rochester to Buffalo in a similar timeframe, and seeing Buffalo go back to this method has been refreshing.
Adams has also shown a willingness to hold onto draft picks in order to restock the cupboards. In last year’s draft, the Sabres selected 11 players, with the highlight being first-round picks Owen Power and Isak Rosen. Coming up this year, the Sabres have three first-round selections and an extra sixth-round pick.
By all accounts, it finally looks like the future in Buffalo is bright. The wisest thing Adams can do at this point is to continue to build his prospect pool and emphasize the importance Rochester can have on players moving through the Sabres system.
Zach Rohde is a Buffalo Sabres Contributor for THW. Growing up in the Buffalo area during the late 2000s, the Sabres success fueled his passion for hockey. He has written about the Sabres for another site in Buffalo previously, and covered Buffalo Sports for a brief time as a freelance sports assistant for Spectrum News Buffalo before moving to a full time position in general news. Twitter: @ZachRohde