Grading Buffalo Sabres’ First-Round Picks in the Pegula Era

The Buffalo Sabres have made 15 first-round NHL Entry Draft selections since Terry Pegula purchased the franchise midway through the 2011 season. One would think the team used these to stockpile young talent for the future and turn itself into a perennial postseason contender, right?

Wrong. The Sabres have been in a perpetual rebuild for the majority of Pegula’s tenure and have gone through three general managers since it began. Despite drafting several players that seemed to possess the talent and ability to turn a team’s fortunes around, Buffalo’s consistent organizational incompetence and upheaval have prevented that from happening. As a result, their draft picks that turned out to be failures stand out.

As we did with the Sabres’ biggest free-agent acquisitions under Pegula, here’s a look at those first-round selections and a fair judgment of which were wins and which were flops. Ryan Johnson (2019) and Isak Rosen (2021) won’t be considered as they have yet to appear in the NHL, as well as Jack Quinn and Owen Power (2020 & 2021, respectively), who have a combined five NHL games played.

2011: Joel Armia- 16th overall

The inaugural selection of the Pegula era was Joel Armia of Porin Assat. The Sabres’ 2010-11 season was one of the most successful in franchise history, as they rallied to the seventh spot of the Eastern Conference and made the playoffs after being in the basement at midseason. An opening round defeat couldn’t kill the buzz, and adding the talented Finnish winger after such a remarkable run seemed brilliant. But fans were never given the chance to see it.

Joel Armia #40 of the Winnipeg Jets
Joel Armia, pictured here with Winnipeg in 2018, appeared in just one game for the Sabres before being traded (Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images).

Armia made his NHL debut with the Sabres on Dec. 23, 2014, the only time he ever appeared in the Buffalo blue and gold. He was returned to the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League after the game and was packaged to the Winnipeg Jets later that season in one of the many trades made by former GM Tim Murray that aged horrifically. Seeing as Armia has forged a solid career for himself between the Jets and Montreal Canadiens and signed a four-year extension with the Canadiens in 2021, Sabres fans can only wonder what might have been. Ruling: Flop.

2012: Mikhail Grigorenko- 12th overall

After narrowly missing the playoffs in 2012, the Sabres had two first-rounders in the 2012 NHL Draft, and the results could not have been more split. With their first pick, the team selected winger Mikhail Grigorenko. After two stellar seasons with the Quebec Remparts to his credit, the Sabres assumed he was NHL-ready and added him to their roster for the lockout-shortened 2013 season. The rest, as they say, is history.

Unfortunately, the Sabres’ atrocious reputation for developing prospects under Pegula began with Grigorenko, the honorary first victim. The team’s gamble backfired drastically, as he recorded just one goal and four assists in 25 games. They realized this and sent him back to Quebec midway through the next season, but by then, the damage was done.  

He was shuffled back and forth between Buffalo and Rochester numerous times over the next season and a half before he was packaged to the Colorado Avalanche at the 2015 Draft in a trade that brought Ryan O’Reilly to the Sabres. The Russian has since failed to catch on elsewhere and returned to his homeland to play in the Kontinental Hockey League, though, to be fair, it’s not really his fault. The Sabres destroyed whatever potential he had, and he lands near the top of the list of young talent the team has ruined in the last decade. Ruling: Flop.

2012: Zemgus Girgensons- 14th overall

Ironically, two picks after the Grigorenko debacle, the team selected a player who became their cornerstone. After the surprising trade of number one center Paul Gaustad to the Nashville Predators at that year’s Trade Deadline, the Sabres had an extra pick and used it to fill the void by taking center Zemgus Girgensons of the Dubuque Fighting Saints.

Zemgus Girgensons has been a true stalwart for Buffalo (Amy Irvin/The Hockey Writers).

What’s interesting is that, for all the mistakes the Sabres made with Grigorenko, they didn’t make them with Girgensons. The team allowed the Latvian to spend a full year with the Americans before joining the Sabres for the 2013-14 season, where he scored the team’s first goal of the campaign.

As the longest-tenured member of the team, he might not have developed into the player the Sabres thought they were getting, but no one can deny the steadying force he’s been over the years. Through the turnovers and tumult that the Sabres have had, Girgensons has been the one constant in the lineup and has emerged as both a leader and a fan-favorite. He was recognized for his contributions when he was named an alternate captain this past season, a well-deserved honor. Ruling: Win

2013: Rasmus Ristolainen- 8th overall

The 2013 NHL Draft was the last of Darcy Reiger’s 16-year tenure as Sabres’ GM, and the Sabres had two first-round selections for the second consecutive year. With the first, they bulked up their defensive corps by taking 6-foot-4 defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen of TPS Turku.

After debuting as an 18-year-old and splitting his first professional season between the NHL and AHL, he joined the Sabres full-time in 2014 and instantly became the centerpiece of the team’s defense. However, Buffalo’s propensity for turnover hit the Finn harder than most of his contemporaries. In his eight seasons with the organization, he played under six different head coaches, and it hurt his development significantly (much like another defenseman on this list). Despite this, Ristolainen proved to be reliable and anchored the Sabres’ blue line for most of his tenure. The team was unable to find a way to prevent him from being overloaded with ice time, and he often led in that category.

Buffalo decided to trade him before he reached free agency and dealt him to the Philadelphia Flyers ahead of the 2021 Draft in exchange for a first-round selection, and he signed a five-year extension with them in March 2022. The Sabres’ perpetual inability to develop young players meant Ristolainen’s true potential wouldn’t be seen, and he could have been more if given the chance to grow properly, but he proved to be solid nevertheless. Ruling: Win.

2013: Nikita Zadorov- 16th overall

The Sabres decided to go all-in on defense at the 2013 Draft and used their second first-round selection (acquired from the Minnesota Wild in exchange for Jason Pominville) to take another hulking blueliner, Nikita Zadorov of the London Knights. At 6-foot6, Zadorov possessed the size and ability to make the Sabres’ defensive corp more formidable, but his handling by the front office proved to be similar to Grigorenko.

Zadorov (right) with Ristolainen after being drafted by the Sabres in 2013 (J.C. Hageny/The Hockey Writers).

Sabres head coach Ron Rolston named the Russian to the team’s roster for the beginning of the 2013 season but then made him a healthy scratch for the first 10 games (if you can make sense of that). Rolston finally added him to the lineup, and on Oct.23, 2013, he scored on his first career NHL shot against the Boston Bruins. He was then returned to juniors after seven games.

He was brought back for the 2014-15 season and recorded 15 points in 60 games, with his physicality and grit earning praise. However, questions about his personality began to arise after he was suspended by the Sabres twice for violating the team’s personal conduct rules. After that season, the team wiped the slate clean when he too was packaged to the Avalanche. Though the Sabres clearly made mistakes with Zadorov, he went on to accuse the team of being discriminatory against Russian players. Maybe moving on was for the best? Ruling: Flop.

2014: Sam Reinhart- 2nd overall

After the team’s 2013-14 season, which can only be described as wretched, the Sabres had a reason for excitement with the second overall selection of the 2014 Draft. Though the Florida Panthers somehow won the 2014 Draft Lottery, despite finishing 14 points ahead of the Sabres in the standings, Buffalo fans weren’t deterred, and newly-minted general manager Murray selected center Sam Reinhart of the Kootenay Ice.

Unlike so many others on this list, the Sabres actually handled Reinhart’s initial development well. They brought him up for a brief run to begin the 2014-15 season but promptly returned him to Kootenay so that he wouldn’t be rushed, and it paid off in the long haul.

Sam Reinhart Sabres
Sam Reinhart was always a force for the Sabres, but the team never valued him as much as they should have (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers).

In six seasons with the Sabres, the Vancouver native was a consistent contributor and recorded 20 or more goals five times. Despite this, the Sabres were never willing to commit to him long-term, and he was never offered more than a two-year deal. This, combined with the Sabres’ struggles to show any progress, led to understandable frustration. Speculation soon became rampant that he wanted out of Buffalo, and he was traded to the Panthers in the summer of 2021.

His tenure with the team may have ended acrimoniously (or so it seemed), but it was hardly his fault. Had the team at some point offered him more than a bridge contract, perhaps he would still be wearing a Sabres jersey. Nevertheless, Reinhart was worthy of being a second-overall selection. Ruling: Win.

2015: Jack Eichel- 2nd Overall

After the 2014-15 season (which somehow managed to be even more disastrous than its predecessor), the Sabres lost the Draft Lottery for a second consecutive year despite having the best odds. It caused no shortage of outrage in the City of Good Neighbors, but it wasn’t a complete loss. Though it meant they would miss out on the immensely-touted Connor McDavid, the 2015 Draft had two generational talents available. Boston University center Jack Eichel instantly reinvigorated the beleaguered franchise and gave hope for the future. If the Sabres were to turn it around, he would be the reason why.

Jack Eichel Buffalo Sabres
The Sabres were unable to turn it around with Eichel aboard, despite his best efforts (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes).

That didn’t happen. The Hobey Baker Award winner proved that he was worthy of the hype and never scored less than 50 points in each of his five full seasons in Buffalo, but it was all for naught at the end of the day.

Eichel was with the Sabres for seven years, and in that time, the organization fired three head coaches and two general managers. The turnover prevented the team from making any progress, and they consistently spun in the mud year after year. He openly admitted to being unhappy as a result, and it’s easy to see why. The situation worsened when the superstar sustained a serious neck injury that would require surgery, and the Sabres rejected his preferred course of treatment. It proved to be the last straw, and he never appeared in the Buffalo blue and gold again, as he was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights in November 2021.

Whether his departure was his or the Sabres’ fault can be argued until the end of days. But as the situation unfolded, fans turned on Eichel and labeled him a selfish, cancerous diva (a point that can also be argued). Though he’s now public enemy number one in Buffalo, his abilities did give the Sabres the potential to win, but the team was just never able to get out of its own way. Ruling: Win.

2016: Alexander Nylander- 8th Overall

After a much-improved 2015-16 season, the Sabres had the honor of hosting the 2016 Draft and kept their renewed vigor going by selecting Alexander Nylander of the Mississauga Steelheads. With Eichel, Reinhart, O’Reilly, Ristolainen, and Evander Kane leading the charge, optimism in Buffalo was rampant, and Nylander seemed like a great choice after being named the Canadian Hockey League’s 2015-16 Rookie of the Year. Since it was his only season in junior, the Sabres allowed him to spend parts of three seasons in Rochester.

Therein lay the problem, however. Though the Swede excelled in his time with the Americans, he never seemed truly ready to make the jump to the NHL, and he was limited to brief call-ups at the end of those seasons when he failed to impress. Though 19 total games was hardly enough of a sample to make a judgment, the Sabres decided to move on, and he was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks in the summer of 2019.

Thankfully, the trade proved to be trash-for-treasure as the Sabres received Henri Jokiharju in return. Nylander failed to catch on in Chicago and was sent to their AHL affiliate after one season. Seeing as his now finds himself in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ system, it’s safe to assume Buffalo made the right call here. Ruling: Flop.

2017: Casey Mittelstadt- 8th Overall

Former Sabre Jason Botterill became the third GM of the Pegula Era after a disappointing 2016-17 season led to Murray’s firing. With his first pick in the role, Botterill selected Casey Mittelstadt of the Green Bay Gamblers, the first American selected in the first round by the Sabres since 2004.

Though Sabres fans were initially upset by the choice because of Mittelstadt’s performance at the training combine, their fears were put to rest when he tore up the 2018 World Junior Championship (coincidentally held in Buffalo that year) and was named MVP. However, in hindsight, that success ended up being his undoing. When it seemed the Sabres had finally learned from their past mistakes of rushing prospects into the spotlight, the team went back to its old ways.

Casey Mittelstadt Team USA
Mittelstadt’s electric performance at the 2018 World Juniors ended up significantly hampering his development (Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images).

After trading O’Reilly to the St.Louis Blues in the summer of 2018, the Sabres had a massive hole in their lineup, as he had been the team’s number two center and saw considerable time on special teams. Though he had just one season of NCAA experience with the University of Minnesota, Mittelstadt was chosen to fill the void and joined the Sabres full-time as a 19-year-old for the 2018-19 season.

The decision backfired, and it became evident very quickly that he was not yet ready for such a large role, and by the time the team realized this, it may have been too late. A return to Rochester for the 2019-20 season did seem to help him regain some form, but injuries have resulted in further complications and caused him to miss more than half of the 2021-22 campaign.

Given what we know, it would be easy to label Mittelstadt a bust, but that wouldn’t be accurate as his issues have largely not been his fault. Had the Sabres not traded O’Reilly or simply found a more viable candidate to replace him, the Minnesota native would have had the time to develop properly and could have become one of their top weapons by now. Next season may be his last chance to prove himself, and the Sabres may opt to move on if he doesn’t. Until then, we won’t judge one way or the other. Ruling: The jury is still out.

2018: Rasmus Dahlin- 1st Overall

Despite bringing in former Sabre and Hockey Hall of Famer Phil Housley to take over behind the bench, the Sabres’ downward spiral continued, and they finished last in the NHL in the 2017-18 season. Though the campaign seemed to suck the life out of the players and fans, there was a silver lining. The Sabres finally managed to win the Draft Lottery and received the first overall pick for the first time since 1987. The prize awaiting them was Rasmus Dahlin of HC Frolunda, also proclaimed to be a once-in-a-generation player.

Rasmus Dahlin Buffalo Sabres Heritage Classic
Rasmus Dahlin has excelled despite two separate coaching changes within his first four seasons (Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

Though it made him the league’s youngest player, Dahlin joined the Sabres for the 2018-19 season and immediately proved it was the right choice. His 44 points ranked second in NHL history by an 18-year-old defenseman (behind only his coach, Housley) and earned him a nomination for the Calder Trophy. However, his sky-rocketing momentum declined after coaching changes; Housley was fired in April 2019, and it was only a season and a half more before successor Ralph Krueger met the same fate. Thankfully, current coach Don Granato seems to have gotten his star back on track, and Dahlin turned in a breakout 2021-22, posting a new career-high 53 points and was named an NHL All-Star.

The Swede has endured more than his fair share of growing pains at the hands of the Sabres, but he’s turned into a talented and reliable defenseman in spite of that. At only 21, he still has maturing to do, which should be a frightening thought for other teams. In 52 seasons, the Sabres have never had a Norris Trophy winner. Dahlin may change that one day. Ruling: Win.

2019: Dylan Cozens- 7th Overall

All one needs to know about the Sabres’ 2018-19 season is that the team won 10 straight games in November (tying a franchise record) and then didn’t win consecutive games after that until the final two of the season. It made them even more of a joke and resulted in Housley being fired. Looking to turn the negative into a positive, the Sabres made history at the 2019 Draft by making center Dylan Cozens of the Western Hockey League’s Lethbridge Hurricanes the first-ever first-round pick born in the Yukon.

After returning to Lethbridge for the 2019-20 season and helping Canada win gold at the 2020 World Junior Championship, the Sabres called up Cozens to make his debut during the COVID-shortened 2021 season. Though he was moved to the wing, it did not stall his progress, and he impressed fans and the media alike with his poise and maturity.

He finished his 41-game rookie season with 13 points in 41 games and also proved that he wasn’t afraid of fighting to defend himself or a teammate. It would be tough not to call his sophomore campaign a regression, however. He failed to build on a very strong first half and went 17 games without a goal from Feb. 25 to April 5. Regardless, the Workhorse from Whitehorse has all the makings of a star, and he will undoubtedly serve in a leadership role for the Sabres in the future. It’s important to remember that he’s only 21, but big things are expected of him, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t deliver. Ruling: Win.

Recapping: 2022 Draft Will Be Pivotal For Buffalo

Although most of their first-round picks have turned out to be solid (if unutilized) assets, it goes without saying that the Sabres have also had more than their share of misfires over the past 11 years, especially considering how they handled the development of some. With the 2022 Draft set for tomorrow and with the team possessing three picks in the first round, the onus is on management to get it right, regardless of whether they decide to use all three picks or make trades.

Related: Sabres’ Have 3 Good Options at 16th Overall in 2022 NHL Draft

The NHL Draft can reinvigorate a struggling franchise and set it back on the course for greatness. Or, as Buffalo fans have seen so many times in recent history, it can also torpedo progression and set a team back. Coming off a very improved 2021-22 season, the Sabres can’t afford to be stifled by draft blunders any further. The pressure is on GM Kevyn Adams on Thursday.

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