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

The Buffalo Sabres have made 18 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 spent a majority of Pegula’s tenure in a perpetual rebuild and have gone through three general managers since it began. Despite drafting several players who seemed to possess the talent and ability to turn a team’s fortunes around, Buffalo’s consistent organizational incompetence and upheaval prevented that from happening. And though the team finally has seemed to find the right formula and returned to playoff contention this past season, their draft picks that have turned out to be failures still stand out.

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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), Isak Rosen (2021), Matthew Savoie, Noah Ostlund and Jiri Kulich (all 2022) will not be considered as they have yet to play for the team.

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 him.

Joel Armia #40 of the Winnipeg Jets
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 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.

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 the trade that brought Ryan O’Reilly to the Sabres. The Russian has since failed to catch on elsewhere and returned to his homeland in 2017 to play in the Kontinental Hockey League. Though, to be fair, it’s not really his fault. The Sabres destroyed whatever potential Grigorenko 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
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 all the turnovers and tumult that the Sabres have had since Pegula took over, Girgensons has been the one constant and has emerged as both a leader and a major fan-favorite. He was recognized for his contributions when he was named an alternate captain before the 2021-22 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 the Sabres’ GM and he 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, Ristolainen 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, he 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.

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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-foot-6, 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 that of Grigorenko.

Nikita Zadorov, Rasmus Ristolainen
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 2013-14 season but then made him a healthy scratch for the first 10 games (I can’t make sense of it either). He was finally added to the lineup on Oct.23 and scored on his first career NHL shot against the Boston Bruins. He was then returned to juniors after seven games.

He was brought back the following 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 in exchage for O’Reilly. 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 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 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
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.

Reinhart’s 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, he 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).

As we all know by now, 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 achieving any improvement 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 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, being 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, 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, in which 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 by the Sabres in the first round since 2004.

Though Sabres fans were initially upset by the choice because of Mittelstadt’s performance at the scouting combine, their fears were put to rest when he tore up the 2018 World Junior Championship (coincidentally held in Buffalo) and was named MVP. But in hindsight, that success did more harm than good in the short term. Just when it seemed the Sabres had finally learned from their past mistakes of rushing prospects into the spotlight, they went back to their 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. The team realized its mistake and he was sent to Rochester for the 2019-20 season and it did seem to help him regain some form, but injuries caused him significant time in each of the next two seasons.

But, just when Sabres fans were about to declare him a lost cause, the script flipped. Mittelstadt quietly posted a very strong 2022-23 season and posted new career highs in every offensive category. When top star Tage Thompson went down at the end of the year when the team needed him most, the Minnesotan stepped up to the plate, posting 12 points in the final eight games to keep the Sabres in the hunt. He finished with 59 points in 82 games and it’s remarkable how quickly the perception of him has changed. Fans and the media alike may owe him an apology. Ruling: Win.

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 alike, 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, and their choice was an easy one. The prize awaiting them was Rasmus Dahlin of HC Frolunda, also proclaimed to be a once-in-a-generation talent.

Rasmus Dahlin Buffalo Sabres Heritage Classic
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 repeated turnover; 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 was able to help his star regain himself and Dahlin turned in a breakout 2021-22, posting a new career-high 53 points and was named an NHL All-Star.

After announcing his arrival, the Swede took it a step further this past season and posted 73 points in 78 games, being named an All-Star once again. Despite this, he was not named a finalist for the Norris Trophy, the only major NHL award a Sabre has never won. Nevertheless, the odds of Dahlin changing that one day are still very high and he will lead the next generation of the team. 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 Lethbridge Hurricanes the first-ever first-round pick born in the Yukon.

After winning gold at the 2020 World Junior Championship, Cozens made his NHL debut during the COVID-shortened 2021 season. Though just 19 at the time and despite the difficult circumstances, he immediately impressed fans and the media alike with his poise and maturity. He finished his 41-game rookie season with just 13 points but his impact was far greater than that. He continued to excel in his sophomore campaign but stumbled in the second half and endured a 17-game goal-less drought.

But though his momentum stalled temporarily, he recorded 31 goals and 68 points in a remarkable bounce-back this past season. He also made significant strides in his defensive play and proved to be reliable in all situations. Cozens has been with the team for a relatively short period but has endeared himself to fans immensely with his effort and character. The Sabres showed their faith by signing him to a seven-year extension in February and he’s sure to be a fixture in Buffalo for years to come. Ruling: Win.

2020: Jack Quinn- 8th overall

It seemed like there may have been a ray of hope for the Sabres in the 2019-20 season under new head coach Ralph Krueger, but we’ll never know as sports took a backseat to grim reality that March. The outbreak of the COVID pandemic forced all professional sports into hiatus and when the NHL resumed play in August, Buffalo was one of only seven teams that didn’t qualify for the restart. As a result, they set their sights on the future and in the October draft, Kevyn Adams (the fourth GM of the Pegula regime) selected Jack Quinn of the Ottawa 67’s. Quinn received little attention compared to his 2020 Draft Class contemporaries but the his selection, quickly proved to be a wise one.

Jack Quinn Buffalo Sabres
Quinn ascended through the Sabres’ minor league ranks in a very short span (Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images).

In his first full professional season with Rochester, Quinn won the Dudley Garrett Memorial Award as AHL Rookie of the Year after recording 61 points in just 45 games. The Sabres needed no further example and added him to their roster for the 2022-23 season, in which he impressed with 14 goals and 37 points in 75 games. Much like Cozens, Quinn displays a poise not often seen out of such a young player and it’s clear that he’s just getting warmed up. Some doubts about his durability remain as he has struggled with injuries and may have to add some bulk to his frame, but at there’s still no reason to not expect big things from him. It’s still to early to declare him or boom or a bust, however, as one season isn’t a big enough sample size. In that spirit, we’ll hold off on judgement. Ruling: The jury is still out.

2021: Owen Power- 1st overall

The COVID-shortened 2021 season may have been the worst in Sabres history but we’ve discussed that before and won’t get into that again. But after winning just 15 of 56 games and at one point losing 18 in a row (during which Krueger was fired and replaced by Don Granato), the Sabres hit a new low and won the first overall selection for the second time in four years. And like 2018, there was little doubt over whom they would choose- hulking 6-foot-6 University of Michigan defenseman Owen Power. A great skater and playmaker despite his size, the Mississauga, ON has all the makings of a future superstar.

Owen Power Buffalo Sabres
Power has lived up the hype thus far with the Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers).

After bypassing the minors and joining the Sabres in the spring of 2022 after the Wolverines were eliminated in the Frozen Four, Power recorded two goals and an assist in eight games to close out the year. The following season he led rookie defensemen with 35 points and finished with a plus-10 rating, receiving a nomination for the Calder Trophy in the process. At just 20 years old, Power still has plenty to learn and he’ll have to grow up fast. But he and Dahlin are the future of Buffalo’s defense and have the potential to be a dynamic tandem. Like Quinn, it’s too early to rule on Power one way or another, but he’s only going to get better with age and Sabres fans should be very excited for what his future holds. Ruling: The jury is still out.