In comparison to other teams who have finished in the lower end of the standings as often as they have, the Buffalo Sabres have had little success in the draft within the past decade. The Sabres have selected a player within the top 10 on seven different occasions in the past decade, and like many teams, not all of their prospects have panned out according to plan. But it has happened far too often for Buffalo.
Many teams in the NHL have also struggled with being able to find players in the draft that can transcend the value of a traditional late-round pick. Nowadays, the player rankings for the first two, even three rounds of the NHL draft are already set in stone weeks in advance with few exceptions. Ever since the NHL introduced the seven-round draft format in 2005, there have been tons of late-round gems, but not a lot of teams can say they have consistently picked well late in the draft.
On the 2018-19 Sabres roster, the only player drafted past the second round was backup goaltender Linus Ullmark. Ullmark was drafted in the sixth round, 163rd overall and spent his time in and out of the Buffalo rotation before playing 37 games in the 2018-19 season where he recorded a .905 save percentage with a 3.11 goals against average. Although Ullmark played a big role for the Sabres last season as they pushed for a playoff spot, it is clear to see that scouting late-round talent has clearly been an issue for the Sabres organization.
This season, Victor Olofsson has emerged as a new young star for the Sabres against all odds. Much like Ullmark, Olofsson has taken advantage of the opportunity that has been presented to him this season, but make no mistake, he has earned everything that has come to him.
Victor Olofsson’s Journey
Olofsson was drafted in the seventh round, 181st overall in the 2014 Draft and has become one of the major success stories for the Sabres this season. Olofsson’s path to the NHL has been a long one, and reflecting on his journey to becoming one of the league’s future stars only makes you appreciate and respect the process even more.
Leading up to the 2014 NHL Draft, Olofsson scored a league-leading 20 goals through 27 games in Sweden’s J20 SuperElit Circuit, Sweden’s premier junior hockey league. He also finished second in the league in points as a member of MODO, which earned him an 11-game stint with the professional MODO Hockey club of the Swedish Hockey League, although he did not record a point during his time there. The potential for him to break out was always clearly there, but his point production never translated up until after his draft year.
These days it isn’t uncommon to find prospects who prefer to take the route of playing professionally overseas to strengthen and develop their skills in order to make them more transferable to an NHL level. With older athletes and arguably better talent, these professional leagues overseas can be more appealing than the alternatives presented to younger players. With such a low draft stock, and the little attention given to lower end draft picks in the prospect pools of NHL teams, the plan for Olofsson was to continue playing overseas, which would ultimately become the best decision for both he and the Sabres.
After a 2016-17 season with his new team, Frölunda HC, Olofsson had a career-low nine goals through 51 regular season games but began to showcase his offensive potential in the 2017 SHL playoffs. Through 14 games, he was tied for second in points on his team with 12 at just 21 years of age, making him the youngest player on the team, and was instrumental in Frölunda’s competitive run to the league Semifinals.
Just one season later, Olofsson finished first in goals in the Swedish Hockey League with 27 and was eighth in all-league scoring. Olofsson also scored more goals in that season than Vancouver Canucks forward Elias Pettersson, who led the SHL in points that year. Things seemed to be turning around for the young Swedish forward, and it only got better from here.
Olofsson joined the Rochester Americans in the American Hockey League last season where he recorded 30 goals with 63 points through 66 games as a rookie, earning the 22-year-old a six-game trial with the Sabres where he potted four points, making a significant impression on the organization. This earned him a six-game trial with the Sabres towards the end of the 2018-19 season where he scored two goals and four points through those six games, elevating his expectations, even more, coming into the 2019-20 season.
Olofsson’s Calder Trophy Campaign
Olofsson has now established himself as a goalscorer at every level, including the NHL, and the Sabres have given him the opportunity to showcase his skill on the top line alongside Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart. Olofsson also plays on the top power-play unit, where he has dealt the most damage this season, setting an NHL record by scoring his first seven career goals on the power play, and is currently tied for third in the NHL with Connor McDavid in power-play goals.
Most recently, Olofsson was named the NHL’s Rookie of the Month for December, after recording six goals and eight assists for 14 points through 14 games, with two of those goals being game-winners. This is his second time being awarded Rookie of the Month this season, and Olofsson now leads all rookies in goals (16), and points (35), and is second on his team in points, as he competes in the tight race for the Calder Trophy against the Colorado Avalanche’s Cale Makar and the Canucks’ Quinn Hughes.
While a lot of Olofsson’s success this season can be attributed to the MVP-caliber season of his teammate Eichel, a lot of the skills he possesses combine for the makings of a potential 40-goal scorer. His lethal one-timer makes him a perfect complementary player to the puck-moving forwards on both the power play and at even strength, and he could easily make a long career in the NHL from his insanely powerful shot.
After most recently suffering a lower-body injury in Thursday night’s matchup against the Edmonton Oilers, Olofsson is expected to miss five-to-six weeks, which will be a significant loss for the Sabres.
While this injury could affect Olofsson’s chances of competing for the Rookie of the Year award this season, the Sabres should definitely be happy with the fact that they have drafted a prolific goal scorer that has already excelled well beyond expectations and could potentially be the biggest steal in the Sabres’ history at the NHL draft.
Eric is a recent graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University’s Sport Media Program and is covering the Vegas Golden Knights with the Hockey Writers