While Buffalo Sabres fans were hoping in November to not need to care about this year’s NHL Draft, the way the season played out led them to finishing fifth from the bottom of the league. A few lottery balls later and Buffalo now knows that they’ll be drafting seventh overall in Vancouver on June 21.
This is not new territory. Since 2013, Buffalo has picked eighth (Rasmus Ristolainen), second (Sam Reinhart), second (Jack Eichel), eighth (Alex Nylander), eighth (Casey Mittelstadt), first (Rasmus Dahlin), and now seventh. Despite the plethora of high picks, they have yet to show much of anything.
This season, Buffalo finished 29th in the league in terms of goal differential per 60 minutes, according to Evolving Hockey. This, all the while, comes during a 40-goal campaign from Jeff Skinner, a breakout season from Eichel and a record-breaking season from 18-year-old sensation Dahlin.
The problem is not a new one, though. Since the Sabres began their run to the top of the draft board in 2013, they are the proud owners of four of the thirteen worst seasons in terms of goal differential per 60 minutes.
The holes are many in the current lineup. While no one could blame general manager Jason Botterill for using this prime draft pick on a defender like Bowen Byram, a centre like Trevor Zegras or a winger like Peyton Krebs, it may be difficult for the Sabres to pass up on the undersized Cole Caufield.
Blast From the Past
Caufield is currently listed at 5-foot-7 and 163 pounds. The first player that may be on many Sabres fans minds is Nathan Gerbe.
The diminutive Gerbe, listed at 5-foot-4 and 176 pounds, was long held as a prime prospect in the organization after he was drafted in 2005. After being awarded the Dudley “Red” Garrett Memorial Award for rookie of the year in the 2008–09 season in the AHL, expectations were high for a Sabres team beginning a new chapter.
Gerbe put up 56 points in 57 games with the Portland Pirates and fans were hoping that he could help fill the void left by Danny Briere.
That never came to fruition though as Gerbe struggled to find footing in the NHL, and found himself playing in Switzerland and with the Cleveland Monsters in the AHL this season.
With that in mind, some Sabres fans may be hesitant to reach over the stable of big-bodied forwards available in this year’s top 10.
It’s important to remember just how much the NHL has changed since 2005. This brand of hockey is based on skill and Caufield exudes that. He possesses a devastating shot, arguably the best in this year’s draft class. Just how devastating is his shot?
Meet Cole Caufield
In 60 games with the United States National Team Development Program team this season, Caufield peppered the net to the tune of 67 goals. During his career with the program, he has put up an astounding 106 goals. That puts him ahead of the likes of Phil Kessel, Patrick Kane, Auston Matthews, and Eichel. In fact, Caufield has scored more than anyone in the program’s history.
While he doesn’t possess blazing speed, Caufield’s mind is geared toward offence. With the puck on his stick, he draws defenders magnetically to him to open up space for his teammates. Is there anybody who could use a little more time and space more than, say, Eichel?
He has elite playmaking ability and can find the open man for a scoring chance.
When he doesn’t have the puck, Caufield has the ability to find the soft space in the zone. Like other elite scorers that somehow find a way to get open, to get to their “office”, he glides to where he needs to be and readies himself for his assault on the net.
The real magic with Caufield is his release. Whether the puck needs to go short side, far side or five-hole or if the shot available is a wrist, snap, or slap, expect the puck to hit the spot and hit it hard.
His game goes to a whole new level when he’s on the power play. This season, Caufield ravaged opposing nets with 25 power-play goals. The next closest player on the team was Matthew Boldy with nine. Even number one prospect Jack Hughes only amassed four markers on the man advantage.
When coaches speak about getting “pucks on net”, Caufield takes it very seriously. In 60 games this season, he pillaged goalies with 259 shots, an average of 4.32 shots per game. When you combine the lethal accuracy of his shot with his tendency to use it, you have the potential for a nuclear weapon.
As with any 18-year-old hockey player, there are holes and question marks to Caufield’s game. Scouts wonder whether or not he can find another gear to his skating. Will he be able to compete with the physical game at the NHL level?
Caufield played this season against teams that featured players two to three years older than him. When playing against NCAA teams, there are grown men who could be 24 years old.
Granted, the competition at the NHL is obviously higher. But it’s not as if Caufield broke records against only players his own age group or younger. With a low centre of gravity and professional conditioning, he has the opportunity to be the next Alex DeBrincat.
He thrives on the big stage. Currently playing in the IIHF World U18 Championship, Caufield has exploded for nine goals and two assists in just three games played. With another game remaining against Latvia, he seems poised to blast over 10 goals before the preliminary round is complete.
Where is the Fit?
While there are a number of needs that the Sabres have, Caufield would go a long way to shoring up their offence.
Is he a “generational player?” No. Is he a player you build your team around? Not necessarily.
The infrastructure is already in place in Buffalo to help Caufield be a success. If there were concerns about Caufield collecting his points playing with high-end centres like Hughes and Zegras, Buffalo has that taken care of with Eichel.
With Eichel holding down the forward ranks and Dahlin assuming the lead on the back end, the pressure would be off for Caufield to carry the team. He could join a young group that features the likes of Mittelstadt, Nylander and Victor Oloffson.
If Buffalo finds a way to re-sign Jeff Skinner, they could have the makings of a formidable top-six and, dare I say it, top nine. Being able to put out speed and skill across three lines can help to close the gap on the goal differential per 60.
Imagine skating out a power play unit featuring Eichel, Olofsson, Reinhart, Dahlin and Caufield. They could be replaced by a unit featuring Skinner, Mittelstadt, Nylander, Ristolainen and Brandon Montour. What a contrast from the last few years.
With such electrifying talent, why are we to assume that Caufield will be available at pick number seven?
Will Caufield be Available?
Most mock drafts and experts project him to go in the 10-15 range. While he has top-five talent, scouts are still concerned about his size. On pace to have a very strong U18 World Championship, his stock will no doubt continue to rise.
There are players considered to be more of a lock in the top 10 this year. Hughes, Kappo Kakko, Kirby Dach, Dylan Cozens, Alex Turcotte, Byram, Vasili Podkolzin, Krebs, Zegras and Matthew Boldy are all considered to be much more safe picks.
If the Sabres were to have maintained their draft position, picking fifth, it would have been much less tempting to take a risk and seem more reasonable to take one of the safer players. Couple picking in the seventh spot with Caufield blowing up the U18s and it could be the perfect storm for Buffalo adding a potential hired gun to their lineup.
Regardless of who the Sabres end up picking at number seven, they will receive a solid contributor. Any time you can add a player who outscored Kessel, Kane and Matthews at the same age, you have to do it. You just have to adjust your view to how that player is packaged.