The recent debate over the course of action the Sabres should take in the first round of this year’s draft has added to the trend of blue chip prospects entering the NHL as 18-year olds. It also would appear that development of NHL prospects is slowly changing the yearly event from a futures draft to an event that produces players that are prepared to enter the league almost immediately.
With the salary cap pressing out those players with mid-level salaries, young, ultra-talented prospects have begun to be fast tracked into the NHL. The Philadelphia Flyers’ use of Claude Giroux, James van Riemsdyk and Sean Couturier makes for a great example of this. Even the Sabres have seen Luke Adam, Tyler Ennis and Tyler Myers make a quick jump to the show.
Because of the trend away from a two or three-year development to a track closer to 18 months (or shorter), picks in the top five have become that much more valuable as compared to years past. In fact, dating back to the Crosby draft, Erik Johnson is the only first overall pick not to enter the league as an 18-year old. With Nail Yakupov, Alex Galchenyuk and Ryan Murray all lurking atop this year’s draft, there is room for more NHL ready talent to be selected.
Yakupov and Murray are almost shoo-ins to step into the NHL next season. Meanwhile, Galchenyuk, Matt Dumba and Mikhail Grigorenko are also good bets to make a run after their first NHL training camp.
While Darcy Regier all but shut the book on any possibility of trading up in the draft, I remain a proponent of making a run for one of the picks that would yield the young center. I see Glachenyuk as the number one center the Sabres so desperately need and likely won’t find on the open trade market. However, Regier seems to be content with keeping his four picks and stocking the cupboards. Based on the trend of the NHL draft, the case could be made for trading up or standing pat.
There have been plenty of misses a top the draft in the past ten years, but the misses are starting to dwindle compared to the hits. Going back to 1998 (when the draft was last in Buffalo) the top ten is littered with role players and average talent. If you go beyond the top ten in any draft between 2001 and 1998 there are plenty of names which barely even registered in the NHL. Alexandr Svitov (Tampa Bay, 3rd – 2001), Stanislav Chistov (Anaheim, 5th – 2001) and Pavel Brendl (Rangers, 4th – 1999) are perhaps the best evidence, but those first rounds are littered with questionable selections.
Flip ahead to 2011 and 2010 and it is a completely different story. Four of the top ten selections in 2011 and eight of the top ten in 2010 played the full NHL season in 2011-12. While the trend of playing right out of the gate is not uniform past pick ten, a large number of players are signing their entry level contracts in preparation of turning pro as soon as they’re at the age to play in the AHL. There is still some guess work beyond those top ten prospects, but even the middle and bottom of the first round is beginning to turn into fertile ground for professional talent.
Perhaps the best way to compare the trend is to the NFL and MLB draft. The NHL has long been a draft for futures, like baseball. There was rarely a franchise talent in the NHL draft that would be capable of entering the league immediately. However, the recent trend in amateur development has allowed draft picks to transition to the NHL game far faster than history would indicate.
This particular trend is something the Sabres have taken to with their recent first round picks (namely Joel Armia and Mark Pysyk) Others like Nathan Lieuwen, Matt MacKenzie, Kevin Sundher and Jerome Gauthier-Leduc will need some seasoning in the AHL, but they will move to the professional ranks the minute they are of age. This is a key step in terms of developing the prospects in Buffalo’s cupboard.
In fact, only 13 players selected by the Sabres since 2008 have not signed an entry level deal. Three are 2011 draft picks with at least one more year of junior or college hockey left (Jacobs, Lepkowski and Navin), two went unsigned but received minor league deals (Fienhage and Boychuk) and three others are still playing collegiately (Adams, Isackson, Jokinen). That means there are only five players the Sabres haven’t bothered to sign for one reason or another. Whether or not those with contracts will pan out is a whole different story.