Given that the Sabres had a 75% chance of not winning the draft lottery last night, there shouldn’t be much surprise or disappointment in Buffalo receiving the second overall pick. My disappointment lies in the two posts I wrote on Monday that needed to be drastically altered because of the result.
The consensus on this year’s draft is that the top four or five prospects are at a level above most others in the draft. This also happens to be a draft that will differ from the last two or three that preceded it in that there is no clear cut favorite to be picked first overall. Rather, the top four or five players are the consensus favorites to be selected at the top with the rest of the first round being described with any number of synonyms for average.
While the Sabres missed out on having their pick of the litter, they’re truly not at a disadvantage having to pick second. In fact, you could argue that they’re in a better situation but I’m not about to try and justify why not picking first could possibly not be the best possible scenario. I will say that the Sabres are not hamstrung for not having won the lottery. Perhaps the best possible scenario would have seen the Islanders win the lottery, but having the Panthers leapfrog the Sabres won’t have a resounding affect on the direction the Sabres go with their selection.
It would appear as if Barrie defenseman Aaron Ekblad, Kingston forward Sam Bennett and Kootenay center Sam Reinhart have established themselves as the top three prospects in the draft. Although Leon Draisaitl is considered to be right there with Reinhart and possibly even Bennett at the top.
Tim Murray repeatedly said that he is going to take the best player available regardless of position. Reading those tea leaves could point you in a number of different directions. While the Panthers aren’t guaranteed to take a particular player, the Sabres decision won’t be altered at two. In fact, the Sabres could very well end up with the exact player they wanted at one even after the Panthers pick, something that Murray confirmed last night.
Exactly who the Sabres will have the opportunity to select is hard to say. Prevailing wisdom would indicate that Ekblad is not only the best prospect in the draft (although different scouting services and pundits have different rankings) but also the player who best addresses the needs of the Panthers. With Florida’s VP of Hockey Operations slipping in that they have some depth at forward, it’s likely that most people are assuming that Ekblad is the direction they go with the first pick.
With Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov (both lottery selections) and Nick Bjugstad anchoring their corps of forwards but only Erik Gudbranson and Dmitry Kulikov as their defensive cornerstones, the assumption of Ekblad being the pick makes sense. If the rumors that Kulikov could be on his way out are true, then Ekblad would be a much more valuable selection.
Working on the assumption that the Panthers do indeed take Ekblad, the Sabres would be left with their choice of either Sam Bennett or Reinhart. That’s not a bad consolation prize, particularly if either one of those two slot in as the top player on Buffalo’s draft board. Draisaitl is clearly an option here as well, but so much press has been directed at Bennett and Reinhart this year that the consensus is that they’re the top two forwards in the draft.
My original though process (when I assumed the Sabres would win the lottery) was that taking either Ekblad or Bennett was going to be the best way to go for the Sabres. Ekblad would afford them a ton of flexibility on the blueline as his presence would open the door to trade one or more of Buffalo’s current defensemen. Bennett, in my eyes, represents the forward who can most help the Sabres now and in the future. Given that the Sabres are all but assured to end up with one of Ekblad, Bennett or even Reinhart, I’m quite comfortable with where they’re selecting.
Bennett just wrapped up a 91-point campaign with Kingston that produced more than double the points he piled up in his first OHL season. He’s drawn comparisons to Doug Gilmour and other skilled two-way pivots like Jonathan Toews. Getting an offensively gifted player who has some sandpaper in his game would give the Sabres a talent they don’t really have right now.
The other thing I like about Bennett is that projecting him as a winger in the NHL doesn’t represent a massive shift in his game. To provide a comparison from the Sabres current crop of players, try to imagine Mikhail Grigorenko projecting as a winger in the pros. My reasoning here is that tossing Bennett on a wing with a guy like Grigorenko or perhaps a really good center that is selected in 2015, for example, doesn’t put the Sabres in a position where a player who is expected to be a cornerstone is slotted in a spot where he is uncomfortable. Maybe I’m looking at this too closely, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing by any stretch.
Given the type of team the Sabres are expected to have next season, it wouldn’t bother me in the least to see Bennett, Reinhart or whoever else they select head back to junior for 2014-15. Allowing these kids to grow into their body – especially Bennett who I haven’t seen listed above 170 –all while playing at a level where they can continue to build their confidence is by no means a bad thing. It also keeps them away from a roster that could certainly be trudging towards another high pick in next year’s draft. This doesn’t appear to be a draft with a plethora of NHL ready skaters and Sabres fans have seen first-hand what happens if a player is forced into a spot that they aren’t ready for, so giving Bennett (or anyone else) another year of seasoning shouldn’t do anything to hinder his development.
I’m confident in saying that I expect the Panthers to select Ekblad with the first pick. While I’m unsure of the player the Sabres favor at number two, knowing that the Sabres choice won’t be drastically affected by what the Panthers do gives me a lot of confidence. There is still an outside chance that the Sabres wind up with the Islanders pick as well which would provide an incredible opportunity to score a pair of cornerstone forwards.
While the ideal scenario of holding the keys to the first round passed the Sabres by, their position at number two is by no means a disadvantage and they’re going to come away with an elite talent when they step to the podium in Philadelphia.