Despite nearly a dozen offseason acquisitions, the Buffalo Sabres continue to tread water at the bottom of the league, leaving many fans to wonder if there will ever be a way out of the NHL’s basement.
Their protracted struggles have been attributed to just about anything and everything the organization has done over the past half-decade. But the one talking point that’s rarely acknowledged, if at all, has been how Buffalo’s struggles at the draft have led to a lack of contributors throughout the lineup.
When Tim Murray said he wasn’t interested in a five-year rebuild, he meant it. He took steps to speed up the building process, dealing for established NHL players as opposed to waiting on the assets he and Darcy Regier had worked to accumulate. In a way, it was wise. It’s likely that many of the key assets the Sabres dealt would only be making their NHL debut this season, leaving the club with holes to fill over the past two-plus years. Had the Sabres opted to backfill the roster with veteran stop gaps as they waited for those prospects to mature, it stands to reason they’d be in about the same spot they are now with just as much fan discontent about their progress.
The results can’t be ignored though. While Ryan O’Reilly and Evander Kane have been good they haven’t been nearly good enough to put the Sabres over the top. Murray’s gamble on injecting the roster with NHL talent to hasten the rebuild simply didn’t pay off, leaving a disjointed collection of talent without a proper supporting cast.
For the most part, the lackluster results of 2017-18 sit firmly in Murray’s lap. However, he alone doesn’t own all of the Sabres’ problems. His high-profile moves amplified Buffalo’s lack of blue chip prospects, but the pipeline was thinning well before Murray’s tenure began.
The Sabres typically live and die with the performance of Jack Eichel, O’Reilly and Kane. When the team’s big guns are hot, the results will usually follow. On the odd occasion the bottom six chips in the team enjoys a bit more success. However, it’s become an ever-increasing rarity to see Buffalo’s bottom six contribute on a regular basis, and when the big guns get shut down we see 3-1, 2-1 and 2-0 disappointments.
Most, if not all of these struggles can be traced not to trades made by the previous general managers, but Buffalo’s stunning lack of luck and success at the draft.
Buffalo hasn’t just struggled to find depth pieces at the draft either. They’ve had their fair share of misses at the top as well. Buffalo hasn’t drafted particularly well for quite some time, but going back to 2010 – about the latest draft which still has a trickle-down effect on the current Sabres – the team has been particularly ineffective. (The meat of this lies between 2010 and 2014 as the 2016 and 2017 drafts are too recent to consider and even 2015 hasn’t matured enough to judge fairly).
Making the right call on draft picks is not an exact science. There are over 200 picks made in each draft and a majority of those players won’t become NHL regulars, let alone impact players. History says that a fraction of those players would play significant time in the NHL (more information regarding pick value here). Accurate scouting and modeling are vital traits but there’s a fair bit of luck that goes into it as well. Some interesting work has been done by Canucks Army in this regard, studying the misses the Canucks had at the draft and how they may have avoided coming up empty in so many drafts. It’s an interesting study which uses simple draft year scoring production to make new draft picks. It is to be taken with a large grain of salt as the model only shows so much with the drafts they analyze. They cut out goaltenders, defensemen, NCAA and European prospects. So you lose a key aspect of how teams need to draft, as not only are two key aspects to building a team removed but two significant prospect pools are removed as well. But it still paints an interesting contrast between missed picks and the gems that can be found later in the draft.
Edmonton’s woes outside of the first round have been well documented while a team like the Tampa Bay Lightning has enjoyed an impressive run from pick 31 and beyond. In 2011 alone, the Bolts picked Nikita Kucherov (58 overall), Nikita Nesterov (148), Matthew Peca (201) and Ondrej Palat (208). Vladislav Namestnikov was Tampa’s first round pick in 2011, meaning they pulled three impact players from that draft with another (Peca) who has just broken into a regular role. That same year, the Sabres selected Dan Catenacci (77), Colin Jacobs (107), Alex Lepkowski (137), Nathan Lieuwen (167) and Brad Navin (197). This is an extreme example but it illustrates how quickly a team’s fortunes can turn.
Tampa’s roster is dotted with contributors picked later in the draft. Brayden Point (79th in 2014), Cedric Paquette (101st in 2012) and Alex Killorn (77th in 2007) just to name a few. The gap between accurate scouting and luck widens as you get later in the draft, so simply saying the Sabres need to hit on picks later than the fourth round isn’t exactly fair. However, failing to pull value from those picks can hamstring a team and the impact you receive if you hit it big on a late pick unmistakable.
The only non-first rounders to give the Sabres any meaningful contributions in recent years have been Jake McCabe and Marcus Foligno, otherwise their drafts have offered little in the way of depth for the pipeline. A few are beginning to show promise – Linus Ullmark for example – but otherwise the cupboards have been relatively bare. While enjoying the type of success that Tampa has seen requires a bit of luck, failing to score a couple of hits later in the draft has hampered Buffalo’s ability to build.
Perhaps even more concerning than missing on later picks is that the Sabres haven’t landed many impact players with their first round picks either. Between 2011 and 2013 the Sabres had five first round selections. They came away with Joel Armia, Mikhail Grigorenko, Zemgus Girgensons, Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov. So far only Ristolainen and Girgensons have hit the 300-game plateau and of the group, Ristolainen is the only player you could argue has been a serious contributor at the NHL level. Even then, his underlying numbers are not kind to his overall evaluation.
Putting aside the trades that shipped Armia, Grigorenko and Zadorov out of town, the Sabres yield from those five selections was two checking wingers (Armia and Girgensons), a washout who was the third ranked prospect in his class (Grigorenko), a defenseman who is finally starting to show some ability to hold middle pair minutes (Zadorov) and another blueliner whose usage – and perhaps billing – does not seem to fit his ability (Ristolainen). That Is not a recipe for building a winner.
If you’re being generous, the Sabres went 1-for-5 on picks which were expected to yield talent that would serve as the foundation for the team to build on. Grigorenko might be the only true miss of the group but Armia never became the pure scorer the Sabres were hoping to plug into the top six. Girgensons has been an acceptable bottom six winger but you’re hoping for a lot more from the 14th pick.
Those five picks represent some of the highest value the Sabres held as they embarked on their rebuild. At best, those selections would have made the Sabres a competitor by 2015 and at the least they should have rounded out the foundation built around Jack Eichel. Instead they’re bit parts and cast-offs. Combine that with a low batting average on nearly every other pick they made during that stretch, and you wind up with a thin pipeline and a lack of depth at the NHL level.
Adding those picks with the host of other top-90 picks that Regier and Murray worked to accumulate should have been a windfall for the Sabres. Instead the they wound up with a string of misses. Not every pick the Sabres made from 2010 to now was a guarantee to make the NHL. But to have had such a run of bad luck with those picks stripped the Sabres pipeline just as much as any trade.
One reason I chose to use 2010 as the cut off for this exercise due to that trio of third-round picks. Mark Pysyk was the only NHLer to come out of Buffalo’s 2010 class and that lack of success started a domino effect in Buffalo’s pipeline. The 2010 draft was one of three drafts between 2010 and 2017 in which the Sabres held three picks in a single round. Buffalo had three picks in the third round of the 2010 draft but received zero combined NHL games from Jerome Gauthier-Leduc, Kevin Sundher and Matt Mackenzie. The trio combined for 35 goals with the Amerks.
A similar result came of the 2013 and 2014 drafts where the Sabres had three second-round picks in each and as of now, only one NHL contributor has come of the bunch. Missing on those picks is just as much a product of bad luck than anything else but failing to get any value from those picks was damning for the Sabres. If the five firsts taken between 2011 and 2013 were supposed to form the foundation, the six seconds in 2013 and 2014 should have served as a bulk set of building blocks. It’s the reason the Sabres pipeline earned top billing from The Hockey News, but we’ve seen how quickly that has changed.
In the middle of the rebuild I’d often look at the second-round “talents” or “value” the Sabres had. I would include Hudson Fasching and Nick Baptiste in the group due to their post-draft play. Entering the summer of 2015 the Sabres had ten second round assets at their disposal if you counted their two second round picks in the 2015 draft. It was an impressive haul that offered a ton of upside and promise for Buffalo’s future. But after trades it has yielded the Sabres Connor Hurley, Justin Bailey, Baptiste, Eric Cornel, Vaclav Karabacek, Fasching and Brendan Guhle.
For a team desperate to see picks translate to success, that’s a rough outcome to face. Guhle is the gem of the group and both Baptiste and Bailey have shown flashes but have lacked the consistency to really break through. Aside from that there hasn’t been much to show from the highest value picks the Sabres have owned. There have been a few hits beyond the top 60 (Cal Petersen, Linus Ullmark, Will Borgen) but no jackpots like other teams have been lucky to hit.
It’s very easy to lay all of this at the feet of Buffalo’s general managers and scouting staff. But even a cursory look at any NHL draft beyond the top 30 picks paints the picture of a massive crapshoot. Failing to land impact players in the first round is relatable to scouting or GM issues whereas missing later in the draft features a bit more bad luck than just bad drafting.
The core issue remains though. The lack of wins throughout the draft has led to the thin pipeline and lack of quality depth on Buffalo’s roster.
Luckily there are reasons for optimism. Ullmark and Borgen both appear to have quite a bit of upside and Sean Malone has the chance to translate into a useful player for the Sabres. Victor Olofsson’s post-draft play has done nothing but improve. Meanwhile Cliff Pu has had two strong post-draft seasons and both Casey Fitzgerald and Jacob Bryson have been receiving terrific reviews.
The Sabres have a rare cornerstone talent in Jack Eichel. With Eichel as the key piece of their foundation and another first, Sam Reinhart, who has shown the ability to be a quality complement to Eichel at times, the Sabres have the framework in place to get turned around. If their last few drafts can produce a few more true contributors we’ll see a marked change in the Sabres fortunes.