Joel Armia, one of the Sabres’ top prospects, is coming to Buffalo next season. He’ll bring a friend if the team gets its way at the NHL Draft.
The Sabres have plenty of objectives as they head toward the June 30 selection process, and one is to surround their future stars with friends and countrymen. Detroit found success building around cores of Russians and Swedes, and the Sabres think Armia might fare well with fellow Finns.
“It’s something we definitely think about,” said Kevin Devine, the Sabres’ director of amateur scouting. “You take a guy like Armia, he’s got a couple real good friends in the draft. He’s coming over this year. It’d be nice to have somebody in that group.”
The Finnish talent starts right at the top. Aleksander Barkov is ranked No. 1 among European skaters by NHL Central Scouting. Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen is No. 4, while left wing Artturi Lehkonen ranks ninth.
Armia joined the trio in representing Finland at the world junior championships.
“I think probably the worst thing you can do is get 13 different nationalities,” Devine said. “You can’t deny if somebody’s got chemistry with somebody, and they’re up in the draft, and we’ve got a player that has already played with a guy. I think that does come into play.”
The Sabres, who are scheduled to draft eighth and 16th in the first round, likely would have to move up to get Barkov. The center said he’ll be meeting this month with teams that select in the top seven.
The 17-year-old has spent two seasons in the Finnish elite league, and the son of a longtime European player believes he’s ready for the NHL. The 6-foot-2, 205-pounder recorded 21 goals and 48 points in 53 games with Tappara before injuring his shoulder. He had surgery in April, can resume skating this week and should be cleared to play in September.
“In the NHL we play against men, and I have already played two years against men in Finland at a high level,” Barkov said at the scouting combine.
Ristolainen is a 6-foot-3, 201-pounder who has also spent two years in Finland’s top league. The 18-year-old is impressive in his own zone and can contribute offensively. He had six points in six games at the world juniors.
Lehkonen suffered a pair of concussions but still put up 14 goals and 30 points in 45 games in the elite league. The 17-year-old is built in the Tyler Ennis mold at 5-9 and 163 pounds.
The Sabres haven’t forgotten about their other top prospect, Mikhail Grigorenko. One of his best friends on his junior team in Quebec is highly rated. Adam Erne, a 6-foot, 210-pound winger, is ranked 26th by Central Scouting and should go in the first round. He had 28 goals and 72 points in 68 games.
Erne participated in the Sabres’ combine this week and also planned to visit Toronto, Ottawa and New Jersey. The Connecticut native was the very first player tested at the NHL combine. He finished in a tie for third in the endurance bike test.
“Erne’s a highly competitive kid,” Devine said. “He’s got real good speed. He’s really thick. At times, he’s very explosive. Every once in a while you won’t notice him in a game, but most of the time he’s a goal scorer. He was probably the best player in the prospect game this year.”
Grigorenko split time between Buffalo and Quebec this season, and Erne said it was a learning experience.
“Once he went up and realized the speed of the game and the physicality of the game, he came back with a different mind-set of still having to prove himself and prove to Buffalo what he can do,” Erne said. “I think obviously with his skill he can dominate even on off nights, so I think he kind of realized it’s going to take hard work night in and night out. There’s things everybody needs to work on to make it to the next level.”