This is a rough estimate, but at least a dozen people asked me within 24 hours of the NHL Draft how the Sabres fared with their picks: After much deliberation, crunching numbers, examining their choices from various angles and considering Buffalo’s needs, here’s my answer:
I have absolutely no idea.
Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov may turn out to be fine players. I’m happy for Justin Bailey and Sean Malone, which is always the case when a Western New Yorker gets taken in the draft. Really, though, I don’t have a clue whether they and the others will ever play in the NHL.
In fact, there aren’t many, if any, general managers NHL who can say with all certainty how well their choices will compete against the best players in the world. Other than the first five picks overall or so, the draft is a game of chance. Many first-round picks who donned NHL jerseys for the first time were also wearing it for the last.
Instead, they will join a long list of top prospects who faded into obscurity after their draft day glory.
Take Sasha Pokulok and Alex Bourret, for example. They came with hope and promise for their respective teams when they were selected two picks apart in the first round of the 2005 draft. Washington took Pokulok 14th overall while Atlanta grabbed Bourret with the 16th selection.
These days, Pokulok and Bourret are teammates ... with the Cornwall Riverkings in the Ligue Nord-Am’ricaine de Hockey, a Quebec-based league where careers go to die. Even when translated, the LNAH shouldn’t be confused with the North American Hockey League. Kids coming out of the latter still have a chance.
Pokulok was taken one pick after the Sabres grabbed Marek Zagrapan. Bourret was picked one slot after the Islanders took Ryan O’Marra. That fearsome foursome combined for one goal and six assists in 33 NHL games, all by O’Marra. Oh, he never played for the Isles. He spent parts of four seasons with Edmonton and two games with Anaheim.
Did I mention they were Nos. 13-16 of the first round?
The 2005 draft was one of the better years. It included Sidney Crosby, Bobby Ryan, Jack Johnson and Carey Price, among others in the first round. It also was the year James Neal, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Abdelkader and Paul Stastny were picked in the second round. Kris Letang and Jonathan Quick lasted until the third round.
Buffalo picked Zagrapan and Philipp Gogulla before the Kings picked Quick, an eventual Vezina Trophy and Conn Smythe winner. The last pick of the entire draft was Patric Hornqvist, who averaged 26 goals per season in the three years with the Predators before the 2012-13 lockout. Obviously, the so-called experts didn’t see that coming or Hornqvist would have been taken in the first round, not the last.
Tell me what the following players have in common: Riku Helenius, Mark Mitera, David Fischer and Dennis Persson. All were first-round picks in 2006 and never played in the NHL.
Then again, NHL veterans James Reimer, Viktor Stalberg, Mathieu Perreault and Derek Dorsett were picked in the fourth round or later the same year.
You just never know.
I’m a sports writer, a husband and father, a lousy golfer, a terrible cook. I have better things to do than break down video of teenage hockey players. And yet I might do a better job than some in the first three rounds if I closed my eyes and threw a dart at Central Scouting’s list of top 100 prospects.
This is not a shot at Central Scouting, not by any means. It’s also not a poke at general managers or the hundreds of scouts collecting paychecks. The point is that it’s really, really, really difficult to predict the development of players seven years in advance. Anyone who says he can with 100 percent certainty is lying to you or lying to himself.
The Sabres had 14 first-round draft picks between 1997 and 2008. Only seven played 100 games for Buffalo – Dmitri Kalinin, Thomas Vanek, Daniel Paille, Drew Stafford, Tyler Myers and Tyler Ennis. Five never played a single game for Buffalo – Barrett Heisten, Artem Kryukov, Keith Ballard, Zagrapan, Persson.
Some played in the league for a long time, some did not. Some were better players than the others. Some never worked out in Buffalo but played well elsewhere. But on the day they were selected, they were viewed as can’t-miss prospects. You can do the same thing with every team in the league.
You want to praise the Red Wings for finding Pavel Datsyuk in the sixth round of the 1998 draft and Henrik Zetterberg in the seventh a year later? Fine, so long as you remind Wings GM Ken Holland, one of the best in the biz, that he should have selected both players much earlier.
Basically, he was lucky. He wasn’t as lucky in 1998 with Ryan Barnes and Tomek Valtonen or in 1999 with Jari Tolsa or Andre Maximenko. Who are they, you ask? That’s my point, I say.
Sorry, but I don’t have high hopes for Ristolainen and Zadorov. They have good size. I’ve heard good things about them, of course. They may become great players.
My pessimism has nothing to do with them or, for that matter, the Sabres. It has everything to do with math. The odds are stacked against them.