PHILADELPHIA – Aaron Ekblad is finally going to learn his fate tonight. The Barrie defenseman is going No. 1 in the NHL Draft to somebody, be it Florida or an unknown team pushing Panthers general manager Dale Tallon to deal the pick.
But during a session with reporters Thursday in the National Constitution Center, Ekblad had some interesting insight into how the Buffalo Sabres are proceeding under new GM Tim Murray.
Video of Ekblad’s interview with the Sabres during last month’s scouting combine in Toronto popped up on NHL.com this week, and it was an interesting watch as Murray and his assistant, Kevin Devine, peppered the mature 18-year-old with questions.
“I think Buffalo, they were trying to challenge guys, really challenge them just to try to see how they react in those situations,” Ekblad said. “That’s cool. That’s the way they want to do it. Some teams have that kind of approach. Some are a relaxed interview and just want to see who you are as a person.”
“They definitely did push a little harder,” agreed Kingston center Sam Bennett, when I relayed Ekblad’s comments to him. “They wanted to get more info from you and maybe put you on the spot a little bit more than others. They wanted to see your reactions. It’s a strategy they had.”
The real challenge for Murray over the next two days – and the next two drafts – will be to make the right reads on the players and personalities to get this team out of the nether regions of the NHL.
He can’t afford the kind of mistakes that Darcy Regier made too often with No. 1 picks of the past like Dennis Persson, Marek Zagrapan, Jiri Novotny, Artem Kryukov and Barrett Heisten.
Whoever Murray takes with the No. 2 pick – and the biggest scuttlebutt remains Kootenay center Sam Reinhart – he darn well better play for the next 10 years or so. The Sabres haven’t drafted a stud center since Pierre Turgeon in 1987, and they’re almost certainly going to do that tonight.
But I’m more interested to see what Murray does in Saturday’s second round. He’s got three picks there, including the first one at No. 31. Can he use one or two of them to get back into the first round tonight?
Unlike many GMs for other teams, Murray did not speak to reporters on Draft Eve. So you don’t know what his thought process is. No one has ever seen Murray operate in the No. 1 chair. Is he all talk or will he become Trader Joe?
The GM passed his first major challenge at the trade deadline with good work in the deals for Ryan Miller, Steve Ott and Matt Moulson. This is another huge test and let’s not over-emphasize the No. 2 pick either.
Dan Marr, director of NHL Central Scouting, has heard the talk that this is a “down” draft ad nauseum in recent months. And while it may not have the top-line talent, you can’t forget that in a cap world, teams have to have strong players throughout their lineup.
We just watched a Stanley Cup final between the Kings and Rangers that featured a pair of four-line teams. John Scotts of the world no longer need apply. You have to get those bottom-line players somewhere.
“Nobody wants to make a mistake in the first round and I understand that,” Marr said here Thursday. “But where you really improve your organization and the depth of your organization is finding those leftover nuggets later on in the draft. In the salary cap era, you need those role players. They’re there to find.”
The Sabres have done pretty well in the past in that area. Some might argue they’ve been better at the mid- and later rounds the last 30 years than they have been at the top of the draft.
Consider that Ryan Miller and Don Edwards, two of the three best goalies in franchise history, were both fifth-round picks. Brian Campbell went in the sixth round in 1997, No. 167 overall.
You think back to names like Donald Audette (ninth round, 1989), Paul Gaustad (seventh round, 2000), Ales Kotalik and Patrick Kaleta (both sixth round) and you can see many serviceable players are still available.
So while all this talk of Reinhart vs. Bennett vs. Leon Draisaitl is fun and important, it’s far overstated given the importance of this draft – the whole draft – for the organization.
Yes, there’s growing chatter about the potential rule changes for the Connor McDavid Sweepstakes. But that’s next year. And they don’t change Murray’s core challenge: Get more talent for a organization that’s sorely lacking up front. It starts tonight.