When the Sabres walk into the NHL draft, they will have their choice of every eligible player in the world with the exception of one. With 2½ months to shop around, it’s a good bet they’ll wind up at Sam’s Club.
Centers Sam Reinhart and Sam Bennett, along with defenseman Aaron Ekblad, head the prospect lists of most scouting services. Bennett is No. 1 according to NHL Central Scouting. Reinhart is tops in the eyes of International Scouting Services. Ekblad is the best according to a poll done by Canadian sports channel TSN.
The Florida Panthers, who have the top pick after winning the draft lottery Tuesday, will select one of them. The Sabres will have a chance at the other two.
“We’ve got a lot of needs,” Buffalo General Manager Tim Murray said. “We’re just going to take the best player available, whether we feel that’s a forward or a defenseman.”
It makes sense for the Sabres to draft a forward since they lack scoring at the NHL and minor-league levels. Buffalo finished with the lowest number of actual goals scored since the league expanded in 1967, while Rochester is 18th in the American Hockey League.
Reinhart and Bennett boast eye-popping stats and have the skills to help change that.
“We have a forward that we have somewhat of a consensus in the group that is at the top of the forward list,” said Murray, who didn’t tip his hand as to which player the team covets.
While Reinhart and Bennett both produce offensively, they have additional, differing talents. Bennett plays with an edge, and Reinhart sees plays before they happen.
Bennett recorded 36 goals and 91 points in 57 games with Kingston of the Ontario Hockey League and added five goals and nine points in seven playoff games. OHL coaches voted him the smartest player, best playmaker and top stickhandler in the league.
The 6-foot-1, 181-pounder also had 136 penalty minutes and served a five-game suspension for high-sticking an opponent.
“I don’t want to be known as a soft player,” Bennett said Wednesday during an interview on WGR-AM 550. “I’m always trying to be aggressive. Sometimes I do take it a little too far. I got suspended this year, but it’s part of my game. I’m not scared. I don’t shy away from anything.”
Reinhart’s stock has risen with a fantastic postseason with Kootenay of the Western Hockey League. The son of longtime NHL defenseman Paul Reinhart entered Game Seven of his series Wednesday night with six goals and 23 points in 12 games. The 6-1, 183-pounder had 36 goals and 105 points in 60 regular-season games.
“He sees the game extremely well, and he’s a very cerebral player,” Paul Reinhart told NHL.com. “I marvel at some of the small things he does with the puck and away from the puck and his ability to understand the game.”
Sam Reinhart was the captain of Canada’s under-18 team that won gold.
“The biggest thing on any level would be leading by example both on and off the ice,” he told NHL.com. “I may not talk a lot or be the loudest guy in the room, but certainly if something needs to be said, I think you should certainly step up and say something.”
Ekblad, who was No. 1 in Central Scouting’s midterm rankings, held on to the spot after putting up 23 goals and 53 points in 58 games with Barrie of the Ontario Hockey League. The 6-4, 217-pound defenseman totaled 105 penalty minutes and had six points in nine playoff games.
OHL coaches voted him first for best shot, hardest shot, best offensive defenseman and best defensive defenseman.
“We think that he would improve our organization in the future,” Murray said. “Is he going to help us score goals next year? He’s probably going to be back in junior next year if we take him, so no, that’s not going to help us.
“I’m not saying he’s the best player, but he’s in the group of three or four guys when we get together in May that will be discussed as the No. 1 pick.”