Only twice since their creation in 1970 have the Sabres drafted higher than they will this week. History shows Buffalo will get a bonafide playmaker, one who will be a key part of the long climb out of last place.
While there’s excitement in Sabreland, draft conversations have typically followed a similar storyline.
“The Sabres are selecting second. Who should they take?”
“One of the Sams would be nice, but I really can’t wait until next year.”
The 2014 NHL Entry Draft has become one of the more overlooked selection shows in years. There’s no surefire game-changer that teams are clamoring to pick. Catchy headlines like “Taylor versus Tyler” are absent. The prospects are stars but not superstars, especially when compared to the 2015 bumper crop of Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel.
“In the scouting fraternity, they always think there’s a good crop coming next year,” said Dan Marr, director of NHL Central Scouting. “They’re just wired that way.”
While it may be common for folks to look ahead, is it warranted in this case? Did the Sabres pick a bad year to be so bad?
“There’s different opportunities in this draft just like any other draft,” said television draft analyst and former Calgary General Manager Craig Button, whose father, Jack, founded Central Scouting and served as its first director. “We tend to look at a draft and say, ‘These three, four top guys, OK, great.’ Well, there’s over 200 more guys that need to be drafted, and this draft will be exactly like other drafts. You’ll see, ‘Geez, that was a good pick in the second round,’ ‘Wow, what a steal in the fifth round.’ It’s not going to be any different here.”
Button, however, understands why defenseman Aaron Ekblad and forwards Sam Reinhart and Sam Bennett – the favorites to go No. 1 – haven’t generated the hockey-wide buzz of Steven Stamkos (2008), John Tavares (2009), Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin (2010) or Nathan MacKinnon (2013).
“I’m a big believer that drafts get defined by the upper end of the draft and star power at the top,” Button said. “This draft, some of the players aren’t as advanced in their game. I think that helps when players are, ‘Oh boy, wow, look how good he is.’
“It doesn’t mean that they have any less potential. I believe that this is a really good draft.”
It just happens to be a draft with minimal immediate impact. Seven of last year’s top-10 picks stepped right into the NHL. MacKinnon, the No. 1 selection, recorded 24 goals and 63 points to help Colorado skyrocket from 29th in the league to third.
There’s no guarantee anyone drafted during the first round Friday in Philadelphia will suit up on opening night. It could be several years before guys selected in rounds two through seven Saturday will wear an NHL uniform.
When they finally do, they may not be impact players.
“There may not be a lot of bang at the top end of the draft,” Marr said. “In the salary-cap age your top-end players are going to get big bucks, but the bottom half of the roster, we think there’s a lot of players in this draft class that will fill those roles for a long time in the National Hockey League. They may not make it in the top half of your salary cap, but we certainly think they’ll fill the void in the second half.”
The Sabres have too many players who already slot in the lower echelon. They need to find top-end talent, especially at forward. They’ll have a lot of chances to do so.
Buffalo enters the week with eight picks, including four in the opening 50 selections. The Sabres hold the No. 2 pick (aside from the top choice in 1970 and 1987, they’ve never drafted higher than fifth), and they possess three second-rounders (Nos. 31, 39 and 49 overall).
The Sabres gave up their fourth-round selection in the 2013 trade that saw Jason Pominville head to Minnesota. They have one pick in the third, fifth, sixth and seventh rounds. The slotting may change because General Manager Tim Murray wants to get another first-round selection.
Fans will watch no matter how many picks the Sabres have, but they’ll still be more excited about 2015.
“As for next year, I think there’s always excitement when you talk about a franchise player,” Button said. “They’re a cut above. When you talk about Connor McDavid, in my view, you’re talking about a generational player. They’re called generational players for a reason.
“Jack Eichel is a star. He’s an absolute dynamic player. Time will tell if he’s that generational player, but if you’ve got two generational players? It’s a pretty impressive situation.”