BUFFALO — The Buffalo Sabres know the importance of the NHL Draft in ensuring long-term success.
The Sabres have seven picks in the 2019 NHL Draft, including No. 7 and No. 31 (from the St. Louis Blues) in the first round. The first round at Rogers Arena in Vancouver is June 21 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS). Rounds 2-7 are June 22 (1 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN).
“It’s crucial that across the entire draft that we can find players,” general manager Jason Botterill said. “You look at free agent lists and everything and there’s certainly some very quality players from a free agent standpoint, but there’s just not the depth; teams are doing a great job of wrapping up players longer term. The draft is where you bring skill into your organization. I love the collaboration of our amateur staff and I think they’re certainly on the right path.”
It’s something Botterill and director of amateur scouting Ryan Jankowski have worked to rectify since coming to Buffalo in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Prior to their arrivals, success outside of the first two rounds eluded the Sabres. This season, goalie Linus Ullmark (sixth round, No. 163 in 2012) became the second player since 2006 chosen in the third round or later to play at least 50 games with the Sabres. Marcus Foligno, Buffalo’s fourth-round pick (No. 104) in the 2009 NHL Draft, is the other.
Since 2010, the Sabres have nine goals from players selected in the third round or later. Forward Nick Baptiste, chosen in the third round (No. 69) in the 2013 NHL Draft and traded to the Nashville Predators on Oct. 1, 2018, scored seven. Forward Victor Olofsson, a seventh-round pick (No. 181) in the 2014 NHL Draft, scored the other two after making his NHL debut on March 28 and has the potential to be a rare late-round hit for Buffalo.
“One thing that we talk about is, let’s put as much focus into the seventh round as we do the first,” Jankowski said. “Obviously your first-round pick is the splash, the high profile, the player that’s going to contribute sooner. But if we can pull off some players in the fourth, in the seventh rounds, that’s a big part of making an organization successful.”
The Sabres, who employ the “best player available” strategy and does so with an eye on the future, could add an eighth pick if the San Jose Sharks elect to give up their fourth-round pick as part of the conditions of the Evander Kane trade. Otherwise Buffalo will receive a third-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft. The Sharks have until their 2019 selection is on the clock to decide.
With their first pick, Buffalo could opt to add one of the talented forwards who are expected to go early. In NHL.com’s most recent mock draft, two writers predicted the Sabres would take right wing Cole Caufield from USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program Under-18 team, while a third believes they’ll select center Kirby Dach from Saskatoon of the Western Hockey League. Other options could be NTDP forwards Trevor Zegras and Matthew Boldy, and forward Vasili Podkolzin of Neva St. Petersburg in Russia’s second division.
“It’s such a different draft compared to the NFL or the NBA just because it’s a projection of six years, especially some of these later round picks spending a couple of years in junior or spending three or four years in college or Europe and then coming to the minors,” Botterill said. “That’s what we really stress, making sure that it’s not just, ‘Hey, who’s [going to] be the best player next year.’ It’s who’s going to be the best player four, five, six years down the road.”
There’s been a heavy international flavor to the Sabres’ past two draft classes. Nine of the 12 players selected are from Europe (Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic), including four of their six picks in 2018.
“What we’re seeing is a more global game,” Jankowski said. “Coming from Canada and being a part of Hockey Canada, we’ve seen it in even our own nation and international competition, how good the other countries are so credit to those countries. They’re producing more players and more players are associating with the National Hockey League. It’s nice to have that luxury of more players to pick from.”
One league the Sabres have yet to draft from under Botterill’s management is the Canadian Hockey League. He knows from the outside it might appear intentional but that isn’t the case.
“It’s something that’s been talked about but it’s just sort of how it’s materialized,” Botterill said. “With the late-round picks and the extra years, whether it’s a college player or a European player, controlling their rights for a little bit longer makes it a little bit more appealing. We’ve had CHL players very high on our list. It’s just hasn’t been a situation where they’ve been available when we wanted to pick.”