The NHL Draft lottery is Friday night and even though the Buffalo Sabres’ odds are remote to draft in the top-three, it feels as important as ever that the lottery balls fall right. The Sabres have a 6.5% chance at the first pick, a 6.8% chance at pick No. 2, and a 7.1% chance to pick third overall.
Should the Sabres land one of the top-three picks, they’d have what would likely be an impactful franchise player. Alex Lafrenière, Quinton Byfield, and Tim Stützle would be as good a start as it gets for new general manager Kevyn Adams.
However, the chances are the Sabres will be picking between picks seven and nine. The odds of that are roughly 79%. Should that be the case, Adams will need to do a lot better at selecting than his predecessors.
In the first round, where you have to hit on your pick, there have been too many misses in recent Sabres memory.
It really starts in 2012. Darcy Regier, who was already on thin ice, took a chance on a polarizing Russian center named Mikhail Grigorenko. Big stats in juniors and filthy hands made fans excited, thinking they had gotten the steal of the draft. Then he showed up and everyone realized he couldn’t skate. The Sabres selected a center that never had any business being selected 12th overall with his skating ability.
Regier then traded up to select Zemgus Girgensons with the 14th overall pick in the 2012 draft. It seemed like a home run early. Girgensons showed well in his first years after turning pro, and many thought he had the makings of a future captain. Fast forward a few years, and he has become a bottom-six role player. I’d consider that a miss.
The next year, in 2013, a pick was made that can be debated as much as the player has been himself. I don’t believe Rasmus Ristolainen is the type of player you should be hoping for with an eighth overall pick. You want defensemen like Zach Werenski of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Quinn Hughes of the Vancouver Canucks, who were also drafted eighth overall years later. Ristolainen is an overused, second-pair defenseman, who is a trap that every coach falls into.
Luckily for Ristolainen, it’s hard to label him a bust when so few great players were picked after him. Would it be nice if the Sabres had Bo Horvat or Max Domi instead? Sure, but that’s about it in terms of guys picked immediately after.
Then comes Nikita Zadorov eight picks later, who was a very similar style of defenseman to Ristolainen. Luckily for Zadorov, he found a team that put him in the role that best suits him. I’m not going to call Zadorov a bad draft pick, nor will I Ristolainen, but you should want better for having two firsts in one year.
In 2016, Tim Murray, in the midst of building a team that had no promising young defenseman, selected winger Alexander Nylander. In three years, Nylander never made the Sabres on a full-time basis. Meanwhile, both Mikhail Sergachev and Charlie McAvoy went from promising prospects to great young defensemen in the NHL. A complete whiff of a selection.
Throw in a huge question mark in Casey Mittelstadt, and getting little value back for Joel Armia, and you have a decade of Sabres first round picks that’s produced just three impact players, and they were gimmes. Jack Eichel, Rasmus Dahlin, and Sam Reinhart all in the top-two picks.
Looking back through the last decade of Sabres draft past, the first round is not a pretty sight either. From 2010-2016, seven out of 59 draft picks have played over 82 games for the team. Of those seven, just two came outside of the first round: Jake McCabe in the second round and Linus Ullmark in the sixth round of the 2012 NHL Draft.
The Sabres have had no pipeline of prospects, outside of first rounders, coming up and making an impact on the NHL team. That needs to change.
Maybe it’s already started, though. Maybe Victor Olofsson continues to grow into a consistent 30-goal scorer. Maybe Rasmus Asplund becomes a reliable third line center. Maybe Will Borgen becomes a solid second-pair defenseman. Maybe Ukko-Pekka Lukkonen becomes a franchise goalie.
At this point, that pipeline doesn’t exist. It’s all hopes and prayers.
The Adams hiring has been criticized due to lack of experience, but when it comes to drafting, he couldn’t do much worse than his predecessors. What the hockey department looks like surrounding him once the draft finally comes is very much up in the air, but it’s not looking good for Adams getting much help.
Here’s to hoping he gets a head start on Friday night.