Drafting a Plan: Sabres worse after draft, but better off for it

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Depending on who you ask, Sunday’s NHL Entry Draft was the best worst draft in Buffalo Sabres franchise history.

ESPN gave it an A-plus. NHL.com’s resident draft guru Mike Morreale raved, “What a draft,” on Twitter. Mostly, Buffalo’s own prospects aficionado, Kris Baker, seemed pleased overall with the haul, which is really all that matters in this world.

Yet, despite the positive reviews from the pros, Twitter and the radio waves alike were littered with ominous Sabres fans playing Monday morning quarterback, uninspired by their favorite team’s selections.

But Sunday's draft wasn't as much about the picks the Sabres made as it was what they mean to the future of the franchise.

Let's not pretend to know where these 18-year-olds will be in five years. At this point, it’s anyone’s best guess how good they become. Even the most intelligent, locked-in prospect gurus get it wrong, sometimes more often than not. The true assessment will come in time.

Until then, I’d rather critique the Sabres on certain developments that unfolded Sunday.

I’m admittedly not a guy qualified to weigh in on how an 18-year-old projects to the NHL, anyhow. But, what I can do is discuss how these guys fit the mold of a winning plan, and whether or not the team is better off today than it was going into the weekend.

To that, I will say, unequivocally, yes. At least, that’s my initial reaction.

From what I’ve read, Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov (totally spelled each of those names right without checking Google, *brushes off shoulder*) are safe picks with as much upside as anyone in the draft.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

I have no issues with the Sabres taking the precautionary route, passing over the enigmatic Valeri Nichushkin or others like Bo Horvat, who leave something to be desired offensively (though I would have loved a Max Domi pick.)

Ristolainen fancies himself a poor-man’s Shea Weber (who, by the way, was a second-rounder in 2003) while Zadorov is an absolute bone-crusher, the kind Sabres fans have longed for for as long as I can remember.

Toss in a player like JT Compher, who has been compared to Ryan Kesler, while tapping into the local youth hockey community that the Sabres work so hard to influence, and it’s difficult to find bad things to say about this year’s haul — an NHL-most 11 players, with five taken in the first 52 picks, also a league best.

Buffalo’s 2013 draft class comes in with plenty of size, at an average of 6-foot-1, 185 pounds. That's signifcant.

With each passing season, it appears the NHL is transitioning back toward its grind-it-out, puck possession style, the kind of play where 6-foot-4, 200-pound defensemen thrive. And with plenty of other big bodies already in tow, maybe, just maybe, the Sabres are beginning to adjust to that mold.

All told, in a draft where each player in the Top 10 is said to be expected to make an NHL roster next season, it seems the Sabres made out pretty well.

Picks Leave Something to be Desired?

Then again, I can understand why some Sabres fans are left wanting more. This year’s draft class featured some of the most dynamic offensive forward prospects in recent memory. For Buffalo to not come away with a potential 40-goal scorer or cornerstone No. 1 center feels like something’s missing.

But that’s just the thing: it’s easy to hate the guarded, better-safe-than-sorry approach when it comes to prospects, until, five years down the line, it all makes sense.

More and more, teams are building championship-caliber rosters with cornerstone defensemen (See: Letang, Kris; Keith, Duncan; Chara, Zdeno) while others like Philadelphia would kill to have a defenseman like that. It's not as sexy, but it's working.

If I had to be critical of the Sabres’ day Sunday, and these is room for criticism, of course, two things come to mind:

1. I would have liked to have seen a goalie chosen at some point in the first three rounds (preferably Zach Fucale, who went 36th overall to Montreal, in between two Sabres selections.)

They wound up taking Calvin Petersen, who played in Buffalo at the All-American Top Prospects game in September, in the fifth round. Maybe he pans out, maybe he doesn’t, but it would’ve been nice to add a little pedigree to the Sabres’ prospect depth between the pipes.

2. Darcy Regier waited too long to trade Andrej Sekera to Carolina.

Early in the day, Twitter burst with rumors that the Sabres and Hurricanes were discussing a swap of first-rounders (No. 5 for No. 8) and that Tyler Myers was involved.

Carolina wound up staying put, selecting center Elias Lindholm at No. 5, and we later learned the Sabres defenseman involved in the theoretical trade was not in fact Myers but Andrej Sekera.

The deal, presumably, was Carolina’s fifth overall pick and Jamie McBain for Andrej Sekera, No. 8 and an additional pick, which Regier alluded to foot-in-mouth later after the draft.

Of course, the two teams eventually made a similar swap, the Hurricanes winding up with Sekera, the top-four defenseman they coveted, while the Sabres accrued the 35th overall pick (Compher) and 25-year-old defenseman Jamie McBain.

The problem: Why wait?

Was Regier really so high on Ristolainen that he passed up moving into the fifth slot, foregoing the chance to take a bonafide forward prospect in Lindholm or Sean Monahan, who went sixth overall to Calgary? How much better does the Sabres' draft look if they take a stud forward at No. 5 and still wind up with Zadorov in the 16-spot.

Sekera for McBain: What's Not to Like?

All things considered, the Sabres made out all right in the deal. They nabbed the extra second and used it on a very solid prospect. I’d deal Sekera for that package 100 times over.

Sure, Sekera had turned into a very solid player for the Sabres — never flashy, but always good enough. Buffalo is a worse team next year without him.

But it’s not about next year. Never was. And McBain factors into the Sabres’ future plans about as much as Sekera did. The difference between the two is marginal. I know some of you won’t believe me, so take a look and tell me which stat line from the past three seasons is Sekera:

Player A: 192 games/16-49-65/minus-15

Player B: 182 games/8-46-54/plus-12

Player A is McBain. The notable discrepancy is in the plus/minus stat, but McBain actually broke even in 40 games last season, while falling out of favor with the coaching staff on a bad Carolina team.

Once a top prospect, McBain is noted for his offensive game and ability to run a power play. He’ll be a nice player to complement a guy like Mike Weber and is a coveted right-handed shot, which seems very important to Regier these days.

If the difference between Sekera and McBain, a one-time highly-regarded piece to Carolina’s puzzle, is a solid prospect like Compher, then the Sabres won the deal hands-down, capitalizing on the ‘Canes desperation.

And, if it turns out the Sabres really do feel Tyler Myers is expendable, I’d say they’ve positioned themselves nicely for life without the former Calder winner should they deal him away for a nice return (Bobby Ryan, anyone?)

Tyler Myers, Christian Ehrhoff, Chad Ruhwedel, Mike Weber, Jamie McBain, Rasmus Ristolainen, Mark Pysyk, Brayden McNabb — that’s what the Sabres will enter next season with on defense, barring more moves, assuming they part ways with Adam Pardy and Alexander Sulzer, both unrestricted free agents, which may or may not happen.

It’s nothing flashy, but all save Ehrhoff are younger than 25.

Will it be pretty next year? No way. There will of course be growing pains. But this group can now grow together, and there’s a ton of untapped potential there.

Again, let’s all please wait to pass judgement on Sunday, at least until the players drafted are old enough to buy themselves a drink (even then, three years from now, it may be too soon.)

In the meantime, how could say you don’t like how the Sabres started their summer? I suppose that depends on who you ask.

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