SUNRISE, Fla. – Parting with the 21st pick in a deep NHL Draft wasn’t easy for Tim Murray. With the Buffalo Sabres locked into picking Jack Eichel second overall Friday, the general manager recently told his scouts to focus on the team’s other first-round pick.
Murray wanted them to go deep and dig into those prospects.
But the Sabres desperately needed a goalie for next season. Murray had choices. Plenty of established ones – perhaps five or six – are available this summer.
Murray wanted Robin Lehner, a 23-year-old he watched up close as Ottawa’s assistant GM, to fill the Sabres’ vacancy. So Friday morning, hours before the draft, Murray traded the 21st pick to Senators for Lehner and 34-year-old center David Legwand.
“Robin was our target,” Murray said outside the Harbor Beach Marriott in Fort Lauderdale. “He was the No. 1 goalie available from our estimation.”
Earlier in the morning, Murray informed his scouting staff the pick has been traded and thanked them for their work.
The Sabres once had three first-round picks for Friday’s draft inside the BB&T Center. They only selected Eichel, one of the biggest prospects in the last 10 years. They dished the 25th pick to Winnipeg on Feb. 11 in the blockbuster deal that pried 30-goal scorer Evander Kane from the Jets.
Murray’s pleased with Buffalo’s haul from those first-round selections.
“If (you) had told me that … on this day we were getting Eichel, Kane and Lehner, I would’ve said you’re on mushrooms, or I would’ve said there’s no way that’s going to happen,” Murray said. “We’re going to end up with one great prospect and two other good prospects and we’ll see how it goes. I think we’re way beyond that.”
Lehner, perhaps the NHL’s most fiery goalie, quickly rose through Ottawa’s organization. The Swede only played one season of junior, cracked the NHL as a teenager and won a Calder Cup in the AHL.
“I think he’s a No. 1 goalie,” Murray said. “I think he becomes a starter.”
The 6-foot-5, 225-pound Lehner – remember, Murray likes big goalies – suffered an ugly concussion last season and lost his backup spot when Andrew Hammond’s emergence kept starter Craig Anderson on the bench.
“I think Robin needed a change of scenery,” Murray said. “I think he’s a very talented, big, strong man that is just scratching the surface.”
Murray said Lehner has been cleared to play and is working out in Sweden.
“You’re always concerned,” Murray said about the concussion, which occurred when Lehner collided with teammate Clarke MacArthur.
Lehner’s age made him attractive. He has two years left on his contract with a $2.25 million cap hit before he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Lehner is 30-36-13 with a 2.88 goals-against average, a .914 save percentage and two shutouts in 86 games.
“He’s young, he fits what we’re trying to do,” Murray said. “And if it takes this year only to get his feet back under him, I’m fine with that.”
The Sabres only had one NHL goalie, Chad Johnson, under contract for next season. Murray had to act before another team grabbed Lehner. It was the first time Murray and his uncle and counterpart, Bryan Murray, made a deal.
Tim Murray understands some observers think he paid too much.
“Every trade I’ve made we’ve paid too much,” he said. “I get that. I don’t agree with it. … You have to dig deep into this kid’s background. You have to dig deep into what a starting goalie is in the National Hockey League, and we’ve done our homework.”
Murray’s confident the Sabres can draft a strong prospect with the 31st pick, their next selection.
“Are we going to get the exact same player at 31 as 21?” Murray asked. “Probably not. Are we going to get a guy that’s comparable, a guy with development and everything that goes with it and can become a good player? We believe that. So I can’t stand here and tell you we’re going to get the exact same guy on our list.”
Meanwhile, the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Legwand, the second overall pick by the Nashville Predators in 1999, has 223 goals and 604 points in 1,057 NHL games. Clearly, the Sabres needed to take the veteran to make the deal happen. Legwand’s $3 million cap hit will help the Sabres reach the salary floor.