NEWARK, N.J. – It was “pretty close,” general manager Darcy Regier said. The rebuilding Buffalo Sabres could’ve moved up to the No. 5 slot during the NHL Entry Draft, perhaps picked a familiar name the team’s fans had been drooling over.
Ultimately, however, the Sabres decided trading with Carolina wasn’t worth the steep cost. Instead, they kept the eighth overall pick, grabbing big defensemen Rasmus Ristolainen to start their busy day.
“We just thought we’d sit back and wait for Ristolainen,” amateur scouting director Kevin Devine said.
Sixteenth overall, the Sabres turned some heads, selecting Nikita Zadorov, another hulking defender.
By the end of Sunday’s marathon draft inside the Prudential Center, the Sabres had picked 11 players – seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie – swapped defensemen with Carolina – left-handed shot Andrej Sekera for right Jamie McBain – and, perhaps most notably, kept starting goalie Ryan Miller and high-scoring winger Thomas Vanek (at least for now).
Regier said he’s “absolutely OK” entering next season with the veteran stars, who both have a year left on their contracts.
“No doors are closed,” Regier said.
More on Miller and Vanek later. First, the defensemen the Sabres picked early.
Why such a focus on defense? The Sabres couldn’t pass up talent.
Five years ago, Regier said, the Sabres zeroed in on a forward after grabbing defenseman Tyler Myers 12th overall and took winger Tyler Ennis. Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson and Washington’s John Carlson, one spot after Ennis at No. 27, went later in the first round.
“You kind of learn from that,” Regier said about missing on the slick defenders. “If you there’s good D and there’s good players, don’t be afraid to load up, get the best players you can.”
Ristolainen is 6-foot-4 and 207 pounds. Zadorov is 6-foot- 5 ½ and 225 pounds. Devine said the Sabres had both rated virtually even.
“Both big and a little bit different skill set,” Regier said. “Ristolainen is a little more on the physical side. Zadorov is a little more on the skill side. But they’re both skilled, they’re both vicious.”
The 18-year-old Ristolainen, who spent the last two seasons playing with TPS Turki in SM-liiga, a major European men’s league, believes he can step into the NHL right away next season and calls himself a “two-way defender.”
“I have a good shot,” he said. “I play very physically. I can help the team on power play and penalty kill also.”
Ristolainen tries to play like Nashville star Shea Weber.
“He’s like my idol,” he said. “He’s a leader on the ice, plays physical, has a good shot.”
Ristolainen had three goals, 15 points, 32 penalty minutes and a minus-7 rating in 52 games last season.
The physical Zadorov immediately acclimated to the North American game last year after arriving from Russia, compiling six goals, 25 points, 54 penalty minutes and a plus-33 rating in 63 games with the London Knights, a powerhouse Ontario Hockey League club.
“I think I’m a two-way defenseman,” said Zadorov, who roomed with Sabres center Mikhail Grigorenko at the world junior championship. “I’m a big guy and I can play a physical game. I just go out and I can do body checks and open-ice hits and I can shoot and score goals.”
The 18-year-old loves using his big frame to punish opponents.
“Yeah,” he said, “I really like to hit.”
Playing at home in the KHL isn’t an option for Zadorov.
“I’m here because I want to play in the NHL and it’s my dream,” he said.
Regier believes Ristolainen could crack the NHL next season because he spent two seasons playing in the SM-liiga, a European men’s league.
“He’s got a good chance to play in the league next year,” Devine said.
Zadorov probably isn’t ready, though.
“Zadorov made huge strides this year,” Regier said. “I think it might be a stretch to think that he can play next year.”
After Zadorov, the Sabres wanted JT Compher badly, and even explored moving up late into the first round to grab the American center.
Then, early in the second round, Carolina called. For the 27-year-old Sekera, a veteran of 339 NHL games, received the 38th pick from Carolina (and took Compher) and the 25-year-old McBain, who had an off year last season.
“Hopefully, we can get him back on track,” Regier said.
McBain, 63rd overall pick in 2006, has 19 goals and 75 points in 206 NHL games. He had one goal and eight points in 40 games last season.
While teams made several trades, none of the predicted fireworks materialized.
“The draft is at the forefront,” Regier said early in the day. “I think you’ll see free agency next, including the buyouts, and then I think teams will re-evaluate their position situations and go from there, whether that changes our situation with respect to Ryan and Thomas, I don’t know.”
Later, Regier said he wasn’t surprised things mostly stayed quiet.
“I honestly go into these days expecting anything,” he said.
Regier said he spoke with Miller’s agent, Mike Liut, last week, and Vanek’s agent, Stephen Bartlett, on Saturday. He plans to chat with both soon.
Everything, Regier said, will become clearer in the next week. Free agency begins Friday. The Sabres still have no plans for any buyouts, he said.
The Sabres will now begin organizational meetings.