BUFFALO – To thrive in the modern NHL, teams must build through the draft. It’s that simple. The days of loading up with veteran players through free agency or trades are long gone. The league belongs to the 20-somethings now, and if teams draft poorly, they’re doomed.
How good are the Sabres at drafting? Judge for yourself below. Since drafts usually don’t start paying dividends for a few years, here’s a look at their selections from 2008-13. Eighteen of Buffalo’s 47 picks over that span – 38.3 percent – have played at least one NHL game.
It’s worth noting center Jack Eichel, the second overall pick last year, and winger Sam Reinhart, the second pick in 2014, have already contributed 47 goals in 169 games for the Sabres.
Total games: 269
First-round picks: defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, eighth overall; defenseman Nikita Zadorov, 16th overall
Ristolainen often performed like a future franchise defenseman in 2015-16, playing more than 25 minutes a game and compiling nine goals and 41 points. As a restricted free agent, he’ll receive a big raise soon.
Zadorov showcased flashes of future stardom during his 67-game run, but the Russian’s maturity – he once missed a flight following the NHL All-Star break and also overslept practice in a two-month span – was a major issue. The Sabres traded him to Colorado in the Ryan O’Reilly blockbuster at the 2015 draft.
Winger Justin Bailey, the 52nd pick, earned eight NHL games last season in the midst of a 20-goal AHL rookie season with the Rochester Americans.
Who they could’ve taken: Too early to tell.
Total games: 367
First-round picks: center Mikhail Grigorenko 12th overall; winger Zemgus Girgensons 14th overall
The Sabres’ old regime bungled Grigorenko’s development from the get-go, forcing him into the NHL as an 18-year-old when he clearly wasn’t ready. By his second season, after they gifted the Russian a roster spot again, questions about Grigorenko’s compete level came up constantly.
After six goals in 68 games over three seasons, the Sabres traded him in the O’Reilly deal, reuniting him with his junior coach Patrick Roy.
Despite bungling Grigorenko, this draft has already paid dividends.
Yes, Girgensons struggled last season, scoring only seven goals in 71 games, eight fewer than 2014-15 in 10 more appearances. He sometimes seemed lost in coach Dan Bylsma’s system. Still, in his first two seasons, the Latvian was often the Sabres’ best player.
But since he wasn’t drafted by general manager Tim Murray – all of the selections in this space except Eichel and Reinhart belong to former GM Darcy Regier – Girgensons could be trade bait.
Defenseman Jake McCabe, the 44th pick, played 77 games last season, becoming one of the Sabres’ biggest surprises.
The Sabres also found a sixth-round steal in goalie Linus Ullmark, the 163rd pick. The Swede played 20 NHL games last season, often looking like a future No.
Who they could’ve taken: Five picks after the Sabres selected center Justin Kea, Philadelphia picked defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, who had 17 goals and 46 points as a rookie last season.
Total games: 19
First-round pick: winger Joel Armia, 16th overall
While three of their six picks cracked the NHL, as far as games played and points, 2011 is possibly the Sabres’ worst draft ever. No one from this draft has recorded an NHL point for Buffalo.
The 1973 draft was just as bad, with winger Morris Titanic playing 19 pointless NHL games. No one else made it.
The leader in appearances from 2011, winger Daniel Catenacci, the 77th pick, went pointless in his first 11 NHL contests last season. Armia played one game before the Sabres dished him to Winnipeg in the 2015 blockbuster Evander Kane trade.
Goalie Nathan Lieuwen, the 167th pick, played seven NHL games as a late-season recall after injuries ravaged Buffalo’s net in 2013-14. While he served as a backup for several weeks last season, he might not be re-signed.
Who they could’ve taken: After the Sabres selected defenseman Alex Lepkowski 137th, Chicago grabbed winger Andrew Shaw, a mainstay on two of the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup teams.
First-round pick: defenseman Mark Pysyk, 23rd overall
Total games: 125
Only one of the nine players selected in the 2010 draft, the smooth-skating Pysyk, who played a career-high 55 games last season, has made the NHL.
Just one other pick, defenseman Jerome Leduc, has a shot at cracking the big league. The Sabres traded Leduc to Ottawa in February, and he finished his 11-goal, 26-point AHL season in Binghamton.
Who they could’ve taken: Thirty-three picks after the Sabres selected center Steven Shipley, who never played a pro game, Dallas grabbed defenseman John Klingberg, who had 58 points last season.
First-round pick: winger Zack Kassian, 13th overall
Total games: 333
Four of the Sabres’ six picks made the NHL, including winger Marcus Foligno, a fourth-rounder, 104th overall. Foligno appeared to turn a corner last season after years of inconsistency. Only one player drafted after him, Chicago’s Marcus Kruger, has made more NHL appearances (328) than Foligno (267).
Kassian, a gritty presence with scoring talent, developed quickly, earning some regular duty with the Sabres in 2011-12. The Sabres traded him to Vancouver that season for center Cody Hodgson, whose ill-advised six-year, $25.5 million contract was bought out last year.
Defenseman Brayden McNabb, the 66th pick, played 37 games before the Sabres traded him to Los Angeles in the deal for winger Nick Deslauriers. McNabb now often plays beside Kings star Drew Doughty.
Even goalie Connor Knapp, the 164th pick, played two games late in 2013-14.
Who they could’ve taken: Three picks after Kassian, Minnesota selected defenseman Nick Leddy, who won a Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2013 and has 77 points in the last two seasons with the New York Islanders.
Total games: 820
First-round picks: defenseman Tyler Myers, 12th overall; winger Tyler Ennis, 26th overall
Not long ago, the Sabres appeared to possess two franchise cornerstones in Myers and Ennis. Myers won the Calder Trophy in 2009-10, immediately becoming one of the NHL’s slickest defenders as a rookie. Ennis, meanwhile, scored 20 goals as a rookie in 2010-11.
But Myers began regressing around 2011, and for two or three years he struggled badly. When he finally regained his confidence and started showcasing his old form, the rebuilding Sabres were under new management. Murray dealt him to Winnipeg as a centerpiece in the Kane trade. Myers essentially netted the Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian.
It’s worth noting the Sabres sorely need a puck-moving defenseman with Myers’ talents.
Ennis just followed up two straight 20-goal campaigns with a colossally disappointing 2015-16 season in which he scored three goals in 23 games. He suffered two concussions, including a season-ending one Dec. 30.
Given his disappointing season – he struggled in Bylsma’s system before the injuries – and his $4.6 million salary cap hit, the Sabres could try to deal Ennis this offseason. They played well without him. While Murray awarded him a big contract, he didn’t draft him.
Forward Luke Adam, the 44th pick, scored 15 goals in 87 games for the Sabres.
Who they could’ve taken: A pick after the Sabres took Ennis, Washington selected John Carlson, who has scored at least 30 points in every full NHL season.