Buffalo Sabres: Things We Know This Week

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Well, my neoteric article last week focussed on the St. Louis Blues becoming champions and Ryan O’Reilly starting to add to his trophy collection. Call it a career year. Whether you’re mad at him or pointing fingers at the actual Sabres organization, one can not ignore that he enjoyed a rather incredible first year with the Blues. Sluggishly, I concede that fact. This is where I swear a little bit out of frustration, but the Editor-In-Chief will certainly scrub those cusses right out of here as if never were they inscribed.

The draft has concluded, wrapping up an eventful weekend which started Thursday with the NHL awards. Unlike the round one selections of years past (Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, and Rasmus Dahlin come to mind) the Sabre’s conversation surrounding this year’s draftees can be really insignificant in the present time. Typical drafts outside of the high lottery picks have results that are diverse. Not many teams are betting on their first-round selections making an impact on day one. That occasionally does happen outside the top few picks such as Tyler Myers but is not the standard trend. It may be years before they are on the Sabres’ roster and longer to witness them making a large impact.

Yes, a first-round Tyler Myers (12th overall 2008) or Tom Barrasso (5th overall 1983) teenage dream season comes along once in a while. But most of the time it is a long journey to the NHL and no guarantee that selections in any round will ever play for your team. Or any NHL team for that matter.

Two words for franchise-long Sabres fans, Morris Titanic. A first-round selection, taken 12th overall, by the Sabres in 1973, he only played 19 NHL games recording a whopping zero points. He basically spent his career on various AHL and IHL teams including the Cincinnati Swords who had those “almost Sabres” jerseys. Not a horrible way to earn a buck. But expectations were extremely high, so underachiever comments always arise when his name is spoken. He retired following the year the Smashing Pumpkins put back on the map, 1979.

Being as passionate as the Canadians are about this sport, I will recognize the Canadian who made not only a year famous but went all-season-specific on us. Bryan Adams and his Summer of 69 hit single. Moving on, I sense it is the time.

Alexander Nylander has been that player that may or may not contribute at the NHL level full time. If he does, it may be based on self-evaluation, deciding he will not make the league playing as a finesse goal scorer and play-maker. If his amateur talent doesn’t translate to the big leagues, he could be an AHL lifer. Similar to the career of Rochester legend Gates Orlando. A career AHL player is nothing to be ashamed of. Disappointing for those following him with higher expectations, indeed. Maybe he adjusts his style to a penalty killing shutdown forward. Or, reinvents himself to become a hard-working role player on the fourth line.

It took a very short time for Casey Mittelstadt to leap from his Minnesota high school domination to international tournaments. And then from Green Bay in the United States Hockey League (juniors) to the University Of Minnesota. His stay at each level was brief as his talent was obvious to the human eye. In addition to eye-catching numbers on the statistic reports. He instantly became a Buffalo fan household name before playing a second of professional hockey. Based on his credentials (8th overall pick), his path to the NHL was never going to place him in Rochester for a significant time like Nylander. Visions of a superstar rookie in Mittlestadt were not uncommon.

So after the highly enhanced expectations for his first full season, Ryan O’Reilly’s departure shoved him further up the depth chart. Not an easy task for a rookie. His desired superstar rookie season eventually became not that of a superstar, but a kid trying to not make huge mistakes against the speed, skill, and strength of the NHL competition. In hindsight, more time in Rochester could only have helped and certainly would not hurt.

The difference between Mittlestadt and Nylander would be Nylander looked out of place. At times, he was a liability early on after he was called up. On the other hand, Mittelstadt clearly showed he can play at the NHL level. With plenty of room for improvement. Housley did not do a great job at providing him support with a revolving door of linemates.

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I believe his struggles are behind him and he will make progress in a league he knows he can play in. Nylander, although looking better during his most recent call-up, is still is behind Mittelstadt developmentally. Every player is unique in that sense. Coaching, line-mates and where they end up is very significant. Sam Reinhardtfor example, had to return to juniors for a year. Upon returning the following the training camp, he skipped right over the AHL. He has consistently put up points in the league since.

On the flip side, Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin stepped right into prominent starters for the Sabres. And deservingly so. They were impactful. And, despite being rookies, played real minutes impacting each game as much as anyone.

It reminds me of players like Andrew Peters and many of his eras bench-warming/enforcers. He would sit the bench sliding up and down waiting to get the nod to go in. Many games had his skates touch ice only during pre-game warmups. He realized when transitioning in juniors to the AHL that his goal scoring days were fun as a youth, but in the big jump to the professional ranks, he needed to develop a specialty to differentiate himself from the pack. So Peters, who admits fighting was scary and not his favorite pastime knew he needed an identity. His role earned him a career simply being the threat that may fight the other team’s version of him on any given night. Or not.

Nylander should become elite at something in place of scoring in bunches in the big leagues. Faceoffs, penalty killing, power play or shutdown defensive forward are some examples that have saved careers in the past. While in the role earning playing time gets a foot in the door, never does it rule out developing into an offensive threat over time with the team.

The Sabres used both of their first-round selections selecting players in the scheduled drafting spot. I am sure some fans hoped or expected a trade, up or down, but that came in later rounds. Watching the draft on TV after the first round or two can resemble study hall as a youth. Maybe an OSHA-10-Hour seminar is a better comparison. Just in case any adults are reading this. Now we are talking pure entertainment. To quote Terrell Owens, “Get the popcorn ready.”

Players selected in later rounds are scouted and projected aggressively. That does not by any means take away the pure fact that it is as much of a gamble as an evening at Casino Niagara. In most cases, a success would be to land a solid role player that will crack the NHL down the road. Or even fill needs in the AHL. That said, most players taken in the later rounds may never be heard from again. It is a long draft to watch if you feel intrigued to do so. Good time to utilize picture-on-picture if available. Or potentially catch up on some sleep.

Things we know about the Buffalo Sabres This week:

  • Buffalo selected the first Yukon territory player to be chosen in the first round at number seven. It was no reach as they were a bit surprised he remained on the board. Dylan Cozens is 6-foot-3, fast, and talented skater with good instincts and hands. He needs to get bigger and most predict he returns to juniors for one more developmental year. That is likely. But he will be given the opportunity to make the squad in Buffalo.
  • Buffalo remained at 31 and selected Sioux Falls defenseman Ryan Johnson of the United States Hockey League. The late first round pick was a selection resulting from the Ryan O’Reilly trade with the Blues. He is set to play for the University of Minnesota. Time will tell how long he plays there before turning professional.
  • Round 3, Pick 67Erik Portillo, a Swedish goalie who stands 6-foot-6. We shall watch his development over the next several years. He did go undrafted last year, showing the significant difference a year makes. Especially if you stop a lot of pucks during that time. He will play next season at Michigan. For no reason I just had a vision of C. Thomas Howell, Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen yelling “Wolverines” before blowing stuff up in Red Dawn. The original, not the remake. I surely digress… 
  • Round 4, Pick 102 Aaron Huglen. He is a high school kid from an American hockey program who occupies the right wing position. The Sabres really desired this Minnesota kid. Evident by them trading up to secure his future in Buffalo, at some point.
  • Botterill wasn’t done making moves. He traded two more picks –Nos. 177 and 191 — to Detroit to jump up 34 spots in round five. Buffalo then acquired Filip Cederqvist, an 18-year winger who put up four goals and totaled eight points in 33 regular-season games in the Swedish Hockey League. He will remain there next season.
  • The Sabres put the finishing touches on their draft by selecting 20-year-old winger Lukas Rousek of the Czech League at 160th overall.
  • Rasmus Dahlin was a rookie of the year nominee at the NHL awards. However, it was tough to watch the awards as former Sabre star center, Ryan O’Reilly collected a ton of hardware. In addition, you would have seen the Sabres former netminder, Robin Lehner, win one award and get nominated for the Vezina.
  • Tim Murray orchestrated the moves that made O’Reilly, Lehner, and even Kane, Buffalo Sabres. Since the overall team lacked success with those players, in addition to behind the scene activity, all three moved on and found the success. The same success Murray aspired to attained when he acquired them. That goes to show that you need to build a team and not just collect talented players. At the time those three players became Sabres, I fully supported the Kane and O’Reilly acquisitions. I was not really familiar with the Ottawa goalie, so the cost of a first-round pick seemed steep. I thought overall he was a talented goalie on a really bad Sabres team. It turns out, the evaluation process of talent was not Tim Murray’s weakness. Character could be questioned, but all three players seemed to be good culture fits on their new teams.
  • The draft is over, but the Sabres GM flew back to Buffalo to be in the office Sunday evening. His work has just begun as he needs to work on contracts with the Restricted Free agents that were tendered offers. All while preparing for free agency. He may have helped the Sabre’s future, but improving this team significantly over last years is really imperative. I am confident the new coach will be a huge part of moving the needle on improving the overall record. More talent is not to be underrated.
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