With the Christmas break nearly upon us, it's time for us Sabre fans to once again face the reality of another spring spent poring over draft prospect rankings and analysis. Unlike the years of Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel, when we needed to only go 2 or 3 players deep, this year we will need to do our homework on at least 5-6 potential first round picks. If last year's draft lottery proved anything it's that there are absolutely no guarantees for the bottom 3 teams anymore. In fact, the last place team has more chance of finishing with the 4th overall pick (51.9%) then they do of having one of the top 3 picks (48.1%). They have an overwhelmingly higher percentage (82%) to not pick 1st overall than to get the prized top pick (18%).
I get that the NHL wants to discourage tanking and give all non-playoff teams a shot at having the first overall selection, but to me, this is almost unfair. Maybe it's sour grapes from cheering for a team that has never had the fortune of moving up in the draft. But the Sabres have had unusual bad luck when it comes to the draft lottery, even dating back to the 2005 "Sidney Crosby" draft, where the Sabres went in as one of four teams with the highest odds of winning the lottery. They "won" the right to pick 13th. Fast forward to 2014 when the Draft Lottery was introduced with just one spot being drawn for. Sabres lose and wind up with the 2nd pick (Sam Reinhart). The following year, with again just one spot being drawn for...and guess what? We lose again. (Eichel). In 2016, the Sabres finally had some draft lottery "fortune" when they remained in the 8 spot (A.Nylander). But last year saw them again take a tumble, with 3 spots drawn for the Sabres took a -2 hit and dropped from 6 to 8 (Middlestadt).
Sometimes it's hard to look at the draft lottery and not wonder if there's more to it then just random numbers being drawn. The Oilers, stuck in a perpetual rebuild, on the verge of a new stadium, jump from 4th to 1st during the McDavid draft, their 4th number 1 pick in a 6 year span. The Leafs follow that up by assembling a who's who of hockey royalty front office and finish last in a "non-tanking" fashion (lol) . They are the only team to hang on to the number one pick in the past four years.
Again, maybe this is all just sour grapes. But I can't help but think the Sabres, no matter where they finish, have essentially zero chance of having the opportunity to draft Rasmus Dahlin, a player who in my mind would put Buffalo right back in the mix immediately.
For the Sabres fan base, patience is understandably wearing thin. We've had our hopes built up each offseason, only to be crushed when the team not only stumbles out of the gate...but crashes and burns beyond distinction. This year's edition currently sits comfortably in 30th place. They are the league's lowest scoring team, and sit in the bottom 5 for goals given up. Which all adds up to the second worst goal differential.
While the past 6 or so games have seen the team be quite competitive, they have also exposed their inability to score goals. It's basically Evander, Jack or bust. And one of those two will be gone before March comes around. So what hope is there for next year? Who's going to start scoring? How long are we destined to wander aimlessly around the National Hockey League's basement?
When Jason Botterill took over as the Sabres GM, one of the main things he stressed was the importance of a strong farm system. Well it took him one abbreviated off-season to right the ship in Rochester. Players like CJ Smith, Brendan Guehle and Alex Nylander (he will come around) offer hope. Casey Middlestadt, Rasmus Asplund, Cliff Pu and Victor Olofsson are also on the horizon. But how many times have we heard this before? For every prospect that pans out, there seem to be 5 or 6 that don't.
The truth is, we only need a few to pan out to start seeing some movement in the standings.
Looking at next year, we can assume Evander Kane is gone. What we don't know is what will his departure reward us in return? Will it just be a boatload of picks and prospects (more players who fall into the 1 in 5 who pan out scenario), or will there be some already established young NHL talent? Players we can utilize as early as this year. Your guess is as good as mine, so I'm not even going to venture a guess on this topic. Instead, I'll just look at what we have.
Evan Rodriguez - Jack Eichel - Sam Reinhart
Alex Nylander - Ryan O'Reilly - Kyle Okposo
CJ Smith - Casey Middlestadt - Jason Pominville
Zemgus Girgensons - Jacob Josefson - Scott Wilson
Others: Johan Larsson, Hudson Fasching, Cliff Pu, Victor Olofosson, Rasmus Asplund, Justin Bailey, Nick Baptiste
Marco Scandella - Rasmus Ristolainen
Brendan Guehle - Zach Bogosian
Victor Antipin - Jake McCabe
Others: Nathan Beaulieu, Taylor Fedun, Justin Falk, Casey Nelson
Others: Jonas Johansson, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen
Is that squad good enough to make a push for the playoffs? Possibly. I feel they'll be trending in the right direction. Think along the lines of a Winnipeg Jets team. A team that went from 25th, to 20th, to now sitting tied for third overall. The Jets are a young team, with some vets mixed in. The team that Jason Botterill and the Sabres are assembly could very much follow along those lines.
If JB is able to pick up some immediate young help through the Kane trade (scoring being probably the primary concern), and the were the Sabres to miraculously win the Draft Lottery, this thing could turn around in a hurry and team that was once left with the cupboards bare, could find themselves flush full off prospects and assets in no time.
But for now, us Sabre fans have to continue doing what we always do, hope, pray, vent and repeat.