Monday, June 25, 2012

Sabres should feel pretty good about the 2012 draft

Sabres GM Darcy Regier should feel pretty good about the 2012 draft. The team had organizational needs--forward depth, size down the middle--and they were addressed aggressively.

There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the top two picks--C Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons--who both, have a shot at making the team. Yet the rest of the draft has some upside as well.

On day two, their five picks were as a result of players who attended the 2nd Sabres Draft Combine. The combine, which started last season thanks to Terry Pegula's financial commitment to the scouting department, gave all parties involved a chance to get acquainted with each other. Unlike the NHL combine in Toronto, the Sabres brought in the prospects and put them through on-ice drills along with more interviews.

Last year they used the combine for two latter picks--D Alex Lepkowsi (6th round) and C Brad Navin (7th round.)

The Sabres went into round two with only one second rounder (#44, acquired from Calgary in the Robyn Regehr deal) and they used it on a defenseman--6'1", 200 lb. Jake McCabe.

Kris Baker of, in his comprehensive review of the 2012 draft, said that McCabe's total package was amongst the best in the draft and has him possibly reaching top-four in the NHL.

The McCabe pick had connections to Rochester Americans Coach Ron Rolston and the US National Team Development Program as he'd played for the Amerks bench boss in the USNTDP. Rolston, according to Devine, called McCabe a warrior.

There were plenty of eyes on McCabe as the Sabres also used their connections--this time with Wisconson Head Coach Mike Eaves, via cheif scout Al MacAdam--for plenty of insight into a player who, as WGR's Paul Hamilton gathered, was really mature for his age and a very sound all-around defensman.

The team continued to add down the middle by using their next two picks on centers.

In the third round (#73) they tapped into the Ontario Hockey League and selected 6'4" 210 lb. C Justin Kea, a player whom Kevin Devine called a "better skating Paul Gaustad."

Devine delved into the pick in his Day-2 draft recap on WGR by saying that Kea's stats weren't all that great, but a coaching change in mid season gave the Sabres some insight. The new coach, Greg Gilbert, according to Devine "thinks the kid will be a good third line center in the NHL." Both Devine and Regier played hockey with Gilbert.

Although Baker had Kea rated around #100, the Sabres had no 4th round pick. They liked enough of what they saw in him at their combine to take a minor reach for Kea.

With no 4th round pick (went to Nashville in the Gaustad trade) they headed to the fifth round and selected 6'2" 188 lb C/W Logan Nelson. Nelson is a USHL product that switched to the WHL and a player who Baker calls a strong, skilled forward who plays with an edge.

In another tip of the hat to Pegula's commitment to increased scouting, the Sabres went overseas to Sweden to select 6'3" 210 lb. MODO goaltender Linus Ullmark. The team had no goalies in the junior ranks with both Connor Knapp and Nathan Leiuwen being signed to their entry-level deals.

One of the things that Pegula mentioned at his press conference in February 2011 when he bought the team was that there's not a salary cap on scouting. Fredrik Andersson was hired by the Sabres this past January and the former goalie/goalie coach/GM had some specifics to his job.

The Sabres wanted him to scour Sweden and Finland, according to Devine, to focus upon finding latter-round goalie nuggets in the draft like Nashville goalie Pekke Rinne.

This is Andersson's first foray into scouting for an NHL organization, and it's an opportunity he's been wanting for a long time.

Using Andersson's intelligence on the Swedish goalie, they brought Ullmark in for the Sabres combine. Amongst those in attendance was new scout Toby O'Brien, another goalie scout who's focus is North America.

O'Brien had served as a Coach/GM in the ECHL and in the Eastern Junior Hockey League who's resume also includes a recent stint with the NY Islanders in the same capacity.

Everyone liked what they saw in Ullmark and it will be interesting to see how the 163rd pick of the 2012 NHL draft develops.

The team had two picks in the seventh round.

With the first pick in the 7th (#193) the team went big on defense with 6'4" 234 lb LHD Brady Austin.

Baker called him a "mammoth rearguard" with enough skills to be a "smart pick late in the draft." He also mentioned that Austin was the third player in a row picked by the Sabres in their second year of eligibility.

Finally, with the 204th pick of the draft, the team ended where they started, at the center position.

The seventh round pick, which was acquired from Chicago for Steve Montador's rights, brought the Sabres 6'0" 190 center Judd Peterson.

Peterson was another product of the Sabres combine and a player who was developing close to one of the teams' scouts up in Minnesota, Keith Hendrickson.

An interesting note from Baker, "Native Minnesotan Brian Burke was also said to be interested, but the Sabres acted before the Leafs final pick to snatch up the 2012 Mr. Hockey Finalist."

The team, although not trading up in the seventh round, went full-circle in drawing the ire of another GM. On the trade-up in the first rouned, Devine who gave props to his staff on the Grigorenko pick, also commended Regier for his trade with Calgary to land Girgensons, "A lot of General Managers came up to [Regier on day two] and they were kind of mad at him," he said, "because they were all ready to take [Girgensons.]"

Devine summed up the theme of his draft preparation saying the emphasis, using the Cup-champion LA Kings as an example, to get "bigger, faster, tougher."

The days of drafting smaller, highly skilled jitter-bugs, "the [Tyler] Ennis' and the [Derek] Roy's and [Nathan] Gerbe's" as Devine put it will be put on hold until "the outlook of [the Sabres] changes a little bit."

The Sabres are not only changing with size, but they're also changing philosophy with their forward ranks.

How many highly-skilled wingers have they drafted over the years as the best player available? Couple that with how they've tried to convert wingers to centers, and their subsequent failure, and you have the approach they took in this year's draft.

"If you look at a lot of the teams in the NHL they draft centers and a lot of them end up on the wings," said Regier as he talked to Hamilton on WGR. "If there's good wingers, you should draft good wingers but, if you can draft a centerman that's high quality, that's a good way to go and they can play the wings."

All-in-all the draft as a whole went as the team would have liked it to, especially in the first round, especially with Grigorenko dropping to them at #12. "We were fortunate in that there was a run on defensemen (a strength in the Sabres organization,)" said Regier, "we were looking for forwards, and it pushed [Grigorenko] down to us and it benefitted us."

Regier continues to show his savvy. He worked wonders last draft day by acquiring Robyn Regehr and an extra second round pick which enabled them to move up to grab Girgensons.

He worked the 2012 trade deadline masterfully by getting an extra first-rounder for Gaustad and trading with Vancouver for immediate center depth in Cody Hodgson while not mortgaging the future.

And he prepared his first round beautifully by having set up the trade with Flames GM Jay Feaster to move from #21 to #14 two days prior in anticipation of a possible player like Girgensons (or forward Teuvo Teravainen) being available with that pick.

"We looked at some teams who didn't have second round picks and Calgary was one of those teams," he said. "They wanted to see if they could stretch their first round pick into two picks."

Although they wouldn't gush over the draft, one would believe that the Sabres organization is brimming with confidence over their selections with the first three picks.

They had a potential top-five pick in Grigorekno drop to them at #12. They had a player they wanted in Girgensons, and aggressively went up from #21 to get him. Both of those players have a decent shot at making the team out of camp, with all parties benefiting if they spend another year in junior. Probably the only year they'll spend there before coming up. And they had a player that they rated as a low first-rounder drop to them at #44 in McCabe.

They eschewed the highly skilled jitterbugs for size and they opted for centers (five of them in all) who they'll switch to the wing if need be.

They used their new scouts overseas and in the US, as well as the second year of the Sabres combine, to increase the odds of the late-round crap-shoots making it to the pros.

And of note also, Head Scout Kevin Devine really seems to be having an impact on the organization. Not only that, his voice is being heard throughout Sabreland. It's a voice that sounds confident and always well-prepared. And he seems to be a rising star.

Plus, our good friend Kris Baker of who has done yeoman's work for years with little notice, is starting to become a more relied upon media voice as he's had multiple apperances on WGR including this morning's draft recap with Jeremy White and Paul Hamilton. He was been featured in the Buffalo News, Sabresedge pre-draft chat. His site has always been a labor of love with little recognition and now he's finally gettin' his "ice-cred" with the major Buffalo media outlets. Even Devine mentioned talking with him at Day-2 of the draft.

Add it all up and every fan in Sabreland should feel pretty good about this draft and how the organization is moving forward.

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