Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Prime years: 2009, Where's the beef? Sabres bulk up at draft

Reprinted with permission from

Worse than finishing outside the playoffs for the second year running was the reputation that the Buffalo Sabres had around the league. And it wasn't a good one. They were considered a soft team that had good amount of talent, but when the heat was turned up and they wilted. It was the season where head coach Lindy Ruff started urging his charges to "play out of character" as the new-NHL had given way to a tougher game and the European style of play was beginning to fade away.

Buffalo finished 10th in the conference once again, only two points behind Montreal in the Eastern Conference. The Sabres also ranked 13th-overall in goals-for, but in the category of scoring goals at a crucial time, they just couldn't get it done. They were a very weak group, unfamiliar with, and/or unwilling to, get to the "bloody nose" areas of the ice where goal-scoring was becoming more and more predominant.

Their leader that season was defenseman Craig Rivet who was acquired from the San Jose Sharks over the summer and was an alternate captain for the Montreal Canadiens. Rivet added size and backbone to this soft but skilled group, but it wasn't enough to endure the rigors of the way the NHL was trending and the team would fall short in their quest for the playoffs.

When the draft rolled around, and with fans clamoring for a tougher, more competitive product on the ice, Buffalo was said to be headed into the 2008 NHL Draft looking to add some size to the prospect pool. Although it wouldn't help immediately, the message would be clear that the Sabres would finally be trending towards a team that promised to be tougher to play against.

Sabres Team President Larry Quinn put on a grand show that summer as a draft day party was being held on the grounds of the Albright Knox Art Gallery. He wanted to make sure that everybody knew where the team was headed and when the Sabres announced their first round pick, there was a collective powerpunch to the sky from Sabres fans everywhere.

With the 13th selection in the NHL draft the Sabres selected 6'3" 215 lb. right-winger, Zack Kassian. Immediately fans were envisioning another Milan Lucic, or Cam Neely--a big, strong, tough winger who could score. Said Kris Baker of of the pick via his live blog that night, "He fills a need.  He's  somewhat safe. Real good down low. Will defend his teammates.  I will opine more on the site, but I understand the selection 100%."

Kassian did fill a need, but most of it would come via expectations and dreams of a tougher team. As we would come to find out, through a series of incidents both on the ice and off the ice, Kassian's career was following a path more like Chris Neil than Neely.

A cheapshot got him a 20-game suspension in January, 2010 and in late spring after his Windsor Spitfires won the Memorial Cup, he was arrested for fighting in a Windsor bar at 1:50AM.  The latter incident had deeper implications than local jurisdiction as the arrest and conviction for assault would cause border troubles. "If an individual has an assault charge on their record, they’d be found inadmissible into the United States,” said Chief Ron Smith of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “There are ways to mitigate that, primarily through the Department of State which issues visas. “But under normal circumstances, initially, the individual would be inadmissible in the United States for the assault charge.”

He would spend another year in junior and with things progressing nicely, he lost it once again in December at the World Juniors as he unloaded on an unsuspecting Petr Senkerik of the the Czech Republic who was taken off on a stretcher. Kassian would receive a match penalty for the hit and a one-game suspension by the IIHF.

Kassian spent the 2011-12 season splitting time between the Sabres and the Rochester Americans before being traded to the Vancouver Canucks in the Cody Hodgson trade. His line with the Sabres--27 games, three goals, four assists, 20 penalty minutes.

GM Darcy Regier added more heft with the drafting of defenseman, Brayden McNabb in the 3rd round (66th-overall.) McNabb chimed in at 6'4" 205 lbs and was drafted to be a big, physical, all-situations d-man for the club. The only knock at the time was with his skating which has shown gradual improvement over the years.

After spending two more seasons in Kootenay with the Ice, McNabb hit Rochester for 45 games and Buffalo for an additional 25 in the 2011-12 season. That season was marked by an inordinate number of injuries for the club in and around the Lucic/Ryan Miller incident. The barreling over of Miller by Lucic and the non-response from the players on the ice (none of whom are still with the club) furthered the Sabres reputation in the league as a very soft team.

McNabb spent the following season with the Amerks, then got another shot with the Sabres in 2013-14 before he was traded by new GM, Tim Murray. In what can be considered the first trade of his own volition, the deadline day trade sent McNabb,  forward Jonathan Parker (2011, FA,) and two second round picks--2014 and 2015 (both picks were received from LA in the Robyn Regehr trade) to the LA Kings for forward Hudson Fasching (2013, #188) and D/LW, Nicolas Deslauriers (2009, #84.)

In 37 games for the Sabres McNabb scored one goal and added seven assists.

Powerforward Marcus Foligno, who's father was a fan-favorite in Buffalo during the 80's and early 90's may have been a token pick for his namesake, but the fourth-rounder (104th) looks to be a bonafide NHL'er. And at 6'2" 202 lbs. Foligno's another one that added heft to the Sabres system.

After finishing his junior career and spending most of the following year with Rochester, Foligno burst on the Sabres scene with a rollicking 13 points (6+7) in 14 games to close the season. The line of Tyler Ennis centering Foligno and fellow powerforward Drew Stafford almost single-handely propelled Buffalo to the playoffs in the 2011-12 season.

Immediate success would derail Foligno, however, as he seemed to forget why he was drafted. After scoring six goals in 14 games that season, he seemed to have visions of Neely or John LeClair dancing in his head and he forgot the hard work, tenacity and physicality is what got him to the NHL. At this juncture it doesn't seem as if he'll have the scoring prowess to be a top-six winger, but he should excel in a bottom-six, defensive, energy role for the club.

Of the five drafts stretching from 2005-2009--players who'd be in their primes right now for the Buffalo Sabres--only Foligno and Ennis are still with the team.

Yet another heavyweight, 6'3" 210 lb. Mark Adams, was selected by the Sabres in 2009. The big, tough, stay-at-home d-man has spent the last five seasons with the Providence Friars. Adams was granted an extra season because injuries reduced his sophomore and junior seasons to a total of 14 games played. He was the only senior d-man on the Friar's 2015 National Championship hockey team that defeated Jack Eichel's Boston University Terriers 4-3 in the Frozen Four Final. Also on that team was defenseman and fellow Sabres prospect Anthony Florentino (2013, 143rd.)

Despite the extra time in college, and leaving with the National Championship, Adams has not been signed by the Sabres to an entry-level contract and probably will not be with the club.

The Sabres had been leaning towards drafting bigger goalies since they took Jhonas Enroth in the 2006 draft and the continued that trend with 6'5" 225 lb. Connor Knapp.

Knapp was another prospect who took the college route spending four years at the University of Miami (OH.) During his last two years there he split time in goal. He was signed to a two-year entry level deal in 2012 and began his pro career playing in seven games for the Amerks posting a rather pedestrian 3.34 gaa and .893 sv%.

His would be the story of bouncing between the AHL and ECHL the next two season as he was never able to transfer his talents to the pro level. Knapp would, however, live his NHL dream appearing in two games for the Buffalo Sabres at the end of the 2013-14 season. Buffalo was beset by an inordinate number of injuries in the crease and Knapp would be one of an NHL record nine goalies to suit up for the Sabres that year.

Even though he gained some traction with the Reading Royals of the ECHL last season, he was not offered an extension by the Sabres.

The final pick for the Sabres that season was RW, Maxim Legault. At 6'2" 190 lbs., Legault was on the "smaller side" when it came to Buffalo's selections that year.

Legault spent three seasons in the Sabres system playing in 189 games, registering 31 goals and 28 assists. He spent the 2013-14 season with the ECHL's Gwinett Gladiators before heading overseas last season.

Of the 37 draft picks the Sabres had from 2005-2009, only three--Ennis, Foligno and Mike Weber--remain with the team. As Regier's "core" got older and was recognized as a group who collectively couldn't get the job done, the system provided very little for the organization to build with. In looking at that, it's not surprising that the Sabres just finished blowing it all up and are now in build-mode.

Murray has consistently said that he was looking to build with players in the 24-26 yr. old range and he did so by trading for Evander Kane, Deslauriers, and Ryan O'Reilly (all 24 yrs. old) and adding 25 yr. old Zach Bogosian. He gave up some prospects and a pretty good NHL regular in Tyler Myers in the process but he was able to fill the void he was given and now has a new core that's young and has a wealth of NHL experience despite just entering their prime.

Add in a young stud like Eichel, the second overall pick in the 2015 draft, two former first-rounders in Zemgus Girgensons (2012, 14th) and Rasmus Ristolainen (2013, 8th) as well as a solid veteran presence and the future, which begins this season, is looking pretty bright.

The two-year teardown and dreadful hockey we just witnessed was necessitated by a number of things, including a less than stellar prospect pool. This series was just a reminder as to how the lack of homegrown impact players set the franchise back years.

Glad that part of Sabres history is over.

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