Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
Before we get into a busy weekend at the First Niagara Center as the NHL descended upon the First Niagara Center for the Entry Draft, big props to the Pegula's and their charges at Pegula Sports and Entertainment. Simply put, they put on a good show.
The centerpiece of the rejuvenation of downtown Buffalo is HARBORCENTER, a $190 million multi-faceted building conceived of and built by Kim and Terry Pegula, owners of the Buffalo Sabres and Buffalo Bills. The original idea designed around building a dual-rink complex complete with parking garage as a magnet for hockey, but once Kim got her hands on it the idea turned into a mult-faceted building complete with a Marriott hotel, sports bar and other amenities that make it a downtown destination.
Details of how the Pegula's helped kick in the rejuvenation of downtown Buffalo can be found in a wonderful piece from Sal Maiorana of the Rochester Democrat and Chronical. Kim Pegula states in the article how her husband wanted grass planted in the area that is now HARBORCENTER and the adjoining area known as Canalside. Maiorana aptly described it as "the depressingly unkempt space underneath the Skyway between the arena and the river." Terry was quoted by his wife at the time as saying of the area, "If they could just plant some grass. You know, at least make it look somewhat like you care," and thus it was born.
From grass to the NHL Draft and more to come.
I had the pleasure of striking up a conversation with a number of credentialed out-of-towners who were thoroughly impressed with everything in and around the F'N Center and HARBORCENTER, which is a good thing. Hopefully we won't be waiting another 18 years before the city of Buffalo hosts another NHL Draft but until then the Pegula's and Buffalo will be hosting their third consecutive NHL Combine in 2017 as well as the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championships.
Not bad for an idea that was as simple as planting grass. "We’re talking grass," said Kim in the article, "that’s all it was.”
The trade of Sabres RHD Mark Pysyk to the Florida Panthers for LHD Dimiti Kulikov ruffled some feathers after it was announced. Buffalo GM Tim Murray, no stranger to draft-day trades, was able to get a deal done just before the second round of the draft was set to begin at 10:00 AM on Saturday. In it he sent Pysyk, picks 38 and 86 to the Panthers for Kulikov and the 33rd-overall pick.
The consternation of WGR550's Matthew Coller and a collection of callers who were against trading Pysyk away was constant long-lasting. One caller even had Pysyk as "the best or one of the top two" defensemen on the club and for the analytics brigade, of which Coller is a leader, trading an "analytics darling" (Murray's words) was close to unfathomable.
Although I have nothing against analytics or a fans personal tastes in players, the trade comes off as a lateral move right now more than anything else. This is coming from a person who liked what Pysyk brought to the table as a quiet, defensive-defenseman in a shut-down role. (for an impression of his performance this year you can click here)
However, I am of the opinion that what Pysyk brought to the table just wasn't enough to satisfy what the Sabres thought his potential was from an offensive perspective and that there were other mitigating factors involved.
In addition to his hesitation about jumping into the play offensively, the Sabres RHD/LHD was imbalanced at the NHL level as the team had too many RHD. As mentioned in the above piece, Pysyk also seemed to have hit a wall leaving him as a bottom-pairing defenseman at this point in time. The Sabres were in the market for a left-handed, top-pairing defenseman and although Kulikov may not be a true top-2, he was a top-four d-man on a playoff team.
Another factor concerning the trade may include the expansion draft next year in which the Sabres will have one player picked from their roster to help with the Las Vegas expansion team. Buffalo looks to be choosing a scenario in which they will protect three defensemen in the draft--Rasmus Ristolainen, Zach Bogosian and Jake McCabe--leaving Pysyk exposed were he to be re-signed as an RFA this season. With the trade of Pysyk they were able to get something in return instead of possibly losing him for nothing.
Simple fact is, Pysyk could very well end up being a Niklas Hjalmarsson-type shut-down d-man on a playoff team. He could also end up being the king of analytics as well. That will all work itself out in the future and the "Hindsight-20/20 Brigade" could very well have a feast over this one. But at this point in time, panicking over the trade of Mark Pysyk seems a bit overblown.
Another aspect of the trade was the Sabres moving up five spots in the draft to No. 33 to select a player widely projected as a mid-first round pick.
Murray told the gathered media post-draft that this was the final piece of the Pysyk/Kulikov trade. "That was the last thing I put in the deal today," he said. "I knew it was going to be Mark [Pysyk] as the main component of the deal. It was originally going to be our first 3rd-round pick (No. 69.) We continued to negotiate today and I went back to them with [the 89th pick] and I told them that we had to flip-flop our second round picks because [Rasmus] Asplund was still on the board.
"We regrouped last night and he was our only 5-rating (in their ranking system.) It doesn't seem like much but being able to do the flop of seconds certainly made our Swedish scout happy and our head scout happy. Happy scouts, happy life."
Asplund, whom the Sabres were able to select at 33, played with Farjestad of the Swedish Hockey League last season and was ranked as the 21st best prospect in the draft by Kris Baker of sabresprospects.com/sabres.com. Here's what he had to say of Asplund in his draft preview:
"Slippery and competitive, Asplund’s ability to hound the puck, force turnovers and quickly transition into offense with a smooth playmaking sense makes him an attractive candidate to mature into a quality NHL forward.
While the crafty 18-year-old didn’t light up the SHL scoresheet against much older competition with Farjestad BK this past season, Asplund let the scouting world know what kind of player he can be at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship, where he controlled the middle of the ice at both ends while creating offense for fellow 2016 draft prospect Alexander Nylander and Toronto prospect Dmytro Timasov (TOR).
Asplund may tote around an average frame and not appear to be the most physical player on the ice, but he’s very detail oriented with an ability to do the little things like winning faceoffs, jamming shooting lanes with his stick, and making short passes from deep in his zone to spark the transition game.
Teams looking for a sneaky playmaker who will comfortably slot into a workmanlike role will likely have Asplund on their radar. It wouldn’t be a shock to see him be a standout at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship, and thus have people wondering how he wasn’t selected higher."
That the Sabres traded up to get him certainly wasn't lost on Asplund, "“It’s an amazing feeling that they traded up to get me,” Asplund said to those at the media scrum. “That proves that they really believe in me and they want me to get here. … I need to prove to them that what they did wasn’t wrong.”
Murray also gave an overview of the Sabres draft weekend, "We drafted skill and speed. Some of them may lack a little bit of size [in fact] at one point we saw a couple of guys like that on the board and we went in opposite directions just because of the type of player we drafted, certainly with our first and second picks.
"We drafted what we believe is a lot of skill. We drafted good skaters, we drafted offensive instincts and then near the end we got a couple of guys who were hard to play against and/or big, physical defensive guys."
If you took just what Murray said about this draft, you'd think he's all in on following the blueprint laid out by the Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, but delving a bit deeper into what he's done in the two-plus years he's been the Sabres GM the puzzle he's putting together consists of many shapes and sizes.
When Murray came to the Sabres in January, 2014 one of his components early on was bringing in the "heavies." Amongst those building blocks were William Carrier, Nic Deslauriers, Hudson Fasching who joined homegrown heavy Marcus Foligno in Buffalo. Murray augmented that aspect as he traded for skilled players with good size who could skate very well in the likes of Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian and Ryan O'Reilly. Outside of an obvious second-overall selection in Jack Eichel--who finished in the top-10 in seven fitness categories at the 2015 NHL Combine--Murray is including athletes like gym-rats Brendan Guhle (2015, 51st-overall) and Justin Bailey (2013, 52nd) who happen to top Bakers' April prospects rankings.
Then there's hockey sense which is found in many of the above mentioned players but might be the supreme domain of 2014 second-overall pick Sam Reinhart. Not to be left out is the edge that the recently acquired Kulikov brings to the table.
Murray's building himself a team consisting of diverse players with varying skill-sets one that's hell-bent on one thing this season, making it to the playoffs. Buffalo hasn't made the playoffs since 2011 and during that time the organization from team president on down has gone through a massive overahaul with the ultimate goal of the Stanley Cup in mind. This is year two of the build and you can't pigeon-hole Murray's moves into one specific player-type, save for the fact that most of his early-round draft-picks are very good skaters who have at least one trait that really stands out.
For those on the roster or in the system who don't have one of those two components--skating or a stand-out trait--they may end up on the move like Mark Pysyk. It's something to keep an eye on in the near future as Murray continues to tweak his roster.
Some other notes from this weekend:
--The Sabres selected Casey Fitzgerald, son of former NHL winger Tom Fitzgerald who had a 17-year NHL career. The elder Fitzgerald joined the Pittsburg front office in 2007 as Director of Player Development and crossed paths with Bylsma when he was head coach of the Penguins. Bylsma, who now coaches the Sabres said he new the younger Fitzgerald pretty well "more than anyone in the draft," said the coach to the gathered media post-draft. Casey Fitzgerald, a defenseman attending Boston College, was passed over at last year's draft and was selected 86th overall by Buffalo. It's also been rumored that the elder Fitzgerald is good friends with Jim Vesey, father of Jimmy Vesey the un-signed Nashville draft pick whom the Sabres gave a third round pick for in hopes of draping him in the Blue and Gold.
--Forget the fact that having a last name of Pu is an invitation for constant juvenile harassment and note that Cliff Pu played for the Memorial Cup-winning London Knights last season. Pu played in a secondary scoring role for a stacked team that included top centers Mitch Marner and Christian Dvorak. While his regular season stats were average at best the 6'2" 192 lb. third round pick of the Sabres (69th) kicked up his game in the playoffs with eight goals and five assists in 18 games. Add in that his father emigrated to Canada as a young man with little in his pocket and you have a good story in the making.
--Austin Omanski is a 6'4" 194 lb. left-handed defenseman taken by the Sabres with the 189th pick in the 2016 NHL Draft. The East Aurora native would have left the F'N Center had Buffalo not called his name with the first of their two seventh-round picks. Omanski is a friend of Jared Murray, son of Buffalo GM Tim Murray, but the elder Murray said that had nothing to do with the decision to select him. "I said to my guys at the table ther's no metric to measure that [this local kid] is going to be in the building every day in our gym trying to become a Buffalo Sabre. He's going to go above and beyond. We'll see if that materializes into an NHL career or not.
--Another Murray entered into the equation for the Sabres at the draft as they selected LW Brett Murray with the 99th pick. Although Brett is no relation to Tim, he's got a connection with the big guy as he'll be attending Penn State, owner Terry Pegula's alma mater. Pegula's first big contribution after selling his East Resources company was to donate $80 million to Penn State to start a D-1 hockey program. Murray said he met Pegula for the first time and told the gathered media that Pegula saying of the meeting, "he gave me a couple words, telling me I had a long road ahead of me. He’s going to be pushing me.”
Saturday teams were allowed to begin contacting potential unrestricted free agents. The Sabres, of course, have been hot on the trail of Tampa's Steven Stamkos who looks to be available on July 1, the official start to free agency.
The big development in the Stamkos saga occurred at the draft as the Detroit Red Wings cleared Pavel Datsyuk's $7.5M cap hit from the books by trading him to the Arizona Coyotes. The 'Yotes did the Wings a huge solid to the point where new Arizona GM John Chyka, the youngest GM in the NHL at age 26, actually got smoked in the deal as the Wings didn't even have to give up a talented roster player. They actually got a second round pick (53rd) from Arizona after swapping their 16th-overall pick for the 'Yotes 20th. Detroit also made a small "sacrifice" by taking on the contract of Joe Vital who's on injured reserve with serious concussion issues.
Wings GM Ken Holland must have been doing cartwheels with how this went down. Not only did he shed Datsyuk's salary but he didn't give up anything of value in the process and he gained an extra pick.
That's bad news for teams like the Buffalo Sabres in the Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference as not only should the Wings make the playoffs for the 26th consecutive season, but with the extra cap-space they're also the front-runner to land prized free agent Steven Stamkos.
Word on the street is that the Sabres are ready to go $12M or so per season to land Stamkos and probably the only scenario that would block and acceptance of that by him would be a comparable offer from one of the best organizations in all of sports. And if he's focused upon winning a Stanley Cup throughout the last two decades, the Motor City has been proven to give players a consistently legitimate shot.
Buffalo is still in it, but will probably fall short in the Stamkos Sweepstakes and it will hurt initially. But as much as I like his game, and his scoring and the fact that he's just entering his prime at age 26, two thing about his situation have always bothered me in the process: his recent blood clot issue and the fact that the Lightning almost made it back to the Stanley Cup Finals with him out for all but the last game of their playoffs.
That said, who wouldn't want to sign a former 60-goal scorer in his prime without having to give up any assets?
No one in their right mind wouldn't