Tuesday, August 16, 2016

After the Mark Pysyk trade, the 2010 Buffalo Sabres draft comes up empty

Last summer in a series called Prime Years (links below) we took a look at the 2005-2009 draft classes for the Buffalo Sabres that constituted a group of players who are now in their primes (ages 24-28.) The Sabres selected 37 players from those five drafts and as of last summer only three were with the team heading into the 2015-16 NHL seasons--Mike Weber (2006, 57th overall,) Tyler Ennis (2008, 26th) and Marcus Foligno (2009, 104th.)

This off season represents another year where players from the 2010 NHL Draft would just be entering their prime years and, ideally, making contributions to the Buffalo Sabres at the NHL-level. However, the 2010 draft class, much like the prior five classes, failed to have an impact.

In all fairness, there were some good players from 2005-09 who were traded away for other pieces, like the Tyler Myers and Brayden McNabb trades, and at one point the Sabres had the most draft picks by percentage playing in the NHL. But the fact remains--for a small market team like Buffalo, they did not hit on enough draft picks to rise above mediocrity. They missed on Marek Zagrapan (2005, 13th,) completely whiffed on Dennis Persson (2006, 24th,) ended up trading away their 2009 first-rounder Zach Kassian and didn't have a first round pick in 2007 after trading it away for a rental. The two best picks (both first-rounders from 2008) in Myers and Ennis are two very good players but there wasn't nearly enough talent around them during their formative years to sustain any of the success they had early on.

With that kind of track record at the draft and with overpaid veterans playing with a country-club mentality, it's not surprising that the Buffalo Sabres opted for a full rebuild as there was nothing in the cupboards to get them out of the never-ending cycle of middling finishes and middling draft picks.

The 2010 draft was the last one of the Tom Golisano-era. Kevin Devine was still at the helm as Head Amateur Scout and they still did't have anywhere near the number of scouts in the field necessary to build successfully through the draft. The edict from Golisano and Team President Larry Quinn was "just break even" and part of the equation had the team relying heavily on video (the VideoScout3000 as the late jtswinehart once called it.) Although it saved them money, it was a cost-cutting move that really hurt.

When the Sabres headed to Los Angeles for the draft in 2010 they'd just come off of a first-round loss to the Boston Bruins in the playoffs. Buffalo had clinched the Northeast Division behind the Vezina Trophy-winning goaltending of veteran Ryan Miller and the Calder Trophy season of defenseman Myers. All of their top-scorers that season were decidedly a plus in plus/minus column while centers Derek Roy (69 points) and Tim Connolly (65) lead the team in scoring. Myers was fifth with 48 points and was tied for second-best on the team with a plus-13 plus/minus rating.

Despite adding some serious heft at the previous draft, most still felt that the "soft-but-skilled" team Darcy Regier built still needed size and toughness as evidenced by the Bruins series. The Sabres had skill and Miller was on his game as well, but when the going got tough, the Sabres were no where to be found. Goals needed to be scored in the dirty areas and the only one that did that was Cody McCormick a player signed by the Sabres in the off season, played in the AHL and eventually got the call from Buffalo after Thomas Vanek was undermined by a questionable check to the lower body by Boston's Johnny Boychuk. The lasting image of that series in that regard is McCormick barreling to the net so hard to try and score that he crashed into it and received a penalty in the process.

The Sabres making it into the playoffs that season meant that they'd be drafting 23rd-overall. In the prior five drafts they drafted no higher than 12th (Myers,) had two 13th-overalls (Zagrapan and Kassian) and a 24th in Persson. And with the 23rd pick of the 2010 NHL Draft, the Buffalo Sabres selected defenseman Mark Pysyk.

Pysyk was a puck-mover, one in the long line of puck-movers Regier favored. He had decent size (6'1", 188 lbs.) on a projectable frame and was known for his smarts, leadership and defensive acumen. Unfortunately for him, when it was time for him to make inroads into the NHL, the Sabres were headed into rebuild-mode.

After being drafted by the Sabres, Pysyk spent two more seasons with his junior club, the Edmonton Oil Kings and captained them to their first-ever WHL Championship in 2012 as well as a trip to the Memorial Cup that May. He began his professional career the following season with the Rochester Americans while the NHL locked out it's players. In 57 games for Rochester that season he had 18 points (4+14) and was a plus-8. He also appeared in 19 games for Buffalo scoring his first-ever NHL goal and adding four assists.

Pysyk started out the 2013-14 season playing for Buffalo but after turmoil engulfed the team he was sent back to Rochester. He continued to be a steadying force on the blueline in Rochester but new GM Tim Murray kept him in Rochester even after purging the team of a bevy of players including McNabb.  Murray was fully aware of Pysyk's defense and said of the move to keep him developing in Rochseter, "I want him to take big strides here. I don't want him to be happy being a safe, puck-moving defenseman, I want to see him push himself more offensively, push himself into the transition game a little more."

After full-time duty in Buffalo last season resulting in one goal in 55 games, Pysyk was part of a deal with the Florida Panthers at the 2016 NHL Draft in Buffalo. Pysyk and two picks (Nos. 38 and 89) were sent to Florida for defenseman Dmitry Kulikov and the 33rd-ovearall pick which was used to select center Rasmus Asplund.

A quick note on the trade. The Florida Panthers revamped their defense-corps by trading away physical players like Kulikov and Eric Gudbranson (VAN) in favor of more puck-movers like Pysyk.

Defenseman Jerome Gauthier-Leduc was selected in the third round with the 68th pick by Buffalo after an outstanding season for Rouyn-Noranda of the QMJHL. Gauthier Leduc was touted as a very strong skating offensive defenseman with good size (6'2" 192 lbs.) and exceptional vision.
Gauthier-Leduc would finish up his CHL career with Rimouski scoring 74 regular season points (28+46) in 62 games plus another 19 points (9+10) in 21 playoff games but could not transfer that scoring acumen to the pros. He spent four seasons in Rochester scoring 19 goals and adding 38 assists in 231 games before being traded to the Binghamton Senators in an AHL blockbuster on February 27th. His struggles during the 2013-14 campaign had him sent to the ECHL that season for an eight-game stint.

The Sabres selected center Kevin Sundher with the 75th-overall selection in 2010. Sundher put up some pretty big numbers in the WHL (94g+158a in 252 games) but his perimeter game didn't translate well to the pro ranks. His smaller size as well as lack of physicality and grit showed and after three seasons in Rochester and a nine-game stint with Elmira (NY) of the ECHL he went unsigned. Sundher played 10 games in the AHL and nine in the ECHL last season.

Matt Mackenzie (83rd-overall) came out of junior with a simple, two-way game and it got him a good look from the Sabres organization. At 6'2" 198 lbs. Mackenzie had decent size and did get some decent playing time on Rochester's third pairing but he also was sent to the ECHL in three of his four seasons.

Steven Shipley (98th,) Greg Sutch (143rd) and Cedrick Henley (173rd) all came out of junior without ever making it to the pro level. According to Jason Chen of Hockey's Future, Shipley finished his hockey career with St. Mary's University (Atlantic University Sport,) Sutch played a short time for York University (Canadian Interuniversity Sport) and Henley finished in the CIS with Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières.

Right Wing Christian Isackson was a high school star out of St. Thomas Academy and was a finalist for Minnesota's Mr. Hockey Award which was won by Florida's Nick Bjugstad that year. Isackson had great hands but couldn't adapt to play at the college level totaling eight goals 109 games for the Minnesota Golden Gophers. His pro career consists of 70 games in the ECHL.

Left Wing Riley Boychuk was Buffalo's last pick in the 2010 draft. The 208th-overall pick has been bouncing around the lower pro levels since turning pro in 2011. He last played for the organization in 2013-14.

In looking back at the final six drafts of the Tom Golisano-era, it's not surprising that Terry Pegula and his charges decided to blow the whole thing up as the lifeblood of the organization--drafting--was not adding much to the big club. When Pegula took over he pledged--while also following through on that pledge--to cut loose the financial chains of the club. Most people look at that free-spending 2011 off-season as an example of that, but most noteworthy was his undercover commitment to the scouting department.

From Pegula's first presser as owner:

"Starting today, there will be no financial mandates on the Buffalo Sabres hockey department. There is no salary cap in the National Hockey League on scouting budgets and player development budgets. I plan on increasing...our scouting budgets, both with bodies on the ground, and in areas we may not be hitting capably, and also enhancing our video department. Starting today, we will bring in more player development coaches, to help these guys become better hockey players, work on their weaknesses, or whatever the coaches think. We will aspire to be the best in the league at finding, developing, and keeping our players in their new Buffalo Sabre family."

Pegula's first draft was in 2011, but the full weight of his financial commitment to more scouts and better player development wouldn't begin to start taking shape until the following year. In saying that, the 2010 draft should be considered the last one where the Sabres were stuck "VideoScout3000" mode, a failure of an era that limited their success to two players--Ennis and Foligno--being on the team in the prime of their careers.

 Prime Years past columns:

2005--Prime Years. Past drafts and players who'd be in their primes today
2006--Prime Years: The void grows bigger as the 2006 draft flops
2007--Prime Years:  2007, Another draft class with nothing to show for it
2008--Prime Years:  2008--a seismic shift, poor season, solid draft
2009--Prime Years:  2009, Where's the beef? Sabres bulk up at draft


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