It's been a little over four years since the Buffalo Sabres ushered in their rebuild by trading core player Paul Gaustad, and just over three years since they hastened the teardown by trading away Jason Pominville.
The 2012 and 2013 drafts would represent the beginning of the future for the team and. Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen (2013, 8th-overall) has made the biggest impact on the team thus-far as he anchored the top-pairing last season. Jake McCabe (2012, 44th) hit the pros after his junior season at Wisconsin and looks to have solidified a spot in the top-four on defense. And despite coming off of a very poor 2015-16 NHL campaign, forward Zemgus Girgensons (2012, 14th) is still considered a top-nine forward with enough upside to possibly crack the top-six.
Those three young players essentially held the fort, along with longer-term Sabres Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno during this period of transition with the youngest of that group, Girgensons, playing in 202 NHL games through the two bottom-dwelling seasons and last year's rise from the ashes. Buffalo GM Tim Murray's goal after taking the reigns in January, 2014 (other than dismantling what was left of the former core group of players) was to begin laying a foundation by adding seasoned vets into the mix. Through the next three drafts he was able to add to the stable of quality prospects he inherited and with the volume of picks and prospects that Buffalo had acquired over the course of the rebuild he was able to use them to acquire young-vets.
Through it all the Sabres were able to finish 8th in the league last season with one of the youngest teams in the league.
Murray right now has a nucleus featuring 25 yr. old Ryan O'Reilly and three others--Jack Eichel (19 yr.s old,) Sam Reinhart (20) and Rasmus Ristolainen (21) with support from another group that ranges from 22 yr. olds McCabe and Gigensons to 28 yr. old Kyle Okposo and all points in between. As constructed, the Sabres have the fourth youngest team in the league according to nhlnumbers.com.
In looking at players like Ristolainen, McCabe and Girgensons as more of a foundational group, a first wave of draft picks from 2012-16 could start contributing at the NHL-level as early as next year. And it begins with RW, Justin Bailey.
Bailey was selected by the Sabres with the 52nd pick of the 2013 NHL Draft. Buffalo acquired that pick from the St. Louis Blues in the Jordan Leopold trade (the Sabres also acquired a 5th rounder and selected defenseman Anthony Florentino with the 143rd pick.) After finishing up his CHL career Bailey hit Rochester and struggled to get his power forward game moving. However, he finally put it together and finished with 20 goals and 25 assists in 70 games for the Amerks.
The Sabres called up Bailey for his first taste of the NHL last season and although he failed to register a point in eight games, he made an impact to the point where many feel he has a good chance of making the team out of training camp.
Speaking of training camps, defenseman Brendan Guhle (2015, 51st) raised some eyebrows last season and nearly had himself, in the very least, a nine-game tryout with the club before being leveled by then Toronto defenseman Dion Phanuef. At 6'2" 189 lbs. Guhle is slightly undersized and as he witnessed first hand, the NHL is a man's game. Kris Baker of sabresprospects.com/sabres.com nailed it when he wrote of his top Sabres prospect, "Sometimes we measure a player as being X years away from NHL duty. With Guhle, I'm measuring him as being X pounds away." Baker thinks that he should be able to add about 15 lbs. without inhibiting his upper-level skating ability.
Guhle had a six-game stint with the Rochester Americans last season and never looked out of place scoring a goal and adding three assists. Unfortunately he's one of those NHL/CHL tweeners where he'll be required to either play on the Sabres or head back to junior even though the AHL would probably be the best league to play in for his development.
At this year's draft in Buffalo the Sabres selected highly skilled LW Alexander Nylander with the 8th-overall pick. Nylander has good size (6'1" 180 lbs.,) impressive hands, superlative on-ice vision and a lethal shot. There will be a second-line LW slot open in Buffalo should the Sabres not be able to sign Jimmy Vesey (more on him later) and some think that Nylander could fill that role.
Although he may not be quite ready for the big show, the good news is that he will be eligible to play in the AHL for the Amerks. The 2nd annual Buffalo Sabres Prospects Challenge, training camp and the preseason will be big for him as he tries to make the jump to the NHL as an 18 yr. old.
Goaltender Linus Ullmark (2012, 163rd) had a whirlwind 10 months last year. He had elective double-hip surgery in April, 2015 but recovered much faster than anticipated and began the season in the lineup in Rochester. After Buffalo's Robin Lehner went down in the first game, Ullmark found himself in Buffalo and proceeded to play 20 games for the Sabres. He finished 8-10 with a 2.60 gaa and .913 sv.% during his stint. Unfortunately he faltered after being sent back down to Rochester and we're still trying to figure out why.
Right now he's the undisputed No. 1 goalie for the Amerks and could end up seeing more NHL duty if Lehner goes down.
Evan Rodrigues (2015) and Casey Nelson (2016) are two college free agents that the Sabres jumped on. Rodrigues is Eichel's former linemate at Boston University but has plenty of talent to separate himself from the "Eichel's wingman" moniker. Like Bailey, it took time for him to adapt to the pro game but he has a lethal array of shots that find the back of the net from anywhere on the ice. Nelson had a very nice pro debut last season registering four assists in his first three games. An incredibly astute and talented Nelson went into the off-season knowing he can hang with the big boys and he'll be bringing his poise, especially at the point on the powerplay, to Rochester with the strong possibility that he'll be getting a call from Buffalo should they need a d-man.
Both of these players are worthy of keeping an eye on and Rodrigues might be considered a dark-horse to make the team out of camp.
This is a group to keep an eye on these next two seasons but there's another group hot o their tails featuring the likes of Hudson Fasching (2013, 118th,) Rasmus Asplund (2016, 33rd,) Nicolas Baptiste (2013, 69th,) Florentino, Brycen Martin (2014, 74th,) Vaclav Karabacek (2014, 49th,) Eric Cornel (2014, 44th,) and possibly Victor Olofsson (2013, 181st) as well as goalie Cal Peterson (2013, 129th) should he elect to leave college after his junior season.
It's time, Sabres fans. Those years in the dregs and all of the draft picks that came along with it are starting to make their way en masse to the pro level. What comes out of it is to be determined, but early returns has the foundation and the first wave with plenty of players who could have an impact.
All of that is without the Sabres singing college standout Jimmy Vesey whom Buffalo traded for and met with.
As mentioned, the second-line LW slot is open for competition thanks to a sub-par season from Girgensons who played a majority of the season there. It might be too early for Nylander to stake a claim to that spot and there's always a possibility that Ennis could slide right in and be effective. Hell, even Girgensons could once again have a shot at it if worse came to worse or if he has a strong training camp.
But Vesey has it right there for him should he chose to sign with Buffalo, the team that holds his rights until August 15.
There's been plenty of speculation as to where he'll end up but in his weekly mailbag column, NHL.com's Dan Rosen is "leaning towards Buffalo" as his landing spot. The reasoning?
"The Sabres are a team on the rise with players in Vesey's age bracket," wrote Rosen. "Vesey can grow with the Sabres and be a part of the core general manager Tim Murray keeps around for a long time. Buffalo also has a spot for him in the top-six forward group right now."
To further the point Rosen made, as outlined above, the 23 yr. old Vesey will be right in the mix with these players:
E. Kane, 25
It's up to him, but one of the things he said in the Players Tribune about returning for his senior season at Harvard (other than maybe a shot at free agency) was the fondness he had being a part of a tight-knit group of "brothers," as he called them. College afforded him the opportunity to shoot for a common goal with players about the same age as him. At the pro level it's much more difficult to find a situation like that, but playing with this many players around your age (like Buffalo has) is about as close as it gets to the college experience.