Friday, July 27, 2018

"Prime Years"--A look at the 2011 NHL Draft. Terry Pegula's first as owner

Published by, 7-22-2018

It's been just about seven and a half years since Terry Pegula took ownership of the Buffalo Sabres on February 18, 2011. If you're a fan of seven-year cycles, then the new one for him and his team is punctuated by the drafting of 2018 first-overall draft pick, Rasmus Dahlin.

To get to that point, however, Pegula's Sabres had an atrocious season on their way to a last place finish but were lucky enough to win the NHL's Draft Lottery to secure the right to draft what many consider to be the best d-prospect possibly dating back 45 years. Hockey Hall of Famer Denis Potvin was drafted first-overall by NY Islanders in 1973, was named captain of the team for the 1979-80 season and lead them to four consecutive Stanley Cups (1980-83.)

But as Dahlin begins a new seven-year cycle for the Sabres, those first seven years under Pegula were fraught with dysfunction and dismay as the first time pro sports owner struggled to find his footing. During Pegula's tenure the team missed the playoffs in all of his full seasons, never finishing higher than third in the division, and ending up in last place three times, two of them by design. In those seven full seasons Buffalo saw one President of Hockey Ops come and go in less than four months, is on their third general manager and fifth head coach.

The Sabres finished the 2010-11 season well as they rode the Pegula wave to the playoffs and were in a position to win their first round series against the No. 2 seed in the East, the Philadelphia Flyers, but lost in overtime in Game-6 then fell in seven games. They were being carried by GM Darcy Regier's core but their prospect pipeline was producing very little and after a disastrous first full season under Pegula, Buffalo began charting a new course that would lead them to a complete strip down of the roster and consecutive tank seasons in 2013-15.

Throughout the past few years we did a series entitled "Prime Years." In it we looked for Sabres draft picks who would have been in their prime (roughly 24-28 yrs. old) during any given year. We started with the 2005 NHL Draft wherein those players would be within those prime years (albeit at the high end) when the Sabres came out of their consecutive tank years in 2015.

That 2005 draft year was a train wreck beginning with the selection of Marek Zagrapan in the first round and it didn't get much better save for the 2008 draft where two first rounders--defenseman Tyler Myers and forward Tyler Ennis--cracked the upper half of the lineup with Myers playing top-pairing minutes in Buffalo.

From 2005-09 as found in the summation here (with links to individual years,) the Sabres drafted 37 players an outside of the two Tylers, only a handful played a significant number of games in Buffalo with most of them coming from the mid-latter rounds of the draft. The 2010 draft was better when it came to their first rounder, defenseman Mark Pysyk, but none of the other eight picks made it to the NHL.

Once again, at the time of the series, these draft picks would have been in their primes and with a record like that, it's not surprising they ended up in a scorched earth rebuild.

Those drafted in 2011 would be right in the middle of their primes right now at the age of 25 or so. This was Pegula's first draft and in an effort to enhance their drafting, they held the Sabres draft combine between the NHL Combine and the draft. In three years the Sabres hosted 75 player but individual team combines were deemed to be an "unfair competitive advantage" by the NHL and they were stopped.

Buffalo went into the 2011 draft with five picks beginning with the 16th-overall and with it they chose Assat (SM Liiga) right winger, Joel Armia. The Sabres had not selected a player from overseas since picking goalie Jonas Enroth in the second round (46th) of the 2006 draft.

Armia was an interesting pick in that the Sabres saw very little of him play live overseas. But a "friend of a friend" recommended they take a long look at him and sent along a video package. They also had the opportunity to see him up close at HSBC Arena as they hosted the 2011 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships. Although his performance was underwhelming, Armia did enough to pique the Sabres interest and with his first ever pick as an NHL owner, Pegula took the podium to announce Armia as their selection.

The prospect profile on Armia was that he was very mobile for a 6'3" 191 lb. player and that he was a sniper. However, it was also said by Goran Stubb, NHL's Director of European Scouting at the time, that "you might have to look for him during some shifts, but then, suddenly, he scores the winner."

Armia's sniping abilities never materialized in Buffalo. He played in 126 games for the Rochester Americans scoring 22 goals and adding 46 assists in three seasons and only dressed for one game with the Buffalo Sabres. He was part of the Myers/Evander Kane trade in 2015 and has played 179 games for the Winnipeg Jets since the trade.

Speed-demon Daniel Catenacci was selected by Buffalo with the 77th-overall pick. He played five seasons for the Rochester Americans posting 43 goals and 86 points in 247 games before being traded to the NY Rangers organization where he played a total of 61 games for their AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolfpack. Cantenacci played 11 games for the Sabres and one for the Rangers failing to register an NHL point. He signed to play overseas next season.

Big center Colin Jacobs was selected 107th overall by Buffalo and spent most of his years bouncing between the AHL and ECHL. At the AHL level he collected two goals and five assists in 46 games for the Amerks while posting 39 goals and 88 points in 190 games for three different ECHL clubs.

West Seneca, NY native Alex Lepkowksi (137th) had a brief taste of North American pro hockey when he played eight games for the Amerks and one in the ECHL after his 2013-14 OHL season ended. The big defenseman played in 62 more ECHL games the following year
 before heading overseas for the last two seasons.

Goalie Nathan Lieuwen was taken in the sixth round (167th) and got himself a taste of the NHL in the 2013-14 when the Sabres set an NHL record for most goalies dressed in one season--nine. Lieuwen got into seven games for Buffalo that year posting respectable numbers (1-4-0 record, 2.98 goals against average, .906 save %) for the worst team in the league. Although his career was proceeding nicely at the pro level, concussions knocked him off track forcing him to retire last June.

Brad Navin (197th) was Buffalo's final pick in the 2011 NHL Draft and has spent his entire pro career in the ECHL thus far playing for three different teams and compiling a stat-line of 147 games, 26 goals, 35 assists.

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