Sure, Buffalo would’ve preferred to win the draft lottery and take Connor McDavid. But Jack Eichel is an amazing building block for a franchise with an already-loaded farm system.
Was the NHL’s draft lottery presentation the pinnacle of television entertainment? Of course not. But, admit it, your heart pounded through your chest every time Bill Daly flipped over a rectangular team card in his hellish Rorschach test. It was quite the emotional ride, and that was just for fans and journalists. Imagine how team executives felt.
That’s why we should forgive Buffalo Sabres GM Tim Murray for his downtrodden reaction in the immediate aftermath of seeing the Edmonton Oilers land the first overall pick for the fourth friggin’ time in six years. Sure, Buffalo’s “plan” for Connor McDavid consisted of a mere 20 percent chance of winning the lottery, preceded by what may or may not have been an elaborate season-long tank operation. But in the moment, with a generational talent of McDavid’s ilk closer to Murray’s fingertips than to any other GM’s, who could fault him if his emotional, human side really wanted No. 97 in Western New York?
So Murray’s remark, “I’m disappointed for our fans,” deserves a pass. Who wouldn’t be disappointed? It could’ve been perceived as an affront to prospective No. 2 selection Jack Eichel, but that’s not what it was. Murray also said, “We’re disappointed not to get first, but we’re happy with second. Two franchise-changing guys in this draft.”
Despite the sting of losing McDavid, Murray and the Sabres realize they still very much have a franchise pillar waiting for them on draft day. Sabres fans should do the same. Especially considering how many other pieces the team has amassed in recent seasons.
There’s no denying the Edmonton Oilers, those lowly Edmonton Oilers, have drastically brightened their future after landing McDavid. Their long-term depth chart looks imbalanced, with not enough defensive support for Darnell Nurse and a glut of centers with McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but that’s a good problem to have. General manager Craig MacTavish can look for defense on the trade market, in theory.
But as they say in the workplace: don’t waste your energy resenting the other guy. Focus on yourself. The McDavid fantasy is over, so there’s no use pining for him in Buffalo. Instead, look at what the Sabres have – which is a hell of a lot.
Buffalo’s development system, defined as their collection of players 21 and younger, graded out on our scouting panel as the fourth-best in the NHL in our 2015 edition of THN Future Watch. That was after giving up Joel Armia and Brendan Lemieux in the Evander Kane trade. The Sabres’ youth crop remains absolutely loaded. Center Sam Reinhart rated as the No. 1 drafted prospect in all hockey, and Mikhail Grigorenko, formerly a blue-chipper, now has the luxury of being a project.
And the Sabres have so much variety in their young defense corps. Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov, first-round picks in 2013, are as promising a young defense tandem as you’ll find in the game. The Sabres have a great leader in the system in Jake McCabe, who captained Team USA to the 2013 world junior title. They have a bruising power forward in the making in Hudson Fasching, not to mention hulking Marcus Foligno already with the big club. And Kane still has plenty of potential. He already has 109 NHL goals, and he’s just 23.
The Sabres have the All-Star Game’s leading vote-getter in agitating center Zemgus Girgensons, whom they nabbed in 2012’s first round. They have two-way forward Johan Larsson and goalie Matt Hackett, both acquired in the Jason Pominville trade with Minnesota. They have serviceable top-six forwards Tyler Ennis and Matt Moulson locked up four more seasons apiece.
That’s quite the core. Now drop Eichel into it. So he doesn’t have the amazing flash and natural ability to rack up points McDavid has. Eichel is bigger and stronger. He’s considered better on faceoffs and more mature defensively. He’s succeeded against men in the NCAA. No, he doesn’t deserve to go first overall, but he’s quite the consolation prize. Today in the THN office, we discussed the idea that, while Connor McDavid shapes up to be a dynamic league-changer in the vein of Sidney Crosby, Eichel could be a pure winner in the mold of Jonathan Toews. Eichel almost carried Boston University to a national championship as a freshman this year. I’d argue you could drop Eichel into any of the past five drafts, from Taylor Hall’s year to Aaron Ekblad’s, and Eichel would’ve gone first.
Mix Eichel with what the Sabres already have and it’s enough to make Buffalo’s long-term outlook still appear better than Edmonton’s. Oh, and since the New York Islanders deferred the selection they surrendered in last year’s Thomas Vanek trade, Buffalo also picks a second time in the first round this June. The lottery only affects the first round, so last-place Buffalo kicks off the second round, meaning it picks three times in the top 31.
And if the Sabres’ bursting, promising group of youngsters needs more time and struggles again next year: no problem. Then Buffalo enters the 2016 lottery mix for Auston Matthews, Jesse Puljujarvi or Jakob Chychrun.
Just for fun, let’s say the Sabres end up with, oh, the No. 3 pick next year and nab Chychrun. They could end up with a 2016 organizational depth chart that looks something like this (skewed youth-heavy to illuminate who’s on the way):
Centers: Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson, Mikhail Grigorenko
Wingers: Evander Kane, Tyler Ennis, Matt Moulson, Marcus Foligno, Cody Hodgson, Brian Gionta, Hudson Fasching, Justin Bailey, J.T. Compher, William Carrier, Nick Baptiste
Defensemen: Rasmus Ristolainen, Nikita Zadorov, Zach Bogosian, Josh Gorges, Jake McCabe, Mark Pysyk, Jakub Chychrun
Goalies: Matt Hackett*, Linus Ullmark, Andrey Makarov
*Hackett is an unrestricted free agent this summer
And that only factors in who the Sabres would pick first in the next two drafts. Maybe Buffalo wins the sweepstakes to sign Eichel’s BU goalie, Matt O’Connor, as well. So if any Sabres fans find themselves on a ledge, consider the team’s highly promising McDavid-less future and calmly step down.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin