Disappointed. That was my initial reaction immediately after watching the first 5 rounds of the NHL Draft on Sunday.
Back on April 29th, Buffalo Sabres GM Darcy Regier said that in the quest for a Stanley Cup, that “It may require some suffering” from the Sabres fanbase. I guess that the optimist in me was hoping that this was merely a smokescreen, because I was certainly hoping for more from Buffalo on draft day. I had already resigned myself to knowing that the Sabres would be rebuilding, yet I was hopeful for a quicker path, rather than a lengthy one.
With excellent trading chips sitting in the likes of Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller, an inconsistenly skilled Drew Stafford, a small yet talented Tyler Ennis, a lost but still young prospect in Luke Adam, and a handful of extra defensive prospects to work with, I held hopes that Regier would do some wheeling and dealing to obtain a potential future franchise cornerstone in either Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin, or Sasha Barkov. With no moves made as the Sabres came to the plate with the 8th pick, the team was in luck – Valeri Nichushkin was still on the board!
Yes, I was fully aware of the risk with taking Nichushkin. He was demanding immediate NHL minutes, or else he would shuffle off back to the KHL. With the Sabres in rebuild mode, and spots being filled by AHLers at the end of last season, this seemed like a request that Buffalo could accommodate. The potential reward with Nichushkin is very high; who wouldn’t want the next Evgeni Malkin on their team? Instead, the Sabres went up and selected Rasmus Ristolainen.
My initial shock quickly subsided when I remembered that this is DARCY REGIER that we are talking about. A man who is all about saving and preserving his own job. The safe pick was the way to go here, if you are Regier. I only became more enraged later on after Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford revealed that he offered the 5th pick to Regier for the 8th pick and Sekera. Buffalo could have had their choice of Sean Monahan, Darnell Nurse, or Elias Lindholm.
Don’t get me wrong Sabres fans. I am fine with the pick of Ristolainen. The team did great in the draft as a whole. Ristolainen could be the next Chris Pronger. Nikita Zadorov could be a bigger, meaner version of Niklas Kronwall / Darius Kasparaitis. JT Compher could be a version of Ryan Callahan. Connor Hurley and Justin Bailey are also hard-working forwards, although only about 20% of 2nd round picks ever sniff the NHL. I would have liked to see the Sabres add Zach Fucale, despite having Matt Hackett, Andrey Makarov, and Linus Ullmark in the goaltending system. Hey, its an important position.
My pain lies in the long process ahead. With the Sabres looking to build from the backend first, this looks like it will take time. Defensemen take longer to develop than forwards, most do not seem to hit their stride until around 25. We know this from watching Tyler Myers. Aside from that, most of the forwards that the Sabres just selected are just entering college, so they will not be available for 2-4 years.
With Regier looking at defense-first, and gritty forwards, I am being reminded of his former 1999 Sabres make-up, only without one of the greatest goalies of all-time backing it. Asking the fans to suffer for another 3-5 years hurts. Have we not been through enough already?
First, we were told that moneybags owner Terry Pegula would try and buy championships, and that failed. Now, we are being told to wait while the team builds through the draft instead? Is there not a happy medium? Prepare to suffer, Sabres fans, as Darcy Regier looks to do whatever it takes to extend his reign as Buffalo GM, with safe draft picks and long player developments. He was not lying back on April 29th.