August 32-in-32: Buffalo Sabres

Kevin Wong

2021-08-04

The 32-in-32 Series is an annual event here at DobberProspects! Every day in August we will be bringing you a complete breakdown of a team’s draft and insights into their off-season movements thus far. Following this up, the September 32-in-32 Series will dive into every team’s prospect depth charts with fantasy insights and implications for the upcoming seasons. Check back often, because we plan on filling your hockey withdrawal needs until the season begins!

******************

By: Kevin Wong

The Buffalo Sabres remain stuck in a cycle of mediocrity with one new cloud above their heads: captain Jack Eichel has demanded a trade. The highly-opinionated forward and de facto face of the franchise has become disgruntled about the team’s decisions regarding his long-term health and their choice not to allow him the disc surgery he has requested. His relationship with the team is in tatters, and his departure now seems inevitable. Team leaders Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen were both traded last week and are no longer with the organization. If Eichel is moved, then the franchise will have traded away each of their 2013, 2014, and 2015 first-round selections, purging from the roster those once hailed as the team’s future core for a new group who will provide much of the same hope for the fanbase. Sabres supporters must once again be patient with this franchise as it attempts to dismantle its current core in hopes of yet again building for a distant playoff dream.

After an aggressive 2020 off-season that involved the appointment of a new general manager, an overhaul of the scouting staff, and key, short-term player acquisitions such as Taylor Hall and Eric Staal, the 2020-2021 Sabres finished 31st in the National Hockey League standings — with just 15 wins and 37 points in 56 games, they were the worst team in the league. They came nowhere close to realizing their vision of short-term success. Instead, they secured the first-overall pick in the 2021 NHL Draft, returning to the low point that brought them Rasmus Dahlin in 2018.

Coach Ralph Krueger was fired in March after only 28 games, having fallen short of the high expectations that came with his reputation and pedigree. Assistant coach Don Granato became his replacement, whereas assistant Steve Smith was dismissed alongside Krueger. When it became obvious, meanwhile, that the club’s experiment with Taylor Hall and Eric Staal was not destined to end with the team’s first playoff berth in a decade, both players were sent elsewhere. Hall, who scored just two goals and 19 points in 37 games with the Sabres, subsequently tallied eight goals and 14 points in 16 regular season matches with his new team, the Boston Bruins. Hall has since re-signed with the Bruins. Staal, meanwhile, helped to fortify the Montreal Canadiens’ forward depth on their path to the 2021 Stanley Cup Final against Tampa Bay.

In addition to officially appointing Granato as their new full-time head coach in June, the team also recently hired assistant coaches Jason Christie and Marty Wilford from the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks and ECHL’s Jacksonville Iceman, respectively. Long-time Sabres development coach and Rochester Americans assistant Adam Mair has been assigned as the team’s new director of player development, replacing Matt Ellis, who now serves as the Sabres’ other full-time assistant coach. The Americans also added former Sabres captain Michael Peca, who spent last season with the Washington Capitals as a development coach, to their staff as an assistant coach for the upcoming campaign. Another new staff member is analytics consultant Sam Ventura, formerly the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Director of Hockey Research, who has been hired by the Sabres to perform a similar role for them going forward.

Despite last year’s failure, they did not finish the campaign empty-handed. Some of their previous acquisitions, as well as core members of their roster, were traded in a sequence of deals that signified the end of their short-term ambitions and the beginning of a lengthier, more methodical building process. A primary objective of theirs in the past few months has been to collect as many draft choices as possible.

In their deal with Florida involving Sam Reinhart, the Sabres received a 2022 first-round pick, as well as 19-year-old goaltender Devon Levi, the Panthers’ former 212th-overall selection in the 2020 NHL Draft. The Ristolainen deal, on the other hand, secured the Sabres 26-year-old defenceman Robert Hagg, a 2023 second-round pick, and the 2021 fourteenth-overall selection. Buffalo used this first-round pick to select winger Isak Rosén, who we will observe more closely later in this article. The Hall trade fetched a smaller return than some had hoped due to his poor performance in Buffalo. Coming back from Boston in the deal was Bruins forward Anders Bjork in addition to the 2021 second-round pick used last week to select MHL-based winger Alexander Kisakov. The Sabres secured two additional 2021 picks when they sent Eric Staal to Montreal. Those picks were used to select Josh Bloom and Viljami Marjala, 95th and 159th overall, respectively. Two days before the 2021 trade deadline, Sabres defenceman Brandon Montour was swapped for a 2021 third-round draft pick from Florida. Their most recent trade of note involved the acquisition of 26-year-old puck-moving defenceman Will Butcher and a 2022 fifth-round pick from the New Jersey Devils in exchange for future considerations.

Many of the team’s veterans were converted into draft picks, giving the Sabres eleven opportunities at the 2021 NHL Draft to bolster their current prospect group. With such an abundance of draft picks, they leaned heavily on their Russian-based scouts, selecting four prospects from Russia’s top junior league, the MHL. They also took risks early in the draft with skilled, albeit incomplete players, whereas later in the draft they concentrated primarily on defense-first prospects. Of the team’s eleven selections, however, only a few appear to be legitimate NHL prospects based on this scout’s viewings.

NHL Draft

The Buffalo Sabres must have learned their lesson after their experience at the 2020 NHL Draft, an event in which they only held five draft picks. For a team that so desperately needed to bolster the top end of its prospect depth chart, they walked away with only two selections in the first four rounds. An adequate rebuild would certainly require a higher quantity of early selections, as the majority of well-rounded prospects are often identified and taken in the first half of the draft.

This year, not only did the Sabres hold the first pick in five of the event’s seven rounds, but also six in the first three rounds — two each in rounds one, two, and three of the 2021 NHL Draft. Over the course of the 2020-2021 campaign, they sought to stockpile these picks after shifting their emphasis away from their ill-fated playoff chase. Their efforts were rewarded in principle. Their new scouting staff now had plenty of chances to apply their research and reshape the franchise’s future.

Round One, 1st Overall – Owen Power, D

There was very little doubt that Owen Power would be the first-overall pick in the 2021 NHL Draft. In a year with such little consensus and few superstar prospects at the top of the draft class, all signs pointed towards the most complete, pro-ready prospect available becoming the first pick off the board.

Power is already an NHL-caliber defenceman, and there remains so much room for him to mature as a player. He towers over most other players with his formidable, 6-6, 214 pound frame, but there is more to this player than just the surface-level optics of size and brawn. His hockey IQ and puck skills are among the primary reasons why he will excel in the NHL.

Both in the NCAA with the Michigan Wolverines and at the 2021 IIHF World Championships, he was a crucial contributor against older competitors. In fact, while he began the Worlds as Team Canada’s seventh defenceman with just 7:58 of ice time against Team Latvia, he quickly rose up their depth chart with his stellar play and logged 24:17 of ice time in the finals against Team Finland.

Power quickly analyzes and understands plays as they develop around him, often positioning himself well to challenge the opposing puck carrier. He maintains good gap control and uses both his lengthy reach as well as above-average mobility to keep his opponent hemmed along the perimeter of the ice.

One might expect a 6-6 defenceman to struggle against smaller, quicker opponents, but Power skates with enough agility and speed to keep himself between the net and the opposing skaters as they attempt to shift and maneuver around him along the boards. He protects the net and keeps his skates moving, actively asserting himself with his reach and challenging the opponent’s possession of the puck.

He is not a physical defenceman by any means. Instead, he contains his opponents by gaining body position, closing the distance between himself and the opponent, and utilizing the long reach of his stick.

The Buffalo Sabres need defensive stability, and Power has the potential to become a reliable, high-level defensive contributor.

There is more to his game than just shutdown hockey, however. Although he might not dazzle audiences with flashy, individual rushes up the ice, he can regularly jump up into the neutral zone on a breakout play, as well as move the puck crisply and with great precision to his teammates from deep in his own zone. He transports the puck cleanly and effectively.

Even his most difficult long-distance outlet passes are tape-to-tape, but just as importantly, he recognizes his limitations when there is pressure against him from the opponent and is not overly ambitious. In dangerous situations, he will frequently opt for the safest and most intelligent play. One such occurrence in my viewings involved a moment in which Power attempted to carry the puck through the neutral zone but was caught by the opponent. Instead of trying to maneuver past the obstacle by out-skating him, Power simply dropped the puck backward to one of his teammates in the defensive end, who then continued the team’s progression up the ice from the other side.

He is an excellent puck distributor from anywhere on the ice, and in the offensive zone, he elevates his team’s attack with playmaking elements. He can walk the line at the point as well as pinch down to the half-wall to look for cross-seam options. If there is an opening, Power can feather the puck across the ice to the other side, forcing the opponent to adjust to a difficult scenario. He tallied only three goals during the 2020-2021 campaign and was involved in his team’s offense more so as a playmaker and quarterback.

When Power stick-handles with the puck, he cradles it quickly, back and forth, in a very controlled fashion. His puck control and technical puck skills are polished with a professional quality.

Along with his refined technical skillset, Power’s high-end intuition and active, rangy style of defense are reasons for Buffalo Sabres fans to be incredibly excited about his arrival. Supporters of the team may need to wait until at least 2022, though, as Power recently announced his intention to return to Michigan for one more season. Further development in the NCAA may be beneficial, and it would give the Sabres an opportunity to improve their immediate roster before thrusting him into a uniquely challenging circumstance as a rookie.
With both Power and 2018 first-overall pick Rasmus Dahlin headlining their back-end talent, the Sabres have the basis for a strong corps on defense down the road.

With their blueline already in better shape than their projected forward group, the organization decided to use as many of their remaining selections to address their most desperate need: high-end forward depth.

Round One, 14th Overall – Isak Rosén, LW

The Sabres held a second first-round lottery pick in 2021, an enviable position for any draft enthusiast. With this selection, the Sabres opted for Swedish scorer Isak Rosén, an offense-first, north-south skater with some crafty stick-handling skills but a tendency to be too individualistic at times.

He possesses a dangerous shot release and can score both with a quick wrist shot or a heavy one-timer from the right side. This is where he positions himself on the powerplay. Furthermore, he is a mobile skater who can separate himself from the pack for a breakaway opportunity or shake free from an opponent in-zone with a button-hook or pivot maneuver. He has quick hands and a long reach that can make him a threat off the rush and around the crease.

He is a shifty puck carrier, which serves as an advantage for him in transition as well. If his opponent is flat-footed, he can race past them with speed. In the offensive zone, meanwhile, he can create individual scoring opportunities as well as passing lanes for his teammates with slick maneuvers along the perimeter. When he has the puck, he controls it quickly and assertively. He can execute quick, crisp passes as one should expect from any NHL-caliber player. Rosén has the potential to drive his team’s offensive attack.

In spite of his offensive flair and technical abilities, though, there are currently some drawbacks to his game that must be addressed. He is very much absent on the forecheck, both as far as his strength and aggressiveness are concerned. He is, in that regard, similar to Victor Olofssson. His intensity is also too low sometimes, and he can become sloppy with the puck. His hockey IQ is an issue that needs some attention, as while he is patient with the puck, there are patient plays that end with Rosén turning the puck over to the other team. He also tends to shoot when the path to the goaltender is blocked, resulting in a loss of possession for his team. In such cases, the other team usually gathers the puck while Rosen and his teammates must retreat back into the neutral zone.

He can also be too passive on the defensive side of the puck.

His hasty shot selection and indecisiveness with the puck must be addressed with proper player development, as certain questions about his intuition could hamper his ability to translate his skills to the NHL as seamlessly as one would hope. Some patience with this player will be required.

Round Two, 33rd Overall – Prokhor Poltapov, RW

The Buffalo Sabres acquired a dynamic and competitive two-way forward when they selected Prokhor Poltapov from Russia’s top junior league, the MHL. Poltapov’s effort extends in both directions, as he will often backcheck hard to support his team on the defensive side of the puck, sometimes even coming down to his own goal line to disrupt the opposing attacker.

In the offensive zone, he prefers to work along the right half-wall, although there are times when he will slide down to the goal-mouth and offer net-front traffic.

He is quick and agile, and can utilize his agility to transition the puck up the ice smoothly. His one-on-one skill provides him with options. For example, he may enter the offensive zone, cut laterally and fire it on goal, or attempt a slick deke against an opposing defender. Using his edges as well as his above-average puck-handling skills, he can pivot and shift along the boards to create room for himself, as well as shield the puck with a quick spin at the boards or a side-to-side juke. On the backcheck, he tends to cover the entirety of the rink and will move one side of the rink to the other to provide support and to stay with his opposing target.

He also tends to position himself at his own blue line during defensive zone exits to make outlet passes.

While these are all terrific qualities, his game is not without flaws. He is sometimes guilty of holding on to the puck for too long, both when trying to exit his own zone with it or when attempting to maneuver past an opponent. Like Isak Rosén, Poltapov can be too individualistic with the puck. His passing is not quite as refined as either of the Sabres’ two earlier picks, however. He does not move the puck nearly as quickly or as precisely, and on a few occasions in my viewings, he attempted high-risk, low-reward passes as the last man back that could have resulted in clear-cut opportunities for the opponent going the other way.

He must also improve his shot-blocking technique and shot selection. When he has the puck in the offensive zone, he sometimes forces his shots into traffic, and in his own zone, he is prone to biting on his opponent’s fakes, lowering himself to block shots at inopportune times. During one unfortunate lapse against Team Finland at the 2021 World U18 tournament, for instance, he lost his defensive positioning at a crucial moment and was beaten wide by the opponent, who then walked past him and scored a pivotal goal for the other team.

Although he is competitive and elusive with the puck, his defensive posturing, shot selection, and passing skills need to improve. He must also learn to make timelier decisions and become more proactive in order to meet the demands of high-end professional hockey.

Round Two, 53rd Overall – Alexander Kisakov, F

With their other second-round pick, the Sabres selected Alexander Kisakov, a playmaking, open-ice winger who led the MHL’s MHK Dynamo Moskva in scoring this year. He and Buffalo’s 188th-overall selection, Nikita Novikov, were teammates in 2020-21.

Kisakov is an offense-oriented player whose game is tailored towards give-and-go and open-ice passing plays. He controls the puck well but does not handle it deceptively. His skating is fairly average, although he can separate himself from the o