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Are the Sabres holding their first and second round picks too long?

Looking back over the last six draft classes you can get a clear picture how long it takes first and second round picks to hit

Buffalo Sabres v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Over the last few months, we’ve seen three formerly highly regarded prospects traded out of the Buffalo Sabres organization. Player development is always a hot topic, regardless of what team you’re a fan of. Organizations have different philosophies and approaches in developing their young players to become NHL contributors.

The right course to take can vary by player, especially when you’re dealing with 18-year-olds right out of the draft process. Although over the years we’ve seen kids come to their draft year further along than in the early 2000s. Kids work with skating coaches, strength and conditioning coaches, and are guided by “mentors” at a younger age.

Instead of waiting four to five years in some cases for prospects in the top two rounds, that timeline has dropped down to two to three years in some cases. I went back and pulled every player drafted in the first and second round of the NHL Draft from 2013 to last year. Looking through player production and trends you can begin to craft some assumptions on how long it usually takes to see a return in investment.

Second Rounders

That brings us back to the three players the Sabres have moved out in the last few months in Hudson Fasching (fourth round), Nick Baptiste (third round), and Justin Bailey (second round).

All three at one point were the faces of the Sabres future at forward in the organization, outside of Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, of course. Jason Botterill appeared to make the right moves on timing with Fasching and Baptiste.

Neither appeared like they would be able to become full-time NHL players after a few years in the AHL and five years removed from their draft year. Botterill capitalized on what value the two had remaining to turn them into depth defensemen in Jack Dougherty and Brandon Hickey.

On the other hand, an argument could be made that Bailey, a 2013 second-round pick, showed one year prior he wasn’t going to be what they hoped for. He was five years removed from his draft year and had three years of AHL experience under his belt entering this season.

After not being able to secure a roster spot for the 2017-18 season, they should have considered looking to move on from Bailey at that point. Second round picks have a longer development cycle than first rounders in most cases, but the players who become full-time contributors show signs by at least their fourth year out of the draft.

Going back to Bailey’s second round class in 2013, 13 players have played more games than him at this point and 15 have recorded more points in the NHL.

I will say that the 2013 second-round class is nothing to write home about. The best players out of that second-round are probably Artturi Lehkonen, Tyler Bertuzzi, and Robert Hagg.

All three players were filling a role on their respective team by at least their fourth year since being drafted; Bertuzzi and Lehkonen did so in their third year.

Players like Christian Fischer, Sebastian Aho, Travis Dermott, Jordan Greenway, Brandon Carlo, and Rasmus Andersson from the second round in 2015 have established themselves as NHL players by their fourth season since being drafted.

Looking back at the 2016 second round, a few players such as Jordan Kyrou, Alex DeBrincat, Sam Girard, and Carter Hart are already showing signs of being NHL pieces three seasons removed from their draft year.

Coming back to Bailey, after he failed to lock down a roster spot and produce after the 2017-18 season (fifth season after his draft) it was very unlikely he was going to be a consistent NHL player. The Sabres brought him back for one more kick at the can this season, but finally moved on last week.

Brendan Guhle is a prospect selected 51st overall in the 2015 draft by the Sabres that could be wavering into that questionable territory. He’s four seasons removed from his draft year and yet to find himself an established roster spot. We’ve seen some regression in his play in the AHL for the Rochester Amerks, as well this season.

I’m not by any means advocating that Guhle will be a bust, but if he can’t crack the NHL full-time next season (perhaps sooner) it may be time to explore maximizing his value via trade based on the trend over the last few years.

Alex Nylander

Let’s flip the discussion to first round picks and in particular a focus on 2016 first-round pick Alex Nylander. He was selected eighth overall in his draft season but has yet to come anywhere close to the type of player the Sabres were expecting when they picked him.

Looking at top-10 picks from 2015 to 2017, only three prospects have played in fewer NHL games than Nylander. They are Cale Makar (2017 pick), Cody Glass (2017 pick), and Olli Juolevi (2016 pick). From 2014 to 2016 only five prospects selected in the top-10 took until at least their third season to play 20 games with the club that picked them. Those five players are Dylan Strome (recently traded), Michael Dal Colle, Haydn Fleury, Juolevi, and Nylander.

All other top-10 picks over those three years dressed in at least 20 games for the team that drafted them by their second season removed from their draft year. Of the other 25 players drafted in the top-10 over that three-year stretch; 10 of them played right away and the other 15 were NHL regulars by the second season after their draft.

Focusing on Nylander’s 2016 draft class, the top-10 picks in that draft average 135 games played to this point. The 20-year-old Swede has played in seven games for the Sabres.

In most cases, these players played in excess of 20 games in their first season, but I tried to manipulate the numbers a little to make Nylander look better.

No such luck.

So, does this mean Nylander is a bust? Of course not. It does, however, paint the picture that if Nylander does become a top-six NHL winger, he’ll be one of the rare cases to take at least three to four years to make an impact as a top-10 pick.

He’s shown promise over the last year, but not sure if it’s enough to not consider using him as a piece in a trade to help the team in another area. Botterill has to walk a fine line in letting a player develop and hanging on to the asset too long, resulting in the value being lost.

At the end of the day it’s difficult to determine when exactly a team should pull the plug on a prospect. Looking at this data of the draft classes from 2013 to 2018 a few assumptions on time lines can be made on when a team should expect to see a return on investment.

  • Top-10 pick: one to two years
  • 11th-20th overall pick: two to three years
  • 21st-31st overall pick: three to four years
  • Second round picks: three to four years

Again, there are circumstances where a player who falls into one of those categories can contribute quicker or take one year longer in development. Depending where a player comes from (CHL, Europe, or NCAA) can alter the timeline, but those windows I laid out are pretty consistent with most players based on the last six years of draft classes.