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Botterill’s first two drafts have shown early promise

As Jason Botterill enters his third draft as Sabres GM, the first two have shown signs of promise

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A lot has not gone right for Jason Botterill in his two years as general manager of the Buffalo Sabres. His team has finished in the bottom five of the league in each season he was at the helm. One of the bright spots, however, have been the early signs of promise from his two draft classes.

Not only has his scouting staff hit on the early picks, but it looks as though they’ve grabbed a few promising prospects in the later rounds of the draft. The Sabres as an organization over the last few years has failed to hit on players beyond the first two rounds of the draft. That’s set them back in their ability to have team-grown depth come up through their system.

2017 Class

In his first draft, Botterill ended up making six picks. One in the first round, two in the second round, one in the third, one in the fourth, and one in the seventh.

His first pick as Sabres general manager was Casey Mittelstadt at eighth overall. Mittelstadt was projected as a top-five pick by many but slipped to the Sabres at eight.

Last summer he was talked about as one of the better prospects in the league but didn’t live up to expectations his rookie season. There’s still a lot of promise for the 20-year-old center to become the top six pivot that will play behind Jack Eichel for the foreseeable future.

In the second round, the Sabres first pick was Swedish center Marcus Davidsson. He projects out to be a steady, two-way player down the road. This past season was a little bit of a step back in his development. He didn’t have as strong a year playing for Djugarden in the SHL as many had hoped. He’ll stay in Sweden for at least one more season and make the jump to playing for Vaxjo in the SHL.

His new club will give him an opportunity to get more important minutes and be under the guidance of well-respected head coach Sam Hallam. This is a big year to get an idea of what Davidsson’s future may hold.

The other second-round pick that year is arguably the Sabres top prospect in their system right now, Ukko-Pekka Lukkonen. The Finnish goaltender is coming off an incredible season playing for the Sudbury Wolves of the OHL. After the season he was named OHL Goaltender of the Year and OHL’s Most Outstanding Player of the Year. He also backstopped Finland to a gold medal at the 2019 U20 World Junior Championship.

Luukkonen had offseason hip surgery but is expected to begin his professional career this upcoming season in the AHL with the Rochester Americans. He looks like the future in goal for the Sabres at the moment.

The third round of the 2017 NHL Draft may have yielded one of my favorite selections of the last two years in defenseman Oskari Laaksonen. If you don’t recall, the Finnish defender was the one that Central Scouting didn’t have listed in their registry at the time and was a little bit of a mystery pick.

He’s blossomed into a promising piece on the blue line. Laaksonen is a good puck mover and skater that fits the mold today’s NHL defenseman. He also played a big role on the Finland team that won gold at the World Junior this year. He’ll play at least one more year for Ilves in the Finnish top pro league, Liiga, before transitioning to North America.

This season we saw the big strides of 2017 fourth-round pick Jacob Bryson. He was a big part of a Providence team that went to the Frozen Four in Buffalo this year. The undersized defender is a smooth skater, has a high hockey IQ and is another solid puck-mover on the blue line. Bryson was named a second-team Hockey East All-Star for his solid junior season. He signed his entry-level contract with the Sabres a few months ago and will start his pro career with the Amerks this upcoming season.

Botterill ended his first draft by selecting Swedish forward from the University of Wisconsin, Linus Weissbach. Usually, not a lot of attention is given to a late-round pick, but Weissbach had a solid season for Wisconsin. He had seven goals and 25 points in an injury-shortened 27 game season. We’ll see how he performs next season with newcomers like Alex Turcotte and Cole Caufield scheduled to join him at Wisconsin.

2018 Class

Moving onto the draft last year, the Sabres had it easy in the first round. Rasmus Dahlin was the obvious pick to be the anchor of their blue line for the next decade. He lived up to the hype in his rookie season and will be a lot of fun to watch moving forward.

The selection by Botterill may be the only one that I wasn’t a huge fan of. He went with US National Development Program defenseman, Mattias Samuelsson. The big defender played his freshman season at Western Michigan this year and did pretty well.

He also played for the Team USA in the U20 World Juniors. That tournament didn’t go so well for him and in particular a nightmare game against Sweden. He has some work to do on his footwork and skating to be successful in the NHL. We’ll see what year two of college hockey does for his overall game.

The Sabres first pick in the fourth round last season became a fan favorite in development camp last year. They selected Czech forward, Matej Pekar at 94th overall. He’s a feisty player that fans immediately connected with when he played with an edge during his first camp. He had a great season for the Barrie Colts this year with 14 goals and 36 points in 33 games. Unfortunately, a broken collar bone injury from a hit sidelined him for the remainder of the season.

With their second, fourth-round pick the Sabres went a little off the board again. They picked Swedish defender Linus Cronholm. Like Laaksonen, he was a player that not many had heard about. Also, like his Finnish counterpart, he’s showed some early promise. The left-shot defender had 11 points in 36 games playing in the Allsvenskan league in Sweden. At the end of the year, he earned a call up to Malmo of the SHL and played well in six games as an 18-year-old. He’s a player to watch in Sweden next season.

In the fifth-round, the Sabres went with another European defenseman, Miska Kukkonen. He had a similar type of year that I mentioned with Cronholm. He played well in the junior Finnish league for the majority of the season and received a call up late in the year to Liiga to play for Lukko. Kukkonen picked up one point in his seven games in the top Finnish pro league. I felt he may have had an outside shot to get a look at being on Finland’s U20 World Junior team, but he was not invited to their camp over the summer.

The Sabres ended their 2018 draft by going with, you guessed it, another European defenseman. William Worge Kreu was the pick at 187th overall. There’s really not a lot to say about the big Swede at this point. He only registered three points in 24 games playing in the Swedish J20 league this season.

2019

Botterill enters the draft with eight picks in his pocket (as of now). Here is the breakdown of picks the Sabres hold:

Round One: 7 and 31

Round Two: None

Round Three: 67

Round Four: 122

Round Five: None

Round Six: 160, 175, and 177

Round Seven: 191

We’ll see if the Sabres general manager can continue to put together promising draft classes. Giving his club the ability to bring in cheap players that can contribute early on entry-level players will be an important part of maintaining (hopefully) future success down the road.