T McGee's Latest Six-Round Mock NHL Draft
Over 8,000 words on the rapidly approaching NHL Entry Draft and who the Buffalo Sabres might be looking at
The clock is ticking down to Draft Day with increasing speed. Who will the Sabres take? How will it feel to draft outside of the Top 10? Will Connor Bedard make as big of an impact as people think? What team will make a wacky choice and cause everyone’s Board to get turned upside down? So many questions.
Before we get to that, let’s talk the last big ‘best-on-best’ tournament before the Draft: the U-18 World Championships. To be fair, there were a number of players that are high on the Draft Board that did NOT play in this tournament. In most cases, that was due to age: if you were born in 2004, as many in this draft class were (Leo Carlsson, Adam Fantilli, Nate Danielson, David Reinbacher, Samuel Honzek, and Gavin Brindley to name a few), you were not eligible to play in the tournament. In several other cases, the CHL – Canadian major junior leagues – were smack in the middle of their playoffs, so a number of players did not join Team Canada due to prior commitments. Players like Zach Benson and Oliver Bonk did not play in the U-18 tournament as their junior teams were still playing, and others joined mid-stream (Riley Heidt, Etienne Morin) when their junior teams were eliminated from the playoffs. So this wasn’t representative of the ENTIRE draft class. That being said, a LOT of the luminaries from this class did play in the tournament.
The USA, as they always do, brought the National Development Program team, which showcased the top line in the entire tournament (Will Smith, Gabriel Perreault, and Ryan Leonard)…a line that led them to a Gold Medal. But they also brought Danny Nelson, Oliver Moore, Aram Minnetian, and Trey Augustine, to name a few. The Swedes won silver, taking the US to overtime, and ran out a group that included Axel Sandlin-Pelikka, fast-rising Tom Willander, Otto Stenberg, Anton Wahlberg, and goalie Noah Erlinden among others. The Canadians just slipped past the Slovaks in the Bronze Medal game. And the Czechs played more than a couple solid NHL prospects. The only thing missing would have been the Russian squad, but due to the ongoing conflict in the Ukraine, the governing body of these tournaments, the IIHF, has temporarily banned the Russian club from participating until the conflict ended.
So, the U-18s kind of crystallized a lot of people’s Boards as we go into the final couple months of the Draft season. Yes, there are still the USHL and CHL playoffs, but a lot of the teams are already eliminated, so only a few of the kids eligible to be drafted are still playing meaningful minutes for their teams. Once those games wrap up, we’ll get to the Combine, which is back in Buffalo in the beginning of June. And then, after all the interviews, pull-ups and O2 Max performances, and their real or imagined impact on teams’ Boards, we get to the real deal. The Draft happens at the very end of June. The Sabres have 8 picks and might very well use them all!
As we have settled into the waning days of the Draft year, a couple things have started to materialize when it comes to this Draft class in particular. First, it is absolutely top-heavy. I think it’s fair to say that the Top 4 players on my Board would all have gone #1 instead of either Shane Wright (the predicted #1 overall) or Juraj Slavkowsky (the actual #1 overall) in last year’s Draft. Connor Bedard is the best prospect I’ve seen since Auston Matthews in the 2016 Draft. But both Adam Fantilli and Leo Carlsson have blown away age-accurate comparables in their respective leagues: Fantilli had the best statistical season as a freshman in the NCAA since at least Jack Eichel; Carlsson’s season, right up there with guys like Nik Backstrom and the Sedin twins in terms of draft eligibles in the SHL. Carlsson, in fact, proved even more dazzling in the SHL playoffs, where he finished 3rd in scoring with 9P in 13 games while leading Orebro to the SHL semi-finals. Both players have great size (6’4 and 6’3) are capable of playing center in the NHL, which lends itself to their value.
Adding to those 3 is the Russian gamebreaker Matvei Michkov. Like many top Russian prospects, he bounced around between several leagues and teams, but he posted some impressive numbers once he got into a rhythm at the KHL level. He put up 20P in 27 games, the highest point total for a Russian draft eligible in the KHL but for Vlad Tarasenko’s 24P more than a decade ago. Unfortunately, due to geopolitical reasons, Russia was banned from any IIHF tournaments since the Ukraine War began. Before that, he shined on the international stage, dominating at the Hlinka as a 16-year-old, where he set the tournament scoring record, and in the early stages of the 2022 World Juniors before they cancelled by COVID. Each of these 4 are worthy of a #1 overall choice at this point…although teams will have to wait for Michkov, who’s under contract in Russia until the end of the 24-25 season.
There are those who believe that Will Smith, the super-skilled centerman for the US National Team, could make a case to squeak into the Top 4 – partly due to his dominating performance all season, capped off at the U-18s, and partly due to the contractual/geopolitical concerns around Michkov. Personally, I’m not one of them. I think there’s room between Michkov’s tier and Smith’s. But it could happen. Anything can when it comes to the Draft!
Secondly, the draft is dominated by forwards. Big centers, creative wings, goal scorers and playmakers of all kinds. It is a smorgasbord of choices for a team eager to add offense to its prospect group. My Big Board doesn’t have a defenseman make an appearance until #15. There are few dynamic defenders, but they are either smallish or don’t play much defense…a problem for a defenseman. Others are sound, solid…boring…2-way defenders or projects with a ton of raw ability, but little polish as of yet. These are not the players that GMs and scouts salivate over. Either too safe, or too risky, some of those players are likely to slide. Now, the position of defense is a commodity in today’s NHL, so a couple will no doubt get selected high…maybe in the Top 10…but that will only say to me that they were reaches or over-valued simply due to the scarcity of good blueliners in this class. Draft at your own risk.
Finally, I think the Sabres might have a player in mind. I don’t want to spoil it, not because I’m wrong (I probably will be), but because why have a Mock Draft if you already think you know? Takes some of the fun out of it, don’t you think? But there are players out there who just fit what the Sabres seem to value: speed, motor, shot, athletic. Don’t have to be big, don’t have to be strong or super creative or have one thousand moves, don’t have to be a shut-down guy. They can coach you up if you have the skating, the relentless mindset, a deadly shot and the athleticism. Look at players like Quinn, Kulich, Neuchev, Poltapov, Peterka…these are all guys that fit that model.
And one guy kind of fits those qualifications for me more than others. Unfortunately for those folks hoping for a 1st-round defenseman, it’s another forward. But we’ll talk more about that as we get closer to the Draft.
And now, for your reading pleasure…
#1: CHICAGO: Connor Bedard 5’10 C, WHL
#2: ANAHEIM: Adam Fantilli, 6’4 C, NCAA
#3: COLUMBUS: Leo Carlsson, 6’3 C, SWE
#4: SAN JOSE: Matvei Michkov, 5’10 RW, RUS
#5: MONTREAL: Will Smith, 6’0 C, US NTDP
#6: ARIZONA: David Reinbacher, 6’2 RHD, SWISS
#7: PHILADELPHIA: Ryan Leonard, 5’11 RW, US NTDP
#8: WASHINGTON: Axel Sandlin-Pelikka, 5’11 RHD, SWE
#9: DETROIT: Samuel Honzek, 6’4 C/W, WHL
#10: ST LOUIS: Dimitri Shimishev, 6’4 LHD, RUS
#11: VANCOUVER: Zach Benson, 5’10 LW, WHL
#12: ARIZONA (OTTAWA): Oliver Moore, 5’11 C, US NTDP
#13: BUFFALO: Eduard Sale, 6’1 C/LW, CZE
#14: PITTSBURGH: Gabe Perreault, 5’10 C/W, US NTDP
#15: NASHVILLE: Dalibor Dvorsky, 6’1 C, SWE
#16: CALGARY: Matthew Wood, 6’4 C, NCAA
#17: DETROIT (NY ISLANDERS): Otto Stenberg, 5’11 C/W, SWE
#18: WINNIPEG: Colby Barlow, 6’2 LW, OHL
#19: CHICAGO (TAMPA BAY): Daniil But, 6’4 RW, RUS
#20: MINNESOTA: Andrew Cristall, 5’9 W, WHL
#21: COLUMBUS (LOS ANGELES): Tom Wallinder, 6’1 RHD, SWE
#22: ST LOUIS (NY RANGERS): Nate Danielson, 6’1 C, WHL
#23: ST LOUIS (TORONTO): Quentin Musty, 6’3 LW, OHL
#24: COLORADO: Ethan Gauthier, 5’11 RW, QMJHL
#25: SAN JOSE (NEW JERSEY): Michael Hrabal, 6’6 G, USHL
#26: NY RANGERS (DALLAS): Gavin Brindley, 5’10 RW, NCAA
#27: VEGAS: Lukas Dragicevic, 6’2 RHD, WHL
#28: TORONTO (WASHINGTON/BOSTON): Brayden Yager, 6’0 C/RW, WHL
#29: MONTREAL (FLORIDA): Mikhail Gulyayev, 5’11 LHD, RUS
#30: SEATTLE: Cal Ritchie, 6’2 C, OHL
#31: NASHVILLE (EDMONTON): Theo Lindstein 6’0 LHD, SWE
#32: CAROLINA: Gracyn Sawchyn, 5’11 C, WHL
#1: ANAHEIM: Oliver Bonk, 6’2 RHD, OHL
#2: COLUMBUS: Riley Heidt, 6’0 C/LW, WHL
#3: CHICAGO: Maxim Strbak, 6’2 RHD, USHL
#4: SAN JOSE: Felix Nilsson, 6’0 C, SWE
#5: MONTREAL: Koehn Ziemmer, 6’0 RW, WHL
#6: ARIZONA: Charlie Stramel, 6’4 C/W, NCAA
#7: BUFFALO (PHILADELPHIA): Beau Akey, 6’0 RHD, OHL
#8: WASHINGTON: Jayden Perron, 5’8 C, USHL
#9: DETROIT: Jakub Dvorak, 6’5 LHD, CZE
#10: DETROIT (ST LOUIS): Oscar Fisker Molgaard, 6’0 C/W, SWE
#11: DETROIT (VANCOUVER): Carson Bjarnason, 6’3 G, WHL
#12: CHICAGO (OTTAWA): Caden Price, 6’1 LHD, WHL
#13: BUFFALO: Anton Wahlberg, 6’3 C, SWE
#14: NASHVILLE (PITTSBURGH): Mazden Leslie, 6’1 RHD, WHL
#15: NASHVILLE: Jake Fisher, 6’3 LW, US HS
#16: CALGARY: Hunter Bruzustewicz, 5’11 RHD, OHL
#17: NY ISLANDERS: Noah Dower-Nilsson, 6’0 C, SWE
#18: SEATTLE (WINNIPEG): Danny Nelson, 6’3 C, US NTDP
#19: CHICAGO (TAMPA BAY): Alex Rykov, 5’11 W, RUS
#20: MINNESOTA: Carson Rehkopf, 6’2 C, OHL
#21: LOS ANGELES: Tanner Molendyk, 5’11 LHD, WHL
#22: NY RANGERS: Etienne Morin, 6’0 LHD, QMJHL
#23: SEATTLE (TORONTO): Brad Nadeau, 5’9 C, BCHL
#24: ANAHEIM (COLORADO): Nico Myatovic, 6’3 RW, WHL
#25: NEW JERSEY: William Whitelaw, 5’9 C/W, USHL
#26: DALLAS: Jesse Kiiskinen, 5’11 W, FIN
#27: MINNESOTA (BUFFALO/VEGAS): Aram Minnetian, 6’0 RHD, US NTDP
#28: ANAHEIM (BOSTON): Trey Augustine, 6’2 G, US NTDP
#29: MONTREAL (FLORIDA): Andrew Gibson, 6’3 RHD, OHL
#30: SEATTLE: Luca Cagnoni, 5’10 LHD, WHL
#31: EDMONTON: Kalan Lind, 6’1 LW, WHL
#32: CAROLINA: Martin Misiak, 6’2 C, SVK
#1: ANAHEIM: Aydar Suniev, 6’2 W, BCHL
#2: COLUMBUS: Alex Ciernak, 5’10 W, SWE
#3: CHICAGO: Casey Terrance, 6’1 C, OHL
#4: NASHVILLE (SAN JOSE): Kasper Halttunen, 6’3 RW, FIN
#5: MONTREAL: Jayson Shaugabay, 5’9 C, USHL
#6: ARIZONA: Mathieu Cataford, 5’10 RW, QMJHL
#7: CAROLINA (PHILADELPHIA): Andrew Strathmann, 6’0 LHD, USHL
#8: ARIZONA (WASHINGTON): Tristan Bertucci, 6’0 LHD, OHL
#9: DETROIT: Brady Cleveland, 6’5 LHD, US NTDP
#10: ST LOUIS: Tyler Peddle, 6’2 C/LW, QMJHL
#11: VANCOUVER: Luca Pinelli, 5’10 C, OHL
#12: ST LOUIS (TORONTO/OTTAWA): Matthew Mania, 6’0 RHD, OHL
#13: VEGAS (BUFFALO): Artuu Karki, 6’2 LHD, FIN
#14: LOS ANGELES (PITTSBURGH): Noel Nordh, 6’3 RW, SWE
#15: NASHVILLE: Scott Ratzlaff, 6’1 G, WHL
#16: COLUMBUS (CALGARY): Carter Sotheran, 6’3 RHD, WHL
#17: ARIZONA (NY ISLANDERS): David Edstrom, 6’2 C, SWE
#18: WINNIPEG: Cameron Allen, 6’0 RHD, OHL
#19: NASHVILLE (TAMPA BAY): Connor Levis, 6’2 C/W, WHL
#20: ANAHEIM (MINNESOTA): Quinton Burns, 6’1 LHD, OHL
#21: BUFFALO (LOS ANGELES): Gavin McCarthy, 6’2 RHD, USHL
#22: PHILADELPHIA (NY RANGERS): Coulson Pitre, 6’0 C, OHL
#23: VANCOUVER (TORONTO): Dylan McKinnon, 6’3 RHD, QMJHL
#24: NY RANGERS (COLORADO): Tanner Ludtke, 6’0 C, USHL
#25: PITTSBURGH (NEW JERSEY): Kristian Konstandinski, 6’5 LHD, SWE
#26: CHICAGO (DALLAS): Damien Clara, 6’6 G, SWE
#27: VEGAS: Felix Unger Sorum, 5’11 RW, SWE
#28: BOSTON: Brad Gardiner, 6’1 C, OHL
#29: PHILADELPHIA (FLORIDA): Daniil Karpovich, 6’4 LHD, BEL
#30: SEATTLE: Tomas Uronen, 5’11 W, FIN
#31: ARIZONA (EDMONTON): Jordan Tourigny, 5’11 RHD, QMJHL
#32: SAN JOSE (CAROLINA): Emil Pieniniemi, 6’2 LHD, FIN
#1: ANAHEIM: Rasmus Kumpulainen, 6’2 C/W, FIN
#2: COLUMBUS: Noah Erlinden, 5’11 G, SWE
#3: CHICAGO: Mike Hagens, 6’0 LHD, USHL
#4: SAN JOSE: Ethan Miedema, 6’3 RW, OHL
#5: MONTREAL: Denver Barkey, 5’8 C, OHL
#6: ARIZONA: Yegor Zavragin, 6’3 G, RUS
#7: PHILADELPHIA: Jay Lipinski, 6’3 RW, WHL
#8: WASHINGTON: Emil Jarventie, 5’11 LW, FIN
#9: VANCOUVER (DETROIT): Lenni Hameenaho, 6’0 RW, FIN
#10: ST LOUIS: Hugo Hell, 6’0 LHD, SWE
#11: VANCOUVER: Kalem Parker 6’0 RHD, WHL
#12: OTTAWA: Cam Squires, 5’11 RW, QMJHL
#13: BUFFALO: Axel Landen, 6’1 RHD, SWE
#14: MONTREAL (PITTSBURGH): Juraj Pekarcik, 6’2 C/LW, SVK
#15: NASHVILLE: Alexander Hellnemo, 6’2 G, SWE
#16: CALGARY: Timur Mukhanov, 5’9 C, RUS
#17: NY ISLANDERS: Matteo Koci, 5’11 LHD, CZE
#18: COLUMBUS (WINNIPEG): Zack Sharp, 6’2 LHD, USHL
#19: NASHVILLE (TAMPA BAY): Roman Kantserov, 5’9 W, RUS
#20: DETROIT (MINNESOTA): Joey Willis, 5’10 C, OHL
#21: LOS ANGELES: Alex Pharand, 6’2 C, OHL
#22: VANCOUVER (NY RANGERS): Arvid Bergstrom, 6’0 LHD, SWE
#23: NASHVILLE (TORONTO): Albert Vikman, 6’0 LHD, SWE
#24: SEATTLE (COLORADO): Matteo Mann, 6’5 RHD, QMJHL
#25: NEW JERSEY: Angus MacDonnell, 5’10 C, OHL
#26: DALLAS: Kaden Hammell, 6’1 RHD, WHL
#27: MONTREAL (VEGAS): Niko Minkkanen, 6’4 RHD, OHL
#28: BOSTON: Jesse Nurmi, 5’11 W, FIN
#29: FLORIDA: Jakub Stancl, 6’3 C/LW, CZE
#30: SAN JOSE (SEATTLE): Ty Higgins, 6’1 RHD, QMJHL
#31: PHILADELPHIA (EDMONTON): Jan Sprynar, 6’1 RW, QMJHL
#32: CAROLINA: Ondrej Molnar, 5’11 LW, OHL
#1: ANAHEIM: Adam Dybal, 6’1 G, CZE
#2: SAN JOSE (COLUMBUS): Zach Nehring, 6’3 C, US HS
#3: CHICAGO: Matthew Soto, 5’11 RW, OHL
#4: SAN JOSE: Dominik Petr, 6’2 C/LW, FIN
#5: MONTREAL: Rhett Stoesser, 6’2 G, WHL
#6: ARIZONA: Hoyt Stanley, 6’2 RHD, BCHL
#7: PHILADELPHIA: Wyatt Kennedy, 6’3 RHD, OHL
#8: WASHINGTON: Drew Fortesque, 6’3 LHD, US NTDP
#9: DETROIT: Peteris Bulans, 6’0 RHD, QMJHL
#10: ST LOUIS: Aiden Fink, 5’9 W, AJHL
#11: CAROLINA (VANCOUVER): Magomed Sharakanov, 6’0 LHD, RUS
#12: OTTAWA: Beckett Hendrickson, 6’1 C/W, US NTDP
#13: BUFFALO: Samuel Urban, 6’2 G, USHL
#14: PITTSBURGH: Ivan Anoshko, 5’10 C, RUS
#15: NASHVILLE: Kalle Kangas, 6’4 LHD, FIN
#16: MONTREAL (CALGARY): Tanner Adams, 6’0 C, USHL
#17: NY ISLANDERS: Griffin Erdman, 5’11 C, USHL
#18: WINNIPEG: Noa Vali, 6’1 G, FIN
#19: NASHVILLE (TAMPA BAY): Ryan Conmy, 5’11 RW, USHL
#20: MINNESOTA: Mike DeAngleo, 5’11 LW, USHL
#21: LOS ANGELES: Lukas Hes, 6’3 RW, CZE
#22: WINNIPEG (NY RANGERS): Alex Weiermaer, 6’1 C, US NTDP
#23: TORONTO: Yegor Rimashevsky, 6’2 RW, RUS
#24: COLORADO: Sam Court, 5’10 RHD, AJHL
#25: NEW JERSEY: Vojtech Port, 6’2 RHD, WHL
#26: DALLAS: Teddy Townshend, 5’11 W, US HS
#27: ARIZONA (VEGAS): Easton Cowan, 5’10 C, OHL
#28: COLUMBUS (BOSTON): Zeb Forsfjall, 5’9 W, SWE
#29: FLORIDA: Michael Chambre, 6’2 G, US NTDP
#30: SEATTLE: AJ Lacroix, 6’0 C/LW, BCHL
#31: EDMONTON: Tommaso De Luca, 6’0 C, WHL
#32: CAROLINA: Matteo Fabrizi, 6’5 LHD, WHL
#1: ANAHEIM: Owen Outwater, 6’3 C, OHL
#2: ARIZONA (COLUMBUS): Ivan Remezovsky, 6’1 LHD, RUS
#3: CAROLINA (CHICAGO): Petter Vesterheim, 5’11 C/LW, SWE
#4: SAN JOSE: Leo Braillard, 5’10 C, SWISS
#5: MONTREAL: Kirill Svishchyov, 6’2 C, RUS
#6: ARIZONA: Rodzers Bukarts, 6’1 C, LTV
#7: PHILADELPHIA: Mikey Burchill, 5’11 W, USHL
#8: SEATTLE (WASHINGTON): Noah Chadwick, 6’3 LHD, WHL
#9: DETROIT: Cam Johnson, 5’9 C, USHL
#10: ST LOUIS: Filip Eriksson, 6’0 C, SWE
#11: VANCOUVER: Hugo Pettersson, 6’0 RW, SWE
#12: PHILADELPHIA (OTTAWA): Austen Burnevik, 6’3 C, US NTDP
#13: BUFFALO: Owen Beckner, 6’2 C, BCHL
#14: PITTSBURGH: Ignat Lutfullin, 6’0 LW, RUS
#15: NASHVILLE: Janne Peltonen, 6’3 LHD, FIN
#16: CALGARY: Hunter Anderson, 5’9 W, US HS
#17: NY ISLANDERS: Kevin Bicker, 6’1 W, GER
#18: NY RANGERS (WINNIPEG): James Petrovski, 6’3 LHD, OHL
#19: TAMPA BAY: Nikita Nedopyokin, 5’10 C, RUS
#20: MINNESOTA: Axel Hurtig, 6’4 LHD, SWE
#21: LOS ANGELES: Donovan McCoy, 6’1 RHD, OHL
#22: NY RANGERS: Finn Brink, 6’0 LW, US HS
#23: TORONTO: Aiden Celebrini, 6’1 RHD, AJHL
#24: COLORADO: Justin Kipkie, 6’4 LHD, WHL
#25: NEW JERSEY: Donovan Frias, 6’4 LW, BCHL
#26: DALLAS: Ben Rautiainen, 6’0 C, FIN
#27: VEGAS: Nikita Susuyev, 6’0 F, RUS
#28: BOSTON: Giacomo Martino, 5’11 LW, OJHL
#29: FLORIDA: Adam Zidlicky 5’11 W, OHL
#30: SEATTLE: Sean Keohane, 6’4 LHD, US HS
#31: EDMONTON: Ben Robertson, 5’10 LHD, USHL
#32: CAROLINA: Jiri Felcman, 6’4 C, SWISS
The Sabres picks -
1#13: BUFFALO: Eduard Sale, 6’1 C/LW, CZE: Silky smooth playmaker. Sale is a dynamic, high-level offensive player with great feel for offense and a brilliant set of hands to go with superb vision. When it comes to creating offense, Sale possesses every tool in the box. Not a big kid, he’s 6’1 and only 175#, but his game isn’t about playing heavy or winning pucks on the walls or in the corners. He needs the puck on his stick. Sale is a maestro who easily creates opportunities for his teammates or himself, opportunities that lead to goals. Skating is high-end, and although he doesn’t look like a powerful skater, he’s sneaky fast. Has a great first step that allows him to get leverage right off the hop, and his top-end speed is excellent. Could stand to be a little better in his lateral movement – at times he’ll take wide turns or not stop on pucks – but that will come with more work. Also has sharp instincts that combine his high-level skating and awareness. Will downshift to throw off a defender, then accelerate past them to put them on his hip and create just enough space to make a play.
A zone entry machine. Hands are incredible. Sale’s a terror on breakaways where he can dangle a goalie into oblivion. Has a gift when it comes to receiving passes in stride – even bouncing pucks seem magnetized to his stick, and it seems that any pass in his general area will be received and transformed into a positive play. Stickhandling is flashy and will make an opponent look bad. Can weave through traffic without losing his handle or his speed and cause structure to collapse. So having Charmin-soft hands doesn’t always translate into driving offense, but combined with Sale’s vision, he is a true dual-threat offensive player. Has a nasty release on his wrister. Hands let him corral any time of pass and get off a dangerous shot in a snap. Shot is precise and hard and will beat a goaltender clean. But his passes are what really threaten opponents. He can make a pass from anywhere. Stretch pass from his own end to the opposite blue line, short and accurate passes to spring teammates on odd-man rushes, pucks coming off the wall to high-danger areas right on the tape. He is a fearless playmaker in the offensive end. Not afraid to put pucks through sticks and skates if he sees an opening, but he’s not careless with the puck, not a turnover machine. He’ll make the simple, safe pass when those openings are not there rather than force it.
Which brings us to maybe his best attribute: his intelligence. Sale processes the play quickly, especially in the O-zone, and seems to always know where everyone is and make the right decision even if it requires an extra half-second of hanging onto the puck. Knows how to manipulate the defense with his puck placement or without the puck, getting open. He’s not an extraordinary defensive forward, but he is sound in his own end when it comes to positioning. Given his hockey smarts it should be no surprise. So, you may ask, why is Sale down in the teens if he’s so good? I think when you look at Sale’s international performances, you would say he’s a legitimate Top 10 player. He put up 6P in 5 games in both the U-18s and the Hlinka, and that I think was underselling him, as he set up a lot of plays that his teammates did not finish. And he finished 4th in scoring for the medal-winning Czech World Junior team with 6P in 7 games (despite being only a 17-year-old), a Czech team we paid a lot of attention to as it was led by future Sabre Jiri Kulich.
But his play in the senior Men’s league, Extraliga, left something to be desired. Managing only 14P in 43 games, he often struggled with the pace and with his decision-making, particularly in the Neutral Zone. But I do think a significant portion of that can be attributed to European Men’s League coaches being willing to bench younger players for mistakes. And Kometa Brno – his club team – was struggling to make the playoffs, so that sensitivity to mistakes likely contributed to his uncertainty on the ice. Remember, Kulich only scored 14P in 49 games at the same age in the same league, and another high pick from a couple years ago, Martin Necas, put up similar numbers in his draft year (he scored 71P for the Hurricanes this year). Sale will need to up his pace of play and his level of engagement and be more decisive in his decision-making in all three zones if he wants to be an impact player in the NHL, but Czech players tend to take a bit more time to fully develop their game. The Sabres have shown the ability to help those players find their games…one draftnik compared him to David Pastrnak. Even if it’s the diet version of Pasta, that’s still a hell of a player. I see more of a Willie Nylander kind of game from Sale. Which is a gamble I’d make anytime.
2#7: BUFFALO (PHILADELPHIA): Beau Akey, 6’0 RHD, OHL: Slick, smart blueliner who can really skate. Akey is one of those players who has largely flown under the radar this season, an extremely mobile defender who is only now expanding his offensive game. A dynamic skater, Akey is one of the best skaters in this Draft class, with excellent four-way mobility and explosion in all directions. He can track down forwards that get behind him and nullify breakaways, his lateral movement and light feet are good enough to maintain tight gaps on the best opponents and allows him to be a great one-on-one defender. He’s extremely quick to dump-ins and loose pucks. Makes the safe, smart play although he does have the skill and speed to beat forecheckers straight up and lug the puck out of the D-zone. Although that’s an area he could use a little more patience.
Those wheels also give him the capability to stand up at the blue line and recover if he gets beat before most opponents can get the puck to the net. Always seems to find himself on the right side of the puck in contested situations. Akey seems like an ideal fit for a Granato system. He isn’t particularly heavy and won’t put guys through the boards or throw them aside like rag dolls in front of the net. Rather he defends so well by beating offensive players to their spots, disrupting plays before they get started, and shrinking the space they have to operate in by keeping gaps tight. His stick is very good, and his positioning with it gives him additional coverage on the ice. Forces players to go around him by simply getting to the right spot, which slows down potential rushes, and disturbs the timing on cycle plays.
Where Akey’s game has really started to grow is on the offensive side. Playing with LA Kings prospect Brandt Clarke on Barrie, Akey rarely had to be the triggerman on the offensive end of the rink. But when Clarke started the season up in LA for his 9 game trial run this past season, and then starred for Team Canada in the World Juniors, Akey got plenty of opportunities to be the QB for the Colts and he took full advantage of that. Most effective as a trailer on the rush, Akey recognized and filled empty lanes when his team attacked. He made the most of those plays, generating a lot of offense by driving the net and occupying a defender. In fact, he was the top goal scorer for draft eligible blueliners in the OHL (with 11 goals). Akey warmed to this aspect of the game.
Soon he found himself roaming far deeper in the O-zone than most defenders at that age, scoring on back-door passes or following up on rebounds in front of the net. Not unlike Owen Power. Akey doesn’t have a big shot, and rarely uses what he does have from up high in the Zone, preferring to move the puck quickly to a teammate when playing the point position. I think that Akey will continue to grow his game, and its hard to teach the quality of skating that this defensively-sound player already has. Remember, he missed an entire year of development with the COVID lockdown. Having jumped from 16P in 61 games to 47P in 66 games in one year suggests there’s more room to develop from this player. And his style seems to fit what the Sabres like in their defenders – speed, coverage, and transition ability. Akey’s game reminds me a little of Nate Schmidt, with an absolute upside of a Duncan Keith-type player if he hits his ceiling.
2#13: BUFFALO: Anton Wahlberg, 6’3 C/W, SWE: Built like a bull, burgeoning power forward. A player who has been rising for much of the 2nd half of the season, Wahlberg is a 6’3 205# forward who can play a variety of styles, but whichever style, he likes to use his size and strength to control play. His play in the middle of the ice garnered a lot of the attention he’s been getting. And we know how the Sabres like their Swedes! The kid does not have the best wheels, and honestly, he needs to work on his explosion and first three steps coming out of the blocks. So, he’s hardly ideal in the mobility department. But he’s strong on his skates, has solid lateral movement, and if he gets some runway, he can get up to a pretty impressive top speed for a guy his size.
He’s at his best moving off the wall into the middle of the ice with the puck, where he uses his body to shield it from a defender and power toward the top of the crease where he creates chaos. Is most effective offensively when operating out of the cycle. He wins a lot of puck battles on the walls and in the corners and is difficult to contain in front of the net. When he’s on his game – and to be fair, consistency can be a problem – he’s got a real knack for keeping his stick free and just overpowering defenders to create screens while keeping himself free enough to get to loose pucks and jam rebounds into the net. Physically engages the man first, then finds the puck. A great asset at creating space for teammates. Will join a puck battle, stand up the opponent, and allow a teammate to recover the puck and with the space gained, make a play. But he’s also very effective when he recovers a puck. Feet are always in motion.
Will curl off the wall or out of the corner with the puck and is more than capable of making the right pass to set up a teammate or create havoc when he drives to the post. Has a nasty snapshot that he releases in a hurry and can beat goalies from the dots with it. Not a lot of variety in his shot arsenal. Puts a value on getting pucks to the net as quickly as possible. He’s dangerous on the forecheck, where if he can get to the defender, he will body them up and force them to make mistakes. A tenacious checker, he’s relentless on both the fore- and backcheck, taking good angles on puck carriers and disrupting plays with his sheer size and long stick. No problem with hammering a guy in open ice, and is a beast in the Neutral Zone, where he always seems to be pushing the puck in the right direction.
When carrying the puck, defenders seem to bounce off him. He’s not a zone entry wizard by any means, but his hands will surprise you at times. He can cross up a defender holding the blue line, slip by, and drive right down the slot for a prime scoring chance. A high-pressure defender, Wahlberg protects the middle of the ice in his own end but doesn’t hesitate when defending on-puck. Sometimes he’s overaggressive and will get beat one-on-one, but he quickly pursues and never gives up on a play. Obviously, he’s been up and down this past couple of seasons, but lately he’s been much more up than down. Bigger players always take time to evolve their games. Wahlberg is no different (not to mention he’s a late birthday in this class).
There are stretches where you wonder what happened to him, particularly on the offensive end. But when he’s playing well, he’s a bear to handle in all three zones. Played most of the year in U-20 Swedish league for Malmo, but late in the year saw him promoted to the SHL and he made the most of it, putting up 4P in 17 games as a 17-year-old and creating a number of additional chances. Really shining at the U-18 Worlds, he put up 6P in 7 games for the Silver-medal winning Swedes as one of their Top 6 forwards. I can see him being a Nicolas Roy sort of player down the road, and potentially more if he approaches his ceiling.
3#21: BUFFALO (LOS ANGELES): Gavin McCarthy, 6’2 RHD, USHL: Local boy makes good! McCarthy was a guy I targeted even before I knew he was from Clarence. But he’s the kind of smooth, smart, versatile player that thrives playing in a #4/#5 role at the NHL level. The biggest plus to me is his adaptability. McCarthy can play any style you want: high-paced puck moving transition game, check; physical, dump-in-in bang and crash, for sure; smart, controlled puck possession, no problem. He can do it all and do it well. And he’s getting better. At 6’2, 185#, McCarthy is a sturdy blueliner who moves the puck quickly and accurately, both to get it out of trouble and to trigger transition and counters. In fact, I think the faster the pace is, the better McCarthy plays. While it needs some refinement, his skating is a positive.
He’s not blazing fast, but he’s smooth, with a powerful, long stride that doesn’t win any beauty pageants but gives him plenty of burst as well as superb pivots that allow him to transition from front to back and change directions easily. His lateral movement isn’t great, and his balance in particular could stand some improvement as he can get knocked around and off his line, but it has all the building blocks of a strong, efficient style. Can walk the line on the PP, even quarterback it competently, but that doesn’t project as his game as he moves up. Does have a physical component to his game that dovetails with his solid skating.
When he’s gapping up opponents, his four-way skating allows him to keep it tight even against speedy forwards on the outside, but when he finds himself on the short-end of a matchup, he’s not above putting an elbow or a hip into his check to disrupt their attack. Will ride opposing forwards into the boards to disrupt a rush and can blast forwards at the blueline trying to enter the zone with their heads down. Known to drop the gloves on occasion. Where he really shows off his game, though, is his ability to move the puck. Remarkably calm with the puck on his stick, he can wait out forecheckers or shake them, and his first pass is crisp and on target nearly every time. Accuracy is the name of his game. Puts pucks on tape all over the ice. Head always up, assessing the ice, and has excellent vision and sense of timing to spring forwards on long stretch passes. Makes great reads when going from D-zone to Neutral Zone.
Really good feel for transition hockey which fits nicely with the way the Sabres want to play. Deceptive when carrying the puck – he has surprisingly soft hands – can make an opponent miss when entering the zone with control, corrals bad passes, even capable of dangling you when possessing the puck. He’s not flashy, however. Moves the puck swiftly and on-time when handling it in the O-zone and can create opportunities even in close quarters with his smarts and puck handling. However, when he’s making plays in the O-zone, he’s doing too much and can get sloppy at times. Has a good, hard shot although not a lot of variety in his selection or his arsenal.
Defensively, he’s a solid on-puck defender who has the strength to tie up sticks, but when off the puck, he can get caught chasing the puck and wandering away from his position…which leads to breakdowns. Not a finished product by any means but is getting more and more recognition. Played for the US team at the Hlinka. Unfortunately, an injury around Christmas time kept him out for almost 2 months. Prior to the injury, was the #2 scorer for D-men in the entire USHL with 18P in 20 games. Likely returned early, as he struggled a bit in the final weeks of the season and finished with 9P in the last 22 games. Father Joe is a Navy SEAL, so toughness runs in the family. On the younger side for this Draft class as well, he may still get bigger. I can see him playing a Brady Skjei sort of game when he’s all coached up.
4#13: BUFFALO: Axel Landen, 6’1 RHD, SWE: Mobile, defense-minded, determined player in the classic Swedish defender mold. Landen’s got a no-nonsense, risk-averse playing style that lends itself to the label ‘defensive defenseman.’ He’s been a riser for the last couple of months, and really impressed at the recent U-18s for the Silver Medal winning Swedes. He’s aggressive in his own end, using his size (6’1 185#) to body up opponents. Plays that ‘get under your skin’ style with a lot of shoves, pokes, and bumps at or after the whistle as well as during play. Very active, and his stickwork is excellent. Smart positioning with the stick shuts down lanes. Persistent lifting sticks, tying up sticks in front of the net, and generally playing textbook defensive hockey with a little extra shot for good measure.
Loves to pressure the puck. Seems to always be gapped up tight to a puck carrier, pushing them to the outside or slapping the puck away out of trouble. Is a superb penalty killer as well, using that same mindset to hurry opponents into bad shots or turnovers. Landen’s skating is good, but not great. Lateral mobility is very solid, but his high-pressure style can work against him if playing against really quick, skilled puckhandling forwards that can beat him one-on-one. But even when he’s caught behind an opponent, Landen does not quit on the play and becomes just as aggressive a backchecker in those instances. He’s not going to win any races. This influences how he plays in the O-zone and even on the offensive side of the Red Line.
He rarely gets caught up ice, and often will back away from a loose puck near the blue line just to ensure an opponent doesn’t get behind him. But his short-area quickness and balance are both excellent, and for most players, he’s awfully tough to shake once he locks in on you. A disruptor in the Neutral Zone as well. Landen plays that pressure game and makes it very challenging for players who want to carry the puck into his end of the ice. Loves to stand up at the Blue and use that stick to force dump-ins or turn over puck carriers, then get a little shot in as the play goes back the other way.
As pointed out, offensively he’s not going to wow you. In 3 big international tournaments, he’s managed 1P in 18 games. But that’s not his focus, or his role. Landen did chip in 3P in 4 games in the U-20 playoffs for HV71 and doesn’t have a bad shot from the point. It’s hard, and he likes to keep it low. So he’s not a complete black hole offensively. That said, you’re not going to see him carry the puck with any regularity or create a play on his own. He isn’t particularly creative in the O-Zone, relying on the simple pass or the chip down into the corner to keep the puck as far as possible from his own net.
Will sacrifice an offensive chance to get into better defensive positioning unless the score requires him to do otherwise. But his defensive effectiveness can’t be denied. That has propelled him to a potential mid-round choice, or higher, in this Draft class. Landen put up 16P in 44 games for his U-20 team – including 10 goals – while winning silver at the U-18 Worlds and the Hlinka Tournament, and bronze at the World Junior A Challenge. To me, Landen is a bit like a miniature Mattias Samuelsson – a positionally sound, smart, defense-first player who doesn’t mind mixing it up and being an absolute pest to play against. And that’s something BFLO needs more of in their prospect pool.
5#13: BUFFALO: Samuel Urban, 6’2 G, USHL: Another late riser, Urban is an athletic goaltender with good size whose game really started to pick up later in the year, punctuated by coming over to the USA for a few games in the USHL, then really performing at the U-18 Worlds to end the season. One of the youngest goaltender prospects in the class, Urban just turned 18 a couple of weeks ago. As a goaltender, he’s a bit more active than most. He would fall under the ‘athletic’ category, which basically means rather than squaring up, beating shooters to the spot and being positionally sound – making the saves one is supposed to make – he’s a bit more dramatic in net, letting in some headscratchers but making saves he’s NOT supposed to make.
When he’s on, he’s really tough to beat. Very Bobrovsky-esque in his technique. His skating is excellent – lateral movement smooth and quick, never quits on a play. Always working to locate the puck and keeps working until the whistle blows. Extremely quick going post to post, has long legs that help him seal the bottom of the net. Tremendous agility and reflexes. He’s also quick moving backwards, so even when he comes out high to challenge shooters, Urban can recover quickly enough to prevent a loose puck or rebound from finding the back of the net. Glove hand is good, not great, and he can be beat by quick releases up high on that side. Needs to be more ‘quiet’ with his pads, which tend to give up very juicy rebounds, particularly when Urban is scrambling to make the 2nd save on a play.
While he’s a streaky goaltender, he’s got the skill level to become a quality NHL goalie. Not to mention, he could continue to grow and having now come over to America, Urban could really get a leg up on adapting to the North American style. Played 4 games for Sioux City at the end of the season, where he showed out admirably with a 2.80 GAA and a .918 SV%, then went on to be, in my opinion, the top goalie at the U-18s with a 3.74 GAA and a .908 SV%. Those numbers included multiple 50+ save nights, and he helped get the Slovaks to within a goal of a medal against Team Canada. He outshone other, more highly regarded goalies like Carter Bjornason, Adam Dybal and Noa Vali while staying just a shade behind top goaltending prospect Michel Hrabal.
It looks as if he’ll play NCAA hockey when all is said and done, although he’s not committed anywhere as of yet. Urban has some Levi in his game and given the ups and downs of Topias Leinonen’s season, the Sabres would be wise to add another goalie to the depth chart.
6#13: BUFFALO: Owen Beckner, 6’2 C, BCHL: Big power-center who’s still growing into his frame. Having grown from 5’9 145# to 6’2 190# in the past couple years can be difficult to adjust your game to. But Beckner hasn’t just adjusted to it, he’s thrived. An opportunistic forward, Beckner appears to be the kind of player who would park themselves in the crease and jam rebounds and find loose pucks. Instead, he’s a playmaker and a scorer who displays great offensive instinct as his physical tools catch up with his head. Mechanically, he’s an excellent skater. His stride appears smooth, doesn’t lean or get too straight, and he gets around the ice very well for a big kid. With more strength and some refinement in his lateral agility, skating could become a definite plus for him.
Offensively, he prefers distributing but doesn’t hesitate to shoot the puck when a chance comes his way. That’s a good thing, because he can fire some pinpoint shots. His release isn’t NHL quality yet, but when he gets a look, he can pick a corner and get the puck there with some velocity if he’s got enough time. Wrister and clapper are both very accurate, and he has a nose for the puck, it seems to follow him. Recognizes open ice and gets to it in a timely way. Can use defenders as screens and manipulates defensemen on the rush to either disguise his shot or open up a passing lane to a teammate. Has a great feel for the offensive zone. Salmon Arm ran their power play through Beckner on the half-wall for much of the season.
His spatial awareness serves him well in those situations. Lures opponents out of position with patience and solid puckhandling, then once they bite, he gets the puck to the open man to create a chance. Fills the lane really well in transition, again, thanks to that feel for space he comes in late enough to stay out of the wash but is smart enough to use the traffic to confuse the goalie and disguise his intentions. The puck can be in the back of the net before the goalie knows Beckner took a shot. Defensively, Beckner is not a big hitter or a guy who’s going to out-physical you. Some of that may be the growth he’s experienced in the last little while, but his game doesn’t suggest he’ll become a rough-and-tumble kind of forward.
He does like to pressure the puck, particularly high in the D-Zone, with the intent to turn pucks over and create odd-man chances. That is something that I expect the Sabres to do more of next season and the years beyond. Beckner led Salmon Arm (yes, that’s who he plays for) in scoring with 50P in 53 games for a relatively mediocre team, then added 10P in 14 playoff games as they made a surprising run to the Final Four in the BCHL. He’s committed to Colorado College in 2024, so he may play in the USHL next season or remain with Salmon Arm for one more year. He’s going to get time to percolate and may prove to be a good gamble when all is said and done.
7#13: BUFFALO: Ty Campbell, 6’3 LHD, CCHL: Big, physical defender with some snarl who is still a bit of a project. That said, his raw talent level is worth taking a chance on even in the middle rounds. Campbell has some great measurables. He’s got great size as a long 6’3 195#. There’s an evolving offensive side of his game that has led to more than a doubling of his point total from the previous season. Wears a letter for Smiths Falls, so you’ve got an element of leadership in him. And he’s been named Top Prospect in the entire CCHL this past season. So there’s definitely something there to consider.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of his game is his ferocious defensive game. Campbell’s bread and butter is manning the D-Zone and making the opposition fear him. He plays a mean, physical, borderline dirty game back there, laying players out and playing to, or sometimes after, the whistle every shift. Campbell is very athletic, a trait the Sabres seem to value in their draft picks, and as such his skating is very sound. He’s got good gaps, and although his feet can be a little heavy at times especially when moving laterally, his stickwork and willingness to skirt the rules allows him to keep most forwards close even if they’re quicker than Campbell. He’s an excellent on-puck defender.
Heavy on his stick, he will knock aside pucks and disrupt entries. In a game that is increasingly about defending with your stick, Campbell will get right into the opponent’s chest, which takes an increasing number of them by surprise. But he’s not just a musclehead. He’s a very smart defender who understands the importance of angles and the flow of play, and routinely finds himself in the right spot in his own end to kill a play or eliminate a dangerous chance. Where his game has improved has been with the puck on his stick. Campbell is becoming an excellent transition triggerman. His quick-ups and first passes out of his own end are hitting their targets with increasing frequency. Seems more comfortable with the puck on his tape, and has shown some willingness to carry the puck…at least out of his own end.
This has begun to work well with his physical game. When he breaks up a rush, Campbell will collect the loose puck and turn it up the other way, rather than just worry about eliminating the player who he took the puck from. He also got some power play time for Smiths Falls, running the point. As he continues to develop this part of his game, it adds facets and makes him a multi-dimensional threat on the back-end. Campbell put up 30P in 49 games for Smiths Falls, and 6P in 17 playoff games. He also was a rock on the blueline for the silver-medal winning Team Canada East in the World Junior A Challenge back in December. He’s committed to Clarkson, so the Sabres won’t have to go far to keep tabs on the Knight.