What should the Sabres do with their late first-round pick?

As the NHL draft draws near, Jason Botterill must decide whether or not to trade the Sabres’ second first-round pick

As the NHL Combine comes to a close, draft prognosticators have begun speculating as to what the Buffalo Sabres will do with their late first-round pick (which will either end up being the 30th or 31st selection, depending on the result of the Stanley Cup Final).

Due to some lottery misfortune, Jason Botterill also currently holds the seventh spot overall. Will he elect to use his other first-rounder in a package to move up into the top-five, deal it for an NHL-ready talent, or stand-pat and make a selection at the end of round one? Let’s examine which course of action makes the most sense for the Sabres’ current situation.

Move Up Into the Top-Five

As initially reported by our very own Chad DeDominicis, the rumors coming out of the NHL Combine indicate that Buffalo is seriously interested in centerman, Alex Turcotte.

As Chad stated above, if the Sabres do indeed have a strong interest in the former-USNTDP (and soon to be University of Wisconsin) product, they will likely need to make a move into the top-five, or higher. Last season, between his time in the USHL and with the U.S. National U-18 Team, Turcotte registered 96 points in 53 games.

At 5-foot-11 and 180-pounds, he would bring a fast-paced, physical style of play to Western New York, solidifying the center spine for the foreseeable future. While undeniably talented, the cost could be quite expensive in order to move up from the seventh spot and get into a position to acquire him.

It would likely mean parting with the 30/31st overall pick as part of the deal. In a draft that many feel tails-off in terms of talent around pick 20, perhaps that would be palatable, especially if Botterill truly feels that the gap between Turcotte and other players like Trevor Zegras, Matthew Boldy and Cole Caufield, (all of whom will more than likely still be on the board at pick number seven) is significant.

A lot of this (most of it, really) will depend on how the top-three picks play out. The cost to move up to the third slot will likely be too steep. If Turcotte is still available when the rebuilding Los Angeles Kings are on the clock at pick number five however, things get a little more interesting.

It all comes down to opportunity cost. Whether or not an NHL-ready asset (preferably in the form of a top-six forward, or top-four defender) can be had for a similar price will certainly factor into the decision.

Trade the Pick for an Established Player

This option has a higher degree of complexity to it. Moving up in the draft is a little more straight-forward. Identify your target, negotiate with the team in that spot, and assess the cost. When it comes to using a future asset on an established player, the scope of potential options increases substantially.

Jason Zucker has been one of the hotter names on the rumor mill as of late. Minnesota Wild GM, Paul Fenton is someone with whom the Sabres have a transaction history. It’s worth noting that the Wild may seek additional assets on top of a late first-rounder in exchange for Zucker, but given Fenton’s recent track record of questionable trades, perhaps not.

The 27-year-old posted 42 points in 81 games last season, and would fit in nicely behind Jeff Skinner (assuming he returns) as the team’s second line left-winger. From an analytics standpoint, you’d be hard-pressed to find a player with a higher positive impact across the board at even-strength.

Zucker’s current deal has four years remaining at $5.5 million AAV. He’s certainly not inexpensive, but given his skill set and age, that number is one that the Sabres could easily fit on the books.

Another player whose name is seemingly ever-present in trade speculation, is Winnipeg Jets defenseman, Jacob Trouba. With seven restricted free agents to attend to this offseason (including superstar, Patrik Laine), Kevin Cheveldayoff will need to make some tough decisions. After plundering their draft cupboard at the trade deadline, the Jets only have three picks in the upcoming draft (a second-rounder, a fourth, and a fifth).

It’s important to consider that Winnipeg also has two unrestricted top-six defenders with expiring contracts in Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot, so a trade for Trouba’s rights might require a defenseman with term coming back the other way, something the Sabres don’t exactly have in spades. For that reason, trading the 30/31st pick might play-out as part of a larger deal in this scenario.

These are just two names that have a substantial amount of smoke surrounding them. As we saw last summer, Botterill has the ability to make some “out of left field” trade acquisitions. Very few people considered Skinner as a possibility for Buffalo, and virtually nobody had spoken about Conor Sheary prior to his arrival via trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins. At the end of the day, dealing this asset for an NHL-ready player really only makes sense if said player can immediately fill a role on the top-half of the roster.

Keep the Pick

This is probably the least popular option among fans, but until something else officially happens, it’s still a possibility. As previously stated, the consensus seems to be that this year’s class drops-off, to an extent, toward the middle of the first round. That’s obviously something to consider, but what’s perhaps more important is contextualizing the situation from an organizational standpoint.

In all likelihood, Botterill has two years to right the ship, or else he’ll be shown the door. While Buffalo could certainly use additional reinforcements to their prospect pool (particularly at forward), his current situation might entice him to flip the asset for an NHL-ready presence (or one with a conceivably shorter lead time, like Turcotte). It’s a big part of the reason why many feel that a trade is a foregone conclusion.

For argument’s sake, let’s say that the trade market doesn’t present a palatable return, and Botterill remains focused on his goal to develop through the system. Which players might he consider at the end of the first round?

London Knights center, Connor McMichael might be of interest. Last year he registered 72 points in 67 games in the OHL. That figure doesn’t exactly jump off the page, but he is considered one of the best defensive forwards in the draft. Rasmus Asplund and Matej Pekar are the only high-potential (which may be a bit generous, depending on your definition) centers in the Sabres’ system, so McMichael would certainly fill a need there, especially if Buffalo picks a winger at seventh overall.

Swedish forward, Nils Hoglander is also an intriguing name to consider. The 5-foot-9 speedster plays a gritty game for someone his size. Last year in the SHL, he contributed 14 points with Rogle BK. While he certainly boasts play-making talent, his mediocre scoring production could allow him to fall to the bottom of round one.

Players like Bobby Brink, Nolan Foote and Tobias Bjornfot could also be available at that point, all three of whom would be welcome additions to the Sabres’ developmental ranks.

Best Course of Action

If we are operating under the assumption that a trade of some sort is imminent, would it make more sense for Botterill to go up and get “his guy” or make a deal for an immediate contributor? As previously stated, his precarious position as GM will factor in to some extent. The fans (and ownership) have had enough, and immediate improvement needs to take place next season.

Maybe he is comfortable enough with his offseason plan to go and get Turcotte, knowing full well that it will be at least a year until he is available for NHL action. If that’s the case, he must decide whether or not the gap between him and a player like Zegras is worth the loss of his most valuable trade asset that could instead be used to immediately address the 2019-20 roster.

The beauty of having two first-round picks is that there really isn’t a “bad” outcome. While standing-pat and making a selection at 30/31 doesn’t sound optimal to most fans, fortifying the prospect ranks is still a positive outcome.

All of that said, the clock is ticking and Botterill knows it. If the value is there, trading the pick is probably the best course of action to help him field a winning roster within the next two years.