Things can happen fast at the NHL draft. Buffalo Sabres fans don't need to look back any further than last year to see that.
Owner Terry Pegula and coach Lindy Ruff had barely made an imprint on their chairs inside the Minnesota Wild's arena when they decided it was time to go. The duo hopped a flight and soon were sipping sodas at Robyn Regehr's summer home in Saskatchewan, getting acquainted with their newly acquired defenseman.
Buffalo's front office will head to Pittsburgh this week for the 2012 draft. Whether everyone in Blue and Gold stays in Pennsylvania the entire time is anyone's guess.
The busiest two-week stretch on the NHL calendar is about to get under way, and this year's draft/free agency combination has the potential to make headlines. Superstars are on the trading block. Future All-Stars are on the draft board. Add in the Stanley Cup victory by the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings — a title that turned "just make the playoffs and anything can happen" from a hollow phrase into doctrine — and general managers might be eager to make noise.
"It's a real busy time for trades and everything else because as we've all learned trades are real difficult to make during the season now," Capitals General Manager George McPhee said in Washington last week. "What you find is that GMs are far more forthcoming in terms of talking about what they want to do with other clubs [in the offseason].
"It used to be you could call a club and some GMs would say, ‘I'm trying to do this or that,' but most guys would hold things pretty close to the vest because they didn't want everyone to know what they were doing with their ammunition. But now most teams say, ‘Listen, I'm deep here or there, and I'm trying to move this for that.' Guys are much more open about what they want to do, to get the message out to other clubs because this is the time to deal."
The Sabres have been open with their desire to improve at the center position. However, with the exception of the host Penguins, nearly every team could use help at center. Buffalo has something most teams do not: an abundance of draft assets.
The Sabres are scheduled to have four picks in the opening 44 selections, with two picks in each of the first two rounds. They own the No. 12 slot and picked up the 21st overall selection from Nashville as part of February's Paul Gaustad deal. Buffalo has the 12th and 14th picks in the second round, with the latter coming from Calgary as part of the Regehr trade last June.
Sabres GM Darcy Regier has said he's open to anything regarding the early picks. The Sabres, who have a total of nine selections in the seven-round draft, could keep them to build depth, trade them to move up in the draft or package them with players to retool the team.
One player who figures to have his name whispered often leading up to Friday's first round is Derek Roy. The center had a disappointing season and is entering the final season of his six-year contract. Roy will earn $5.5 million next season but has a manageable $4 million cap hit.
If the Sabres move Roy or another big name, it wouldn't be the first time they used draft weekend to significantly alter the roster. Names such as Jochen Hecht, Michael Peca, Tim Connolly, Don Edwards and Tony McKegney have been part of selection meeting swaps. The biggest blockbuster came in 1990, when the Sabres acquired Dale Hawerchuk and a first-round pick from Winnipeg in exchange for Phil Housley, Scott Arniel, Jeff Parker and a first-round pick.
The most recognizable star on the market this year is Columbus right wing Rick Nash. The captain wants out, and the Blue Jackets are expected to accommodate him after failing to find a suitable deal at the trade deadline. The 28-year-old has six years remaining on a deal that averages $7.8 million.
The main purpose of the draft, though, is to pick young players. Nail Yakupov is likely to be No. 1.
The 18-year-old Russian forward is ranked first by NHL Central Scouting, a position he also held at the midterm rankings. Yakupov recorded 31 goals and 69 points in 42 games with Sarnia of the Ontario Hockey League and added nine assists in seven games for Russia at the world junior championships.
"His first step and ability to control bouncing pucks, knock them down and make a play are the best of any of the guys in the draft," said Chris Edwards of NHL Central Scouting. "He really gets up to top speed very quickly, and his hands are outstanding. Like Pavel Bure, Yakupov is dangerous every shift. He may not have been dominant on every shift like Bure was, but he created something every shift."
Among the players with Buffalo connections who could hear their names called during the two-day draft are Dylan Blujus, Alex Iafallo and Tyler Wood.
Blujus is a 6-foot-3, 193-pound defenseman who is ranked as the 71st North American skater by Central Scouting. The Amherst native who played for Canisius High School and the Buffalo Regals has spent the last two seasons with Brampton of the OHL. He had seven goals and 34 points in 66 games last season.
Iafallo wasn't ranked by Central Scouting at the midway point but vaulted to 133rd after a solid rookie season with Fargo of the United States Hockey League. The 5-11, 165-pound forward from Eden had 17 goals and 32 points in 58 games.
Wood plays high school hockey in Massachusetts but was born in Buffalo in 1994 while his father, Randy, played for the Sabres. The 6-2, 189-pound defenseman is ranked 172nd among North American skaters.
The Sabres have picked players with local ties in two of the last three drafts. They selected West Seneca defenseman Alex Lepkowski last year and picked up Buffalo native Marcus Foligno in 2009.
The Sabres trail only Washington (11) and Carolina (10) in number of selections. In addition to two picks in each of the opening two rounds, the Sabres have one pick in the third, fifth and sixth rounds, and two in the seventh. They traded their fourth-rounder to the New York Islanders last year for the right to negotiate with defenseman Christian Ehrhoff.
The first round will start at 7 p.m. Friday in Consol Energy Center, and the final six rounds will begin at 10 a.m. Saturday in the Penguins' arena.
"By all accounts it is probably not the deepest draft in recent years, but like every year there are some very good players available," Phoenix Assistant GM Brad Treliving said on Coyotes.com. "This year, specifically at the top of the draft, there are a lot of top young defensemen."