By John Vogl
SCARBOROUGH, Ont. – The Sabres lost all season on the ice, so it’s little surprise they lost a lottery, too.
Last-place Buffalo will not pick first overall pick in the NHL Draft after the Florida Panthers won the draft lottery tonight. There were 13 non-playoff teams eligible of earning the No. 1 selection, and the 29th-place Panthers won while having an 18.8 percent chance.
The Sabres had the best chance at 25 percent.
The draft will be held June 27-28 in Philadelphia, and Buffalo will select in the top five for only the second time since 1987. They took Thomas Vanek fifth overall in 2003.
The NHL has been conducting a draft lottery since 1995, but it revamped the rules last year to give all teams that fail to make the playoffs a shot at the No. 1 selection. The rest of the first round is conducted in reverse order, so Buffalo had a 73.5 percent chance of falling to No. 2. It did.
(New Jersey, which had a 1.5 percent chance of winning the lottery, was ineligible because of a salary cap violation.)
Buffalo became the 13th last-place team in 19 lotteries to lose the weighted contest. Florida finished at the bottom last year, but Colorado won the lottery to leapfrog the Panthers and bump them to second.
There are four players considered worthy of being drafted at the top: defenseman Aaron Ekblad and forwards Sam Bennett, Sam Reinart and Leon Draisaitl. The Sabres were far and away the worst offensive team in the NHL and have a good corps of defense prospects, but General Manager Tim Murray wouldn’t rule out taking Ekblad, if he’s available.
“We could if he’s the best player,” Murray said. “I’m not saying he’s the best player, but he’s in the group of three or four guys when we get together in May that will be discussed as the No. 1 pick. He’s in the group. I’m not going to say he for sure is the No. 1 player on our list, be he will be in the discussion. There’s no question.”
The Sabres could end up with two picks in the top five. The New York Islanders own the No. 5 selection, but they have until June 1 to decide whether to give it to Buffalo or deliver their 2015 first-round pick to the Sabres as part of the Thomas Vanek trade.
Isles GM Garth Snow did not attend the draft lottery, so his thoughts will have to wait.
“He’s got to say yes or he’s got to say no. It’s not maybe,” Murray said. “Next year in a really good draft, if he decides to keep it this year, then you have an extra pick. It’s a win-win situation.”