MISSISSAUGUA, Ont. – The Buffalo Sabres just completed a woeful season that saw them score the fewest goals of any NHL team since the expansion era began in 1967. As the old saying around the game goes, they need players to put the biscuit in the basket.
So could they really take a defenseman with their first pick in the NHL Draft June 27 in Philadelphia? You bet they could. Welcome to The Ekblad Dilemma.
Welcome to a decision that could be an early defining moment for general manager Tim Murray.
Aaron Ekblad of the Barrie Colts is the top defenseman in the draft after three super seasons in the Ontario Hockey League. He’s a physical specimen at 6-foot-3½ and 216 pounds who put together 23 goals and 53 points in 58 games this season. He draws comparisons to Nashville’s Shea Weber, something he likes. But Ekblad goes a step further by saying he patterns his game after Chicago’s Duncan Keith or Detroit legend and future Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom. And talking to him Saturday, it felt like you were engaging with a 32-year-old who’s played 12 seasons in the NHL and not some kid who just turned 18 in February. You couldn’t help but be blown away by his cool demeanor and maturity.
By many accounts, Ekblad should be the top player taken. Most of the Sabres talk has centered around forwards Sam Reinhart and Sam Bennett, on the assumption that the defense-thin Florida Panthers would take Ekblad after winning the lottery. But what if the Panthers pass on Ekblad? Or what if they trade the No. 1 pick and a forward goes first? Do the Sabres take Ekblad at No. 2? Or do they – gasp – figure out a way to make a deal for the Florida pick and grab both Nos. 1 and 2?
At that point, you can welcome Ekblad and one of the Sams to Buffalo. It has to be Murray’s dream scenario.
Murray said last month he would absolutely draft Ekblad if the Sabres felt he was the best player available. The Sabres were one of many teams that interviewed Ekblad this week and his message to them was the same as with every team: He expects to play and contribute in a big way in the NHL next season. “A lot of people know I’m a pretty open person. There’s not too many things that are going to surprise anyone,” Ekblad said at Saturday’s NHL Scouting Combine. “I’m just simply honest with who I am and what I do on a daily basis.”
Around the trade deadline, Murray had to be thinking he would have three first-round picks come next month in Philadelphia – the top choice, the No. 5 from the New York Islanders and another from St. Louis.
Of course, things didn’t fall that way.
Florida won the lottery, leaving the Sabres at No. 2. Embattled Islanders GM Garth Snow opted to defer moving a No. 1 choice to Buffalo until next year in the Thomas Vanek deal, and the Blues flamed out in the first round to Chicago. So no first-rounder for Ryan Miller.
For now, the Sabres are left with the No. 2 overall and three second-rounders acquired through various means. Not bad. And they’ll have three No. 1s next year. Still, Murray has said repeatedly this isn’t a five-year rebuild. He wants to keep things moving.
A couple of sources confirm Murray was chatting here this week with Florida GM Dale Tallon (Murray and Tallon, like most NHL GMs, were not here Saturday and left the physical testing watch to their assistants or strength coaches). Tallon has been quite forthcoming about the Panthers shopping the No. 1 pick and said “I’m open for business” during a radio interview a couple weeks ago on a Toronto all-sports station.
How do the Sabres get involved? A couple of the second-rounders could be packaged. Perhaps the St. Louis first-rounder next year. And how about a current player, especially someone from the ever-crowded defense to help fill the Panthers’ need?
Christian Ehrhoff, for instance, has a very cap-friendly $4 million salary for the next seven years. He has grown tired of losing in Buffalo and might welcome a change of scenery to a team a little bit ahead of the Sabres in the growing process that features former Vancouver teammate Roberto Luongo in goal. Or perhaps Tyler Myers and his $5.5 million cap hit could be of interest.
Ekblad said he hasn’t studied individual teams, but it was easy to wonder if he would be more comfortable in Buffalo, where there’s already a growing cadre of young defenseman, than in a place like Florida or Edmonton that is desperate to find one stud on the blueline.
“I watched some NHL games this year and realized this is a hard league to get into,” he said. “The NHL Draft is just a foot in the door. It means nothing until you prove you’re ready to do it. It’s going to be tough to beat out a guy that’s fighting for his life. This guy could have kids and a wife. That’s how you have to look at it. These guys are going to fight for their careers and their well-being. Everyone has been doing this their whole life, not just myself. Expectations are other people’s thoughts, not mine. I simply hold high standards for myself, high goals.”
Ekblad would be the first defenseman taken No. 1 overall since St. Louis took Erik Johnson in 2006. He said that’s been a lifelong goal.
“Aaron Ekblad is a hard player in the draft to go past for any of the teams,” Dan Marr, director of NHL Central Scouting, said during a break from the measurables.
As Marr noted, defenseman have a bigger learning curve and make mistakes that are tough to cover up. But Seth Jones, who was supposed to go No. 1 last year and slipped to Nashville at No. 4, freely stepped in to became a key guy on the Predators’ defense.
Brendan Lemieux, Ekblad’s Barrie teammate and the son of longtime NHL pest Claude Lemieux, is Ekblad’s best friend and roommate. Naturally, he’s sold as well.
“Ek is an incredible player,” Lemieux said. “Obviously I get under his skin, but Ek really showed he was really willing to step up and answer the bell – even with his gloves off. I watched him pound a few guys this year and it’s impressive. Ek is not just a super-skillled big guy. He’s a super-skilled, big, tough guy. A lot of people don’t know that, but you’ll see it at the NHL level.”
It has to be awfully tempting for Murray because the Sabres are in back-up-the-truck mode in terms of their needs.
Quite a month of intrigue ahead.