The NHL draft is a guessing game in the best of times. Even though the worldwide talent pool is continually improving, times have been better.
It's always been tough to predict how good an 18-year-old kid will be in four or five years when he's ready to join the league. Nowadays, teams not only have to project a player's talent, they have to guess whether the prospect even wants to play in North America. Russia's Kontinental Hockey League has become an alluring destination, and other European leagues appeal to players, too, especially those who learned the game overseas.
It's one reason why a trend has developed for the Buffalo Sabres. Every pick during the Sabres' last three drafts -- all 22 players taken from 2007 to 2009 -- has been American or Canadian. There's no guarantee all their selections during Friday and Saturday's draft in Los Angeles will be North Americans, but it's a safe bet the majority will be.
The Sabres' recent history with European draftees shows why North Americans have become the safer selection:
Dennis Persson, selected in the first round of the 2006 draft, had a two-year deal with the Swedish Elite league and stayed one extra year before finally joining the Sabres' organization full time last season.
Marek Zagrapan, the first-round pick in 2005, spent three years in the minors with the Sabres and decided to sign with the KHL rather than attempt to make the NHL in his fourth season.
Philip Gogulla, who followed Zagrapan in the second round in 2005, had to be talked into joining the Sabres' organization last year after spending four seasons in his homeland of Germany. He quickly tired of the experiment and, after just one season in Portland, has re-signed with his German club.
"The problem is, if things hit a bump in the road it's easy for those guys to head back home," said Kevin Devine, the Sabres' director of amateur scouting. "They hit a bump in the road in the AHL, all of a sudden they go back to Germany or whatever."
That said, the Sabres are by no means steadfast against picking Europeans. It just has to be a more surefire selection.
"Obviously, the Russians are a little bit of a question mark. I wouldn't see us delving into the Russian market, especially early, until things get cleared up there," Devine said. "But if [Zack] Kassian wasn't there [at the 13th pick] last year, we were taking a European. The Swedes and the Finns and the Germans and some of those guys we have no problem taking."
The Sabres, who have nine picks during the seven-round draft taking place Friday and Saturday, will likely use their later picks on North Americans. It's purely a developmental issue. If the prospect is closer, the team has a better chance of helping him grow into an NHL player.
"If they're over in Europe they're farther away, it's tougher to keep track of them, tougher to keep track of their progress, tougher to have influence on their conditioning and development in the summer," Devine said. "You get down to the fifth, sixth, seventh rounds, you're starting to run out of names. Our European scout will say, 'You might as well take a North American. There's a lot of North Americans who can do exactly what this guy can do that you're taking in the fifth round, so it just makes more sense to take a North American player there.' "
Barring trades -- and early indications show this will be a deal-filled draft -- the Sabres will pick 23rd overall, then sit out the second round because they sent that pick to Columbus for Raffi Torres. Then it gets interesting. Buffalo has three picks in the third round and another early in the fourth, giving it four selections between Nos. 68 and 98.
"Those will be crucial picks in there," Devine said. "We want to get a player or two out of those picks."
That's not as easy as it sounds. During the Darcy Regier era, which began in 1997, only five of the 24 players picked during the third and fourth rounds have made an NHL impact: Maxim Afinogenov, Clarke MacArthur, Jan Hejda, Andrej Sekera and Chris Butler.
The Sabres have one pick in each of the fifth and sixth rounds, then select twice in the seventh because they received a pick from San Jose in the Craig Rivet deal two years ago. They have had success in later rounds, selecting Ryan Miller in the fifth, Patrick Kaleta, Brian Campbell and Ales Kotalik in the sixth and Paul Gaustad in the seventh.
Buffalo's first selection in three of the last four drafts was a defenseman. Because they pick so late in the first round and not again until the third, a forward is more likely.
"Compared to the last few years where there was a good run on defensemen, [the draft pool is] probably stronger at forward this year," Devine said. "The 'D,' they run out of gas earlier than the last few years, that's for sure.
"Everybody probably thinks we're strong [organizationally] on defense, but if you've got that good 'D' -- as you see in the playoffs -- you can go a long way. So that does not necessarily mean we're going to take a forward, but there's going to be more players at forward there for us."