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Sabres look to beat the odds Hope combine helps in drafting fine gems

To compare the NHL entry draft to a coin flip is unfair. It shortchanges the coin flip. At least when the currency soars in the air, there's a 50 percent chance of achieving the goal. In the draft, there's no making heads or tails of what might happen.

Take the Buffalo Sabres, for example. From 1990 to 2008, they selected 185 players from around the world. Only 80 have played even one NHL game, a success rate of 43 percent. Obviously, determining the growth potential of 18-year-olds is a tough proposition.

The Sabres hope they've found a way to work the odds in their favor.

The 2011 draft will be held Friday and Saturday in Minnesota, and the Sabres used a new tool to prepare for it. They hosted a four-day scouting combine two weeks ago, welcoming 35 prospects to Buffalo for testing and interviews. This draft, when it's the Sabres' turn to select, they'll have firsthand knowledge of potential picks.

"We got some good value out of it," said Kevin Devine, the Sabres director of amateur scouting. "Hopefully, it pays off a little bit."

The Sabres will pick 16th overall in the opening round, one of six picks in the seven-round draft. They traded their second-round selection to St. Louis for forward Brad Boyes.

Of the 35 prospects who attended the combine, seven or eight were candidates for the 16th pick. The rest were split between players with third-round potential and those who will go deep in the draft. Late-round selections have been important to the Sabres in recent years, with Ryan Miller (fifth round), Paul Gaustad (seventh), Patrick Kaleta (sixth) and Nathan Gerbe (fifth) filling significant roles.

"Most of the third-round and later-round guys were not at the NHL combine, so it gave us a little more insight there," said Devine, referring to the May event in Toronto that attracts top talent.

The Sabres' scouting department has wanted to host a combine for years, but it didn't come to fruition until a chat with Terry Pegula. The new owner also has a stake in Ayrault Sports Agency, which represents football players. He mentioned to General Manager Darcy Regier how the New England Patriots held a private combine that hosted 200 players and wondered if the Sabres should hold something similar. Regier turned to Devine, who crossed an item off his longtime to-do list.

"We really didn't have the resources to do it or the time to pull it off [previously]," Devine said. "One thing led to another, and we said let's try it and see how it goes, see if it's worth it."

The players, who went through on-ice drills, off-ice physical testing and one-on-one interviews, were impressed. One was Chris Bradley, a defenseman from Williamsville who plays for Youngstown of the United States Hockey League.

"It was a lot of fun," said Bradley, who has been ranked as high as the 152nd North American skater by NHL Central Scouting. "I was kind of nervous going in. I mean, you hear the title 'Sabres Combine.' It was just a great honor to be picked for it.

"It was a tough day mentally and physically, but I really enjoyed it."

Devine and the scouting staff are scheduled to head to Minnesota today and hold a mock draft Monday. The first round will be held Friday night, and Devine said 17 or 18 players are on their list.

"We're going to get a good player," Devine said. "There's no real need for us to try to trade up to get a guy, so we could sit at 16 and I think we'll still get a guy that we really like."

Of course, that's only if they keep their pick. Devine expects a lot of trade chatter, and that could include the Sabres.

"There's a possibility for more trades mostly because -- after the top five picks, you might get the same player at seven that you do at 17," Devine said. "There's a few teams that have come out and said they'd really be looking to trade their pick. I've heard New Jersey would listen to offers. Edmonton has come out and said they'd listen to offers for No. 1.

"Even our pick, if we could improve our hockey team with a guy that fits in with our core of players, we'd probably look at that, too."

This draft lacks the top-end buzz that has accompanied recent drafts. Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin were obvious top-two selections last year, while John Tavares, Steven Stamkos and Patrick Kane were regarded as franchise players in previous years.

Forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Western Hockey League is expected to be drafted first. Devine regards the next four players as equal and said the next 15 have comparable skills.

"No dominant guy this year," Devine said, "but I think they're all good players in their own right."

The Sabres enter this draft without any defined objectives. They wanted to get bigger in recent years, and they achieved that with selections such as Zack Kassian, Marcus Foligno and Brayden McNabb. They haven't drafted a European since defenseman Dennis Persson and goaltender Jhonas Enroth in 2006, but that trend could end.

"We've got ourselves now to where we've got some good size in the organization," Devine said. "We feel if there's a skilled European there in the later rounds now versus a North American, we wouldn't hesitate to take him."

Devine will get scouting help sometime next month. The organization is set to meet to discuss hiring a second European scout and additional North American evaluators.

"With [Pegula] coming in, they want to make sure we have the best staff available," Devine said.

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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