PITTSBURGH – There were 211 prospects selected in the NHL draft this weekend, and every single one of them looks up to Derek Roy, Tyler Ennis and Cody Hodgson. After all, those three Buffalo Sabres already have what each youngster desires: a regular spot in the NHL.
When Roy, Ennis and Hodgson report to training camp this fall, however, they'll skate to the middle of the ice and look up to the Sabres' newest centers. The draft picks are bigger than they are.
The Sabres drove to Pittsburgh intent on getting bigger and deeper down the middle, and they accomplished that during the seven-round selection process. Buffalo selected five centers among its eight picks, and the quintet averages 6-foot-2 and 197 pounds.
"The focus is on depth down the middle and some good size with it," Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier said Saturday. "They went very well."
The Sabres selected three centers, two defensemen and a goaltender on Day Two of the draft, but the organization was still buzzing about Day One. Buffalo picked two of the top-rated centers, getting talented Russian Mikhail Grigorenko with the 12th pick and "Latvian Locomotive" Zemgus Girgensons at No. 14 after trading with Calgary to move up seven spots.
"The highlight's the first day, for sure," Kevin Devine, the Sabres' director of amateur scouting, said in Consol Energy Center. "Those two guys are the guys we targeted in the first round. Grigorenko was our guy. Girgensons, Darcy being able to pull off that trade with Calgary, I think a lot of general managers came up to him [Saturday] and they were mad at him because we stepped up and took him. They were all ready to take him.
"That first day, to walk out with two guys that you really liked, you're pretty happy."
For the second straight year, the Sabres used their private scouting combine to their advantage. The final five players picked by Buffalo all attended the workout in Western New York, which is in its second year.
After picking University of Wisconsin defenseman Jake McCabe with their second-round selection, Buffalo plucked the combine group of centers Justin Kea, Logan Nelson and Judd Peterson, goalie Linus Ullmark and blue-liner Brady Austin.
Kea had paltry numbers with Saginaw of the Ontario Hockey League, recording three goals and 14 points in 65 games, but the Sabres project him to be a third-line center in the NHL. Kea's coach, Greg Gilbert, was teammates with Regier and Devine on the Indianapolis Checkers of the Central Hockey League and praised Kea's ability.
"He's going to be a better-skating Paul Gaustad," said Devine, who picked the 6-4, 211-pound Kea in the third round.
Two of the players picked by Buffalo, Nelson and Austin, got overlooked in the draft last year but improved their standing heading into this year's class. Nelson left the United States Hockey League for the Western Hockey League and responded with 23 goals and 62 points in 71 games with Victoria. Buffalo picked him in the fifth round.
Austin, the first of two seventh-round selections, moved from forward to defense with Belleville of the OHL. The position is a much better fit for his 6-4, 230-pound frame.
"We think that he's got a chance because of his size," Devine said. "He played tougher this year."
The Sabres added several members to their scouting department last year, including European talent evaluators. They liked what they saw in Ullmark. The 6-3 netminder tends the crease for legendary Swedish organization Modo, which has produced forwards Peter Forsberg and the Sedin twins, Daniel and Henrik.
"When we made the hires over there, one of the things we wanted to do was look especially at Finland and Sweden to see if we could get some of those late-round [goalies] like Pekka Rinne and those guys, and see if we could get some of those guys in the Buffalo organization," Devine said.
The Sabres' final pick, Peterson, dominated his high school league in Minnesota. He put up 47 goals and 83 points in 30 games with Duluth Marshall and will further develop his skills at St. Cloud State University.
After selecting players with local ties in two of the previous three drafts, Buffalo declined to pick up the three Western New Yorkers who were ranked by NHL Central Scouting. Tampa Bay selected Amherst native Dylan Blujus in the second round with the 40th overall pick. Alex Iafallo of Eden and Tyler Wood, born in Buffalo while his father, Randy, played for the Sabres, were not picked.
Overall, teams selected 77 defensemen, 55 wingers, 44 centers, 24 goalies and 11 players at unidentified positions. Canada had the most prospects picked (99) while the United States was second (56). The Sabres were extremely pleased to get one of the 11 Russians (Grigorenko) and one of the two Latvians (Girgensons).
"The focus is on centermen and some size, so those two players were players that we identified," Regier said. "We were fortunate that there was a run on defensemen. We were looking for forwards, and it pushed them down into our area, and it benefitted us."