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Inside the NHL / By John Vogl: Sabres future is nearing the ‘now’ phase

John Vogl

It’s been 21 months since the Sabres began selling “the future.” As tends to happen when months go by and calendars go out of date, the future eventually becomes the present.

That time is getting close in Buffalo.

With last week’s promotion of Joel Armia, fans have seen all of the first-round prospects in the organization. In fact, they’ve seen more of the future than fans of any other NHL team.

The Sabres and Islanders have made the most first-round picks since 2010 with seven each. All seven of the Sabres’ selections – Mark Pysyk (2010), Armia (2011), Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons (2012), Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov (2013), and Sam Reinhart (2014) – have appeared in the NHL.

Only four of the Islanders’ picks have made it to The Show. Other than the Sabres, the lone club to have all of its first-rounders since 2010 make it to the NHL is Edmonton. The Oilers have made six picks: Taylor Hall (’10), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Oscar Klefbom (’11), Nail Yakupov (’12), Darnell Nurse (’13) and Leon Draisaitl (’14).

Though Reinhart is gone until at least next season, having the other first-rounders available is what Buffalo dreamed of when it shipped out Jordan Leopold, Robyn Regehr and Jason Pominville in a four-day span from March 30 to April 3, 2013. The Sabres are counting on their seven first-round selections (plus the three coming in June) to turn the team into a contender, either through the prospects’ own play or by being bargaining chips in trades.

Now that fans have seen the first-rounders, here’s an update on the rest of the prospects taken since the Sabres selected Pysyk with the 23rd overall pick:

2010: Aside from Pysyk, this draft belongs in the scrap heap. The defenseman is probably the only player taken in 2010 who will ever play in the NHL. It rivals the 1973, ’76, ’81, ’93 and 2000 drafts as the worst in Sabres history.

2011: Sixth-round pick Nathan Lieuwen preceded Armia into the NHL. He’s still in the mix as the Sabres’ “goalie of the future,” but he’s struggling this season. Lieuwen is only 4-9 with an .883 save percentage and 3.29 goals-against average in Rochester.

Third-round pick Daniel Catenacci, who topped 30 goals twice in juniors, has three goals and no assists in 25 games with the Amerks. No one else appears to have a shot at the NHL.

2012: The Sabres and Washington are the only teams that have had three draft picks already reach the NHL. Girgensons has the making of a future captain. Grigorenko has first-round talent. Second-round selection Jake McCabe proved at the end of last season he can play at the top level.

Sixth-round pick Linus Ullmark has the chance to make this draft extremely special. The 6-foot-3, 220-pounder was the Goaltender of the Year in the Swedish elite league last season, with a .931 save percentage and 2.01 GAA. His numbers aren’t nearly as good this season (.902, 3.36), but Ullmark’s MoDo team makes the Sabres look like the stingiest defensive squad in the world. Ullmark recently had a stretch in which he faced 50-plus shots in three straight games.

2013: Just like the previous year, the Sabres are one of the few teams who have achieved early returns from this selection process. Ristolainen and Zadorov are already NHL regulars. Edmonton, Tampa Bay and Colorado are the only other organizations with two picks who’ve appeared in the league.

Second-round pick J.T. Compher has 11 points in 15 games with the University of Michigan and is representing the United States at the world junior championships. Williamsville native Justin Bailey, another second-rounder, has 18 goals and 36 points in 31 games with Kitchener of the Ontario Hockey League. Third-rounder Nick Baptiste, who like Bailey is already under contract, has nine goals and 18 points in 21 junior games after putting up 45 goals last season.

If any of those forwards (or second-rounder Connor Hurley, a Notre Dame freshman) shows as much promise as the two defensemen, this draft could be the Sabres’ cornerstone. That’s something to be determined in the future. As the arrival of the first-round picks has shown, the future can come pretty quickly.

Lockout talk already?

We’re still 7½ seasons away from the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement, but there’s already sparring between the league and the players’ association. Yee haw!

NHLPA leader Donald Fehr, who probably hates salary caps more than anyone on the planet, is predicting the lockout cycle will continue after the 2021-22 season. He told the Hockey News that owners have nothing to lose by locking out players in a capped system.

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly’s response to Montreal reporter Renaud Lavoie termed Fehr’s outlook as a “fairly naive and uneducated view of the situation.”

The good news is they’ve got a long time to get on the same page. The bad news is they’ve got a long time to get further away.

Pegulas shuffle staff

Terry and Kim Pegula continue to build up Pegula Sports & Entertainment, the parent company for the Sabres, Bills and everything else owned by the couple. The organization lists five people as executive vice presidents after it moved Bruce Popko from the Bills.

Popko oversaw the football team’s corporate partnership division and is now the executive VP of business development for Pegula Sports & Entertainment. PSE also has Chuck LaMattina (finance and business operations), Brent Rossi (marketing and brand strategy), Frank Cravotta (creative services) and Mark Preisler (media and content) as executive VPs. Kim Pegula is the chief executive officer and president.

On the fly

• Buffalo and Ottawa opened new arenas in 1996. Can you imagine replacing First Niagara Center already? Well, that’s what is happening in Ottawa. The Senators will soon bid to build an arena closer to downtown. Canadian Tire Centre is 17 miles outside the city, but rush-hour traffic can lead to hour-plus commutes for games.

• The Rookie of the Year race will be fun to watch. Nashville’s Filip Forsberg has 13 goals and 32 points in 33 games. Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau has 10 goals and 27 points in 35 games. Aaron Ekblad, this year’s No. 1 overall pick, is tied for the team lead in Florida with 19 points.

• It’s beyond rare for a player to ask for something to be written in the paper. One of the few times it happened to me was in January 2004 when the Sabres sent longtime minor-leaguer Chris Taylor back to Rochester. Chris Drury pulled me aside to tell me how much the veteran center meant to the team and that he should be publicly thanked for it. The Amerks will induct Taylor into their Hall of Fame next month, and I’m sure Drury (wherever he is) would be thrilled to hear of the well-deserved honor.


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