Let’s be honest. It didn’t take a hockey genius to make the Buffalo Sabres’ last two first-round picks. Jack Eichel was a no-brainer. There was a little debate about the Sams - Reinhart or Bennett - but Buffalo had Reinhart clearly ahead.
This year, Tim Murray and his scouts are going to earn their paychecks.
The Sabres are scheduled to make the No. 8 pick Friday night in the NHL Draft, though that’s no certainty as rumors flew Thursday. If they do keep the selection, sorting out the chosen one in First Niagara Center will be no easy feat.
“We’ve done a ton of homework with all those kids,” said Greg Royce, the Sabres’ director of amateur scouting. “We’ve talked to the coaches, the trainers, billet families, ex-coaches. There’s a lot of work that goes into that first pick.”
The draft’s first three picks - Auston Matthews, Patrick Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi - have separated themselves from the pack. Matthew Tkachuk seems set as the No. 4 prospect. Nos. 5 through 11 are where it gets interesting, and the Sabres are smack in the middle of that group.
Forwards Pierre-Luc Dubois and Alexander Nylander are playmakers and game breakers. Center Logan Brown, 6-foot-6, is a mountain of potential. Jakob Chychrun, Olli Juolevi, Mikhail Sergachev and Charles McAvoy are two-way defensemen who possess the puck-moving ability teams crave.
The Sabres seemingly can’t go wrong with any of them. But identifying a great player over a reliable one is why scouts meet for weeks at time.
“As a staff, we’re defined by our first two picks,” Royce said.
The Sabres have three players, including two defensemen, pegged for their draft spot, general manager Tim Murray has said. One of them will be there.
Tkachuk is biased, but he would go for defenseman Juolevi if he’s available. The duo led London to the Memorial Cup, and Tkachuk couldn’t have scored 20 goals in 18 playoff games without the puck-moving defenseman.
“Just the way he thinks the game and from what I’ve seen this year in practice, he’s the best defenseman in the draft,” said Tkachuk, who played against Chychrun and Sergachev. “He was unbelievable at getting the first pass up. He’s one of the guys, especially my line, we wanted him out on the ice with us because he can get us the puck and he can allow us to play offensively with him helping out and also him being responsible defensively.”
Juolevi’s tournament experience, which includes winning gold with Finland in the world juniors, certainly was noticed by Vancouver, Calgary and Arizona, the three teams that draft right before Buffalo. That might leave one of the other defensemen for the Sabres. Chychrun and McAvoy have pictured themselves in Buffalo.
Chychrun, who went to school two of Terry and Kim Pegula’s kids in Florida, spent part of Thursday texting with Kelly Pegula. It certainly would be interesting to play for her parents’ team, but he insists he’s ready to do it. Asked to describe his play, he gave a glowing review that reflected his ranking as the No. 4 prospect in North America.
“A guy that’s ready for the National Hockey League, a good two-way defenseman, a mature, hard-working young man, a leader,” he said. “I want to step in and make an impact right away.
“The game’s turning into such a speed game, and if you can’t skate it’s going to be tough to play in the National Hockey League. It’s something I’ve worked very hard at and can use to my advantage.”
McAvoy excelled during his freshman year at Boston University. The previous season, another freshman - a guy by the name of Eichel - also shined at the school.
“Buffalo would be a really special place to play,” McAvoy said at Erie Basin Marina. “Why not get another BU guy? You see what the last one did.”
Buffalo would be an interesting landing spot for Nylander, too. The winger would fill a need, and he’d add to the Sabres’ top rivalry. His brother, William, plays for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“It’d be a big rivalry playing against my brother,” Alexander Nylander said. “It would be a lot of fun.”
The players have examined the rosters of teams in the top 10 to see where they’d best fit. They should probably look at more teams.
As is always the case, trade chatter exploded on the day before the draft. The biggest rumors had the Sabres talking with Anaheim about defenseman Cam Fowler and Montreal talking with multiple teams about defenseman P.K. Subban. Buffalo’s chatter may be legitimate, but Canadiens General Manager Marc Bergevin doused the Subban rumors.
“It’s not even listening to offers,” he said. “It’s taking calls. When a GM calls me, I don’t know what he’s calling about, so I answer the phone. Yes, I’ve received calls on P.K., but I’m not shopping P.K. Subban, I can tell you that.”