The biggest beneficiaries of Buffalo’s regime change might be the prospects who came in for interviews this week.
During the last couple of NHL Scouting Combines, the Sabres’ interviews could be akin to an obstacle course. The players would walk into a room filled with 20 people, and questions would come from all sides. It was a pressure-packed environment, one that showed Buffalo’s management and scouting staff how the prospects dealt with adversity.
This week, potential No. 1 draft pick Nolan Patrick sat down with the Sabres. He remembers it well. Not only because it was his first interview, but also because it was one of the more relaxing.
“They were really nice to me,” Patrick said Friday outside KeyBank Center. “It was actually one of the best ones I had.”
The Sabres’ interview contingent ranged from four to eight people, according to the top prospects. Jason Botterill has replaced Tim Murray as general manager and sat in the meetings. Scouting heads Rob Murphy and Greg Royce are gone, so others took the reins. Kevin Devine, the director of player personnel, was at the table along with head amateur scout Jeff Crisp, amateur scouting coordinator Austin Dunne and Anders Forsberg, the director of European scouting.
“A really friendly group,” Patrick said. “Just when I went in there it was a pretty laid-back interview. We had some laughs.
“It’s good when you go in and you have a good time.”
Casey Mittelstadt, the No. 3-ranked prospect for next month’s draft, also described his interview with the Sabres as “relaxed” and “fun.” Nothing crazy or intense stuck out for any of the players who appeared at the NHL Centennial Fan Arena.
“There’s a bit of a psych-evaluation kind of thing,” said Michael Rasmussen, the No. 5 prospect. “They got in-depth about your kind of mental side of it, which I think is awesome. It’s kind of testing you and seeing what you’re made of. That’s kind of what sticks out for me.”
“I just finished Buffalo a few hours ago,” fourth-ranked prospect Gabriel Vilardi said. “It went well. Most of these interviews, they’re fairly straightforward. They don’t try and mess with you that much.”
Teams use this week’s sitdowns in conjunction with on-ice performance and the combine’s fitness testing, which will take place Saturday in HarborCenter. Clubs will have all the information they need to make picks June 23-24 in Chicago.
This year’s draft lacks the star power of the past two years. Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel made the 2015 selection show a headline-filled bonanza. Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine commanded the spotlight last year.
Patrick and second-ranked Nico Hischier are vying for the top two spots, held by New Jersey and Philadelphia, respectively. The players know attention has dwindled, as Patrick said with a laugh.
“The media’s done a good job this year with pumping us down, saying we’re not going to have the immediate impact or anything like that,” Patrick said. “I guess that’s good for us and not as much pressure.
“At the end of the day, I’m just trying to make the NHL and contribute as much as I can. … I’m doing everything I can to get there, and I’m not going to let anything get in the way. That’s my goal. I’m not a huge guy to set goals, but I’ve had that one for three years.”
Patrick is the son of Steve Patrick, the Sabres’ first-round pick in 1980, and is the nephew of former Buffalo defenseman and assistant coach James Patrick.
“There’s so many things they’ve taught me about being a professional and being a good person,” Nolan Patrick said. “They’re huge on how you carry yourself off the ice. Having respect of teammates and other people is big. You never want to be that guy in trouble or anything like that.
“Since I was young, I’ve tried to pride myself on that, and I still do.”
Though still ranked at the top by NHL Central Scouting, Nolan’s stock dropped for teams because of an injury that limited him to 33 games. He revealed Friday that a misdiagnosis sidetracked his recovery. He had surgery to repair a sports hernia on one side of his groin, but doctors missed an identical injury on the other side.
“I don’t think it’s the worst thing for me,” Patrick said. “A little adversity for a young kid makes you stronger as a player.”
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Injuries will steal some of the luster from Saturday’s testing. Rasmussen is recovering from a broken scaphoid, a small bone in the wrist. Vilardi can’t do lower-body workouts because of a hip injury.
Still, it’s been an interesting week for the top prospects. It just hasn’t been as intense in the Sabres’ interview room.
“It’s fun to come to Buffalo and catch up with a lot of guys I played with when I was younger,” Mittelstadt said. “It’s getting more real, and we’re all looking forward to going to Chicago.”