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NHL Scouting Combine Notebook: Sabres can find D; yelling for Buffalo

From sport to sport and general manager to general manager, the approach to drafting stays the same. Take the best player available.

Someday, though, the Sabres are simply going to have to take the best defenseman available.

The blue line is clearly the weakest part of the organization. The troubles start in Buffalo and travel down the pipeline. Casey Nelson is the only top-four candidate in Rochester. The prospect list features Brendan Guhle, Will Borgen, Casey Fitzgerald and little else.

The Sabres have eight picks in this month’s NHL Draft, including five in the first three rounds. It wouldn’t be a surprise if they added defensemen, possibly starting with the No. 8 overall selection June 23 in Chicago.

There’s talent out there.

“A lot of variety, a lot of versatility,” Dan Marr, the director of NHL Central Scouting, said Saturday. “It depends on what type of player you’re looking for.”

The emphasis is on defensemen who can move the puck. The prospects at the NHL Scouting Combine were aware.

“It’s important that there are offensive defenseman and good-skating defensemen, puck movers,” said Rochester native David Farrance, the 46th-ranked skater who will head to Boston University in the fall. “It’s really growing toward that side of the game for defensemen.”

The top-rated blue-liner in the draft is Cale Makar at No. 9. He had 24 goals and 75 points in 54 games for Brooks of the lower-tier Alberta Junior Hockey League.

“It’s not often you have a defenseman who’s one of the best scorers and the MVP player in the league,” said Marr, who thinks Makar has the potential to grow into an Erik Karlsson or Kris Letang.

At No. 11, Juuso Valimaki leads a bevy of Finnish defensemen. Henri Jokiharju is No. 19. The European rankings feature Miro Heiskanen at No. 4 and Urho Vaakanainen at No. 8.

“We have a lot of good D’s in this draft, especially the Finns,” said Vaakanainen. “There’s a lot of competition."

Valimaki may be the closest to the NHL. He’s 6-foot-2, 204 pounds and had 19 goals and 61 points in 60 games for Tri-City of the Western Hockey League.

“I’m trying to be like Victor Hedman,” Valimaki said. “A team who needs a D-man, it’d be nice to go to a team like that, obviously, to maybe get ice time early or maybe get to the NHL a little earlier. But I’d be honored to go anywhere.”

No. 12-ranked Callan Foote, the son of longtime NHL defenseman Adam Foote, is also in the D-man conversation. The conversation is likely being held in Sabreland.

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As usual, the most noise during fitness testing came from the bike area. Players pedaled their hardest in 30-second intervals with a trainer screaming in their face, “Move it! Keep going! Finish! Finish!”

“At the moment you hear it a little bit, but you’re just focused on trying to give anything you can,” said No. 2 prospect Nico Hischier. “But it motivates you, for sure.”

Road to the NHL Draft: Nico Hischier

Hischier, in the running with fellow forward Nolan Patrick for first overall pick, will join other top prospects for Game Four of the Stanley Cup in Nashville.

“It’s actually my second NHL I’ve watched live,” the Switzerland native said. “My first one was when I was 12 in Ottawa. I’m pretty excited. Not a lot of guys have a chance to watch an NHL Stanley Cup playoff final game, and it’s going to be fun for sure.”

Hockey Tonk: Nashville ready for its first show on NHL's biggest stage

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The combine closed its third straight year in Buffalo on Saturday. The NHL will return for at least the next two springs. It fills the Canalside hotels for a week and introduces future pros to Buffalo.

“It’s a very nice city,” Makar said. “To be honest, I didn’t have high expectations for the city because I hadn’t heard too much about it, but being here I got to walk a little bit around the town and see the buildings they have here. It’s pretty exceptional.”

Vegas' McPhee has Sabres' attention, along with every other team

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