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Key to development: Sabres need to find success through NHL Draft, not just at the top

The Buffalo Sabres' record of recent success with their first-round draft picks should continue Friday night in Dallas when they take Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin with the No. 1 overall pick.

But where their development model has been flawed in recent years has been after Round 1. That's something General Manager Jason Botterill is bent on changing.

He has to change it fast. The Sabres have just seven goals from any player drafted in the third round or later since 2010, and all those have come from 2013 third-rounder Nick Baptiste. The only skater drafted No. 100 or higher since 2007 to make a contribution is Marcus Foligno, taken at No. 104 in 2009. Foligno is the only player drafted outside Round 2 since 2006 to play at least 50 games for Buffalo.

"Those later picks show the importance of having a strong organization across the board," Botterill said. "When you're dealing with mid-round picks and later-round picks, it's making sure your amateur staff brings in the right people and then having a strong developmental model.

"These players are not just stepping right into the NHL," Botterill said. "It's going to take time, whether it's in junior, college or the AHL, to build them up. You have to have the right coaching staff at every level as well to build them up. If you have weaknesses in any spot of your organization, it doesn't work."

After making their opening-round pick Friday night, the Sabres open Round 2 on Saturday morning by making selection No. 32 overall. Their third-round pick was traded last year to Minnesota, leaving Buffalo with two fourth-round choices at Nos. 94 and 117, a fifth-rounder at 125, a sixth at 156 and a seventh at 187.

In his first draft last year, Botterill looks to have done well at both the top and bottom.

He snared Casey Mittelstadt at No. 8, a player many people in the game now say may turn out to have been worthy of the No. 3 pick. The team is also high on second-round center Marcus Davidsson and second-round goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who just signed his entry-level deal last week after being the Sabres' third selection in the draft.

Sabres sign goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen to entry level contract

There are also solid hopes for fourth-rounder Jacob Bryson, a defenseman from Providence, and seventh-round winger Linus Weissbach, who had 26 points in 34 games at Wisconsin.

Meanwhile, Tim Murray's final draft as GM in 2016 looks to have middling results, with first-rounder Alex Nylander a big question mark and Botterill opting not to sign three of the picks. But third-rounders Cliff Pu and Casey Fitzgerald both appear to have bright futures.

Combine Notebook: Sabres relinquish rights to trio of '16 draftees

Other solid-looking choices in the back half of the draft currently in the organization are goalie Linus Ullmark (2012, 6) and defenseman Will Borgen (2015, 4). Center Sean Malone (2013, 6) became a regular this year in Rochester, and winger Victor Olofsson (2014, 7) had a strong year in Sweden as a teammate of Dahlin before signing his entry-level deal in April.

"Teams that have success with late-round players have definitely made some great picks you have to give them credit for," Botterill said. "But I would say of equal importance is having the entire staff to develop those players, and that's one of our goals."

Many dubious choices

The video scouting initiative under former owner Tom Golisano hampered the Sabres' drafting success.

The 2007 draft class played just 72 NHL games in Buffalo (by T.J. Brennan, Corey Tropp and Paul Byron). None of the nine choices in 2010 played a single NHL game except first-rounder Mark Pysyk, and the six-man 2011 class played just 19 games (Joel Armia, Dan Catenacci, Nathan Lieuwen).

Things started to pick up when Terry Pegula bought the team in 2011 and immediately plunged staff and resources into scouting at the behest of former GM Darcy Regier.

Drafting improved dramatically in 2012 (Mikhail Grigorenko, Zemgus Girgensons, Jake McCabe and Ullmark) and 2013 (Rasmus Ristolainen, Nikita Zadorov, J.T. Compher, Bailey, Baptiste, goalie Cal Peterson and Malone).

But the jury remains out on much of Murray's drafting starting in 2014. While the former GM and his crew got Sam Reinhart in '14 and Jack Eichel-Brendan Guhle-Borgen in '15, his '16 draft in KeyBank Center remains a huge question mark.

Will Nylander, Rasmus Asplund, Pu and Fitzgerald become NHL stalwarts some day? Or will a draft on home soil go down as one of the big busts in franchise history? That question remains to be answered.

The Nylander pick, in particular, looks dubious.

The 20-year-old has played seven nondescript NHL games to date and has made little impact in Rochester, with just 18 goals in 116 games over two seasons and injuries dogging him this year. Murray took him one pick ahead of defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, who thrived this year for Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay, and six ahead of Boston blueline stud Charlie McAvoy.

The Sabres have to hope Nylander doesn't join their list of first-round disasters that includes the likes of Denis Persson (2006), Marek Zagrapan (2005), Artem Kryukov (2000) or Barrett Heisten (1999).

It's one thing to struggle in later rounds and it's another for a team coming off a non-playoff season to miss on a top-10 pick. This will become a crucial season to see if Nylander can advance his career.

Healthy and producing, Nylander gets chance to show he belongs in NHL

Bolts, Bruins have mined talent

While the Sabres' development model has struggled, it's easy to look around the league and see where other teams have had plenty of success.

The Tampa Bay Lightning haven't had much impact yet from the last four drafts other than 2014 third-rounder Brayden Point. But their franchise thrives, of course, on the strength of first-round choices Steven Stamkos (2008), Victor Hedman (2009) and Andrei Vasilevskiy (2012). The Bolts got Cedric Paquette in the fourth round in 2012, and five of their six 2011 choices played in the NHL (the sixth was goalie Adam Wilcox, who played in Rochester and made his NHL debut for the Sabres last season).

In 2011, the Lightning got superstar Nikita Kucherov in the second round at No. 58 and longtime regular Ondrej Palat in the seventh round at No. 208. Matthew Peca (no relation to the former Sabres captain) has been a standout at Syracuse the last three years and is on the cusp of the NHL after going at No. 201.

Syracuse has had strong AHL teams in recent seasons, sweeping the Rochester Amerks in the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs this year. The Lightning won a Calder Cup in Norfolk in 2012 with a team that posted a pro hockey-record winning streak of 28 games. That club was directed by current Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper.

"Our players in Rochester are familiar with Tampa Bay and what they've done in Syracuse," Botterill said. "They've done a great job. They have a strong staff who's done the job in Norfolk and Syracuse. Look at the Rochester series this year: They were playoff ready and have had those experiences. They're an example of what we're trying to get to."

The Sabres haven't had any great later-round picks like Tampa Bay's Palat, Calgary's Johnny Gaudreau (4, 2011), Nashville's Viktor Arvidsson (4, 2014), Anaheim's Josh Manson (6, 2011), Dallas' John Klingberg and Montreal's Brendan Gallagher (5, 2010) or Ottawa's Mark Stone (6, 2010).

Think back to 2012, when Buffalo took plodding center Justin Kea in the third round at No. 73. He amounted to nothing, never playing an NHL game, and there were all kinds of prizes right after him.

Development history: Sabres in the draft

Washington center Chandler Stephenson, who just won a Stanley Cup, was taken at No. 77, and Philadelphia defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere went at No. 78. Pittsburgh goalie Matt Murray was No. 83, Boston defenseman Matt Grzelcyk was No. 85, St. Louis blueliner Colton Parayko was No. 86 and Anaheim goalie Frederik Andersen, now the starter in Toronto, was No. 87.

And the Sabres haven't even struck gold in higher-rounds like many teams do.

The Boston Bruins, for instance, took Patrice Bergeron at No. 45 in 2003, David Krejci at No. 63 in 2004 and Brad Marchand at No. 71 in 2006, a trio that helped produce one Stanley Cup in 2011 and get the team close a few other times.

When the Sabres took Brennan at No. 31 to start the second round in 2007, they left P.K. Subban to sit for Montreal at No. 43.

Pens didn't just get first-rounders

Botterill often refers to his time in Pittsburgh because it was the 10 years of his career that set him up to be a GM – and because it was a period of huge success. The Penguins won three Stanley Cups in that stretch, obviously a key outgrowth of taking Marc-Andre Fluery, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal with Nos. 1 or 2 overall picks from 2003-2006.

But there were other reasons for the trip to the 2008 Stanley Cup final and the 2009 Cup win over Detroit – as well as the Cup wins in 2016 and 2017 and the 100-point seasons in between.

Maxime Talbot, who scored both goals in the 2-1 Game 7 win over the Wings in '09, was taken in the eighth round – which no longer exists – in 2002. Winger Tyler Kennedy, a key energy player in '08 and '09, was a fourth-rounder in '04, while defensive stalwart Kris Letang was taken in the third round at No. 62 overall in 2005.

Some complementary pieces for the '16-17 runs were taken as far back as 2010, with winger Bryan Rust going in the third round at No. 80 and Tom Kuhnhackel going in round 4 at No. 110. Current Sabre Scott Wilson, who scored a goal in the '17 final against Nashville, was a seventh-rounder in 2011, while Murray turned out to be a steal in the third round of the '12 selection held in Pittsburgh.

The Penguins took winger Jake Guentzel at No. 77 in the third round in 2013, and he has scored 23 goals in the playoffs the last two years.

Botterill said he learned several lessons in Pittsburgh that he has imparted to his scouting staff in Buffalo.

"No matter where you finish, you have to re-evaluate your own organization after each season to see where the balance and imbalance is," he said. "When you have a very high pick, sometimes you go for a specific need but in general you do take the best player.

"Maybe if that's led you to go on a string of, say, defenseman, then you'd look at a forward. But my strong belief has been to take the best player and that's what I've pushed to our scouting staff: 'Don't act as a GM or act thinking this is what our organization needs right now.' It's about getting the players in line at that moment and simply asking, 'Who's the best player?' "

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