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Sabres' draft mandate seems clear: They have to stay down the middle

Mike Harrington

For all the hours the Buffalo Sabres have already spent preparing for the NHL Draft, their goal should be obvious.

They're picking No. 7 on June 21 in Vancouver. They have plenty of defenseman in their system ā€” albeit not all of them healthy ā€” and there aren't many that project that high in the draft anyway. You can argue they could use help on the wing.

But the mission is clear: Draft a center.

This team is paper-thin down the middle (thank you, Ryan O'Reilly trade) and bereft of center talent in Rochester other than Rasmus Asplund. And he's projected mostly as a solid third- or fourth-liner in the NHL.

It's very difficult to acquire elite talent at center. Selke finalists with a 200-foot game like O'Reilly rarely get shipped out and this is a good draft for the Sabres to try to mitigate that mistake.

"The teams have a selection, a wide variety of players to choose from," Dan Marr, the NHL's director of Central Scouting said Friday in HarborCenter as the league's scouting combine held media sessions. "I don't think they're going to get carried away and analyze it as first-line center, second-line center, third-line center. They just want good players that are going to step into their lineups. All these players bring the right mix of skills and intangibles. They're going to bring value to their teams."

The Sabres finished the season down the middle with Jack Eichel, Evan Rodrigues, Casey Mittelstadt and Johan Larsson. Oooof. That's not good. Vladimir Sobotka remains on the roster but has to rate as a buyout candidate, no matter how much Jason Botterill loathes that move.

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In Rochester, the Amerks finished the playoffs with a center group filled by Kevin Porter, Asplund, Kyle Criscuolo and AHL signee Yannick Veilleux. Andrew Oglevie is signed through next year while Porter (unrestricted) and Sean Malone (restricted) are both free agents. Again, not a lot there.

Even casual hockey fans know about Jack Hughes, the American dynamo almost certain to be taken No. 1 by the New Jersey Devils. The Sabres, obviously, won't get near Hughes so Buffalo fans have to learn the names of several other possible choices.

There's Hughes' U.S. Development teammates Alex Turcotte and Trevor Zegras. Turcotte is the son of a former NHL first-round pick (Alfie Turcotte, Montreal, 1983) while Zegras is an ultra-creative Westchester County native and Boston University signee.

There's the size and passing skills of 6-foot-4 Kirby Dach of Saskatoon.

And there's the bravado and back story of Dylan Cozens, who is trying to become the first Yukon native to crack the NHL since 1980 and surprised reporters Friday with his uber confidence about cracking an NHL lineup this season after a standout year at Lethbridge of the Western League.

"It's great. That's kind of where the league is going," Zegras said of the potential impact of this year's center class. "Fast. High skill. You've got to play both ends of the ice now when you look at the Boston Bruins and Patrice Bergeron. That's a great example of that.

"You have to be able to play both ends of the ice. You want to win Stanley Cups and be a high-end NHL player, you've got to be able to play both ends of the ice."

Much of the Sabres' choice, of course, will be made for them based on picks made ahead of them. After Hughes and Kaapo Kakko, the draft really starts with Chicago at No. 3 and the Blackhawks have listened to sales pitches for the spot from several players all week.

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"It's pretty neat to see," Dach said. "So many teams are built around their center depth and to have so many great centers here is a lot of fun."

By the time the draft hits No. 7, there's a chance there will be major temptation for the Sabres.

The biggest one might be 5-foot-7 winger Cole Caufield, who set a record this year with the U.S. National Development Program by scoring 72 goals. It will be interesting to see if Caufield's measurables at Saturday's workouts match his advertisements.

If Caufield is still around at No. 7, he would certainly boost the organizational depth chart at right wing. But he's not a center. You might say 72 goals are 72 goals and you might be right. I say in response that Caufield is not getting close to 72 goals in the NHL anyway, and he's not having any success without centers to help get him the puck.

There are times when you get the sense the Sabres are trying to be the smartest guys in the rooms. And while their record at the NHL level has been abysmal the last two years, it's hard not to get enthused over their draft record since Botterill took over as general manager.

But this is one pick they can't overthink. Especially since they foolishly jettisoned O'Reilly, they have to build back their depth.

Stay right down the middle.

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