VANCOUVER – Since Rasmus Dahlin was selected first overall in Dallas last June, the Buffalo Sabres' scouts have watched and analyzed games from around the globe.
The organization's prospect rankings for this weekend's draft in Vancouver was pieced together and reorganized. Scouts pitched their territory's stars to the rest of the Sabres' staff. Players were interviewed and measured at the scouting combine in Buffalo. Scenarios were discussed at length to prepare for the unexpected.
The end result for the Sabres was a six-player haul that began with Friday's selection of Lethbridge center Dylan Cozens seventh overall and concluded Saturday in Rogers Arena with the addition of four prospects, two of which were chosen after General Manager Jason Botterill packaged picks to trade up.
The intensive yearlong process will be an afterthought for some fans once free agency begins July 1, or if Botterill executes a blockbuster trade. However, what unfolded during the two-day event in Vancouver, and the subsequent development of those six players, will play an important part in Botterill's plan to build a consistent winner in Buffalo.
"We’ve been very happy about the last couple months, how they’ve handled themselves in meetings and the preparation for the draft," Botterill said of his scouting staff, led by amateur scouting director Ryan Jankowski. "When you’re evaluating these kids over such a wide range of the globe – debating on a kid from a Minnesota high school versus a kid playing in the Swedish elite league – it’s very difficult. It’s always intriguing to see winners and losers 24 hours after the draft. With these kids, you’re not going to see it until five or six years down the road. We’re very happy with the people we’ve brought in."
The conversation surrounding the Sabres' third draft under Botterill will begin with Cozens, the 6-foot-3 center who was ranked by NHL Central Scouting as the draft's fifth-best North American skater. Though Cozens will need to gain strength and size before joining the Sabres, he is the most NHL-ready of the group.
He scored 34 goals with 50 assists in 68 games for Lethbridge this past season, tied for 10th in the Western Hockey League. He's a dynamic center who has the defensive awareness to excel at the position once he's physically ready for the NHL.
Additionally, Ryan Johnson, the Sabres' pick at No. 31 in the first round, is what Jankowski described as a "new-age defenseman" who can move the puck and skate well. Johnson, 17, will not be ready to begin a professional career until he plays multiple seasons at the University of Minnesota. He likely will be under the microscope since the pick was acquired as part of last summer's Ryan O'Reilly trade with St. Louis.
Though high picks are the headliners, drafts are often measured by the number of eventual NHL players drafted in mid-to-late rounds. That is an area Botterill's predecessors struggled with and one that helps general managers build playoff teams. The Sabres' mid-round picks under Botterill have excelled with their respective teams since being selected, including defensemen Oskari Laaksonen, who won a gold medal with Finland at the IIHF World Junior Championships and had a breakout season with Ilves of Liiga.
"All you're looking for from these guys is improvement from year to year and I think one of the kids you’ll see this week in development camp is Laaksonen," Botterill said. "When he was drafted, the projection was probably even more further out than he is now, but he continues to get better. Did we think when we drafted him that he’d be in a situation to win a gold medal at world juniors two years later? No. But he’s taken the steps there and he still has steps to go, but I think he’s ramped up his time frame [to reach the NHL]. That’s all you’re looking for out these guys."
The Sabres entered the draft with as many as eight picks – their fourth-round pick, 122nd overall, could be retained by San Jose, though doing so would require the Sharks to send their 2020 third rounder – and Botterill eventually parlayed that draft capital to land two prospects high on their board.
Since Buffalo traded its second-round pick to acquire Jeff Skinner last August, its draft Saturday did not begin until the third round, pick No. 67 , when Botterill approved the selection of Swedish goalie Erik Portillo, a 6-foot-6 18-year-old who is expected to play next season for Dubuque of the United States Hockey League. Portillo, who was not ranked by NHL Central Scouting, joins Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen as the second goalie drafted in Botterill's three years as general manager and posted a .931 save percentage with the junior affiliate of Frolunda, the Swedish Hockey League team that produced Dahlin.
When San Jose confirmed it would send its fourth-round selection to the Sabres, Botterill traded that pick, as well as No. 175, to Vancouver to move up 20 spots in the fourth round. Buffalo then selected winger Aaron Huglen, a recent Minnesota high school graduate who is expected to return to Fargo (USHL) next season.
"We were just a little concerned as we went throughout the draft there were certain guys we wanted to target," Botterill said. "I think that was the flexibility we had with multiple late-round picks; we could move around a little bit and we're certainly happy with the balance we ended up with at the draft over the last two days."
Botterill wasn't done. He traded two more picks -- Nos. 177 and 191 -- to Detroit to move up 34 spots in the fifth round, where the Sabres added Filip Cederqvist, an 18-year winger who had four goals among eight points in 33 regular-season games with Vaxjo of the Swedish Hockey League.
Cederqvist is expected to spend next year with Vaxjo, where he'll be a teammate of fellow Sabres prospect Marcus Davidsson, and could represent Sweden at the IIHF World Junior Championships.
The Sabres finished their draft by using their sixth-round pick, No. 160, on winger Lukas Rousek, a 20-year-old who scored four goals among nine points in 34 games for HC Sparta of Czech Republic's top professional league. He is listed by NHL Central Scouting at 5-foot-11, 165 pounds, and ranked the draft's 39th-best European skater. Rousek is expected to need at least one more season in the Czech Republic before coming to North America.
Under Botterill, the Sabres have selected 18 players over three drafts, including first-round picks Cozens, Dahlin and center Casey Mittelstadt. Some will be in attendance when the organization holds its prospect camp this week in Harborcenter.
Though most fans likely will use Cozens' impact to measure the success of this draft, the Sabres' aggressive moves on Day 2 illustrate how Botterill and his scouting staff prioritize success on each of their selections.
"I think it’s all draft strategy," Jankowski said. "It’s about maximizing players we can get at a certain time. We can get 12 picks and blanket the field with potential players, but if we think we can get a better player by packaging a couple picks together, we feel like we’re getting a better player. That’s how fine-tuned our list is with projections and what we feel our players are going to be. It’s nice to have options, but it’s also nice to get what we think might be a better player."