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Sabres get help from Bills in readying for maybe-virtual NHL draft

Preparations for the National Hockey League's entry draft have been moved from conference rooms to conference calls, and the Buffalo Sabres aren't sure when they will pick in the first round or when the event will be held.

However, it's almost certain General Manager Jason Botterill won't be announcing the pick on a stage at Montreal's Bell Centre, where the event was scheduled for June 26-27. With mandates in place preventing large public gatherings, the NHL is expected to follow the National Football League's lead in holding the draft virtually with Commissioner Gary Bettman announcing each selection remotely.

The nontraditional format has caused general managers and amateur scouting staffs to prepare for every possible scenario — and the Sabres may have a slight advantage over the competition. Bills General Manager Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott shared with Botterill the problems and solutions they discovered during the NFL's three-day, seven-round virtual draft last weekend.

"I think it’s more than a possibility; I think it’s an absolute certainty," Sabres Assistant General Manager Randy Sexton told The Buffalo News of the NHL holding a virtual draft. "We’re fortunate with the Bills. Brandon Beane and Sean have been tremendous with sharing their approach to things – the snafus to be careful on and watch for and plan for. Jason spent a lot of time talking to those guys. That’s been really helpful."

The Bills, though, benefited from a more normal draft preparation. In-person interviews and on-field testing were done at the combine in February, and prominent postseason all-star games weren't affected by the coronavirus pandemic. The Sabres, on the other hand, have to get creative while finalizing their prospect rankings.

Most in-person player evaluations were halted when the National Hockey League suspended its season May 12 in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Professional and junior leagues across the globe canceled their postseasons, including the Canadian Hockey League's Memorial Cup.

The IIHF Under-18 World Championships also were canceled. Under normal circumstances, scouts and executives would not complete their in-person, on-ice evaluations with this draft class until the Memorial Cup in late May. Scouts track draft-eligible prospects years before they are selected, however, and the final months of the season are an opportunity to confirm his or her thoughts on specific players. Teams take particular interest in how a player responds in adverse situations, such as a close game in a postseason tournament.

The cancellation of games caused the Sabres to rely on video scouting to finish their evaluations. Although the footage is useful in measuring a player's talent, games shot with a single camera often miss what happens away from the puck. While Sexton noted a shift in approach has not drastically altered Buffalo's prospect rankings, he detailed the challenges his staff faces when relying on more video.

"There’s no context, because the camera always follows the puck," Sexton said. "Taking everything in, in the context of the game. Was there a skirmish on the line change that the camera doesn’t catch and did the guy you like respond the right way or the wrong way? What’s the coach’s interaction? What are his teammates’ interaction? What’s his body language like? There’s a whole host of visual, physical things that are lost in the video scouting.

"We’ve done our best to try and normalize that as best as we can. There is a little bit of it, but we’ve been saying to our guys that there  isn’t going to be context. Don’t invent it. Watch what you watch, record, take your notes, write your reports and be prepared to discuss it."

Video is the new normal for the Sabres. Some aspects of their approach haven't changed, though. Botterill's staff still holds teleconference calls when the full-time scouts deliver their annual region-by-region, pre-draft prospect reports. However, meetings with smaller groups have shifted to Zoom, a video teleconference service. The latter has slowed some aspects of the pre-draft process, Sexton said.

These in-person meetings are typically animated, with scouts lobbying for the team to draft a prospect from their respective region. A lack of in-person cues can muddle the conversations. The process has been slowed because the Sabres prefer to gather in smaller groups, especially when finalizing their rankings.

"We go through each region," Sexton said. "Typically we do that via conference call, so nothing has changed there, but what’s changed is the entire staff interaction as we have started to create a list and massage it and look for anomalies where we have a player too high on the list or too low on the list. It’s been more cumbersome and has taken more calls because we don’t want to have massive calls with 30-plus people on it. We want to do things smaller and generate more interaction. It’s been more intricate from that perspective, but everything else has flowed the way we typically do it."

The Sabres will rely on technology to help them prepare for the likelihood there won't be a scouting combine, which was originally scheduled for June 1-6 in Buffalo's KeyBank Center and LECOM Harborcenter. The event's postponement caused the Sabres to use video conference calls to interview prospects, but the lack of on-ice testing creates an additional layer of necessary research. Teams are searching for other methods to measure a prospect's speed, strength and agility.

"The fact there’s no on-ice testing is a concern, but again, it’s something that everybody is in the same boat," Sexton said. "We have to work harder, dig up more information, do more due diligence to make sure we’re on top of every facet to consider, rather than relying strictly on test results."

The cancellation of prospects' postseason tournaments caused the Sabres to begin their pre-draft process earlier than usual. Botterill's staff must prepare for every possible scenario, including the draft being held before the season resumes. League officials have expressed an interest in holding a virtual event sometime in June, though it's unclear how draft order would be determined.

The Sabres' .493 points percentage gives them the seventh-best odds if a lottery is held. They are in line to draft in the top 10 for the eighth consecutive year, and this will be Botterill's fourth draft since joining the Sabres, though his amateur scouting director, Ryan Jankowski, did not arrive until after the 2017 class was selected.

While the uncertainty has affected pre-draft preparations, the NHL found some solace that the NFL did not experience any significant hiccups.

"I said to Bottsy, 'Be sure to thank the guys at the Bills for being the guinea pigs for us," Sexton joked. "It’s nice of them to do, but those guys are such pros. They had everything planned to a T, and they’ve been great to share the information with us. Hopefully technologically we won't have any snafoos or operationally, either."

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