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Inside the NHL: Sabres keep pushing for speed and skill by taking three centers in the first round

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NHL Draft Hockey

Bell Centre is viewed during the first round of the NHL hockey draft in Montreal, Thursday, July 7, 2022.

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Sports Columnist

A News staffer since 1987, I'm a Baseball Hall of Fame voter, a 2013 inductee into the Buffalo Baseball HOF and the Buffalo chapter chair of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. And I insist only Chicago & New York can come close to Buffalo pizza.

MONTREAL – Those seasons when the Buffalo Sabres couldn't score are quickly going to become a distant memory. The pipeline is getting full of speed and skill up front. 

Centers generally can play wing but wingers often struggle at center, so the Sabres stayed down the middle with their three picks Thursday night. It wasn't hard to find observers impressed with the Sabres' three picks all being centers in Matthew Savoie of Winnipeg (No. 9), Noah Ostlund of Sweden (16) and Jiri Kulich of Czechia (28).

"Not by accident for sure," was the sly comment from General Manager Kevyn Adams.

Add them to the list of up-and-coming prospects in North America that includes Jack Quinn, JJ Peterka, Lukas Rousek, Isak Rosen, Aleksandr Kisakov and Olivier Nadeau. It's an impressive group. 

Savoie is 5-foot-9, and Ostlund is 5-10. The kneejerk reaction is that's too small. This isn't the 1970s and '80s anymore. Ever heard of Johnny Gaudreau or Alex DeBrincat? You can have success in the NHL as a smaller guy.

And the Sabres will find that out first-hand now that DeBrincat is in the Atlantic Division with the Ottawa Senators after the Chicago Blackhawks' mind-blowing sweep of their roster Thursday. 

Savoie's coach in Winnipeg was former Sabres defenseman and assistant coach James Patrick. Think the man everybody calls "Jeep" talked to his star a little bit about Buffalo? You bet.

"He's a true pro, he always wants the best for his players," Savoie said. "The mentality he brings to the rink every day, so dialed in and focused. I think it just wears off on guys to be the best possible version of themselves and stay really, really focused on their goals."

Adams has to be thrilled to add to his forwards, but he still has a lot of work to do. While the defense corps in Buffalo is pretty stocked and it's young, things are thin in Rochester and the junior ranks. That can be what Friday is for.

As for the day's bigger story: Goalies anyone? 

Lots of them are getting signed or traded. The Sabres still need one. It wasn't a good day for Adams on that front when his trade for Matt Murray with Ottawa fizzled out. The Sabres reportedly were going to flip pick 16 for pick 7 and have the Sens retain a quarter of the $15 million Murray is owed the next two years. Would have been a nice deal.

Didn't happen as Murray used his no-trade clause to nix it. The sense is he's eyeing a spot in Toronto and wanted to avoid a reunion with Sabres goalie coach Mike Bales. He was Murray's coach during the Stanley Cup years in Pittsburgh but reports are the relationship didn't end well and Bales moved on to Carolina.

"We worked hard on a deal but players have the ability in their contract to make those decisions and we want players that want to be here," Adams said. "That's the way we believe. We move on."

The word is the Sabres only want to go two years on a goalie, so that ostensibly eliminates them from pursuing Colorado's Darcy Kuemper, Toronto's Jack Campbell or St. Louis' Ville Husso. Adams has to keep looking. Friday is another day.

Hawks sell their soul

What in the world are the Blackhawks doing? They're tanking, of course.

Sending DeBrincat to Ottawa for three picks, including No. 7 Thursday night, was a ridiculous move by new GM Kyle Davidson. It's solely connected to the teardown of his club to set it up to win next year's lottery and get in the sweepstakes for Connor Bedard, the Regina star who is seemingly locked in already as the No. 1 pick.

Still, DeBrincat is a far better player than anyone the Hawks were going to take at No. 7, which eventually turned into defenseman Kevin Korchinski from Seattle of the WHL. Signed through next season at $6.4 million, DeBrincat piled up career highs of 41 goals and 78 points last season. He's had three 30-goal seasons already and he's only 24.

Shouldn't you be building around a player like that?

Worse yet, what will Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews think of this move? Might it be enough for the legends of the Hawks' Stanley Cup days to ask out as they head into the last year of their dual $10.5 million deals?

Later on in the night, the Hawks traded Kirby Dach to Montreal and acquired goaltender Petr Mrazek from Toronto in an utterly tanky move. You want to lose, play bad goalies. Remember Tim Murray trading every Sabres netminder in 2015 who was winning games?

The Hawks' championship window that produced three Cups and a pair of near-misses has long been slammed shut. The organization was found to be morally bankrupt in the fallout of the Kyle Beach scandal and is now going to sell a sham to its fans while still charging championship-level ticket prices in the United Center. 

Kane and Toews should get out. For all they've done the last 15 years in Chicago, they deserve better at the end of their careers.

Cracked one long-time NHL observer: "It's a good thing they're playing 'Chelsea Dagger' today (in advance of the Hawks' picks). Because the people in the stands aren't going to hear it much after goals with that lineup."

No room for Kuemper

The roars are barely over from the Stanley Cup parade and the general debauchery in Denver and Kuemper got a thanks-for-playing message from Avs GM Joe Sakic.

Colorado acquired Alexandar Georgiev from the Rangers for third- and fifth-round picks this year and a third-rounder in 2023. And the Avs are reportedly working to sign the restricted free agent to an extension and pair him with Pavel Francouz in goal.

The Avs need money if they want to keep names such as Nazem Kadri, Val Nischushkin or Andre Burakovsky, and Kuemper was rating too expensive.

With Mike Smith not expected to return, Edmonton is expected to be going strong for Toronto's Campbell in free agency. Perhaps the Oilers will also be in on Kuemper.

Schedule snippets

It's interesting to study the Sabres' 2022-23 schedule and note the club has eight road trips of at least three games, starting with the four-gamer in October that goes Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Seattle. The Sabres had six last season and five in 2018-19, the previous full season.

Rivalries take a hit when you only play some teams in your division three times. The Sabres only host Toronto once and the Islanders meet the Rangers just once in UBS Arena. You wonder if the league should designate certain divisional rivalries that are always played four times.

And a bizarre schedule to check out belongs to Arizona, which is set up to join Chicago in the tanking club by playing 20 of its first 24 games away from the new rink at Arizona State. The Coyotes open with six on the road, play their home opener Oct. 28 vs. Winnipeg to start a four-game homestand – and then play the next 14 games on the road as final touches to player facilities are made in the 5,000-seat building.

Around the boards

• Forever connected by trades: Ostlund drafted with the pick acquired from Vegas for Jack Eichel, Kulich drafted with the pick acquired from Florida for Sam Reinhart and Rosen drafted with the pick acquired from Philadelphia for Rasmus Ristolainen

• Commissioner Gary Bettman, when asked Thursday if NHL players from Russia should return to North America in the wake of rumors surrounding Minnesota's Kirill Kaprizov: “Russian players that still reside in Russia need to make sure they’re making the best possible decisions for themselves and their families.”

Interesting that Minnesota (Danila Yurov) and Washington (Ivan Miroshnichenko) have marquee Russians already and took the chance on the two big Russian names in this first round.

• New San Jose GM and former Sabres winger Mike Grier was hired on Tuesday and had to go into immediate crisis mode Wednesday when Sharks scout and former NHL defenseman Bryan Marchment died suddenly while here for the draft.

"A sad day for me personally, very sad day for our organization," Grier said. "He meant a lot to a lot of organization, our players, our staff. Anyone who knew Bryan knew the type of man he was. An honest, down to earth loving person who just cared about everyone had time for everyone in the building, and he came across. He was great to me my first few years (as teammates) in Edmonton, treating me with respect right away, made me feel at home. ... It's very difficult."

Grier spoke eloquently on Marchment at the podium Thursday and got big applause from the Bell Centre crowd when he was done.

• Jimmy Snuggerud, the son of former Sabres winger Dave Snuggerud, got his first-round call when St. Louis picked him with pick 23. The younger Snuggerud is much more of an offensive player than his father was and was a standout for the US National Development Team Program.

Zam Plante, Derek's son, will be looking to hear his name called Friday.

• The NHL has not announced a site for next year's draft but the vote here would go to Seattle. Most expansion cities or places that build new arenas are usually promised one of the league's marquee events within their first five years. Vegas hosted the All-Star Game in February and the league is trending toward warm weather sites for that event.

Seattle's spectacular Climate Pledge Arena and lovely June weather would be outstanding settings for the league's annual meeting.

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Sports Columnist

A News staffer since 1987, I'm a Baseball Hall of Fame voter, a 2013 inductee into the Buffalo Baseball HOF and the Buffalo chapter chair of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. And I insist only Chicago & New York can come close to Buffalo pizza.

Related to this story

The Sabres' general manager has articulated his "Process" ad nauseum and did it again Wednesday in LECOM Harborcenter: He's identifying a core for his team and letting that group develop and grow together. You're not blocking their ice time or their development path with big-ticket items, at least not now. And safe to say there was lots of happiness throughout the organization as development camp opened Wednesday with seven first-round picks and gobs of other talent on the ice.

The Sabres' No. 1 pick of last week's draft in Montreal isn't on the ice this week in LECOM Harborcenter as he makes sure his shoulder injured in the WHL playoffs is 100 percent. The kid is bummed because this was his first chance to show people in Buffalo the massive talent the Sabres just acquired, and because he said Thursday it feels like he missed by only a week or two from being ready.

Equipped with cap space ahead of the NHL draft Thursday, the Sabres tried to acquire two-time Stanley Cup champion Matt Murray of the Ottawa Senators. A source confirmed the report by Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet that Murray blocked the move with his 10-team no trade list, which included Buffalo.

A new contract for winger Victor Olofsson is atop general manager Kevyn Adams’ priority list ahead of a draft in which the Sabres own picks 9, 16 and 28. Olofsson, 26, is a restricted free agent after completing his third NHL season – remarkably, only his first featuring a full 82-game schedule – and the negotiation can’t be simple for either side.

Equipped with a trio of first-round draft picks, Buffalo Sabres General Manager Kevyn Adams will soon bolster his already deep prospect pool. However, the Sabres won’t have first dibs when the draft is held July 7-8 in Montreal. They own picks 9, 16 and 28 in the first round, the latter two of which were acquired in the Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart trades, respectively.

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