Buffalo Sabres 2019 Draft Preview


Cheers, everyone. It’s draft week.

The Sabres need to get some forwards. It’s as simple as that, really.

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The Picks

1st round – 7th overall
1st round – 31st overall (from St. Louis)
3rd round – 67th overall
*4th round – 122nd overall (from San Jose)
6th round – 160th overall
6th round – 175th overall (from Winnipeg)
6th round – 177th overall (from Toronto)
7th round – 191st overall
*San Jose must decide to give the Sabres this pick or a 3rd round selection in 2020

Taking Inventory

Forwards

Let’s start with the centermen, where Jack Eichel (22), Rasmus Asplund (21), Arttu Ruotsalainen (21), Casey Mittelstadt (20), and Marcus Davidsson (20) give the Sabres a balanced blend of young talent. There is always room to keep adding, though.

Asplund recently completed his first season of North American hockey, collecting 41 points (10+31) in 75 games. He ended on a heater with 21 of those points coming in the final 20 regular-season tilts. As roughly a half-a-point player (.49, .56., .55 over the last three seasons), the two-way Swede has maintained his look and feel of an ideal third-line NHL pivot when fully baked.

The addition of Ruotsalainen and his 204 games of Liiga experience only bolsters the depth of the group. If Ruotsalainen and his shifty offensive wiring don’t not crack the Sabres roster this fall as a middle-line forward, he will return to Finland to keep working on his game. Nice depth addition regardless.

Davidsson will spend another year overseas, exiting Djurgarden IF of the Swedish Hockey League to play a larger role with the Vaxjo Lakers. Davidsson projects as a good fit for a lower-line role on the smaller North American rinks, given his straight-line, end-boards-to-end-boards mentality, shot generation from the center lane, and overall sense of urgency. He’s a player who I don’t worry about in terms of counting stats because his value to the roster won’t always be measured that way.

It gets interesting for the Sabres down the wings, where it's clear the Sabres could afford to develop more natural scoring, especially on the right side with Tage Thompson and heady 24-year-old Andrew Oglevie being the only right-wingers in the pipeline.

While the Sabres remain patient with Alexander Nylander (Nylander can play both the left and right side), fellow Swede Victor Olofsson demonstrated his sniping ability last season with 30 goals as a first-year AHL player. One or both could be ready for full-time NHL duty this fall.

Every organization needs that pesky forward that can stir things up, but also produce points. The Sabres filled that role last season by scooping up Matej Pekar in the fourth round. Pekar, who played mostly center in the USHL, seems to be projecting as a left-winger as that is where he played both at the Prospects Challenge and in Barrie.

Late-round lottery ticket Linus Weissbach adds respectable depth down the left side. The Swede will return for a third year at the University of Wisconsin after netting 25 points (8+17) in 27 games last season. The Badgers were 11-5-1 when he recorded a point.

The biggest question mark is the hulking Brett Murray, who scored a league-best 41-goals last season as a 20-year-old in the USHL. After things didn’t work out with Penn State, Murray was set to use the final two years of his NCAA eligibility at Miami.  That’s no longer the plan, but the best-case scenario is that he finds a collegiate home and continues his development.

Defense

While the Sabres have a clear need to add forward depth, the continued stockpiling of swift-skating defensive prospects is never a bad idea. Those mass additions don't necessarily need to happen this year, though. The Sabres currently have more defensemen than forwards in the pipeline. Volume of prospects aside, defense is where the Sabres have the greatest amount of talent.

The mobile and edgy Will Borgen jumped right into a role with Rochester last season, immediately becoming a right-shooting commodity that isn’t too far off from being an everyday NHLer. He cashes all of his checks, but there’s some underrated simple offensive tendencies in the package as well.

Behind Borgen as right-shots are former third-rounders Oskari Laaksonen, a fleet-footed calculated risk-taker who will play one more season in Finland before making a major North American splash, and confident two-way force Casey Fitzgerald, who enters his first professional season with promise after a four-year career at Boston College.

The wildcard among the right-handed shots is Miska Kukkonen. Following a midyear trade from Tappara to Luukko, Kukkonen appears on the verge of a breakthrough that should see him become a solid North American option upon completion of his Liiga contract in 2021. The crock pot is set to low with Kukkonen and that’s perfectly normal.

Regarding the left-handers, Lawrence Pilut headlines the group with his impressive skating ability and an offensive mindset. Like Borgen, Pilut looks to be a lock for a regular NHL role shortly after completing his shoulder rehab.

The remaining left-side prospects offer a compelling mix, with Western Michigan University sophomore Mattias Samuelsson being the composed, steady defender with low-key snarl, former Providence College standout Jacob Bryson being the puck-distributing zone-exit machine, Linus Cronholm bringing his hard-hitting game into a larger SHL role next season with Malmo, and former Boston University product Brandon Hickey entering his second pro season in Rochester with a look of a quality organizational depth defender. Lanky long-range project William Worge-Kreu rounds out the lefties.

Goaltenders

Probably the biggest no-brainer recommendation one can make to the Sabres is for them to shore up their prospect depth in net. Sure, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen looks like a keeper and bona fide NHL prospect after being named the OHL’s Most Outstanding Player, but they have just one other goalie prospect in 2015 third-round pick Jonas Johansson, and he may very well top out as an organizational four.

I said this last preview, but it bears repeating. It is difficult to conduct a development camp with just two netminders, but beyond that, it is critical to gather a pool that pushes each other throughout the developmental cycle. Plucking an undrafted free agent along the way can help the process, but it'd be wise to keep adding via the draft. It’s can’t be just the UPL show.

The Class of 2019

There were nine or fewer rearguards taken in the first round in the 2013-2017 drafts. The 2018 gathering saw 14 taken on Friday, including four in the top 10. This year should revert to the “nine-or-fewer” model, with perhaps just one selected among the first 10 picks.

Once you get outside of the top dozen or so players, this draft is all over the place. A guy I have pegged for 15th overall could still be on available at the end of the first round, and vice versa. You can say this most years, but it’s especially true in 2019.

The forecast for 2019 is crystal clear when it comes to goaltending, with one standout prospect shining brightly atop a solid grouping. Last June, the position was ignored until day two when the New York Rangers plucked Sweden’s Olof Lindbom 39th overall. In 2019, the first one getting taken near the middle of round one seems to be a pretty good bet. The later one goes, the better for a paltry stocked Sabres organization that is currently without a second-round pick.

I’m not including him in the picks section, but I like the kid so much I’m giving him his own section.

Spencer Knight – G, U.S. National Under-18 Team (USHL), 6'3.5", 193 lbs.

I know, I know. A goalie? Really, Baker? The Sabres already have a great prospect with Luukkonen. Why the heck would you burn a coveted high pick on another when the depth chart illustrates so many other needs?

Because taking Knight anywhere after pick 15 would be taking the best player available. He’s going to be that good, in my opinion. You’d be making a long-term commitment to the franchise and improving quality depth at an important position.

Anyone that has talked hockey with me knows I’m all about goalie IQ. Everything needs to move together. Knight is all that. He can play compact. He is ready to make the second save when needed.

Physically, Knight is the total package with his long-limbed frame, supreme skating and powerful pushes, and polished all-around fundamentals that help keep his position and manage rebounds. Bundle in extreme quickness, a high level of goalie vision, and an aggressive, challenging mentality, and the Boston College commit has every detail nailed to be the first goalie taken in 2019. He’s calm, confident, and extremely athletic as evidenced by his Combine performance. Oh, and he can confidently handle the puck as if he’s a skater.

Given Jason Botterill’s propensity to target the higher rated goaltending prospects, it makes sense for the Sabres to have paid special attention to Knight this season.

Knight posted an impressive 24-4-01 record in 2017-18 with the U.S. National Under-18 team, along the way posting a 2.61 GAA and .912 save%. He was rock-solid internationally, winning six of seven starts with a 1.78 GAA and .924 save%.

He was even better this past season, going 32-4-0-1 with a 2.36 GAA and .913 save%. Knight was lights out at the World Under-18 Championship with a 1.51 GAA and .936 save% in six outings.

It’s clear that Knight’s special set up oozes elite professional potential i.e. a franchise goaltender. While developmental philosophies vary on the position, Knight has proven himself worthy of a first-round pick.

It just won’t be made by Buffalo.

Knight being a Sabres property was possible when the Sabres had three 1's in hand. They no longer do, and with that, I can’t see a scenario where they’re a player for his services (hello, Florida).

Don’t worry, goalie lovers. I’ve included a goalie in this preview slotted as a primary day 2 option and I’m pretty sure it’s one they covet.

Trends

Entering 2019, seven of the 12 players selected by Botterill’s staff have been defensemen. It’s time to grab another goaltender, and there is no question that forward depth needs to be addressed. He has added just four forwards via the draft since being handed the reigns.

Botterill was not the primary shot-caller during his years in Pittsburgh, but some drafting patterns developed during his time with the Penguins that have carried over to his Buffalo tenure. I offered a lot of detail on this as part of the 2018 Draft Preview. I’ll repeat some (not all) of that below.

The 2017 draft took place on Botterill's 43rd day on the job with a scouting staff inherited from the previous regime. The 2018 process was the first with a department that he constructed.

Botterill era Sabres picks by year, by league:


1st
2nd
3rd
4th
5th
6th
7th
2017
USHL
SHL, FIN Jr.
FIN Jr.
NCAA (HE)


USHL
2018
SHL
USHL (NTDP)

USHL, SWE Jr.
FIN Jr.

SWE Jr.

Botterill era Sabres pick dispersal by position:


1st
2nd
3rd
4th
5th
6th
7th
F
1
1

1


1
D
1
1
1
2
1

1
G

1






A few thoughts in summary:

The NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement helps drive the draft strategy. It’s not a hard, fast rule when picking players, but holding a European player’s signing rights for four years (or a NCAA-bound player’s rights until they’ve completed college) offers a prospect more developmental time and the drafting club more maneuverability to manage incoming/outgoing entry-level contracts, as opposed to selecting a player out of the CHL and only holding their exclusive rights for two years.

It’s fair to say this concept was executed during Botterill’s time in Pittsburgh.

USHL - From 2013-2016, the Penguins selected a player out of the American Tier 1 Junior A circuit in four consecutive drafts – the only league that received attention in each of those four years.

The international language: As the Penguins diversified their prospect portfolio, Europe emerged as a trend with five of the final 15 picks during his tenure being used on players from overseas leagues, including three from Finland.

CHL - The Penguins used 14 of their 27 selections between 2009-2012 on players from the WHL, OHL and QMJHL. In the four years after, just four of their 21 picks came from these leagues.
These numbers are compelling as it has bled into how the Sabres have functioned at the draft table over the last two years.

With their 12 picks under Botterill’s watch, the Sabres selected four players out of the USHL, one directly out of the NCAA, and seven from Europeans leagues, including four from Sweden and three from Finland. One of those Finns was a second-round goaltender.

Meanwhile, the selected zero Russians (nyet!) and zero players from the CHL (zero with zed).

The Sabres maintain a significant scouting presence in Canadian junior rinks with five of their 11 amateur watchers covering the WHL, OHL, and QMJHL, but you’d think that there’d be a much higher probability in a Canadian junior player being picked on Friday than Saturday.

In fact, there’s a scenario in play that could see them end “the streak”.

Sabres Draft Facts & Figures

The 2019 Draft marks the second time that the Sabres hold the seventh overall selection.
-          1996 – Erik Rasmussen

Of the 34 players to dress for the Sabres in 2018-19, just 13 were drafted and developed by the club (38%).

The Sabres have selected at least one player from a European league in seven of the last eight drafts.
-          Prior to 2011, the Sabres completed four consecutive drafts without choosing a product of a European league.

As far as Russian players are concerned, the Sabres have selected just two with their last 116 picks going back to 2004.

The Picks

Given the Sabres' organizational needs and established tendencies, it's time for the author to play Scouting Director and ponder some players who could be available with each of their scheduled selections.

Once the first two picks are filed Friday, the Sabres are scheduled to make five or perhaps six additional selections the following day. The mission with how the Sabres spend that currency is the same as always - address team speed while improving their overall character and competitiveness.

But first the standard disclaimer:

The Sabres' current NHL roster needs cannot dictate the draft strategy. After all, who's there today could be gone tomorrow. It’s never a bad idea to take the best players available with the greatest upside regardless of position, especially since most will require multiple years to develop.
An underlying selection strategy resides in the pursuit for positional balance in the prospect ranks. A successful draft will begin by assessing the skill sets of what's already in the cupboard, and then addressing any deficient areas per your team-building ideology.

1st round, 7th overall:

THE PICK: Trevor Zegras – C, United States National Under-18 Team (USHL), 6'0.25", 173 lbs.

Zegras, a left-handed centerman who projects equally well as a winger, looks like an amazing fit for the modern-day NHL given his impressive skating game and puck skills. It’s just a matter of if Zegras will be there when it's the Sabres turn to pick.

You’d have to think that this pick likely only happens if Steve Yzerman and Detroit, who picks one spot ahead of Buffalo, selects powerful Russian Vasily Podkolzin. Time will tell.

We’ll talk more about his footwork shortly, but Zegras lands in the top 10 thanks to his excellent handle on the puck (he truly keeps it on a string) and his supreme vision that allows him to distribute it through tight windows. He’s an uber-skilled, heads-up playmaker, unquestionably among the best in the entire draft class. He can zip a lengthy pass right on the tape to a winger in stride, or he can apply great touch be it with a soft saucer over sticks or threading a needle through skates around the net.

In 60 games this season, the Bedford, NY native piled up 87 points (26+61) , including 40 (14+26) in 27 games versus USHL competition.

On top of it all, he’s not allergic to playing without the puck in the defensive zone. He embraces his responsibilities by tracking his checks and supporting the play beneath the goal line. There are other centermen near the top of the draft that can get a little sleepy in the defensive zone. Zegras is not one of them. It wasn’t always that way. Perhaps the greatest area that Zegras developed while at the NTDP was the realization that there are no shortcuts.

The quality that really qualifies Zegras as a special player, though, is his skating game. The kid has amazing balance and superior acceleration that sees him quickly separate. It’s fun watching him shift through his gears and work his edges when holding the puck. His elite feet give him confidence and command when making plays, but it also helps with his defensive zone work by offering straight-line speed on the backcheck and gaining proper body positioning to stay on the right side of his man.

I can see the Sabres selecting Zegras and monitoring his development on a year-to-year basis. He could be a one-and-doner at Boston University, but there is no harm in giving him an extra year to add some mass and enjoy the best years of his life as a collegiate athlete. He’d be worth the wait.

If Zegras is gone, the easy pick to make is…

Dylan Cozens – C, Lethbridge Hurricanes (WHL), 6'3.25", 183 lbs.

“Botterill doesn’t like the CHL!!” = myth.

If the Sabres don’t like Cozens, they simply don’t like 5v5 difference makers.

Big and strong with excellent speed and surprising agility, Cozens isn't going to take long to make a dent. I’m not at all suggesting the Sabres rush him into the mix, but he’s explosive enough (and man-child enough) to immediately compete against NHL competition. I just don’t see the point in doing so. Let him cook, lead a World Junior team, continue to dominate, build off his 34-goal, 84-point season, etc.

Cozens is a hard-driving kid who owns the center lane and thus commands attention whenever he’s on the ice. He’s a magnet for both pucks and defenders, and that bodes well for his teammates. As a shoot-first pivot, he launches heavy shots with a quick release that sees him score from range at his current level, but you can easily see his power game and hands quickly elevating pucks from in tight when he hits the NHL.

Part of his quick path to NHL readiness is the fact that he’s an extremely reliable 200-foot player as well. The work ethic is in place as he consistently uses his quick feet, long stick, and big frame to do his job. He’s a very low-risk player with a legitimate top-six ceiling out of the box. I’m trying to identify deficiencies and I’m not seeing much to be worried about.

Adding a player like Cozens would add a versatile, unique element to the Sabres center ranks. Keep in mind, I would personally simplify his life and bring him along as a winger when he first enters the league, but regardless the jam he’d bring to the table would be a more than welcome addition.

***

I’m not going to get too cute and conjure up these crazy trade scenarios, but if the Sabres were to move back a couple spots and pick up a second-round pick along the way there are two players the Sabres could target.

One is Peyton Krebs, who I think is a can’t-miss prospect regardless of his recent Achille’s tendon tear. It may come back to bite me, but I’m not going to detail his game here (unless they somehow pick him). Instead I want to focus on a different player that has become a favorite of mine over the past 18 months.

Matthew Boldy – LW, U.S. National Under-18 Team (USHL), 6'2", 196 lbs.

Committed to Boston College for 2019, Boldy is a quick, energetic winger with a great sense for the two-way game and a keen nose for the net. If he played center, he’d be a serious contender for pick No. 7.

There are plenty of guys in this class who make highlight-reel plays with the puck. If that’s all you want, then Boldy probably isn’t your primary cup of tea.

The fact of the matter is that stick pressure and stick positioning are vital in today’s NHL. Proper body positioning will win small-area battles. These are the types of details we look for when we talk about a complete hockey player, and this is area where Boldy sets himself apart from most of his peers in the top half of the first round.

As Boldy has grown from a 5-foot-9 kid all the way up to a physically developed marksman, his game has grown at the same rate. Moving to the U.S. National Team Development Program has thrust him into a schedule that often sees him competing against bigger, stronger players, and the experience has paid off.

Boldy served notice back in November 2017 at World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, where he led the entire tournament with nine points (3+6) in the Americans’ six-game march to the gold medal. It was at that tournament that the long and lanky forward made an impression with his acceleration, awareness, and three-zone competency at a high rate of speed to give the scouting community a better understanding of his potential. Radar locked.

The promising results continued all year, with the Millis, Massachusetts native notching 29 goals and 76 points in 61 games that season, including 35 points (12+23) in 34 games against older United States Hockey League opponents.

His excellence continued into 2018-19, beginning with a standout performance at the All-American Prospects Game that saw him score twice and assist on the game-winner to earn the game’s Most Valuable Player honor. He ended up uncorking 33 goals and 81 points in 64 games with the National Under-18 Team. Baked into those numbers was 12 goals and 20 points in their 19-game NCAA schedule.

Some will say that Boldy would be a safe pick. Hogwash! Picking Boldy would be a smart pick. I just don’t see any weaknesses in his game. He’s a guy I can win with when placing him in a lineup with higher ceiling offensive players that may have a few flaws.

I’m not looking to rush any more prospects into the pro ranks. The Sabres badly need to develop some top-six NHL forwards. Boldy’s long range projection to do many things well, including scoring some huge goals, makes him a player that many teams are likely coveting once the big centermen drop off the board.

1st round, 31st overall

The phrase “it’s not how big you are - it’s how big you play” applies to those in range for this pick…

Given the unknowns after the first 12-15 selections, the idea is that the Sabres hope one of these four players falls in their lap at No. 31:

Not-so-likely Scenario:

Bobby Brink – RW, Sioux City Musketeers (USHL), 5'8.25", 165 lbs.

Full disclosure II: my gut tells me that Brink isn’t going to last this long. If it were to happen, great. If the Sabres were to add a pick in the 20s via trade, even better. You never know, though, so he needs to be included.

Cole Caufield gets all the accolades for being small in stature with a big-time game, and rightfully so because the kid could end up being a great NHL player, but Brink isn’t too far behind with his high-pace, highly instinctive brand in his 5-foot-8 frame.

Brink was nothing short of marvelous in 2018-19, posting 35 goals and 33 assists while averaging just shy of three shots on goal per game. In terms of consistency, he factored into a goal being scored in 38 of 43 games as he played in last season. Not too shabby.

This kid a very smart hockey player. He uses his intelligence to find space, both to set himself him up to skate into his bomb of a one-timer but to also suck defenders in and create space for others to fill so he can set up a scoring chance. He knows how opponents are going to act when he’s attacking the zone, and he’s quick to read what’s in front of him so to make the high percentage play.

Over-analyzing draft prospects can get you too far down in the weeds, to the point where you start focusing on minor skating flaws. I had those concerns initially when watching Brink early in the year. I no longer worry about Brink’s stride simply because I don’t see how it would limit him at the pro level. 

Problem is, I think teams in the 20s feel the same way.

With Brink, it’s not a question of if he will hit as a NHL player. It is when. He’s set to enroll at the University of Denver this fall. He could reasonably play two seasons before jumping into the pro waters.

More likely scenarios:

Ville Heinola – LHD, Luuko Rauma (Liiga), 5'11.75", 178 lbs.

A steady riser all season long despite dealing with a knee injury, Heinola is all about the transition game and circulating the puck with ease. He’s a natural when it comes to carrying the puck and directing a power play.

The Sabres would love to add another left-handed puck-lugger to take some of the heat off Rasmus Dahlin. Heinola, who does well playing his off side, would someday improve the Sabres’ breakouts and add much-needed motion and spacing at the top of the offensive zone.

Heinola began last season with Luuko’s Jr. A squad, but was quick to earn call to the big club. It was game on from there as he eased his way into an all-situations role as a 17-year-old, netting 14 points (2+12) in 34 games. He played over 20 minutes a night in eight of his final 11 games. Eight of his points came in those final 11 contests.

By comparison, Miro Heiskanen scored 10 points (5+5) in 37 Liiga games in his draft year. I think everyone knows how good that kid is.

So why isn’t Heinola a top-10 pick like Heiskanen was? 

Heinola isn’t the biggest defenseman out there, and he’s definitely not a track star. There are better skating D in this area of the draft, but his mind is exceptionally quick. I don’t want to say that the game seems ridiculously slow to him, but he reads and processes the play at such a high rate with limited unforced errors. It’s that maturity and IQ that makes him attractive despite the perceived physical shortcomings. 

It’s the same maturity and IQ that drives his strong defensive positioning. He’s not going to blow anyone away with physicality, but he knows how to use his stick, play his angles, and calmly out-think most opponents. I can see him killing penalties and being a good shot suppressor at the NHL level based on his ability to keep himself out of trouble this season as a Liiga rookie playing on big ice. He's really impressive.

Nils Hoglander – LW, Rogle BK (SHL), 5'9.5", 185 lbs.

Hoglander, a 5-foot-9, 185-pound winger, arrives at the draft checking a ton of boxes for a desirable NHL prospect.

Hoglander is simply insatiable. With or without the puck, his feet never stop moving. He’s a no-fear, no-quit worker operating with a high level of energy. Much like I mentioned with Boldy, and no different than the reasons I’ve always appreciated Asplund, Hoglander is very active in applying stick pressure. He’s not going to throw his body around with reckless abandon, but he can still be plenty disruptive on the forecheck. This kid just loves to compete and fight for pucks. It’s really fun to watch.

On top it all, you’re not going to find a better set of hands at this stage of the draft. His pace and slippery nature forces defenders to back off, and his puck control ability lends to the possession game. He can cut inside, cut outside, and he has the attitude to try to go through you and maintain possession. Rounding off his individual parts are crisp and accurate passing and shooting skills.

Hoglander posted modest numbers in 50 games last season with Rogle BK, netting seven goals, seven assists, and 56 shots on goal while averaging 12:36 of work. If the Sabres elected to let him marinate for two additional years playing against men, it’s reasonable to think he’d be on a fast track after a brief AHL tour, no different than how Asplund and Olofsson are already knocking at the door.

When it all comes together, Hoglander has the look of a dangerous player that can occupy either wing and develop chemistry with a highly competent centerman.

Jakob Pelletier – LW, Moncton Wildcats (QMJHL), 5'9.25", 165 lbs.

If the Hoglander is gone and the next best undersized firecracker is still available at the bottom of the round, then the Sabres really need to consider pulling the trigger given their need to add more top-end offensive production.

The functional intelligence Pelletier brings to the rink drives his game. He knows he must play at a frenetic pace and try to force turnovers with an aggressive attitude. He’s disciplined and understands that he needs to work hard without the puck. When he’s not scoring, he’s still a very useful player.

The bottom line, though, is that Pelletier makes his money in his offensive zone by shooting and dishing with equal aptitude. He wants the puck on his stick. The desire and skill set generated an impressive 30 goals and 89 points this season in 65 appearances for the Wildcats.

When you watch him closely, you realize that his smaller frame actually works to his advantage. He darts through seams to get into scoring areas with his stick down on the ice. He motors past bigger players as they pivot and gains a step before unloading a lethal shot or threading a perfectly timed pass. He has the sense to engage traffic and then, in a split second, back out to find space and put himself in a better position to receive a pass.

With high pace and creativity in spades, Pelletier is right there with Rafael Lavoie as the best forward prospect to come out of the QMJHL this season.

3rd round, 67th overall

THE PICK: Simon Holmstrom – RW, HV71 (SuperElit J20), 6'0.75", 193 lbs.

An energetic winger that makes skillful plays with a fearless attitude, Holmstrom entered last offseason as a desirable 2019 draft target for teams looking to add a two-way sparkplug.

After all, the nearly 6-foot-1 playmaker closed strong in 2017-18, pacing Sweden’s SuperElit J20 Top 10 in scoring with eight goals and 23 points in 16 games, and then notching another eight points (1+7) in HV71’s six-game march to the J20 championship. All signs pointed to Holmstom vying for an SHL roster spot in August when camp commenced.

Holmstrom began the season on the mend, though, as his recovery from double hip surgery kept him off the ice until October. Upon his return, Holmstrom connected for four goals and six points in seven J20 tilts and earned his first look with the top club before going back on the shelf with yet another injury to his thumb. Then there was a reported bout with a concussion. When all was said and done, Holmstrom battled his way to 20 points (7+13) in 21 total games at the J20 level.

What Holmstrom lacks in size, he more than makes up with heart. He squeezes past checkers along the boards, and the same slipperiness and agility applies in small areas to gain space and leverage his hands in tight.

Holmstrom has first-round ability. It’s his availability that some teams will question.

With limited viewings available to NHL, the Sabres may have a leg up on their competition when it comes to knowledge of Holmstrom’s game. An offseason staffing change saw the Sabres Director of Amateur Scouting, Ryan Jankowski, replace departing European bird dog Jan-Axel Alavaara with Marcus Fingal, who joins the Botterill administration following a four-year run with HV71. You’ll probably have a hard time finding a resource that can offer the depth of insight on Holmstrom like Fingal can. Familiarity can work for and against a player, but I think the good outweighs any bad with Holmstrom, especially if you can snag him with a third-round pick.

Samuel Fagemo - RW, Frolunda HC (SHL) 6'0", 190 lbs.

With the Sabres seeking more goal-scoring pop, they could be compelled by Fagemo following his 14-goal, 25-point regular season in Sweden's top men's league. He followed that up with another six goals and 10 points in FHC's 16-game run to the league title.

I wrote about Fagemo last year as a possible sixth-round target for the Sabres, but no team took the bait. 

In 2017-18 at the junior level, Fagemo connected for 19 goals in 37 regular-season contests, and then poured in another five lamplighters in as many playoff games, but was branded as one dimensional. From there, the fire was lit. After acquitting himself nicely in 2018-19 in a difficult league, Fagemo won't be ignored this time around. It's just a matter of how high of a pick a team will invest in him.

Simply put, Fagemo is a quick-footed sniper that generates a high volume of shot attempts and finds success. Fagemo possess nice stick skills and good one-on-one game, but has also proven himself as unselfish. He no doubt knows his way around the offensive zone. His skating technique has improved, and he'll need to continue working on his two-way commitment in order to achieve what appears to be a top-six NHL ceiling. Draft him. Stash him. Cut the player development staff loose.



Simon Lundmark – RHD, Linkoping HC (SHL), 6'1.75", 197 lbs.

As the Sabres tracked defensive project William Worge-Kreu this season, there is a good chance they became enamored with the play of Lundmark, a mature, highly poised defenseman who split the season between Linkoping’s J20 team and SHL entry.

Lundmark is the definition of steady. He’s strong on his skates and smooth when he moves, executing very decisively with great timing. His passes are sharp and accurate, he cancels his checks cleanly, and he rockets the puck to the net with authority. He’s not an aggressive puck-mover, but he can go when given the space. Still, most SHL viewings saw him make safer plays to get the puck out of the zone in an effort be conservative and not do too much.

Lundmark endured some teaching moments in his 28 games competing against men for the first time, but that’s to be expected. The experience certainly made him a better player with each passing game, and it’s fair to think some of the offense he displayed at the J20 level (25GP 2-15-17) should translate next season as he settles into a full-time big-league role.

Patrick Moynihan – LW, U.S. National Under-18 Team, 5'11", 180 lbs.


When writing a draft preview, sometimes you just want to capture the essence of the player and the impact they have on those around them. I don’t want to write about Moynihan’s technical skills, of which he has many, because that’s a boring articulation, especially since it’s his mentality that will make him successful.

I love players that possess an innate ability to adapt to the game conditions and perform various tasks at a high level. With organizations needing pieces that go about their business in straight lines and get the job done, Moynihan is a player that will know his role and execute with simplicity and accountability. He trains hard and he plays hard.

Buried on a stacked NTDP, Moynihan doesn’t get the love that his game commands but you can bet NHL clubs know exactly what this kid is made of. He doesn’t have the playmaking skill of Jack Hughes, the skating of Zegras, or the finishing range of Cole Caufield, but to me he’s a middle line projection that can flash brilliance when his team needs someone to step up and make a play – and I personally believe that’s paramount when a GM is trying to assemble individual parts in hopes they can gel together and win a championship.

They’re not at elite levels, but Moynihan has just enough speed and skill to hang with the big guns. He has a grinder’s mindset to work the walls and shut down the opposition’s best. When transitioning to offense, he creates on his own and hasn’t been “carried” by the star-studded cast around him. He possesses a quick, accurate trigger, and he has the headiness to know when to hold the puck, when to dish it, and when to shoot it.

I suspect I'm higher on him than most, but simple hockey wins. Providence College is getting a good one in Moynihan, and an NHL club will also.


4th round, 122nd overall (working on the assumption that San Jose will cede this to the Sabres)

THE PICK: Erik Portillo – G, Frolunda J20 (Swe. Jr.), 6'6", 209 lbs.

Committed to the University of Michigan (Botterill’s alma mater – not that it matters much), Portillo mixes his obvious physical gifts with a strong athletic base and mobility to keep his game tight. He’s big, but not awkward. He moves well with all pieces moving as one. The strong core is present. He’s not talked about a lot, but he’s a pretty dynamic prospect.

Portillo was rock-solid this season for Frolunda at the J20 level. Check out these results:

J20 Sodra: 10-4 record with one shutout, 2.21 GAA, .927 save%.
J20 SuperElit Top 10: 11-1 with two shutouts, 1.73 GAA, .938 save%
J20 Slutspel: 2-1 record, 2.02 GAA, .933 save%.

Now let’s get into the fun part of reviewing a goalie prospect, because let’s face it, at the junior level it’s easy to slide and block and become successful simply by taking up space. It’s not about the saves you make anyways. It’s about the goals you let in.

There’s a heck of a lot more to it when advancing to the game’s highest level, though. The best “big” goaltenders are those with strong fundamentals that keep their positioning…and yes, GOALIE IQ GOALIE IQ GOALIE IQ. You need to deal with screens, tips, small area bursts of movement – in other words general chaos – yet stay square.

We’ve seen it a million times. When these skills aren’t present, a big goalie will break down and the speed and dynamics of the NHL game shreds them to pieces.

The good news is that Portillo looks like a goalie that plays at the ideal depth for his height and mobility, allowing him to properly compete at the correct angles and consume a great deal of the net. He can make the cross-crease save and do it while not belly-flopping. More importantly, he doesn’t allow many bad goals.

More good news: He’s become more composed compared to his previous semi-wild tendencies, so there’s less of a need to tame him stylistically. He seems coachable, which is great, because he’ll need to keep working at it.

The USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints recently picked Portillo 5th overall in the Phase II draft. Get him there for a year, let him achieve success while simultaneously working closely with Seamus Kotyk, maybe take a run at the WJC, and then cut him loose up a level with the Wolverines for a few seasons to keep building off the solid base. 

Ethan Phillips – C, Sioux Falls Stampede (USHL), 5'9", 150 lbs.

If I’m running the Sabres (for this exercise I AM), I want the most competitive players possible. Even if I have to sacrifice a fraction of talent, which thankfully in this case I wouldn’t be, I want the ultimate gamers who will do what it takes to win at all costs.

So that brings me to Phillips, a speedy, shifty forward that can play the full sheet with a very detailed game. Phillips, who compares his style to Cam Atkinson, is a legitimate threat whenever he’s on the ice given his intense nature, dogged detail on the forecheck, and ability to quickly execute plays with a high level of intelligence. Phillips is especially effective when given space to maneuver on the power play. You can see him driving defensemen bonkers because he’s hard to get a body on.

The tantalizing package left Selects Academy in late November to join the Stampede and never looked back, collecting 43 points (16+27) in 50 regular-season games for the Clark Cup winners.
From Halifax to the USHL and committed to Boston University, Phillips’ path resembles that of another player I lauded in his draft year – Shane Bowers. Call me sentimental, but if the Sabres miss on Portillo, I’d be quick to gobble up a highly skilled character player in Phillips if he’s still on the board.

Braden Doyle – LHD, Lawrence Academy Spartans (USHS - MA), 5'11", 162 lbs.

Scouts only need a shift or two to understand that the swift-skating Doyle has the two-way game and attitude to develop into an excellent professional prospect. He’s a pace-pusher, and when he’s on his game and using his teammates correctly, he’s proven incredibly tough to defend at the prep level.

Just ask Sabres amateur scout Tom O’Connor, who watched Doyle closely as a member of the Lawrence Academy coaching staff over the previous two seasons.

Having recently completed his senior high school season with Lawrence Academy (28GP 5-24-29), the tenacious Doyle shows no panic in his game. He goes on the attack when breaking the puck out, displaying an explosive first step and high-level identification skills, but also has the recovery speed to use when he gets caught up in the play. If the Sabres wish to add defenders that can initiate offense and jump into the rush, Doyle is an ideal candidate to zero-in on.

He’s still somewhat raw in terms of his defensive skill set, but the intensity and grit are present. Property of the USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints and committed to Boston University, Doyle is in line to receive proper coaching over the course of the next few years and refine his own-zone acumen before looking to turn pro.

Anttoni Honka – RHD, JYP (Liiga), 5'10.5", 175 lbs.

After a down year in 2018 that saw just three Finnish defensemen drafted, and a long wait until the first one went off the board to the Sabres with the 130th selection (Miska Kukkonen), the Finnish hockey factory comes back in a big way in 2019.

Honka, an offensive-minded defender with the long-range potential to become a top-line power-play quarterback, is among that interesting mix of Finnish prospects being offered. He was once thought of as a first-round talent. He struggled in Liiga this year, but it doesn't mean teams would give up on him completely. He was able to reset and fare well when reassigned down a level. It is around the middle of day two when you start to think about adding him.

Like many defenders in his age bracket, Honka needs to continue getting sharper on the defensive side of the puck. Breaking down his game reveals an effortless forward skater that can carry the puck over three lines. He becomes a viable NHL prospect once his defensive (backwards) skating and pivoting improves to the point where he comfortably defends against the rush. 

Honka looks to possess raw ability in abundance, but he clearly needs more all-situations experience to work his way into more consistent decision-making.

6th round, 160th overall (from Minnesota)

THE PICK: Massimo Rizzo – C, Penticton Vees (BCHL), 5'10", 175 lbs.

If you’ve been reading these draft previews for the last decade, you’re familiar with the fact that the Sabres have never drafted a player of the BCHL. It has become a bit of a running joke to include one in every preview because sooner or later you think they’d like a player enough from that league to pounce on one.

Committed to the University of North Dakota for 2019-20, the lightning-fast Rizzo entered his draft year firmly on the radar thanks to a strong finish to his rookie BCHL campaign that saw him collect 13 goals and 39 points in 50 games, including eight goals and 23 points in his final 22 regular-season contests. He added another 10 points (4-6) in 11 playoff contests.

Playing in a quality league and progressing into a point-per-game player when the games matter most was a noteworthy development for a 16-year-old.

Sustaining an injury during offseason training and missing both the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and later the start of his 2018-19 season with the Vees was also noteworthy. It makes you wonder if this high-skill leader crept under the radar of draft watchers.

Debuting in late October, Rizzo collected 11 goals and 40 points in 37 regular-season contests while leading the way as the Vees’ captain. He added another six points (3+3) as Penticton was upset in six games in the first round of the BCHL playoffs.

A natural centerman that could play the left side, Rizzo would appeal to the Sabres not only because of his incredible wheels, but also given his ability to control the pace of play and drive the possession game. He’s a natural creator with a smooth, mature feel in his game. Rizzo projects to add valuable system depth down the middle following a few years in school where he can add muscle mass and continue to round out his game

It’s worth mentioning how the Sabres enjoyed a front-row seat to witness Rizzo’s impressive hands and elite playmaking instincts with one of their amateur scouts, Steve Cocker, doubling as the Vees’ Assistant General Manager.

Tuukka Tieksola – RW, Karpat U20 (Finland Jr. A), 5'10", 157 lbs.

A dazzling playmaking winger, Tieksola is a pass first distributor who has fared well as a possession player at the lower levels.

When you put up 15 goals and a league-best 45 helpers in a 51-game campaign, it’s clear you can drive the offensive play. No U18 winger had ever eclipsed the 40-assist mark in a single Finnish Jr A season until Tieksola did it this year. When those accomplishments aren’t accompanied by accolades of becoming a potential early round pick, it’s either because you’re A) not very big and strong or B) you have warts as a two-way player.

Both may apply to Tieksola. While I’m not normally crazy about players that are perceived to be one-dimensional, the Sabres need creativity and skill so badly that I’d be happy to take a chance in this spot. He’s nifty and agile with impeccable vision. He’s makes low-probability plays look very easy with uncommon confidence. We know how superstars at the junior level can get a free pass and not focus on the defensive zone. It doesn’t mean proper coaching couldn’t do the trick. This kid is worth a look.

Cole Schwindt – RW, Mississauga Steelheads (OHL), 6'3", 180 lbs.

Every team wants to accumulate superstars, but winning organizations realize the importance of weaving team-first workers into the fabric. Thus, the attraction many teams will have to Schwindt if he makes it this far down the board.

Sure, Schwindt can score put up some points along the way, as evidenced by 19 goals and 30 helpers with the Steelheads, but it’s his physicality and commitment to working in the trenches that stand out. He’s not afraid to muck it up. He just has the look and feel of a kid who can develop into a serviceable NHL player by the time he’s 22-23 years old, one that can play big, do some heavy lifting, and pop in a few greasy goals.

6th round, 175th overall

THE PICK: Grant Silianoff – LW, Cedar Rapids RoughRiders (USHL), 5'11", 170 lbs.

With the Sabres developing a group of safe, reliable middle-tier forwards, perhaps they’d be enticed to track Silianoff due to his natural scoring instincts.

An extremely smart player with a well-rounded set of tools, Silianoff’s dominance on the prep school circuit while attending Shattuck-St. Mary’s made him the first overall pick by the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders at the 2017 USHL Phase I Draft. He won’t find his way to the NHL’s first round, but the University of Notre Dame commit drew plenty of scouting attention during his 18-goal, 41-point season in Cedar Rapids that landed on him on the USHL All-Rookie Team.

Silianoff began his draft year with five points (1+4) in five games for the U.S. at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup in August. He would again represent his country in December at the World Junior A Challenge (one assist in six games), an event that was sandwiched amidst a nine-game point streak for the Riders.

Silianoff comes across as a winger with a knack for being in the right place at the right time – and then capitalizing. It helps that Silianoff is quite engaged physically. He functions extremely well in tight spaces with a deft set of hands and impeccable strength on the puck. Still, it’s his breakaway speed, ability to complete the rush, and all-around shooting skill that stand outs the most.
The next step is getting him to release even more shots during his time with Notre Dame.


Filip Cederqvist - RW/LW, Vaxjo Lakers HC (SHL), 6'1", 187 lbs.



Undrafted as one of the younger players in the class of 2018, Cederqvist busted out with Vaxjo's J20 squad this season with 14 goals and 32 points in 26 contests. He gave scouts a better idea of his upside in 33 games at the SHL level, not looking at all out of place while posting eight points (4+4) in a limited role on a competitive club.

Cederqvist, a durable skilled winger that can pick corners, hit the next level with his all-around development this year. He definitely passes the eye test. His upward trajectory and skill set fits the profile of a winger worth drafting with a late-round pick.


Luke Toporowski – RW, Spokane Chiefs (WHL), 5'10", 180 lbs.

A tough as nails character player and explosive skater, Toporowski is a powerful, hard-driving forward that is a on mission to get to the net on every single shift. His aggressive, physical style surely derives from his bloodlines (his father Kerry was a legendary minor league heavyweight), but Toporowski blends in quite a bit offensive skill to make for a compelling NHL prospect.

Appearing in 67 games for the Chiefs, Toporowski netted 21 goals and 49 points. He plays the game with a chip on his shoulder, but it seems that attitude translates to how he learns as well. When you watched him early in the year, you saw him get lost at times in the defensive zone. Fast forward to February and March, and it was a different story. Much better off the puck and defending his man. Few mistakes. That's a good sign, but he needs to keep working.

All that aside, I see a prickly pest that throws his body around and can score. I’d take a long look and consider it in the final rounds.

6th round, 177th overall

THE PICK: Tyler Young – RW, Lawrence Academy Spartans (USHS - MA), 6'1", 165 lbs.

Sabres fans starving to see their team add more speed at the forward positions will certainly find Young, the son of two-time Stanley Cup champion Scott, to be an attractive commodity. He has wheels to burn, but there is certainly more to his game to make him worth developing, particularly in his mature thinking of the game, patience when letting plays materialize, and strong work ethic that make for an ideal penalty-killer.

Young, who connected for 14 goals and 39 points in 28 games last season, will apply his skills with the Wenatchee Wild of the BCHL for a year before enrolling at Providence College for the 2020-21 season.



Owen Lindmark – C, U.S. National Under-18 Team, 6'0.25", 193 lbs.

A non-stop worker who plays fast and with a great deal of intensity, Lindmark, who is the son of a career military man, has come a long way from growing up in Oklahoma and later picking up the game when he was eight years old after a move to Naperville, Ill. Ten years later, he's set to enroll at the University of Wisconsin on a full athletic scholarship. Cool story.

Much like Moynihan, Lindmark found himself lost in the shuffle at times with the NTDP, but really caught my eye at the season-ending Under-18 Worlds with his three-zone tenacity. Hockey people talk incessantly about taking away time and space. That's Lindmark in a nutshell. He's in-your-face gritty.

Lindmark, who posted 11 goals and 25 points this season, is a two-way isn't afraid to pay a price. He’s likely a lower-line role player at the pro level when all is said is done, and while Botterill has talked about finding more skill in the draft, something tells me Lindmark will prove that he has more to offer in that department once he resets in college.

Marc Del Gaizo – LHD, University of Massachusetts Minutemen (Hockey East), 5'9", 170 lbs.


As the draft winds down, why not consider a mobile defender who generates a ton of shots? His 97 shots on goal led all Hockey East freshmen rearguards, outproducing his next closest competitor by 23 shots. He also led all Hockey East freshmen skaters with six power-play goals and a plus-31 rating while playing alongside Cale Makar on the Minutemen's top pair.

Previously passed over in 2018 after leading all USHL D in goals (12), Del Gaizo isn’t going to wow you with a stout defensive posture. This doesn’t mean he’s a pushover, though. He protects the puck well. He rarely coughs it up. Much like how I've been critical of Laaksonen, you want to see Del Gaizo use his body more and commit fewer stick infractions. There's plenty to work with.

At the end of the day, you have a mobile defender that will jump up in the mix and play a fun brand of hockey. The offensive track record is there. Organizational depth is what you hope for at this stage of the draft. I think Del Gaizo could hit that target.


7th round, 191st overall

THE PICK: Carter Gylander – G, Sherwood Park Crusaders (AJHL), 6'5", 171 lbs.

A very trustworthy source has shared with me that the Sabres have expressed interest in Gylander, a 6-foot-5 netminder who posted a 16-4 record with a 2.43 GAA and .915 save% this past season with the Crusaders.

Anyone who knows my family would understand the excitement that would come with being able to track a Colgate University commit for a few years. He’s not set to hit the campus in nearby Hamilton, NY until 2020.

Aside from his big body and long arms, Gylander made an impression on scouts both at the CJHL Top Prospects Game and throughout the entire season with his footwork, agility, and his ability to read plays. Puck tracking is critical and Gylander himself can tell you that continued work on reading and reacting (Gylander is lauded for intelligence and work ethic on and off the ice) has led to improvements in his play.

Gylander entered the year as backup and played roughly one third of the team’s game this year, so next season should see him assume the primary role and enjoy a lot of minutes with a quality club before entering the next stages of his development.

Carter Berger – LHD, Victoria Grizzlies (BCHL), 6'0", 201 lbs.

Committed to the University of Connecticut, Berger is smooth skating puck-mover that caught many an eye this past season from those coming to watch the highly-ranked Alex Newhook. In 54 games, Berger racked up 27 goals, including eight on the power play and another while shorthanded, and 63 total points. Those are forward numbers, for crying out loud.

Berger isn’t exactly a revelation to the scouting community. After going undrafted in 2018, he was invited to skate at Anaheim’s development camp.

A high-IQ offensive defender, Berger will turn 20 in September, giving the Sabres a player a little further along in their development.

Felix Carenfelt - LW, Djurgarden J20 (Swe. Jr.), 5'10", 185 lbs.

Committed to Merrimack University, Carenfelt was another Swedish junior player that took dramatic leaps in his development after being overlooked a year ago. 

Scouts that came to watch 2020 prospect Alexander Holtz likely noticed the talented kid on the opposite wing being very active in the offensive zone. Carenfelt was a point-per-game player this season with 19 goals and 41 points at the J20 level. Untested against SHL level opponents, the reports about his pace and competitiveness have been positive. If he isn't drafted, he'd be a good candidate for a development camp invite given his North American aspirations.
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