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Sabres asst. GM sees strength up front in Draft

by Mike G. Morreale

Buffalo Sabres assistant general manager Kevin Devine knows nothing is guaranteed, even with a multitude of high draft picks past and present.

"We're excited about our prospects, but at the same time, just because we get all these picks doesn't mean it's not going to be a challenge," Devine said. "We've seen other teams have early picks for a long time and struggle, so nothing is guaranteed when you go down this route.

"It's just something you hope turns out well and you can surround the younger players with guys who can support them, develop them the right way, and hopefully it all works out in the end."

The Sabres made 11 selections at the 2013 NHL Draft, including two defensemen in the first round, Rasmus Ristolainen at No. 8 and Nikita Zadorov at No. 16.

The Sabres have the No. 2 pick at the 2014 draft and have three first-round picks in the bank for next year: their pick, plus selections from the New York Islanders via the Thomas Vanek trade and St. Louis Blues from the Ryan Miller trade.

Buffalo, which finished with the fewest points in the League in 2013-14, could have had the No. 1 pick this year but the balls at the NHL Draft Lottery didn't bounce their way. Instead the Florida Panthers won the lottery and the right to pick first at the when the first round of the draft is held June 27 (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN) at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.

"I was a little upset after first hearing the news, but there really isn't one guy … I think everybody has a different list and there's not one guy that's probably outstanding on everyone's list," Devine said. "It's not a Sidney Crosby, John Tavares or Steven Stamkos type of year, so while I'm a little disappointed we didn't get the top pick I believe we're still going to get a good player."

While Devine wouldn't share the organization's draft plan for obvious reasons, he did acknowledge he considers Aaron Ekblad of the Barrie Colts in the Ontario Hockey League the best defenseman available in the this year's draft.

"There is a gap between Aaron and every other defender at that point," Devine said. "It's not a real strong year for defensemen. Last year was and we had a couple years ago [2012] with [Mathew] Dumba and [Jacob] Trouba. This year it's more a forward draft."

If the Panthers decide to keep the No. 1 pick and draft Ekblad, the Sabres will have several top-end point-producers to choose from, including Kingston Frontenacs center Samuel Bennett, Kootenay Ice center Sam Reinhart, Prince Albert Raiders center Leon Draisaitl and Oshawa Generals left wing Michael Dal Colle among NHL Central Scouting's top-rated North American skaters.

Bennett was named the top prospect in the Canadian Hockey League, while Reinhart and Draisaitl were named First Team All-Stars in the Eastern Conference of the Western Hockey League. Ekblad was named the defenseman of the year in the Ontario Hockey League and Dal Colle was named an OHL Second-Team All-Star.

Bennett was ninth in the OHL with 91 points in 57 games. He led his team in points, goals (36), assists (55), plus/minus rating (plus-34) and power-play goals (10). He had a league-best 25-game scoring streak, during he had 17 goals and 46 points.

The 6-foot, 178-pound forward is No. 1 on Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters for the draft.

"He plays the kind of game you think cannot be sustained for a whole season because it's a high-energy game and compete game at all ends of the ice," Central Scouting's David Gregory said. "He ends up playing that game for the whole year and has led his team. He just never stops. And put that with the skill package he has and how well he thinks the game, he's pretty much a top-notch player."

Devine likes that top-five group of players but doesn't view them potential saviors.

"We're not going to force kids into a situation where they feel pressure to be the guy to turn the franchise around," Devine said. "We're going to bring them around slowly until we believe they are ready to play and ready to take on that challenge of what might be a difficult one or two years. We're trying to grow [all our young] prospects together to where they can have some success and grow together. But that won't come at the expense of rushing any of these kids unless they're ready."

Sabres general manager Tim Murray joined Devine and several other members of the scouting team at the NHL Scouting Combine in Toronto last month. Murray recently said he'd like to add another first-round pick this year if possible.

"I can't imagine I would trade the second overall pick," Murray told "I'd like to get a couple of more first-round picks and I have those three second-rounders [in 2014]. I certainly know you can't trade a second for a first, but you might take some money back in a deal to do that and I do have to get to the [cap] floor. There are different ways to get to the floor so I'm exploring all that."

The Sabres will have three picks in the second round for the second consecutive season, joining the Dallas Stars (2002-04) and New Jersey Devils (2000-01) as the third team in the last 15 drafts to have three or more picks in the first or second round in consecutive drafts.

It remains to be seen if Murray can acquire a second first-round pick, but the organization conducted interviews with 72 players at the Combine, so there are more than just a handful of prospects the organization could be interested in selecting.

"There are some good players at the top, but there's no Crosby or Tavares," Devine said. "Maybe the draft tapers off a little bit after the top six or seven. The guys in the five to 20 range are probably as strong as we've seen in that range in the past, but there's no one player this year that really jumps out as the No. 1 guy."


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