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Sabres GM has extra picks, options for building

by Joe Yerdon

BUFFALO -- The Buffalo Sabres head into the 2014 NHL Draft with eight picks, and general manager Tim Murray has numerous options for what he wants to do with them.

Barrie Colts defenseman Aaron Ekblad, Kingston Frontenacs center Samuel Bennett, Kootenay Ice center Sam Reinhart, and Price Albert Raiders forward Leon Draisaitl lead the discussion of top players, and with each there's hope he can help move a franchise forward. With the Sabres holding the No. 2 pick Friday in Philadelphia (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TSN, RDS) and in the midst of a rebuild, making the right choice is vital.

"Every draft is important," Murray said. "This draft is obviously important, but next year's draft is important, the year after is important. You have to continuously stock your system. You can't miss in drafts. If we become a Stanley Cup finalist or a Stanley Cup contender and we're picking 28th in the draft, I expect to hit on our first-round pick and I expect him to be an asset down the road. Obviously when you're picking as high as we are … it's important. They're all important."

As for who the Sabres are looking to pick, Murray said they'll take the best player available, but he believes there's one player in particular who won't be there for them at No. 2.

"I believe that Ekblad is going to go one and then we pick who we have left; the next guy on our list," Murray said. "If he doesn’t go one, I'd be surprised, I guess, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

Reinhart and Bennett have been speculated as potential choices for the Sabres, but there are others who have grabbed their attention, including Draisaitl.

"He's right there," Murray said. "There are some guys that aren't being talked about that are potentially part of that [group of high-end talent]. It's a copycat League, so L.A. wins the Cup again and the terminology that they're 'heavy' and you've got guys like [Nick] Ritchie and [Jake] Virtanen that are good players that are 'heavy' and teams are looking for 'heavy.'

"We know there are one or two players there that aren't going to have an impact in the National Hockey League, it's which one or two. We hope we know which one or two it is."

Ritchie is a 6-foot-2, 230-pound right wing out of Peterborough; Virtanen is a 6-foot-1, 190-pound forward from Calgary. Each has big-league size already at his age and represents the kind of player Murray may be trying to acquire a second first-round pick to grab.

"I have been trying hard to do that," Murray said. "The people I've talked to haven't said no, but nobody's called back and said, 'Yeah, let's do this deal.' But I've got a lot of potential deals out there that have a [first-round pick] coming back involved. I just feel if I can just get something in the 20s or the teens that maybe you can do something with that too."

Players taken early have been able to make the jump to the NHL right away in the recent past. Five of the top six players taken in the 2013 draft, and eight overall, played at least part of the season with the team that picked them last June. Two of those players (Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov) were Sabres. Murray was cautious about how many players in this draft could make the jump right away.

"Depends on who drafts them," Murray said. "Patrice Bergeron (a second-round pick in 2003) made Boston right off the get-go. Did we think he was ready when we saw him play his last game in junior hockey in March? I can't imagine there's one scout that said that. Eighteen-year-old kids mature at different times. The summer after their draft is huge.

"That's just a guessing game, I guess. But talent-wise there are quite a few guys that can play in the [NHL] right now. Are they going to put the time this summer? Is the team going to give them the opportunity that drafts them? I don't have that answer."

One of the questions surrounding the draft class this year is the quality and depth of talent. Though Murray hopes to gain another first-round pick, he warns about judging an entire group of players before they've had a shot to mature.

"I think there's talent in every draft," Murray said. "If you go back and do that exercise in every draft you'll see there's a guy who was taken in the fourth round, the fifth round, the sixth round; our job is to find those guys. It's the bottom of the barrel that affects the averages. I think there are good players in every draft that a good staff will find. Is this the strongest draft since I've been in hockey? No, it's not. It's not the weakest either though."

With the number of picks the Sabres have, further bolstering the collection of young talent is vital for the franchise. After the work Murray has done with the Anaheim Ducks and Ottawa Senators, he has a good idea what a successful draft day looks like.

"Our first pick is going to be what we consider a very good player. Use assets to get back into the first-round and pick a player that we feel down the road is going to be a real Buffalo Sabre, size, whatever it is," he said. "Hit on one or two of your seconds and hit somewhere else in the draft. I would consider that a very good draft."

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