Buffalo - January 28, 2015 - With the race to the bottom of the standings already halfway done, there’s obviously been a lot of talk about June and the 2015 NHL Draft.
The worst-kept secret in the world is that this incarnation of the draft will feature not one, but two top prizes: Canadian junior wunderkind Connor McDavid and “the best American-born prospect since Mike Modano” Jack Eichel.
As we head into February, it seems as though the bottom two teams have been clearly defined: the Edmonton Oilers, back at the bottom again for seemingly the 10th year in a row, and the Buffalo Sabres, icing a glorified AHL team. Through 48 games, the closest team to them is the Arizona Coyotes, five points back of Edmonton and seven back of Buffalo. The Sabres are in the middle of a 12-game regulation losing-streak; the Oilers are an absolutely scorching 4-5-1 in their last 10 in comparison.
Naturally, with two clearly defined teams at the bottom, the great debate has come in regards to which team would be better suited for McDavid, the moral debate about tanking and the pitfalls of being perpetually bad to amass high-end prospects.
Those opposed to Buffalo’s plans are quick to point out that hoarding high-end picks doesn’t always lead to Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. Look at the Oilers. They’ve been drafting near the top for the last five or six years and don’t seem any closer to digging themselves out. But there are multiple reasons the Sabres are different from the Oilers.
This is the biggest reason. Part of the reason that the Oilers have been continuously failing in the face of top draft pick after top draft pick is because the losing culture begins at the top. Ownership has been blasted for bringing back faces from the 1980s, the glory days of the Oilers. And while there is something to bringing back the greats of the franchise, giving them management positions might not be the best way to go about it.
Questionable leadership leads to strife between them and the coaches, which in turn leads to issues in the way the coach handles the on-ice product. Questionable leadership results in questionable draft choices and pieces that don’t fit the overall puzzle of what the team is trying to do. This is how the Nail Yakupov selection happened and he hasn’t been able to get the proper support a young player needs ever since.
When franchises are consistently failing, there is nowhere else to look other than up. In Buffalo, it’s still early, but general manager Tim Murray came in with a plan and is executing it the way he’s said. He’s identifying building blocks like Tyler Myers and sticking to his guns about keeping them. He’s targeting specific prospects like Hudson Fasching, building up his prospect pool with more than just “can’t miss” prospects. There’s still a long, long way to go, but Buffalo already has a plethora of NHL-ready prospects that will likely flock to the NHL in 2015-16. In Edmonton, it doesn’t seem like there’s a plan in place and if there is, it’s not being executed properly.
While the Oilers boast a nice group of prospects – Leon Draisaitl still has a very bright future ahead of him despite not doing much this season, they have a deep defensive pool led by Darnell Nurse – they still have a ton of holes to fill. There isn’t much in the way of depth or size down the middle, they don’t have a power play quarterback in their ranks and could find themselves in huge need of one if Justin Schultz leaves or fails to develop and their goaltending hopes are grim.
Long story short: they have a few nice prospects, a few more which could potentially make it to be regulars and then a few huge holes.
Buffalo, meanwhile, seems to have stockpiled prospects for every role and situation. They might not have a bonafide stud in their goaltending ranks, but there are high hopes for Linus Ullmark and Andrey Makarov as well as a potential sleeper in Jonas Johansson. Defensively, they’re deep as can be: Mark Pysyk, Jake McCabe, Nikita Zadorov and Chad Ruhwedel all appear to be right on the cusp of becoming regulars on the Sabres’ defense. Up front, they have plenty of high-end talent: Sam Reinhart as the potential franchise center, Mikhail Grigorenko with high-end offensive ability, future two-way stud Johan Larsson, power forward material in Brendan Lemieux, Joel Armia and Hudson Fasching and talented sleepers in the form of JT Compher, Connor Hurley and Justin Bailey.
Granted, not all of these players can possible develop to expectations and some of them will flame out entirely. But that’s a helluva group to have coming up through the ranks in addition to the building blocks already on the roster. Teams like the Blackhawks and Kings are built through the draft and guess what? They don’t keep all of those prospects. That’s the beauty of having a deep pool: if the right ones hit, you’re left with a plethora of assets that can be packaged to bring a big piece of the puzzle into the fold. Murray isn’t thinking purely in terms of young players he wants on his roster, he’s thinking of potential trade assets down the line as well.
Building blocks in place
This isn’t to say that the Oilers don’t currently have better building blocks on their roster. Clearly, one would rather have Nugent-Hopkins, Yakupov, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle than most on the current Sabres’ roster, but the question remains: will they all be there next year? Eberle is involved in every trade rumor ever, Yakupov is either available for nothing or not at all depending on who you listen to and now even Hall is being thrown around in trade rumors.
In Buffalo, Murray has already begun to identify his building blocks. Rasmus Ristolainen is an obvious one; the team spent the 8th overall pick in 2013 on him and he won’t be going anywhere for a long time. Tyler Myers, though, didn’t seem so certain. Like Eberle, rumors surrounding Myers were fast and frequent and it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility to believe that the team could deal the towering defenseman. That is, until Murray came out and essentially said “I haven’t called anyone about Myers.” He’s identified the value Myers has, recognizes that he eats monster minutes and is playing some of his best hockey since winning the Calder Trophy back in 2009-10. Quality young defensemen are a commodity in this league and Murray has one.
His other building blocks aren’t as sexy, but he has two up front: Tyler Ennis and Zemgus Girgensons. Ennis might not necessarily fit everyone’s description of a building block, but it’s pretty clear that he is far and away the most talented offensive asset they have on the current roster. He’s creative, can make his own offense and could theoretically thrive with more talent around him and a reduce role – he’s not a top-line player despite having to be one now and lessened attention would benefit a player like him.
Girgensons, meanwhile, is already appearing to be a future captain and one of the heart-and-soul players on the Sabres. He does a little bit of everything: he can score, he hits, he plays defense, he’s decent on faceoffs (though this really needs to improve) and he can play in all situations. He’s not a superstar in any sense, but he could become the second/third-line center that teams covet. He’s already a fan favorite in Buffalo, though probably not on the same level that he is in his native Latvia. He’ll be a leader on what should be a very young team next year and someone that has that “Sabre for life” feel to him.
The difference between these two groups is that while they might not have the overall talent of the aforementioned Oilers, they’ve already been identified as both on-ice and leadership building blocks that Murray would not deal. Thanks to the management situation in Edmonton, you can’t quite say the same about their group.
Though both franchises are in the middle of ugly rebuilds, the overall feeling from the two couldn’t be more different. The Oilers are clearly panicked about where they are, looking for any answers to get the ship turned in the right direction. They’ve been bad for so long despite having so many prime draft choices, that it’s got everyone running around making questionable decisions.
In Buffalo, ownership is fully supportive yet staying out of the way and Murray is free to run the show. He’s making the moves he wants to make, getting the guys in that he wants in and generally being patient and picking his spots. Rebuilding the right way involves having said plan and being able to follow up on it. The Oilers can’t go five minutes without a coaching change or trying to shuffle things around. Huge difference.
Ultimately, there is no guarantee that Murray’s plan will pan out for the Sabres. It’s the risk you run building through the draft. For every Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, there is an Alexandre Daigle and Patrik Stefan. But to say that the pitfalls of this rebuild are ending up like the Oilers? Well, that’s a bit of a stretch.
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