Sabres answer few questions with draft picks

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Once again, the Buffalo Sabres have crushed my dreams of believing that the club is trending in the right direction. On Friday evening, the Sabres reminded me of why we are, and continue to be the laughing stock of the NHL. At the 2019 NHL Draft, the Sabres had two picks in the first round, one at the beginning (7) and one to close (31).

Game of Thrones fans will enjoy this analogy, “Similar to when Stark men go South, when the Sabres step on the stage at the draft, bad things happen.” Many readers might just think I am another “keyboard warrior” who has no true business discussing what happens with NHL franchises, because I’m not qualified enough to do so.

First let me qualify myself, so perhaps you might at the end of this agree with my tantrum. I have, and still currently play the game of hockey at a high level. Although, it is a different form of hockey in Sled Hockey, I still have represented the United States on the National Developmental Sled Team — this is essentially the equivalent to playing on the AAA Buffalo Bisons if their MLB team was the Paralympic Sled Hockey Team. Furthermore, I have volunteered with a D1 hockey team in their hockey operations department and have seen first hand what goes on with a hockey team and learned a great deal of things from it about the sport.

Now do either of those facts about my life qualify me to talk about the decision making of NHL franchises? Perhaps not, but clearly the Buffalo Sabres have not met whatever those qualifications are in the past decade either.

My passion and love for hockey prospects goes far beyond just researching the top prospects weeks before the draft. I begin looking at the top players years before they will enter the league or even hear their names called on draft day. I have known that Jack Hughes would be the number one pick since before he began playing for the USNTDP and likewise that Alexis Lafreniere will be the top pick next year, or if he is rivaled, it is by names like Alexander Holtz, Lucas Raymond and Quinton Byfield. Also, don’t forget the names Matthew Savoie and Shane Wright who will be top selections in 2022.

Getting back to the point, the Sabres were on the board at pick seven and saw right before them Detroit go with an off-the-board type pick in Moritz Seider — a relatively unknown player before this year, playing in an unusual draft area the DEL in Germany. The Sabres did what many hoped they would have done, drafted a center. They selected Dylan Cozens, a big Center out the Western Hockey League in the CHL which appeared to be the hot league draft weekend with a high of 25 players being drafted.

Cozens is 6’3″ with the usual frame and raw skills that would make an old-time hockey coaches’ mouth water. Cozens is known to be one of the top end skaters at the draft, in terms of speed which is unusual for someone of great size. I peg Cozens as a good No. 2 center behind Jack Eichel, as long as he is gifted some helpful talent on the wing. He was more of a playmaker in junior hockey, getting 50 assists and 34 goals for 84 points in 68 games. The knock on Cozens, according to the experts — not me — is that Cozens’ needs to improve his Hockey IQ.

Playing at a high level in Sled, I have come across plenty of players with a ridiculous amount of talent, but their knock was that they couldn’t process the game very well — especially at a high speed like the NHL. Hockey IQ is by far the second most difficult thing to improve after size — which is essentially impossible to change. Unlike footspeed, stickhandling or strength, Hockey IQ is not something that you can just go work on in the gym for five months and get better at. For many athletes it is a skill that comes natural, others study the game endlessly to sharpen their senses — trying to get a notion of what decisions to make in certain situations.

Sam Reinhart is the best example the Sabres have of a guy with high Hockey IQ. When you continue to ask yourself, “How does Sam Reinhart get so many scoring chances?” It’s because he knows the game really well and knows what places to be in. Sam’s knock is that he does not have the speed of a Dylan Cozens or finishing ability of a Jeff Skinner. If I am putting myself in the Sabres shoes, perhaps they wanted to give Sam someone the middle of the ice to skate like a workhorse for him and get pucks to him so he can make the smart plays. I hope and pray that Dylan Cozens achieves elite potential and proves me wrong, but until that happens I will be cursing the Sabres on missing Cole Caufield, Trevor Zegras and Vasili Podkolzin.

The Sabres had the last pick in the first round and watching it I could not believe some of the players who had fallen so far. The highly regarded second best pure goalscorer of the draft was still there in Arthur Kaliyev, dynamic american winger Bobby Orr Brink was on the board and Canadian center Raphael Lavoie was still on the board. Instead the Sabres addressed an unnecessary need too early and selected a defenseman in Ryan Johnson. Johnson is what many analysts say is a safe pick who will most likely make his NHL roster and be a good player. Well the Sabres don’t need just another NHL player to win the Stanley Cup, they need to hit home runs at the draft. Arthur Kaliyev would have been a home run pick at 31. Kaliyev is a big scoring winger who is said to only care about offense — hence why he past 31. Kaliyev’s numbers with the OHLs Hamilton Bulldogs were disgusting this year, scoring 51 goals and 51 assists in 67 games for an absurd 102 points as a 17 year old in a league dominated by the overage players. Kaliyev put up similar numbers to another second round talent in Alex Debrincat, who is a very talented goalscorer in the NHL — giving a prime example of: If they score a lot of goals in junior hockey, there is a great chance they will do it at the next level.

As another year goes by, the Sabres have once again managed to disappoint me. I hope this article makes its way to both Dylan Cozens and Ryan Johnson, so that they can use it as motivation and someday prove me wrong in a Sabres uniform. The Sabres rounded out the draft by selecting Swedish goalie Erik Portillo (pick 67), American forward Aaron Huglen (pick 102), Swedish forward Filip Cederqvist (pick 143) then Czech forward Lukas Rousek (pick 160).

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