Plenty of people have been impressed with the work Buffalo Sabres GM Jason Botterill has done this offseason to help turn around a franchise that is working on a seven year playoff drought. Not only did the Sabres get the chance to finally select first in the NHL Entry Draft, adding Rasmus Dahlin to a blue line that desperately needed playmakers, but Botterill has improved the team’s depth immensely with several trades. Jeff Skinner, Conor Sheary, Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka, and Tage Thompson are all in line for full-time roles in a remade forward group, while Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark should give the team a solid goaltending tandem to work with.
The Sabres did trade away a quality center in Ryan O’Reilly, but it’s with that deal that perhaps the most interesting part of the offseason arises for Buffalo. Today, an unnamed NHL GM told Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal that “nobody’s trading their first-round draft picks for 2019” given the immense talent that several players at the Hlinka-Gretzky U18 tournament showed off. Though potential first-overall pick Jack Hughes wasn’t part of the tournament—he played earlier this summer at the World Junior Summer Showcase and was working in Toronto with Connor McDavid and others—the rest of the field was filled with names that should be called out in the first round next June. Gord Miller of TSN suggested that “at least a dozen” players in the Canada-Sweden will be first-round picks, though some of those (including superstar Alexis Lafreniere) aren’t eligible in 2019.
It’s that idea that no one is willing to trade 2019 first-round picks that comes back to Buffalo, as the Sabres have already acquired a pair this offseason. When Evander Kane re-signed with the San Jose Sharks the team committed to sending their top pick to Buffalo in June, accepting that the upgraded selection was worth keeping the power forward in town long-term. Should the Sharks miss the playoffs this season they do still have an option to send a pick in 2020 instead, though that would come with no protection and could potentially be a situation like the Senators find themselves in currently. Buffalo also has a third first-round pick via the St. Louis Blues, who included it in the O’Reilly deal. That pick also has some protection that could slide it forward to 2020, though only if it ends up a top-10 selection.
The situation the Sabres now find themselves in is an enviable one, holding three picks in what should be an excellent draft class while likely being good enough to battle for a wild card playoff spot already. Knowing that they hold extra selections, Buffalo could be one of the most dangerous teams around trade deadline time. If they believe they can make the playoffs, who is to say they won’t go after a top tier player to help them down the stretch, even one that may not be in town for long. Giving playoff experience to this young group is a must if they are trying to build a real contender, and with “nobody” else willing to move first-round selections the Sabres could find themselves with the most leverage on the market.
On the other hand, there could be a real benefit to keeping all three picks and simply building up a huge prospect pool. With a trio of Dahlin, Jack Eichel and Casey Mittelstadt forming the core of a playoff contender, adding even more talent from the latter half of the first round can only help insulate them going forward. Though they finished dead last in 2017-18 the Sabres are one of the most interesting teams to watch this season, almost regardless of their decision.