Fans love watching the 1st round of the NHL Draft. Most fans will take the picks, compare them to what Bob McKenzie told us would happen, and then start spouting opinions on who “won” the draft and which teams fell on their faces. Since about 50% of 1st round picks end up making the NHL at some point in their career, there’s no denying that it’s important to get it right at the top of the draft.
But after the bright lights of the first round fade on Friday night, Saturday morning is when a scouting staff will earn their keep. Most teams have the same handful of guys in the top 20 or 30—but there will be huge discrepancies later in the draft. Some teams will have a player as a top 50 guy; some teams won’t even have them on their board. A great scouting staff will be able to find the NHL players in the later round. While some will become stars, more often these are the players who will fill out a roster and separate the teams who have depth from those who don’t. Let’s be real, teams only get one 1st rounder per year (unless they’re the Boston Bruins) and even if they got more than one, they couldn’t afford them. Late round draft success is more important than ever.
If 1st rounders are the star quarterbacks that everyone notices, then the successful later round picks are like good offensive linemen. Every team needs them to be good.
Gare Joyce’s book “Future Greats and Heartbreaks” has the author traveling around the hockey world as a scout for a full calendar year. Within the first section of the book, Joyce mentioned on July 1, 2006, despite a fair amount of success in drafting young talent, the Buffalo Sabres decided to go in a different direction.
“But with their top scouts being shown the door, the Sabres are changing strategy. They are stripping the scouting staff down to a skeleton crew. Word is that they plan to rely on video for scouting. For scouts, this is an unthinkable compromise. Video offers them only a partial picture of the players—for them, it’s like reviewing movies based on trailers.” –Gare Joyce “Future Greats and Heartbreaks” (pg. 97)
Under Darcy Regier’s stewardship, the Sabres organization seemed to understand that concept. Sure, they had some hits with their 1st round picks. But it was the picks AFTER the first round that truly made them a perennial contender in the mid-2000s.
Not only did the Sabres seemingly have the right system in place, but they had the right scouts running within the system.
“The Sabres had done better in the draft than any other squad in the league. Not only did drafted players form the nucleus of the squad that made a surprising run to the brink of the Stanley Cup, but, more broadly, there were more players drafted by the Buffalo Sabres playing in the NHL than draftees of any other team.” –Gare Joyce, “Future Greats and Heartbreaks” (pg 96)
Between his first draft with Buffalo in 1997 and the budget slashing measures that left the scouts on the street, the Sabres had great success with 2nd rounders and below. They were able to select and successfully develop Henrik Tallinder, Maxim Afinogenov, Brian Campbell, Ales Kotalik, Ryan Miller, Paul Gaustad, Derek Roy, Chris Thorburn, Jason Pominville, Dennis Wideman, Clarke MacArthur, Jan Hejda, Nathan Paetsch, Andrej Sekera, Patrick Kaleta, Chris Butler, and Nathan Gerbe. Not bad considering the highest draft pick in that impressive list was Derek Roy at #32 overall.
The key to the Sabres’ success in the mid-part of the 2000’s was that they were able to make more with less. When the salary cap leveled the playing field for everyone, their ability to find stars (and depth) through the draft came to the forefront and took them all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals. Twice.
But on July 1, 2006, the Buffalo Sabres decided to fire a bunch of scouts. One game from the Stanley Cup Finals and they decide that it’s best to take a jackhammer to the very foundation of their operation that had made them successful. They had a key advantage, an advantage that was only more important with the new salary cap, and they decided it was more important to save on organizational overhead.
The more I thought about it, the more I kept coming back to the same question: “So how’s that working out for you, Buffalo?” Well, there’s only one way to find out, right?
In the 4 drafts since they made the fundamental change to their organization, they’ve seen only a single player (Adam Luke Luke Adam) drafted outside of the 1st round play in an NHL game. We’re not just talking about for the Sabres, we’re talking about league-wide. Only one of their draft picks has made it to the show.
Obviously, it’s too early to make sweeping, final judgments on the Sabres’ drafts. We all know that prospects develop at different rates and it’s way too early to deem ANY of the draft picks as busts. But what we can do is compare the struggles to the success rates they had BEFORE July 1, 2006. When you compare the drafts before and after the shift in philosophy, there’s a huge difference.
From a Buffalo perspective, the trend hasn’t been all that promising.
None of this is to say that the Sabres haven’t had any recent draft successes. They happily selected Tyler Myers when he slipped to 12th in the historically deep 2008 draft. Tyler Ennis is excitement personified every time he touches the puck. Zack Kassian looks like he’ll make it to the NHL one day as a tough guy with hands, and defenseman T.J. Brennan is a prospect who will get to show if he can hang at the NHL level one day. But those are 1st rounders. Those are the guys who are supposed to make it to the NHL. Obviously, it’s important to get those right as well—but drafting in the late-rounds is a different animal.
This brings us to our point. It shouldn’t be surprising that the Sabres continue to draft (reasonably) well in the 1st round. For a team that has switched primarily to video review to monitor prospects, there’s just a lot more information out there for the highest rated prospects. More and more scouts know about them; and they’ve known about them for far longer than the 5th round pick who only a few teams are high on.
It’s those mid-to-late round draft picks where scouts on the ground make their money. I could watch a Windsor game last season and tell you that Taylor Hall and Cam Fowler were great. That doesn’t take a trained eye. But for a scout to observe how an undersized player goes into the traffic areas and how a bigger player shies away from contact—those are things that don’t translate as well on video. Does a 5’9” player want to go into the high traffic areas? Does a big, physical defenseman play well against all players? Or just against players who are smaller and will never make the NHL? There’s something about seeing the entire game with your own eyes.
The Sabres can easily go to the “we’re a small-market club” when asked for any explanation. Sure, they had made it deep into the playoffs in successive years. Sure, they have a great season ticket fanbase. But that doesn’t matter for a team that has been able to claim their small market and can’t compete financially with the Maple Leafs and Rangers of the world.
Bottom line: the Sabres killed the goose that laid the golden eggs. They had the competitive advantage that all teams starve for—and they gave it up to save a few bucks. They have their Tyler Myers and Tyler Ennis to hide the truth for a few years. But in 3-5 years when their shrinking depth shrinks even more, we’ll know why. It won’t be because their scouts suddenly forgot the game of hockey and it won’t be because their prospects stopped developing. It will be because the organization decided to try to draft on the cheap.
Good luck trying to explain that one.