At the Draft Table – Atlantic Division, Pt. 1

Every year, those interested in NHL prospects spend a lot of time speculating about which prospects their team will select, particularly with the picks in the first round. But the selections made are not always as simple as taking the best player. So, in attempts to add even more fun (or agony, as the case may be) to the process of prediction, we at Hockey Prospectus will offer some additional information on each team. How many picks does your team have? What are your club’s strengths and weaknesses? We will tell you in an eight-part series – two per division.

We start with the Buffalo Sabres, Florida Panthers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators of the Atlantic Division today.

Buffalo Sabres

2013-14 Regular Season Record: 21-51-10
Selection Order in First Round: 2nd overall
Current No. of picks in 2014 Draft: 8 (plus two possible conditional picks)
Recent Top Round Draft Selections:
2013 – Rasmus Ristolainen (D), Nikita Zadorov (D)
2012 – Mikhail Grigorenko (C), Zemgus Girgensons (C)
2011 Joel Armia (RW)
2010 Mark Pysyk (D)

With the worst record in hockey this past season, the Sabres had a very good chance of selecting first in the 2014 draft. Although Buffalo did not win the April 15th lottery, Buffalo has the No. 2   overall pick. They also have a chance of drafting two prospects in the top five. In a October 2013 trade with the Islanders, Thomas Vanek went to New York for Matt Moulson and two picks, including a first-round selection that New York can decide whether to give up either this year or in 2015. The Islanders have until June 1 to make the decision as to whether the Sabres will get New York’s 2014 or 2015 first rounder. Although it is very reasonable to believe that New York will give up this year’s pick (the Islanders’ second rounder in 2015 was also part of the deal, and given that two potential franchise players will be selected at the top of next year’s draft), it is likely that the Islanders will keep this year’s pick and give up the first rounder in 2015.

Assuming the Sabres only get one selection in the first round, the hole that the team really needs to fill is at the No. 1 center position. There is one player in this draft who fits that description–Sam Reinhart. However, if Florida selects Reinhart, Buffalo should ignore its need and select Aaron Ekblad, a defenseman, or trade the pick for an established number one center.

It may seem crazy to predict or recommend that the Sabres take a defenseman because Buffalo has an impressive pen of defensive prospects. However, it would be difficult to pass up on a player of Ekblad’s ilk. If they were to draft the young D-man, the Sabres would have trade options with Christian Ehrhoff, Tyler Myers or their other young defenseman.

In addition, the Sabres have three second-round selections (including the first selection in the round), in a draft with a good second tier of players that will extend into this round. Plus, there is a second conditional pick (in addition to the Islanders’ selection). Now a long shot, but there is a conditional first round selection obtained from the St. Louis Blues in the Ryan Miller trade. As of Monday, the Blues re-signed Brian Elliott, so it not likely that the team will sign Miller prior to the draft, but if that contingency happens, a 2014 first round selection will result for the Sabres. In case you were wondering what would happen if the Blues sign Miller after the draft but before he becomes a free agent on July 1, the Sabres then get a second round pick in 2016.

So, no matter what happens with the two conditional picks, this draft could be a great one for the Sabres. And with the an extremely strong group of defensive prospects and young NHL players, as well as plethora of good goaltending prospects, the Sabres are well on their way to being a top team in the NHL.

But not yet. Buffalo still could wind up picking in the top five again in 2015, and thus have a chance at the two potential franchise players–Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. If that happens, suddenly the Sabres can go from being a bottom-five team to a Stanley Cup contender in one, 2015-16, season. As it is, this franchise is loading up on talent, and it is just a matter of time before the post-season is a regular event in upstate New York.

Florida Panthers
2013-14 Regular Season Record: 29-45-8
Selection Order in First Round: 1st overall
Current No. of picks in 2014 Draft: 5
Recent Top Round Draft Selections:
2013 Aleksander Barkov (C)
2012 Michael Matheson (D)
2011 Jonathan Huberdeau (LW)
2010 Erik Gudbranson (D), Nick Bjugstad (C), Quinton Howden (LW)

Florida won the draft lottery and has several options with the pick. With a change in ownership, and hints that more money will be spent next season, expect some big signings for the 2014-15 season. General Manager Dale Tallon already made a splash, telling the press earlier this month that he is actively shopping the first overall pick and may trade it for a player that could immediately help this team.

The Panthers are strong down the middle with Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad slotted as the No. 1 and No. 2 centers for the foreseeable future. There are also several other centers developing in the system. So, if the Panthers keep the pick, the likelihood is that the team does not select top prospects either Sam Reinhart or Sam Bennett.

The biggest need for the Panthers is on the wing, where there are no top prospects in the organization. Jonathan Huberdeau is the one young bright spot on the NHL team now. There are several excellent wingers available in the draft, however, Florida does not need the first pick to get one of them–the team could drop two or three places and still pick one up. Additionally, there will be a few very good wingers in the free agent market this summer, and now willing to spend money, Florida may be a good destination for one of them.

And then there is the need to solidify and stabilize the defense in front of Roberto Luongo. The defense in Florida is coming along, however, a very good two-way blueliner is needed. Top 2014 draft prospect Ekblad could be that guy. He also could be ready to step into the NHL this coming fall. If Tallon can make a deal to pick up an excellent established winger and a good defenseman for the pick, he may trade it. Otherwise, he most likely will make Ekblad the first overall pick.

It still will take awhile for Florida to be a top team in the NHL, but they will be substantially better with the addition of a solid top six winger and a potential top pairing defenseman.

Toronto Maple Leafs
2013-14 Regular Season Record: 38-36-8
Selection Order in the First Round: 8th overall
Current No. Of Picks in 2014 Draft: 7
Recent Top Round Draft Selections:
2013: Frederik Gauthier (F)
2012: Morgan Rielly (D)
2011: Tyler Biggs (RW)
Stuart Percy (D)
2010: No Selection
After mortgaging the team’s future to obtain Phil Kessel from Boston, the Maple Leafs have struggled to restock their system with young talent. Not that Kessel has been bad – in fact, he’s been great –  but in the “new NHL,” success is very much dependent on drafts, and trading away a large number of what is likely to be excellent picks to get a “superstar” has not been advisable for any team.

With the addition of free agents Mason Raymond and Dave Bolland, it looked like Toronto had a winning team in place for the 2013-14 season, but injuries really hurt the Leafs, who collapsed down the stretch. Missing the playoffs once again, Toronto’s ownership brought in Brendan Shanahan as the President of the organization.

Shanahan and GM Dave Nonis have promised quite a few changes, which we found out last week does not include Head Coach Randy Carlysle. We have heard that changes were coming before, but we will have to see what the Shanahan tenure brings.

The first need is on-ice leadership (which cannot be addressed in the draft, of course). Whether Dion Phaneuf will continue to be the captain is anyone’s guess, but a change in leadership could not hurt. A top six center and several wingers at the NHL level are also a necessity. Although prospect Carter Verhaeghe could serve the function of a future top six center, with Connor Brown and/or Josh Leivo possible future Toronto top six wingers, all three are far from sure things in the NHL and will be most effective in future years, i.e. not in 2014-15.

Changes will need to be made up front to make this team consistency competitive. Along with the question as to whether Tyler Bozak is the right guy to center Kessel and James Van Riemsdyk, there is the issue of young center Nazem Kadri. Trade rumors have abounded, but Kadri may actually be a good fit for the team, if surrounded by quick young wingers on a revitalized second line. With cap issues and a system with more than their share of mediocre forward prospects, the Leafs have their work curt out for them, but a forward should certainly be the team’s target at the eighth overall pick.

Possible selections are Michael Dal Colle, a center who put up crazy good numbers for the Oshawa Generals this season (and a longshot to still be on the board at the seventh pick); European sniper William Nylander; Nicholaj Ehlers, a speedy, very offensively minded winger; and Nick Ritchie, a power forward, who has good hands, and more toughness and forechecking ability.

With Jonathan Bernier in net, the Leafs have a very strong number one, but the defensive depth is more touch and go–or during this past season, touch and release. But despite its lack of effectiveness this season, rookie defenseman Morgan Rielly will only get better over the next few seasons, and excellent blueline prospect Stuart Percy will be NHL-ready soon. The development of these two will make the current core already on the NHL team much better, and the addition of third pairing guys will be enough to be effective in front of Bernier.

Unlike Buffalo, who has been in rebuild mode and is only one or two steps away from being a real contender, and Florida, who is a little further away, but should get much better next season, Toronto will likely need more time and lots of maneuvering to become a Stanley Cup contender. A wise selection with the Maple Leafs’ first selection this season will go a long way toward making this team a playoff contender in a year or two and with some luck with their later round picks, the new management could make up for some of the recent mistakes in veteran signings.

Ottawa Senators
2013-14 Regular Season Record: 37-31-14
Selection Order in First Round: None
Current No. Of Picks in 2014 Draft: 4
Recent Top Round Draft Selections:
2013 Curtis Lazar (C/RW)
2012 Cody Ceci (D)
2011 Mika Zibanejad (C)
Stefan Noesen (RW)
Matt Puempel (LW)
2010 None

Ottawa does not pick until the second round (number 40 overall) due to the 2013 trade in which the team acquired Bobby Ryan (and sent prospects Stefan Noesen and Jakob Sifverberg to Anaheim). Although the Sens only have four selections this year, the team does have the 40th overall pick (toward the top of the second round), where a very good prospect will still be available.

The Sens missed the playoffs after making it to the second round last year. Lots of finger pointing has taken place, and it looks like several of the teams forwards will be finding other teams over the summer. Not the least of which is Jason Spezza, who was captain of the team for only one season and has been rumored to be on the trading block. Both Milan Michalek and Ales Hemsky are UFAs and, if Spezza goes, they will likely sign elsewhere. Spezza is a hot commodity and should bring back a good return. Where the Sens will need reinforcements most is in forwards. Kyle Turris, Clark MacArthur and Bobby Ryan make an excellent line, but another top six line will be needed. There are several good forward prospects in the system, including Curtis Lazar and Matt Puempel, however, its not clear that any will be ready for a top six role in Ottawa this coming season.

At this point, Ottawa’s strongest position is in goal. Robin Lehner is considered the goalie of the future, but 2013 draftee Marcus Hogberg, who is playing in the SHL in Europe, has made some noise this season. Both veteran Craig Anderson, who has one more year on his contract, and Lehner, who is an RFA, will likely carry the Sens through this next season. But long term the battle for number one should be between Lehner, the number one in waiting, and Hogberg. Therefore, although drafting another goalie prospect would not be a bad idea for Ottawa, picking up one with the team’s seventh round pick makes the most sense.

On defense the Sens have Erik Karlsson, one of the best blueliners in the league, young prospect Cody Ceci, and Jared Cowen. Additionally, the team recently signed Swedish prospect Mikael Wikstrand and have Frederik Claesson in Binghamton.

Depending upon what the return will be for Spezza, if the Sens even trade him, will determine where the Sens will be next season. It could also very much affect who gets drafted with the 40th overall pick. At this point either a skill forward or a two-way defenseman is needed, however, all that can change with the expected big trade.

2 thoughts on “At the Draft Table – Atlantic Division, Pt. 1

  1. IMO you’re discounting Sam Bennett as a possible #1 center. He’s a bit more raw than Reinhart and with 1 year less in the CHL, but should at least be in the conversation.

  2. Eric, although I do think that Sam Bennett has top six potential, I don’t think that he has the upside of Reinhart. I don’t think that Bennett’s scoring potential at the NHL level is in the same league as Reinhart, and for that reason, I have Bennett in the top four of the second tier of players. Leslie

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