There hasn't been a lot to cheer about in Buffalo lately, but the Sabres did get one major victory: the first overall pick in the 2021 NHL draft. Buffalo had the best odds in the lottery and indeed came through with the No. 1 selection, giving the Sabres the first crack at University of Michigan defenseman Owen Power, the consensus top prospect in the class.
"It was a challenging season, a lot of adversity," said GM Kevyn Adams. "We were in the position we were in and you certainly don't want to be there but that's the reality. So what comes out of it? To have this fall our way and to be in this position makes some of the things we went through this year feel a bit better. It's something we needed and I'm excited about it."
Power is currently playing for Team Canada at the World Championship in Latvia and the fact the Canadians brought a teenage defenseman to the tournament speaks volumes about the young man. Power didn't get much ice time to start the tourney, but the reins were taken off late in the round robin and he really thrived, giving Canada minutes and offense when the team needed it.
At nearly 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds already, Power is a mobile, two-way defenseman who led all freshman Big Ten blueliners in scoring with 16 points in 26 games, but he also finished second in that cohort with 40 blocked shots. Is he NHL-ready? Perhaps. But Power didn't get the full college season due to the pandemic and Michigan had to drop out of the national championship tournament due to Covid protocols, so would it be terrible if he went back and dominated as a sophomore? Whoever Buffalo takes, the Sabres are going to bank on long-term development.
"We're not going to rush a player," Adams said. "We're certainly not going to pick a player because we think can play right away; we want the player who we think can be the best player in the long run."
Assuming Power is their guy, the Sabres actually have a bright future when it comes to their pipeline. Rasmus Dahlin, another first overall pick (back in 2018), already patrols the Buffalo blueline and with University of Minnesota stalwart Ryan Johnson also on the way, the Sabres have the makings of a mobile and talented back-end core.
Up front, Dylan Cozens is finding his way in the NHL while wingers Jack Quinn and J.J. Peterka are bursting with potential for the future. While the future of current cornerstone and center Jack Eichel is unknown right now, the Sabres will either continue to have his elite skill set on the roster or get a package of assets in return. The same can be said, to a lesser extent, about Sam Reinhart. Either way, there is talent and potential, especially if Cozens can develop into a top-six center as opposed to a winger.
As for goaltending, the Sabres have a top prospect in Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and a solid second option in Erik Portillo.
Now of course it is going to take some time for all these pieces to fall into place and of course there is the chance they do not all reach their full potential at the NHL level. So the Sabres are not out of the woods yet, but at least there is a future to bank on. The present is likely going to continue to be messy next season and perhaps the season after that. But all that Adams and his staff can do now is try to put the team in the best position possible.
Moving up one lottery spot to No. 2 was the expansion Seattle Kraken, who leapt over the Anaheim Ducks in the draw. Obviously the board is wide-open for the Kraken, who have just one player in their pipeline right now (free agent signing Luke Henman). If Seattle GM Ron Francis is looking for his own well-rounded defenseman with size, then 6-foot-5 Swedish blueliner Simon Edvinsson is the way to go. If he's more enamored with a forward, the likes of Michigan center Matty Beniers, WHL Edmonton winger Dylan Guenther and Swedish winger William Eklund are the most likely targets.
For a team that is making its first appearance at the draft ever, it is simply prudent to go with Best Player Available in this situation, as Seattle needs everything. It's also difficult seeing a player going straight from the draft to an expansion team's NHL roster, which is not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination. Edvinsson is best served playing a full season in the SHL with Frolunda anyway; this year he split time between the SHL and the second-tier Allsvenskan when he was loaned out to Vasteras in order to get more playing time (it worked; he was great with Vasteras).
For the Sabres, this draft can help get the franchise back on the right track. For the Kraken, it's a chance to get off on the right foot. Now we wait for July 23, when the virtual ceremony begins.