NHL draft: Sabres hold top spot in Eastern Conference draft grades
We say the same thing every year: There’s simply no way to accurately assess a team’s performance at the draft the day after it has taken place. But that’s not going to stop us from trying. Here’s a quick look at the East, taking into account the draft, trades, goals met and potential for improvement both short and long term. Keep in mind that a grade of C reflects an average performance.
Buffalo Sabres: A+
What a glorious time to be a Sabres fan! Did GM Tim Murray overpay for Robin Lehner? Taken in context of the other goalie deals that went down the rest of the weekend, probably, but now he has the young No. 1 with upside that he craved. The deal for Ryan O'Reilly was brilliant, sweeping away a couple of problem assets in exchange for a world-class center. And no matter what else happened at the table, taking Jack Eichel (2) ensured the draft portion of the weekend was a grand success.
Philadelphia Flyers: A
An enviable haul on the first day, with Ivan Provorov (7) moving to the top of a deep pool of young defenders and heart-and-soul winger Travis Konecny providing excellent value at 24. Small, sure, but he could have gone top 10 if not for injuries suffered this season. Took three goalies on day two, including Felix Sandstrom (70) and Matej Tomek (90), addressing a clear organizational need. The Chris Pronger/Nik Grossman trade with Arizona was the cherry on top of a near-perfect weekend.
Toronto Maple Leafs: A
They couldn’t find a taker for Phil Kessel or Dion Phaneuf, but it’s hard to see how the Leafs could have done any better at the draft table. Acting GM Mark Hunter placed a premium on skill over size, adding Mitch Marner (4) and Jeremy Bracco (61). Both are possession beasts who could mature into top-six wingers. Travis Dermott (34) was a value pick, with the potential to be a solid top-four/second power play contributor.
New York Islanders: A
Garth Snow is a wizard. He came into the draft without a first rounder and came away with Mathew Barzal (16), a flashy pivot who’s drawn comparisons to Joe Sakic, and Anthony Beauvillier (28), a 42-goal scorer who has some Brendan Gallagher in his game. Ryan Pilon (147) was ranked 24th by Central Scouting and has top-four potential. Andong Song (172) is the first Chinese-born draftee, but he’s no novelty. There’s a chance he’ll make his way to Brooklyn given some more time to develop.
Ottawa Senators: B+
While other GMs were settling for pennies on the dollar for their unwanted goalies, Bryan Murray somehow turned Robin Lehner into a first round pick ... and got the Sabres to take David Legwand’s contract off his hands in the process. Murray made the most of his firsts, picking up two-way defender Thomas Chabot (18) and Patrice Bergeron-clone Colin White (21). Gabriel Gagne is boom or bust at 36.
Columbus Blue Jackets: B+
It was clear coming in that the organization lacked a high-end defensive prospect. Now they have two. Zach Werenski (8) could be the best offensive blueliner in the draft. Gabriel Carlsson, acquired at 29 in exchange for picks 34 and 68, was CSB’s No. 2 rated European prospect. Smart, poised and a great skater, he could be an excellent No. 4 defender. Adding first-round talent Paul Bittner at 34 sealed an excellent weekend in Sunrise.
Tampa Bay Lightning: B
For a team that traded away a pair of first rounders, the Bolts managed to make a surprisingly strong impression in Sunrise. They went heavy on skill forwards, with the choices of Dennis Yan (64) and Anthony Cirelli (72) drawing special praise. There’s boom-or-bust potential for both, but in that system the odds tilt toward success.
Carolina Hurricanes: B
Having Noah Hanifin (5) drop into their lap was a prayer answered for a team that always seems to be short on defense. Callum Booth (93) could mature into their goalie of the future. Eddie Lack, acquired in a trade with the Canucks, will battle to be their goalie of the present. He’ll step in for good soldier Anton Khudobin, who was dealt to Anaheim for veteran blueliner James Wisniewski.
Detroit Red Wings: C
Sure, Evgeny Svechnikov (19) is viewed as an outstanding playmaker with some finishing touch, but these are the Wings. Chances are they made their big score later on in the draft, like they always seem to do. Best bet? Chase Pearson (140), the son of former NHLer Scott Pearson. Good size (6' 3", 183), excellent hands, high-end hockey sense.
New Jersey Devils: C
Pavel Zacha (6) is a big, toolsy center with a first-line ceiling and a third-line floor. The Devils haven’t had a kid like him in their system for years, so he’s an ideal add. MacKenzie Blackwood (42) has starter potential but it’s hard to justify going early on a netminder when they had so many other pressing needs. New GM Ray Shero used his other second rounder to acquire Kyle Palmieri from the Ducks. The 24-year-old will add speed and energy to their top-six next season.
Florida Panthers: C
Man, the Panthers are big. In Lawson Crouse they have another front-line behemoth ... or maybe a third-line grinder. Opinions are divided on his upside, but there was no way they could pass on him at 11. That high ceiling makes him a great choice. They reached a bit, though, on Samuel Montembeault (77) and Thomas Schemitsch (88) in the third round. Consensus was they could have been had in the fourth, or later.
Washington Capitals: C-
Ilya Samsonov (20) was arguably the best goaltender in the draft. The question is, was he the best asset to acquire? Not just because starter Braden Holtby is on the verge of signing a long-term deal but as this weekend proved, the market for backup and prospect netminders is wildly unpredictable. If he’s starting in five years, he was worth the gamble. Otherwise, there were better bets on the board. GM Brian MacLellan then dealt two picks to move up and snag Jonas Siegenthaler (57) who projects as a reliable No. 4 defender. Not much ceiling there to justify giving away a pick in a draft where they were already short.
Montreal Canadiens: C-
Noah Juulsen (26) has a decent chance to mature into a second-pair, two-way blueliner, but his upside is limited. Four other four picks, all taken in the third round or later, are long shots. Swedish center Lukas Vejdmo (87) could be a sleeper.
Pittsburgh Penguins: D+
The Pens came in looking to acquire a top-six winger via trade. When that didn’t happen, they settled for Daniel Sprong (46), a first-round talent with a questionable understanding of team play and defense. There’s home-run potential, but the concerns that led him to drop are valid. The Pens didn’t pick again until the fifth-round. There’s a good chance they came away empty from the deepest draft class in a decade.
New York Rangers: D
The Rangers simply aren’t as good a team as they were entering the weekend. Salary cap concerns forced Carl Hagelin’s trade to Anaheim. Emerson Etem brings size and potential, but can’t fill Hagelin's top-six role. GM Glen Sather may have overplayed his hand in trying to maximize the return for backup Cam Talbot and settled for less than many expected (picks 57, 79 and 184). Antti Raanta, acquired in a trade with the Hawks, will take Talbot’s spot on the bench. With no first rounder, their biggest draft prize is Ryan Gropp (41), a player many scouts ranked as an early-third rounder.
Boston Bruins: F
The wounds suffered over this weekend will take a long time to heal. There’s no way to spin the decision to sell Dougie Hamilton to Calgary for a handful of beans. It’s utterly indefensible. Panic-stricken rookie GM Don Sweeney failed to shop the services of the 22-year-old defenseman around the entire league, then inexplicably settled for three picks for the RFA defender, essentially forcing the 2014 Presidents’ Trophy winners into rebuild mode. Sweeney’s three first-round choices were widely derided. The consensus is that better players were left on the board although there’s quiet buzz that Zach Senyshyn (15) could surprise. No quarrel with the decision to swap Milan Lucic. He’s had two off years and was coming up on free agency, making him a painful but necessary salary cap sacrifice. The return—a first rounder, Martin Jones and Colin Miller—was solid and so was Boston's three-pick second-round haul, particularly nasty defenseman Jeremy Lauzon (52). Neither of those victories comes close to evening out Sweeney’s disastrous debut as GM.