After last year’s draft lottery concluded, it was obvious to everyone who the Sabres would take with their first round pick. However, this year, the team holds the 7th and 31st picks, and who they may take with either choice is uncertain.
Even the possibility of a trade is not out of the question for GM Jason Botterill and the organization.
Here are a few prospects whose name could be called with the 31st pick of the first round in Vancouver on Friday night:
Alex Vlasic: LHD (USNTDP U17 team)
Currently projected at #31 to the Sabres on MyNHLDraft.com, Vlasic is a left-handed defenseman with a dominating on-ice presence at 6’6″, 198 pounds. After spending the last couple years in USA Hockey’s National Development program, he has committed to Boston University for next season.
Although he has a tall frame, his slender weight can benefit his skating ability, similar to Tyler Myers when he was picked by Buffalo 12th overall in 2008. Chris Peters of ESPN says “he is not flashy and his numbers don’t pop, but Vlasic plays a game that fits the modern NHL. He defends at a high level, has excellent feet and sees the ice remarkably well.” Over the last two years, he has played for the USA U17 and U18 team, earning 29 points in 60 games and 27 points in 61 games, respectively.
— USA Hockey’s NTDP (@USAHockeyNTDP) October 7, 2018
If he is available to the Sabres, I would consider Vlasic a top option at this pick. There is tremendous uncertainty on the blue line after Rasmus Dahlin, Lawrence Pilut, and Brandon Montour.
The trade rumors have been swirling around Rasmus Ristolainen, and with both Zach Bogosian and Marco Scandella heading into their contract year, Botterill has to make moves to improve the team’s defense for the present and future, and drafting Vlasic can help him towards reaching that goal.
Jakob Pelletier: C/LW (QMJHL)
Although smaller than the average player at 5’9″, ESPN’s Chris Peters describes Pelletier as “a quick, jittery forward who can apply pressure on opposing defenses with his skill, Pelletier put up big numbers in the QMJHL.”
During his time in Canadian major junior hockey, he lived up to the status of a potential first-round pick by accumulating a total of 150 points, which included scoring 62 goals for the Moncton Wildcats (23 in ’17-’18 and 39 in ’18-’19) during that two-year stretch.
A physical comparison in this draft can be made to Cole Caufield, who has been projected at or near #7, with similar height, weight and positional skills. Although the team is likely to take a center with their first pick, the lack of depth at the position on the Sabres and in Rochester as well would suggest that taking two centers in the opening round is within the realm of possibility.
— Moncton Wildcats (@monctonwildcats) April 10, 2019
Egor Afanasayev: LW (USHL)
Described as a player who “plays a pro-style game with enough size to handle the heavy-lifting,” by SportsNet’s Sam Consentino, the 6’4″ 200 pound winger is coming off an impressive season with the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the USHL.
After scoring 27 goals for 62 points in 58 games last season, Afanasayev will play next season in the OHL for the Windsor Spitfires. He is currently projected by DraftSite.com to the Sabres at 31.
Afanaysev was a dominant player in the USHL past season after taking a big stride in his development, which was prevalent in his jump in production after earning 14 points in 45 games the year prior.
Both his size and skill make him an intriguing prospect in the coming years, whether it’s the Sabres or one of the other 30 teams that draft him this weekend.
— USHL (@USHL) September 28, 2018
Although our team has notable wingers in Jeff Skinner, Sam Reinhart and prospect Alex Nylander, potential moves in trade or free agency can add to the lineup, but Afanasayev would be a nice fit for the team once he arrives in Buffalo.
Since most NHL prospects are not ready for a few seasons, and he is currently signed to the OHL next season, if he indeed is drafted by the Sabres, he could have a big role for the organization years into the future.
Brett Leason: RW (WHL)
One of only a few players in the late 1st round listed at 6’4″ and play on the wing, Leason is also unique from most prospects in that he turned 20 in April, when compared to the average age of 18 in which most declare for the NHL draft.
A second year in the WHL, like most in junior hockey, saw a big jump in his scoring and point production, from 15 goals and 32 points to 36 goals and 89 points this past season for the Prince Albert Raiders.
— Eliteprospects (@eliteprospects) November 21, 2018
With Sam Reinhart and Kyle Okposo as primary right wingers, and especially given Okposo’s struggles on and off the ice over last couple years, using this pick on the right side would make sense.
Nolan Foote: LW (WHL)
After completing his last three seasons in the WHL for the Kelowna Rockets, Foote has continued to increase his production, as well as a dramatic jump in his goal scoring.
In his recent mock draft, TSN Scouting Director Craig Button projects Foote to the Sabres at 31. Although one of his main concerns heading into last season was injuries and the effect that it could have on his draft stock, which currently is around early second round.
In his three seasons for Kelowna, Foote earned 138 total points in 168 games played. After playing the entire season with an undisclosed wrist fracture and scoring 36 goals for 63 points, the 6’3″ forward improved upon his point production after earning 75 points his first two years in the WHL.
— Kelowna Rockets (@Kelowna_Rockets) November 4, 2018
Outside of Jeff Skinner, who just re-signed for eight years after scoring 40 goals last season, there is not much on the left side of the team’s lineup or their organizational pipeline heading into the draft and free agency period.
The constant improvement in his game will likely benefit his draft stock and career, and is why Button views him as a fit for the Sabres at 31, if Botterill decides to hold on to the pick as opposed to trading it away.
Another option that Botterill has with the 31st pick is through the trade market, which has been discussed in varying degrees in the weeks since the season concluded for Buffalo.
TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reported earlier this month the team had “kicked tires” on Minnesota’s Jason Zucker.
SportsNet’s Elliotte Freidman said on his “31 Thoughts” podcast the Sabres had contact with the NY Rangers for Jimmy Vesey, whom the Sabres traded a third-round pick a few years ago to obtain his negotiation rights.
With a variety of options available for the Sabres at #31, or through making a trade prior to making that selection, there are many ways to approach the selection for the organization to help them in the short-term and long-term for their organizational goals and what the team looks to accomplish.