By Warren Kozireski
It’s been 69 days since the NHL Draft lottery slotted Buffalo second and ensured that Jack Eichel would become a Sabres.
General Manager Tim Murray flew to Sunrise, Florida for the NHL Entry Draft knowing he had that in his pocket plus another first round draft pick and two more in the second round.
Before the draft he turned the extra first rounder acquired from the New York Islanders in the Thomas Vanek deal into Ottawa Senators goaltender Robin Lehner and veteran forward David Legwand.
And immediately after the Eichel selection, traded the first second rounder (31st overall), Mikhail Grigorenko, Nikita Zadorov and 2013 second round selection J.T. Compher from the University of Michigan into center Ryan O’Reilly and left wing Jamie McGinn.
What was expected to be a painful, multi-year rebuilding effort for the Sabres has apparently been advanced by at least a few years.
“You have to draft well in order to make good trades,” General Manager Tim Murray said after the first round. “Today we’ve improved, but we know there is a new coaching staff and a lot of new players; there’s going to be a lot of meshing and gelling that has to go on. I have full confidence in our coaching staff that they have the experience and the energy to make that happen.
“You don’t get to draft that high very often, nor do you want to and you don’t get that kind of player very often. It was one of the special moments in my drafting career.”
Lehner and O’Reilly are the key arrivals—both 24 years old and right in the “young, established NHL players Murray has talked about on multiple occasions.
At 6’5”, Lehner is among the new breed of tall NHL goaltenders. The former second round pick played in 25 games last season for the Senators with a 9-12 record, a 3.02 GAA and .905 save percentage. He won 12 games in 36 appearances the year prior after leading the Binghamton Senators to the AHL championship.
O’Reilly scored 17 goals with 38 assists last season, but had 28-36 the year prior.
The 26-year old McGinn was a second round draft pick (36th overall) in 2006, but played in only 19 NHL games last season with four goals and two assists. He was placed on the injured list in mid-November and ultimately underwent back surgery in December.
17-year veteran Legwand played in 80 games this past season with nine goals and 18 assists and will be expected to provide leadership for the young squad.
With O’Reilly and Legwand added to Reinhart, Hodgson, Ennis and Girgensons at center, Buffalo has more than turned a concern into an apparent strength.
“I’m not going to say how we’re going to play it or what the lines are going to be, but I know Girgensons can play center and O’Reilly can play center, they both have some experience and they both play hard and they both are competitive guys. So I think after today the matchups should be a little more advantageous for us down the road,” Murray said.
As for Eichel joining the Sabres, “it’s tough to put into words right now. Hugging my dad and hugging my mom was such a special feeling—and my sister. My mom’s a pretty emotional person she’s crying.
Like almost every draft pick (Connor McDavid the exception wearing a #97 jersey for Edmonton), Eichel had a jersey with #15 on it. Asked if that was his number, “I really hadn’t thought about it yet. 15 is a good number—I’ve worn it before plus it’s my dad’s lucky number and my sister’s lucky number and I’m happy it’s the year I was drafted.”
“I think Buffalo as a city and the Sabres as a team are heading in great direction. The different moves they’ve made and the guys they have in their system and players on their team are a lot of positives. Buffalo wants success and they want success soon and I think that’s going to happen.”
Buffalo has the NY Islanders second round pick on day two (51st overall) plus their own fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh round selections remaining.