Sabres NHL Draft takeaways: Inside Buffalo’s thought course of on all 11 picks

MONTREAL — Jerry Forton had to collect himself.

The Sabers’ director of amateur scouting has seen a lot. He’s been with the organization since 2013 in a variety of roles. He’s been through multiple general manager changes, coaching changes and a lot of painful seasons. So when he was asked about what general manager Kevyn Adams was like conducting his first in-person draft, Forton got hit with an unexpected wave of emotion.

“You know what I love about Kevyn? He’s so level-headed,” Forton started.

Then he stopped himself.

“I’m sorry guys,” he said.

Forton couldn’t hold back tears, and right then it was obvious the impact Adams has had on this organization. Over the past month, Sabers owner Kim Pegula has been dealing with an undisclosed health issue. She and Terry Pegula were not in attendance at the NHL Draft because of it. Adams has helped keep everyone in the organization focused throughout a trying month. And thinking about how Adams navigated that, culminating in a draft with 11 picks, including three in the first round, was enough to make Forton choke up.

“He includes everyone,” Forton said. “He lets everyone do their jobs and he’s done an incredible job at bringing this entire organization together. I’ve seen it firsthand. We’ve also been through a lot, minor for me the last month or so. But the whole organization has been through a lot since I’ve been here. To see the coaches and development staff, Rochester staff and all of our support staff and how everyone works together, to me that all starts with the Pegulas and Kevyn. I apologize for that, but he was great on the floor. He’s always professional. He includes everyone. He’s respectful. He has a lot on his plate managing that and he does it with dignity and professionalism.”

You can nitpick moves Adams has made with the roster. Skepticism about another rebuild is fair given the organization’s recent history. But a reaction like Forton’s happens because Adams is changing the way people feel when they come to work every day. The Sabers’ building hasn’t always been a fun place to work over the last decade, but Adams is making it so. That matters, because it trickles down to the locker room.

The sentiment around the league is that players in Buffalo enjoy playing there. Yes, they will still have instances of players not wanting to come to Buffalo, like Matt Murray who used his no-trade clause to block a move. They’ll need to win to cure that problem. Where Adams has succeeded, though, he is finding players and staffers who want to be part of what the Sabers are building. The team generated positive results down the stretch of the season and has remained methodical in building this offseason. Will it lead to this rebuild generating more wins than past failed efforts? That remains to be seen, but there is a much different feeling about this team than there has been in quite a while.

And now, some takeaways on a busy weekend for the Sabers that included 11 draft picks.

The class

Round 1, pick 9. Matthew Savoie, C, WINNIPEG (WHL)
January 1, 2004 | 5′ 9″ | 170 pounds

Round 1, pick 16. Noah Ostlund, C, DJURGARDEN JR. (SWEDEN-JR.)
March 11, 2004 | 5′ 10″ | 164 pounds

Round 1, pick 28. Jiri Kulich, C, KARLOVY VARY (CZREP)
April 14, 2004 | 5′ 11″ | 178 pounds

Round 2, pick 41. Topias Leinonen, G, JYP JR. (FINLAND-JR.)
January 25, 2004 | 6′ 5″ | 233 pounds

Round 3, pick 74. Viktor Neuchev, LW, YEKATERINBURG 2 (RUSSIA-JR.)
October 25, 2003 | 6′ 2″ | 165 pounds

Round 4, pick 106. Mats Lindgren, LHD, KAMLOOPS (WHL)
August 26, 2004 | 5′ 11″ | 173 pounds

Round 5, pick 134. Vsevolod Komarov, RHD, QUEBEC (QMJHL)
January 11, 2004 | 6′ 2″ | 182 pounds

Round 6, pick 170. Jake Richard, RW, MUSKEGON (USHL)
August 15, 2004 | 6′ 1″ | 171 pounds

Round 6, 187. Gustav Karlsson, C, OREBRO JR. (SWEDEN-JR.)
October 31, 2003 | 6′ 1″ | 165 pounds

Round 7, pick 202. Joel Ratkovic Berndtsson, RW, FROLUNDA JR. (SWEDEN-JR.)
October 18, 2003 | 6′ 0″ | 178 pounds

Round 7, pick 211. Linus Sjodin, C, ROGLE (SWEDEN)
October 2, 2002 | 6′ 0″ | 167 pounds

Biggest surprise: Topias Leinonen

With their first pick on day two, No. 41 overall, the Sabers took Finnish goalie Topias Leinonen. The pick surprised some, but Adams said the goal coming into this draft was to take a goalie. The Sabers weren’t sure if they would take the first goalie in the draft, but Forton said there was a “major gap” between Leinonen and the next goalie on their list. The only question was whether they would take him in the first round or wait until the second. They knew it wouldn’t be any later than that.

“We love the on-ice athleticism, the big-save ability. He’s obviously a big kid. We feel like he’s just scratching the surface. He has a lot of international experience. Some of it has been up and down but what really impressed us it seems every time he’s faced some adversity he’s bounced back.”

The Sabers interviewed Leinonen at the NHL Scouting Combine in Buffalo and came away with a strong impression of him as a human. They saw his confidence in him in the way he was able to have friendly banter with the staff.

“He’s got some personality to him that’s consistent with a lot of our due diligence we had with his club team from his goalie coaches over the years to the international team,” Forton said. “He’s a popular kid.”

At 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds, he has the attributes NHL teams are looking for. Adams said this pick wasn’t made as an indication of Erik Portillo’s future. Portillo, the team’s 2019 third-round pick and star Michigan goalie, plans to go back to college next season. He’ll be at development camp next week but could become a free agent next spring. The Sabers also have Northeastern goalie Devon Levi in ​​the system, but Adams wants depth.

“You want to make sure you have pipeline flexibility and options moving forward,” Adams said. “When you’re drafting young goaltenders, there’s a long way. For us, that’s just a normal part of our process.”

More Russians in the mix

When it came to the uncertainty of drafting Russian players, the Sabers had certain scenarios in which they would be comfortable. They needed their Russian scouts to be comfortable with the story of the player and the potential desire for that player to play in the NHL down the road. Then they needed the value to be right. That happened with winger Viktor Neuchev, who the Sabers took in the third round. The Sabers had him as one of the top three Russian prospects in this draft. The team’s analytics department had a first-round grade on him, so the risk was worth it in the third round. Neuchev had 40 goals and 67 points on his Russian junior team, far outpacing all of his teammates from him.

“As much as he’s a scorer, which he clearly is, he was also driving play by himself,” Forton said. “Very competitive kid. Great stick. He’s got great edges. He has to take another step with his open-ice speed from him. But we really like the combination of playmaking, ability to drive play by himself and having the high-end scoring element to his game from him. He plays in an organization where Datsyuk is going to be the head of development in that organization next year and has already had his hands on some of these players. That’s very appealing to us that he’s in a very good development spot right now.”

The Sabers also drafted Vsevolod Komarov, a QMJHL defenseman of Russian descent in the fifth round. He’s a tall, right-shot blue liner who was one of only two defensemen the Sabers picked with their 11 selections. Adams said part of that calculus was how young the Sabers’ six NHL defensemen are. But he also wanted to stick to taking the best player available and not force a defenseman.

To return to Sweden

One of those defensemen the Sabers drafted was Mats Lindgren, who played in the WHL but has also spent time in Sweden. Adams said he was another player the team was surprised to get where they did. He’s a bit undersized and known as an offensive defenseman, but he worked hard to round out his game this past season.

In addition to Lindgren, the Sabers ended up drafting four players who came from Swedish leagues, including first-rounder Noah Ostlund and their final three picks, center Gustav Karlsson, right winger Joel Ratkovic Berndtsson and forward Linus Sjodin. Anders Forsberg’s presence as a European scout in the organization plays a big role in how confident the team is in their Swedish scouting. Buffalo has found value in Swedes Linus Ullmark and Victor Oloffson later in drafts during Forton’s tenure.

“It’s an area we’re very comfortable with,” Forton said. “We like the developmental path.”

An interesting late-round flier

In the sixth round, the Sabers took forward Jake Richard out of the USHL. He was born in Jacksonville, Fla. and was one of the younger players in this draft. But his production of him took off in 2022 with 41 points in the final 35 games of the season. He’s committed to playing at UConn, and Forton knows that staff well. UConn’s coaches think Richard, who doesn’t turn 18 until August, could play a top-nine role for them next season. But UConn and the Sabers like the developmental spot he’s in at Muskegon in the USHL. Forton referenced Richard’s production of him relative to other players on his team and said, “it’s absurd what he’s done.”

“I love the idea of ​​him going back and dominating the USHL even more next year,” Forton said. “But that’s how highly UConn thinks of him. They think he could be playing in a top-nine role in Hockey East next year, which is really mind-boggling to think about where the kid came from just a year ago.”

Size not an issue for top picks

Forton sometimes worries about size when it comes to top prospects but only when those players don’t have exceptional skating ability. That’s why he’s not worried at all about top picks Matt Savoie and Noah Ostlund despite them both being on the shorter side. He also noticed how competitive both players play and never saw a single instance of fear in either player’s game when watching them.

“We want them to get a little bit bigger and stronger, but both of these guys are right now and will be in the NHL an absolute pain in the ass to play against,” Forton said. “Combine that with their skill and hockey sense, the size doesn’t become an issue to me anymore.”

Forton said Savoie, Ostlund and Jiri Kulich, who the team took at 28, were all ranked comfortably in the top half of the first round in their rankings.

what’s next

The Sabers were quiet on the trade front this weekend after missing out on the Murray deal with Ottawa. There was a lot of goalie movement in the NHL over the last few days in Montreal. Ville Husso was traded to the Red Wings, who promptly signed him to a three-year deal. Marc-Andre Fleury returned to Minnesota, the Avalanche swung a trade for Alexandar Georgiev and the Devils traded for Vitek Vanecek. The Leafs also dumped Peter Mrazek’s contract Thursday night.

Adams poked around the goalie market but didn’t jump in. He continued to site the presence of 41-year old Craig Anderson, who the team signed to a one-year extension prior to the draft, as a reason for comfort in the goalie situation. He’s also confident in the development of Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. But it’s also clear the Sabers still need to add someone in net. Adams said he didn’t want to get caught up in emotion this weekend and make a move he’d regret down the line just because other teams were moving goalies.

“We know there’s options available if we decide to go that route potentially,” Adams said. “What we won’t do is panic. We will do what we believe is right for the short and long term. We’ll be patient and do the right thing.”

That was the theme for Adams all weekend. It led to the Sabers adding a class of 11 prospects that ranked among the best haul’s in the draft, according to The Athletic’s Corey Proman. Next week, the team will hold development camp and embark on free agency, hoping to continue to positive feelings they’ve generated in the last six months.

(Photo by Chris Tanouye/Getty Images)

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