Why the Buffalo Sabres will be Stanley Cup champions in 2020

Ken Campbell
New Jersey Devils v Buffalo Sabres

The NHL draft, as we all know, is a reverse meritocracy. The worse you do the previous season, the closer you get to sit to the podium and stage. And with 30 teams, things are always arranged so nicely: five rows of six teams each, with the teams finishing 25 through 30 having the best seats in the house and the highest picks in the first round. Picking in those spots is kind of like being declared the winner of The Biggest Loser. The prize is great, but you’re only up for it because you really let yourself go.

Newly minted Buffalo Sabres GM Tim Murray was up close to the action at this year’s draft. And he figures to be in the front row in 2015 when the draft is held at the home of the Florida Panthers. (A team that will probably be right there with the Sabres.) It’s a badge of honor for those who run drafts to move out of the front row, and Murray, 50, figures to be a little deeper into the queue by 2016.

To be sure, he doesn’t want any part of being a permanent fixture on the draft lottery show – previously known as Fireside Chats with Steve Tambellini – for an extended period of time.

“I don’t want to be going back to the draft lottery in four years. I just don’t want that,” says Murray. “I’m going to work extremely hard not to be there. We know we need a couple of drafts under our belt, but after that I want to be competitive. I want to be a hard team to play against and I don’t want it to be an automatic two points (when a team plays us). And I do not want to go back to the draft lottery.”

When Murray talks about not having patience for a five-year plan, it’s not in a Brian Burke kind of way. The reality is the Sabres are probably that far removed from becoming a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. But when Murray speaks of a five-year plan, he wants to see real and progressive strides, not just a team that stockpiles a boatload of talented young players because it’s constantly picking in the top three.

Based on where the Sabres sit in the standings, they are looking up, way up. But so are their prospects for success. And the best part of it for a guy like Murray, who has made a living on identifying young talent, is that the canvas is relatively blank. After they bought out Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff this summer, the only big-money, long-term contracts that remain on the books belong to Cody Hodgson, Tyler Myers and Matt Moulson. They have a very good stable of young prospects – defensemen Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov were both rated among the top 10 NHL prospects in Future Watch 2014 and center Mikhail Grigorenko made the top 50 – and at the trade deadline they picked up a rising prospect in Hudson Fasching. They have an owner who has been willing to spend, but that has been more of a curse than a blessing in Buffalo of late.

And draft picks? Oh, the draft picks. This season’s fire sale saw to it that the Sabres will be flush in high picks for the next three years. They have three of them in 2015 – their own and ones belonging to the St. Louis Blues and the New York Islanders. They had three second-round picks in this year’s draft and two second-rounders in each of 2015 and 2016.

Assuming the Sabres finish at or near the bottom of the league, you can’t blame them for having visions of Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, the top two prospects for 2015, dancing in their heads. In a perfect fantasy world, the Islanders finish 29th in 2014-15, thereby assuring the Sabres of having the top two seeds in the draft lottery and the best opportunity to get both players.

“Might as well hand them the Stanley Cup in five years if that happens,” one scout said.

With all those picks in play, the Sabres should be in a position to get a couple star players, with superstar possibilities on the horizon, and at least a handful of other serviceable NHLers who can either join the Sabres roster or be used in future trades. In 2003, which is one of the best drafts of all-time, Patrice Bergeron, Shea Weber and David Backes were all second-round picks. Redo that draft today and all three are top-10 picks.

“In a perfect world, I want a giant who skates fast and has tremendous skill and kills people,” Murray said. “But that’s not going to happen, right? We know that. We’re going to take the best player available early in the draft and may lean a little toward need with all those seconds. But I would like nothing better than to move those seconds for a higher pick or move those seconds and another player to get a young player who may have fallen out of favor with another team. We’re ready for all the options.”

Murray knows a rebuilding team cannot afford to squander its picks in any round. Missing with high picks in the first round is a recipe for disaster, but so is not taking advantage of the second- and third-round slots to find good NHL players. But the drafting of the talent is only the first part of building a contending team. It was interesting to hear Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock say that when a team drafts a player and he fails to pan out, some of the responsibility for that has to go to the team that drafted him for not developing him into an NHL player.

That, Murray said, is where the true talent evaluation skills come to the fore. He doesn’t necessarily think there’s a sure timetable for any player, that they all develop at their own pace and they’re going to be the ones who determine when they’ll be ready for the NHL. It’s when teams read those signs inaccurately that they get into trouble.

During Pat LaFontaine’s short tenure with the organization, it was decided neither Ristolainen nor Zadorov was ready to play in the NHL, particularly in a losing environment. Ristolainen went on to become a hero at the World Junior Championship and Zadorov dominated at both ends at the junior level. Neither will be lesser for having spent a year at a lower level and will probably be better prepared to contribute more consistently to the Sabres in the near future.

“There’s no magic formula,” Murray said. “You have to recognize your own players and you have to recognize where they are in their development. The player tells you that. He dictates that. If you’re on top of it and you’re watching him play, you have all kinds of opportunity to judge him in his development.”

Judging by all the picks Buffalo has in the next three years, Murray and his staff will be busy doing just that. If they hit on the right notes and have some luck along the way, the Sabres will be out of the front row and the lottery before too long and among the NHL’s elite.

This article originally appeared in the Draft Preview edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.