By JOHN WAWROW The Associated Press
Niagara Gazette — BUFFALO — The Buffalo Sabres took a defense-first approach in rebuilding their roster at the NHL draft Sunday. And they’re not yet ready to part ways with either goalie Ryan Miller or forward Thomas Vanek.
Unable to find the right price to trade one or both of their veteran stars, the Sabres focused on going big in revamping their blueline.
The Sabres opened the draft by selecting Finnish defensemen Rasmus Ristolainen with the eighth pick, and then took Russian-born defenseman Nikita Zadorov at No. 16. Both have size, speed, and an offensive dimension to their respective games.
Ristolainen is listed at 6-foot-4 and 207 pounds, and spent much of the past two seasons playing for TPS of the Finnish Elite League. Zadorov, listed at 6-foot-5 and 227 pounds, made the jump to North America last season to play with the Ontario Hockey League London Knights.
“Currently we could use that size back there for us,” coach Ron Rolston said by phone from the draft in New Jersey. “For us to be able to build up our back end is important. And those two players are going to be big pieces to that.”
The focus on defense didn’t end there. The Sabres acquired defenseman Jamie McBain and Carolina’s second-round pick, 35th overall, in trade that sent defenseman Andrej Sekera to the Hurricanes.
Both players have had inconsistent careers. McBain had fallen out of favor in Carolina, while Sekera has never played to the offensive potential expected from him over six-plus seasons in Buffalo.
Rolston said the key to the deal was landing a third second-round pick, with which Buffalo used to draft forward J.T. Compher. He spent the past two seasons on USA Hockey’s Developmental Team and is scheduled to play for Michigan this fall.
The added pick gave the Sabres 11 through the seven-round draft, with which they used to select three defenseman, seven forwards and goalie Calvin Petersen (129th overall), who spent the past two seasons playing for Waterloo of the U.S. Hockey League.
The trades that didn’t materialize on Sunday were ones involving Miller and Vanek. Both are entering the final years of their contracts, leaving their futures uncertain as part of Buffalo rebuilding plans.
“We’d still love to have those guys in Buffalo,” Rolston said. “They’re still part of our team and we’re happy about that. And we’ll make those decisions later.”
The main focus, Rolston said, was on transforming a blueline that will look much different than the one that opened last season. Tyler Myers, Christian Ehrhoff and newly re-signed Mike Weber are the lone veteran holdovers on defense after Buffalo traded Robyn Regehr, Jordan Leopold and T.J. Brennan in separate deals last season.
The question now becomes how quickly their top-two draft picks can begin making an impact at the NHL level.
Ristolainen is regarded as having the best chance of playing in Buffalo as soon as this season. The 18-year-old combined for six goals and 23 points in 92 games with TPS.
“He’s a mobile, strong, offensive-minded defenseman with very good puck-handling and passing skills,” NHL director of European scouting Goran Stubb said, in describing Ristolainen. “He’s one of the best young defenseman in Europe in his age group. He’s a leader on the ice and plays with confidence.”
Ristolainen made the switch from forward to defense as a 12-year-old in 2006, and has attempted to pattern his game after idol, Nashville Predators star defenseman Shea Weber.
Zadorov finished second among OHL rookie defensemen last season with 25 points (six goals, 19 assists) in 63 games in helping London with the OHL title.
“We want to become bigger,” general manager Darcy Regier told Buffalo’s WGR-Radio. “We want to be more physical. The game is moving that way right now. Hopefully, that will remain consistent when these guys start their NHL careers.”
Buffalo’s focus on defense comes a year after it used a pair of first-round picks to draft centers Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons.
The Sabres are in transition after their high-priced and under-performing team missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season and fourth time in six years.
The purge began in February when longtime coach Lindy Ruff was fired after a 6-10-1 start.
One of the Sabres’ more notable selections was forward Justin Bailey, a Buffalo native who was drafted in the second round (52nd overall). Bailey completed his first season with OHL Kitchener, and has numerous ties to Buffalo and its pro sports teams.
He’s the son of former NFL linebacker Carlton Bailey, who played for the Bills from 1988-92. Justin Bailey was also coached by former Sabres captain Pat LaFontaine.
The Sabres also selected Minnesota high school forward Connor Hurley (38th), OHL Sudbury forward Nicholas Baptiste (69th), Swedish junior forward Gustav Possler (130th), Connecticut high school defenseman Anthony Florentino (143rd), U.S. Developmental Team center Sean Malone (159th) and OHL Saginaw center Eric Locke (189th).