Hockey drafts are great fun, and a welcome diversion for any dysfunctional sports franchise. Every draft brings hope and promise. Fans and friendly critics tend to assume the best, leaping to conclusions about 18-year-olds they’ve never seen play a game in person.
Invariably, we’re told that the local team was blessed by good fortune. A future star fell to them. The personnel people couldn’t believe he was actually still on the board! Fans are left with an inflated sense of possibility, of how close the teams truly are.
It happened two months ago when the Bills got Ed Oliver with the ninth overall pick of the NFL draft, and again Friday night when the Sabres grabbed center Dylan Cozens at No. 7 overall.
Another steal, according to some of the top hockey minds in Buffalo. Tremendous skater and two-way player. They were lucky to get him at seven, thanks to some dubious choices above them in the draft. The kid has an admirable swagger and believes he can play in the NHL right away
Cozens was a gift, same as Oliver to the Bills. Hope abounds at a draft, when the home team makes a pick that any fantasy player could have executed from the laptop in his basement. Never mind that there is always a reason that other teams decided to pass a budding superstar by.
Look, I don’t know Dylan Cozens from Boogie Cousins. He might become the next Mario Lemieux. But history has taught me to resist the urge to react positively to every Sabres move. Fans were excited about Alex Nylander and Brendan Guhle, Nikita Zadorov and Mikhail Grigorenko, Joel Armia and Zack Kassian. I won’t torture you by going back any further.
It’s become a reflex to assume the best about the Bills and Sabres, especially among media who are in business with the teams. There’s something to be said about optimism, about lifting the spirits of suffering Buffalo sports fans. But after years of dysfunction, they forfeit the benefit of the doubt.
To me, this draft is less a sign of progress than cleaning up after their own mistakes. Instead of gushing about Cozens, I look back over the trail of events that made them so desperate to pick a centerman that high in the first place.
Go back to Sam Reinhart, their reward for finishing with the worst record (percentage-wise) in team history in 2014. Reinhart was drafted as a center. He didn’t pan out at center, leaving a void in the middle. So Botterill made Casey Mittelstadt his first pick as GM in 2017. (He was also a steal who fell to them at eighth overall, remember?)
Mittelstadt might become a fine NHL player, but Botterill overestimated the kid’s ability to be the Sabres’ No. 2 center at age 20. Most players take time to develop. Just look at the guys picked around him in the same draft. Still, it’s no longer fashionable to assume Mittelstadt will become an elite top six forward in the league.
The misplaced faith in Mittelstadt was precipitated, of course, by Botterill trading Ryan O’Reilly to the Blues and propelling them to their first Stanley Cup title. You want to talk about a steal? I’ll direct you to photos of O’Reilly holding all those trophies.
Cozens might be the rare prospect who can contribute right away. But the Sabres are likely to bring him along slowly, particularly after seeing Mittelstadt struggle. Patience is required, and I imagine Botterill wishes the fan base was in a more patient state of mind.
Botterill has received high praise for his earlier drafts. Three of his picks from the ’17 draft, including Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Oskari Laaksonon and Jacob Bryson, are seen as top NHL prospects who will fortify the Sabres in coming years.
The fact is, Botterill inherited a mess from Tim Murray, who tossed around draft picks like poker chips and left his successor without much organizational depth. Botterill took on the daunting task of trying to win now to appease the fan base while building for the future.
That doesn’t excuse what happened in his first two seasons, when the Sabres finished last with 62 points the first year and suffered one of the worst collapses in NHL history this past season.
You lose the benefit of the doubt when you deal O’Reilly for the likes of Vlad Sobotka, Tage Thompson and Patrik Berglund, and when you add such limited talents as Nathan Beaulieu and Marco Scandella to the league’s worst blueline.
Botterill’s draft picks might be top-notch. But it’s funny how Sabres prospects seem so promising in the pipeline, but so disappointing when they hit the big-time. Botterill took a team that had 81 and 78 points before his arrival and took it back to the bottom of the league with a head coach, Phil Housley, who was over his head and got fired.
So now we’re supposed to believe that Botterill was rebuilding all along, that he needed five years to see all his draft gems come of age. When will the fans get a playoff team, when Jack Eichel is in his eighth NHL season two years from now and Cozens is ready? Halfway through Jeff Skinner’s eight-year, $72 million contract?
Ralph Krueger, the new head coach, says the Sabres are on the cusp of contention. He also reminds us that they’re young. They had eight players on their roster last year who were top-10 overall draft picks. That was the most of any team in the NHL. They ought to be on the cusp.
Botterill needs to show major improvement where it counts next season, on the NHL ice. The Sabres have roughly $19 million in cap space after overpaying Skinner. He has money to spend on a free agent or two. He also could move one of his more marketable veterans, most notably defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen.
It’s a delicate balancing act — winning now while building for the future. But the Sabres have now picked in the top eight in seven consecutive drafts. Isn't it about time they showed something for it?
Talk all you want about steals. If you ask me, it’s the fans who have been getting ripped off.
Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York, as well as the host of The Jerry Sullivan Show from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. weekdays on 1270 AM The Fan. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at email@example.com.