When NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly turned over the card at Wednesday’s 2021 NHL Draft Lottery to show that the Sabres would hold the No. 1 overall pick in July’s draft, Buffalo general manager Kevyn Adams looked like a happy guy — for a second. Then, he looked like a guy who just got the weight of the world put on his shoulders.
“It was a challenging season, lot of adversity,” Adams said. “We were in the position we were in, and you certainly don’t want to be there, but that’s the reality. . . . To have this fall our way, to be in this position it’s, oh, it makes some of the things we went through this year feel a little bit better about it. It’s a huge opportunity for our franchise to improve. I feel like this is a really big step, something we needed and [are] excited about.”
“Challenging season” is an understatement. Things have not been good in Western New York for quite a while.
Sure, the Sabres have had good teams and Hall of Famers in the past, but recent memory erases that. Since the 1999 Stanley Cup Final run, they’ve only been to the playoffs six times. The last time the Sabres made the postseason was in 2011, when Buffalo lost in seven games to Philadelphia in the opening round. Since then, the club has finished last in its division in five of the last 10 seasons.
The Sabres found themselves at the bottom of the division again in 2021 despite adding Taylor Hall (who, by the way, may have done his draft lottery magic here once again) in the offseason. Hall scored just two goals and tallied 19 points in 37 games before being shipped at the trade deadline to the playoff-bound Bruins. Ralph Krueger was fired as the head coach after 28 games and then, during his last media availability of the season, Jack Eichel voiced his displeasure.
“There’s been a bit of a disconnect from the organization a bit and myself. It’s been tough at times,” said Eichel, who missed the last 34 games of the regular season with a neck injury. “Right now, I think, for me, the most important thing is just trying to get healthy and figure out a way to be available to play hockey next year, wherever that might be.”
The 24-year-old captain was also upset with the team’s handling of his neck injury, saying that he preferred surgery but the team did not.
“It doesn’t work like that. I wish. . . . I’m under contract with this team, and they definitely hold a lot of cards on what I can and can’t do,” he said.
Now Adams, who is entering just his second season as the GM, will need to make the right pick to satisfy not only his captain — who, if you read between the lines on “wherever that might be,” is potentially planning on asking for a trade — but also the fans who have become disenfranchised with a club that’s been a dumpster fire.
And this year’s draft is not an easy one. Last year, the Rangers selected first and had the easy task of taking Alexis Lafreniere, as the Canadian was known to be the top guy for months, if not years.
But that’s not the case now. There is not a consensus No. 1 guy. Defenseman Owen Power seems to be the most likely choice, but there is also his University of Michigan teammates Matthew Beniers and Kent Johnson. Other big names include Dylan Guenther, Brandt Clark and the third Hughes brother, Luke.
“It can change kind of the course of your franchise,” Adams said of the No. 1 pick. “For sure, it’s energizing to the players in the room. I’m sure if you’ve asked our players, they’re excited right now. It’s energizing to our fan base. It’s energizing just to the people that work in this organization that love this place so much. It’s all the above, and it’s a big, I’ll say, step in the right direction of where we’re headed.
“We’re excited to add the next great Buffalo Sabre player to our franchise.”
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