Buffalo Sabres: Emergence of Young Talent Changes Expansion Draft Strategy

Nov 3, 2016; Buffalo, NY, USA; Buffalo Sabres defenseman Dmitry Kulikov (77) against the Toronto Maple Leafs at KeyBank Center. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 3, 2016; Buffalo, NY, USA; Buffalo Sabres defenseman Dmitry Kulikov (77) against the Toronto Maple Leafs at KeyBank Center. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports /

We look at the emergence of young talent for the Buffalo Sabres and how it may affect their decisions for the Las Vegas expansion draft.

With no Buffalo Sabres games till Saturday, it’s easy to sit and reflect on the season so far. For the last couple of years, February has brought little to no joy for fans.

This year however, it seems the Sabres are finally reaping the seeds of those dismal years. In the space of a week, they have had three performers come up from Rochester and fit right in.

Justin Bailey got the game-winner against divisional rival the Ottawa Senators and Nick Baptiste scored the first goal in the win over the red-hot St. Louis Blues. Meanwhile, Evan Rodrigues continues to improve at centre, playing on the checking line.

So what does this all mean for the future?

As the trade deadline approaches, it seems the impending arrival of the Las Vegas expansion draft has halted almost all activity. So I tried to find out just how the Las Vegas Golden Knights will affect the Sabres’ future.

I went to CapFriendly, where there is a great mock draft feature with the rules of the draft and eligibility of players. After going through the possible options I found myself thinking; I couldn’t commit to exposing one of Buffalo’s defenceman at the expense of a forward, because of just how well the youngsters from Rochester have performed.

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When I broke it down it became simple – expose either Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson and Tyler Ennis. Or expose Dimitry Kulikov.

Considering all that general manager Tim Murray gave up to get Kulikov coupled with the fact Las Vegas can only take one player from each team- meaning they may just go with Cody Franson or Matt Moulson anyway- it became clear that protecting Kulikov was the better option.

Simply put, Ennis has not produced. If he is taken to Las Vegas there is a slim chance it will come back to haunt Buffalo.

The Sabres are stock-pilled with scoring talent on the wings anyway, so-much-so Ennis is currently playing on the fourth line. After watching Bailey and Baptiste score this week, while playing with Ryan O’Reilly and Jack Eichel respectively, it begs the question: Is there a need for Ennis in Buffalo?

Girgensons is a much more likely pick, and my choice if I was drafting for Las Vegas. If Sabres fans are being honest with themselves though, they won’t be too disappointed.

Girgensons has found himself further and further down the depth chart recently and has struggled to live up to his potential. Larsson is another solid centre.

Losing both Girgensons and Larsson would be difficult to swallow. However I think having one negates having the other, as both can play that checking centre role.

The Sabres also have Derek Grant– who will most likely be exposed- and Rodrigues to fill the centre hole that would be created with the loss of either Girgensons or Larsson. Therefore, losing one of the two to Las Vegas would still be better than losing Kulikov.

As for Kulikov, he has slotted in well to the now injury-free defensive core. The young Russian looks more than capable, playing big minutes alongside Rasmus Ristolainen.

I believe still that solid defenders are much harder to come by than bottom six forwards.

Next: Brian Gionta Wants to Remain in Buffalo

Once again though the Sabres would still also expose Franson, Moulson, Grant, Josh Gorges, Brian Gionta and Anders Nilsson if Las Vegas were inclined to take a goaltender. This means they could expose Girgensons, Ennis and Larsson and still not lose them, and at worse only lose one.