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When you swing and miss on a draft
The Sabres did not sign three of their 2018 draft picks and what's left behind is a question of "Who could they have gotten instead?"
Chances are pretty high the names Linus Cronholm, Miska Kukkonen, and William Worge Kreu won’t ring any bells for regular Buffalo Sabres fans, but they’re now trivia answers:
Which three players from the 2018 NHL Draft did the Sabres allow their draft rights to expire and not sign?
It’s a really deep question to ask and if you ever hear it at some bar trivia event, pat yourself on the back for playing on expert level. But there’s a better question left in the wake of their rights expiring:
Who should they have picked instead?
This is the main query that will sit forever in these situations because it’s like when a team picks a player higher in the draft that doesn’t pan out while star players emerge after that selection.
Now that we’re virtually halfway through 2022, it’s just about time to start seeing the results of that draft to really bear out. In the Sabres case, they’re already at the top of the world when you consider their first two picks very well could be their top defense pairing for the next year or more (Rasmus Dahlin and Mattias Samuelsson).
We’re well aware of Dahlin’s abilities and the ups and downs he’s had in his first four seasons, but something finally got through to him this season and the dynamic and dangerous scorer from the blue line Buffalo thought they drafted No. 1 overall has emerged at last.
Had it not been for a puck off his ankle during a rookie game in September, Samuelsson likely would’ve been with Buffalo all season. When he did at last get into the Sabres lineup he proved immediately to be the defensive-defensemen they’ve been dying to find for years. By the end of the season, he matched with Dahlin (who played on the right despite being a left-hand shot) on the top pair and the two of them thrived off of each other.
Fourth-round pick Matej Pekar had a reasonably successful junior career with Barrie and Sudbury in the OHL but he’s still finding his way after a couple seasons in the AHL with Rochester. He’s got four goals and 12 points in 72 games with the Americans and while he’s got spirit and doesn’t fear being an irritant to anyone no matter their size, he could stand to fill out a little bit more if he’s going to throw himself headlong into some of the toughest guys in the AHL.
But the remainder of their picks in 2018 all won’t become Sabres, barring something very uncommon occurs. Cronholm (fourth round, No. 117), Kukkonen (fifth round, No. 125), and Worge Kreu (seventh round, No. 187) are gone. That draft also saw then GM Jason Botterill deal his sixth-round pick (No. 156) to the Toronto Maple Leafs who selected Swedish winger Pontus Holmberg. Mind you, the Sabres got the Leafs 2019 sixth rounder as part of the deal and traded that to Detroit to move up to the fifth round in that draft to select Swedish winger Filip Cederqvist. Still it’s a trade with your hated rival at the draft and it’s generally not a great idea to monkey around with picks and your rivals. Just ask… oh right, the Maple Leafs who forked over a bunch to Boston in deals past.
When you take a peek at the players the Sabres should’ve/could’ve drafted instead of the three they didn’t sign… there’s actually not too much sweat to be had about it.
After Cronholm and before Kukkonen
There were seven picks in between these two selections and if you want to get your angst up, you can based on Chicago’s selection of Swiss forward Philipp Kurashev (121 games; 14g/23a/37p). Those numbers aren’t something to flip a table over, not yet anyway, but he cracked an aging and breaking down Blackhawks roster in January 2021 and has essentially stayed put. Some scouts will say the way to tell you’ve done a good job of scouting is if a guy gets NHL games, particularly from lower in the draft. Regardless of the situation in Chicago, 120+ games for a late fourth-round pick is pretty solid. That’s 15th among guys taken in 2018 and he’s 15th in points.
Given that the Sabres will get zero games played from Cronholm that’s a miss. One other notable player is Leafs pick Mac Hollowell, taken right after Cronholm, who has been with the AHL Marlies for two-and-a-half seasons. His numbers don’t pop, but if you’re consumed by Leafs attention even by accident you’ve probably heard the name. Chances of him becoming A Guy don’t look great, but you never know. Consider this a terrible bogeyman.
A handful of other players have gotten games including Devils prospect goalie Akira Schmid (six games), Dallas Stars center Riley Damiani (seven games), and Winnipeg Jets defenseman Declan Chisholm (two). Schmid we may see more of in the coming years because goaltending has been a bit of a mess in New Jersey and Schmid has shown promise with AHL Utica.
After Kukkonen and before Worge Kreu
There were 61 picks made between Kukkonen at the top of the fifth round and Worge Kreu at the top of the seventh, but only two stand out and one stings a little bit. At 141, the New Jersey Devils selected Belarussian winger Yegor Sharangovich from Dynamo Minsk. Being taken by a mightily slumping team like the Devils, who have been devoid of scoring depth for some time, allowed Sharangovich the opportunity to not just get games, but provide a spark. In 130 games over two seasons he has 40 goals and 36 assists (76 points). You read what I said about Kurashev above as a fourth-round pick, you can heighten that a bit more for Sharangovich as a mid-fifth rounder. Just this past season he scored 24 goals and he’s become an excellent player for New Jersey. He became an even-strength scoring beast with 20 of his 24 goals at evens and 33 of his 40 career goals at even strength. It’s not just good value, he was a legitimately great pick. Kudos.
There’s also San Jose Sharks forward John Leonard who was taken no. 182. Leonard’s credentials aren’t as mighty as Sharangovich but as a late sixth rounder he’s played 58 games in the show and has four goals and 11 assists to show for it. The bulk of his 58 games came in 2020-2021 with 44. He spent most of this season with the Barracuda in the AHL where he had 17 goals and 32 points in 45 games. He posted one goal and one assist in 14 games with the Sharks. Perhaps there’s more to come for him in the future or perhaps this is what his career with San Jose will be as a ‘tweener. Either way, it’s a proud accomplishment to get that amount of NHL time coming from deep in the draft.
Leonard is the most successful sixth round player to this point from the 2018 Draft. Goalie Veini Vehvilainen (173) got one appearance with the Columbus Blue Jackets in March 2021. In 11 minutes he made three saves on four shots in relief of Joonas Korpisalo in a 5-0 loss to Dallas. Anaheim Ducks defenseman Hunter Drew played in a pair of games this season in April.
After Worge Kreu
Pulling diamonds from the rough in the seventh round is tough to do and the Sabres already found their shiny in 2014 with Victor Olofsson at 181. That on its own is an unreasonable bar to set for any player taken in the seventh round, but the 2018 Draft has seen just two players so far hit the NHL.
Forward Josiah Slavin (193) played 15 games this season with the Carolina Hurricanes which is a nice story because he got to play along with his brother, defenseman Jaccob Slavin. Josiah had one assist in his first NHL game before he went back to the AHL.
Trey Fix-Wolansky (204) has an awesome name and got two games with the Blue Jackets this season and had a goal and an assist. The goal came in his first NHL game so based on this very small sample size of two seventh round selections, your chances of getting your first goal or point in your first game are pretty high. Please don’t research this any further.
If there’s another seventh round pick from that year to root for it’s Liam Kirk (189), the first player from Great Britain to be taken in the NHL Draft. He signed an ELC with Arizona and had eight games with the Tucson Roadrunners this season before he sustained a season-ending knee injury.
In summation? What am I writing, a legal brief here? Anyway.
Losing out on three picks stings and it means lost opportunities but in this case… it may not hurt so bad if the rest of the players taken in the midst of Cronholm, Kukkonen, and Worge Kreu don’t develop into NHLers. Sure, Sharangovich will make it smart a bit, but it’ll hurt for 30 other teams as well. Sometimes you just catch the right guy at the right time on the scouting road and you come away with a winner.
Then again… not even signing and taking a shot at developing some of your picks can come back and haunt you. While not everyone turns into a Brandon Hagel, giving another team to do it makes it sting a little more.