Welcome to Last Word’s Draft Boom and Bust series. As the 2020 NHL Entry Draft approaches, we decided to examine each team’s best and worst pick since the 2000 NHL Entry Draft. The biggest boom is a player that had the best value relative to where they were selected. Meaning, no one in the first round will be considered a team’s best value pick. However, the biggest bust picks will almost always be in the first round. We will examine each player, why they were picked where they were, and what their NHL career was like. Today, we look at the Buffalo Sabres draft history and their biggest boom and bust since 2000.
Buffalo Sabres Draft Booms and Busts
In one quick rookie season, Victor Olofsson has done more than almost every seventh-round selection: gained a confident top-six role. With 20 goals and 42 points in 54 games in his rookie NHL season, this year, Olofsson not only far surpassed his 181st-overall selection in 2014 but stamped him as a Calder Trophy favourite, albeit not a likely final candidate.
Outside the NHL
Olofsson had been in Sweden’s top league since the 2013-14 season. That year, he played in his first 11 professional hockey games ever, at the age of 18, but didn’t muster up any points. In a strong 2014 NHL Draft, Olofsson’s lack of production at any grand scale kept him completely off the radar of any NHL teams. With their throw-away seventh-round pick, the Sabres decided to select the small, unimpressive forward.
Immediately after the pick, Olofsson’s complexion changed. He netted 10 goals and eight assists in 39 SHL games the following year, starting to show signs of strong goal-scoring. With 14 and nine goals in the following two seasons, though, it wasn’t clear if his abilities were going to mount to anything. That was, until the 2017-18 season when Olofsson scored 27 goals and 43 points in 50 SHL games. It was an unexpected offensive outbreak and Olofsson was rushed to the AHL for the 2018-19 campaign. There, he proved his incredible boom wasn’t an anomaly. In 66 AHL games, he totalled 30 goals and 63 points. The 30 goals tied him for fifth in the league.
Olofsson’s amazing rookie NHL season is just par for the course at this point. The 24-year-old has effectively proven his goal-scoring ability at any level of play. It’s a level of talent reminiscent of a top-three-round pick, not one of the last in the Draft. While still early in his career, just one incredible NHL year is more than most seventh-rounders will ever produce. But Olofsson doesn’t seem to be done yet. On an eager – and desperate – Sabres lineup, the winger has solidified a top-six role. In the following years, he will receive absolutely every opportunity to build on his great rookie year. It may be too early to tell but all signs point towards Olofsson being a sturdy part of the Sabres future.
Other Notable Booms
Jason Pominville is by no means a star. He is, instead, the platonic ideal of a late-first round or second-round pick. That’s exactly where the Sabres selected him: 55th overall in the 2001 NHL Draft. After a terrific career in juniors and a short minor league stint, Pominville blossomed into a terrific NHLer. He spent a combined 10 years of his 14 year NHL career with the Sabres, proving to be a great top-six addition. While his second-round selection takes away from his “boom”, nobody could’ve expected the forward to record 1060 NHL games and 727 career points. He’s a Sabres legend that many wanted to remain on the team this season. Instead, he spent the year making a mockery of his local adult league.
Dennis Wideman is by no means an NHL star but he managed to tally 12 years of terrifically reliable play… after being selected in the eighth round of the 2002 NHL Draft. Despite this, Wideman managed to string together a career of great play, netting four seasons of at least 40 points. He ended his career after the 2016-17 season with 387 points in 815 games, an admirable mark for any defenceman to hit. Unfortunately, none of these 387 games came in a Sabres jersey, as the Sabres never inked Wideman to his entry-level contract after drafting him. His career was only spurred when the St. Louis Blues signed him to a deal in 2004.
Mikhail Grigorenko was the talk-of-the-town leading into the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. After a strong, but short, career in the QMJHL, Grigorenko managed to rank third among North American skaters in the Central Scouting Services’ Final Rankings, ahead of players like Alex Galchenyuk, Morgan Rielly, and Mathew Dumba. When he fell into the Sabres lap at 12th overall, it felt like a steal.
Soon after, Grigorenko proved that he was not at all a steal. The Sabres rushed the forward into the NHL the year after his draft, giving him 25 games – the minimum to be considered a rookie season – in the 2012-13 season. In those, Grigorenko only scored five points. It was a fairly disappointing start but many cited his youth and rush to the league as signs to still be optimistic. The following year, though, he didn’t do much in the way of improving, tallying three points in 18 NHL games.
In 2014-15 he would net six points in another 25 games. It marked his last year with Buffalo, who traded Grigorenko in a massive deal. He joined Nikita Zadorov, J.T. Compher, and a second-round pick that became Jeremy Roy in heading to the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for Ryan O’Reilly and Jamie McGinn.
In Colorado, Grigorenko didn’t manage to live up to his draft position. His first year in Colorado was his best in the NHL. It saw him net 27 points in 74 games, a career-high. In 2016-17, he played in 75 games and only recorded 23 points. It seemed he simply could not compete in the NHL. Grigorenko left for the KHL as a result. There he has seen much more success over the last three years.
This year, the now 25-year-old Grigorenko scored 41 points in 47 games. This was enough to earn him a new NHL contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who will join the list of teams taking a shot on the once highly-anticipated prospect.
Other Notable Busts
Two picks after they picked up Grigorenko, the Sabres were lucky enough to pick up Zemgus Girgensons, who was also highly ranked in the CSS Rankings. The centreman was coming off of a strong two-year career in the USHL and was ready to immediately join the AHL, making him an attractive pick for a team in need of a strong two-way, top-six centre.
Instead of getting that, the Sabres have instead received a bottom-six centre that’s fought to maintain regular ice time in Girgensons. He netted a promising 30 points in his sophomore season, the 2014-15 campaign, but has since never even topped 20 points. He’s seeming more like dead weight on the Sabres fourth-line now, something that many could’ve never guessed would happen given his draft position. Though, at least he didn’t get chased from the league like his fellow 2012 draftee.
Keith Ballard was drafted by Buffalo with the 11th overall pick of the 2002 NHL Draft, ahead of players like Alex Steen, Duncan Keith, and Matt Stajan. But that’s not what makes Ballard exciting. His first five seasons in the league saw him tally a modest production rate. It was certainly not a what one would expect from a top-15 pick but his hovering around the 20-or-30-point mark made him a fairly reliable defenceman. Come the 2010-11 season, though, Ballard’s career fell off the wagon. That year he only tallied seven points in 65 games, following his first experience with the injury bug.
This bug would devastate Ballard’s career for the next four seasons. He was hit by every nearly injury in the book. This ranges from a concussion to an MCL sprain, to bone-breaks. It was a terrible end to his career, one that would hinder him from playing more than 50 games, and netting over 10 points, in any of his last four years.
Making Things Worse
Further adding to his bust status is the fact that Ballard never played a single game with the Sabres. Quickly after he was drafted, Buffalo traded him to the Avalanche for Rhett Warrener and Steve Reinprecht. Warrener would be a below-average defenseman for 266 games with Buffalo but Reinprecht would, like Ballard, never play a game with Buffalo. He was again quickly traded to the Calgary Flames, in exchange for Steve Begin and Chris Drury. Drury would end up a terrific addition, netting 189 points in 234 career games with Buffalo, but Begin would – following the trend – never play a game in Buffalo. Three months after he was acquired, two days before the NHL season started, the Sabres waived Begin and he was claimed by the Montreal Canadiens.
So, ultimately, the already-forgettable Ballard, whom the Sabres spent an 11th-overall pick on, turned into one strong top-six forward, one extremely forgettable defenceman, and two complete moot players for the Sabres. His selection and the subsequent trades are some of the biggest cases of missed opportunity in an already plagued Buffalo Sabres draft and trade history.