From the 1997 draft to the 2011 draft, the Buffalo Sabres had 16 first round draft picks. Of those 16 picks, only three (Thomas Vanek, Tyler Myers and Tyler Ennis) were able to offer any kind of value to the team. The rest of those picks are either busts (Drew Stafford), had marginal contributions before being traded away (Zack Kassian and Mika Noranen), are still developing (Mark Pysyk), or just never made it in the NHL (the rest). All of those pick were by former general manager Darcy Regier.
Regier’s last two drafts were the 2012 and 2013 drafts where he had a total of four first round picks. In 2012, Regier chose center Mikhail Grigorenko with the 12th overall pick and center Zemgus Girgensons with the 14th overall pick. Buffalo was light at center, so the picks made sense. It looks like Girgensons is on his way to being a star, while Grigorenko is still developing.
In the 2013 draft, Regier took defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen with the eighth overall pick and defenseman Nikita Zadorov with the 16th overall pick. Once again, the Sabres needed big defensemen and these two young men seemed to fit the bill nicely. Both are still developing, but both showed a tremendous amount of promise in the rookie camps and preseason games played in September 2013.
The fear was that Regier was in such a hurry to fill the seats in the First Niagara Center, that he was pushing all four of these young players into the NHL too fast. Girgensons adapted very well to the NHL, but Grigorenko did not. It took new president of hockey operations Pat LaFontaine and new general manager Tim Murray to be able to convince Grigorenko to go back to juniors and continue his development after Regier tried to force Grigorenko into an NHL role he was not prepared for.
The process of damaging Ristolainen and Zadorov was in full swing with former head coach Ron Rolston and Regier, but both of those players were immediately sent back to the minors when interim head coach Ted Nolan showed up, which prevented a lot of bad blood between the players and the franchise.
The hope in Buffalo is that Murray, LaFontaine and Nolan know how to bring along first round draft picks and turn them into key contributors for the hockey team. It is one thing to have a lot of first round draft picks on your NHL team. It is quite another thing to know how to develop them into the kind of talent that can win Stanley Cups.