A bombshell Tuesday by owners Terry and Kim Pegula began with the firing of GM Jason Botterill and kept going with massive terminations throughout the hockey operations department and the team’s AHL brain trust in Rochester. The extent of the list isn’t even known yet as I write this, but confirmed casualties include assistant GMs Randy Sexton and Steve Greeley, director of amateur scouting Ryan Jankowski, assistant director of amateur scouting Jeff Crisp, Rochester Americans coach Chris Taylor, Rochester assistants Gord Dineen and Toby Petersen and from what I’ve been told, all (or nearly all) of their amateur scouts.
The Pegulas have turned the keys over to new GM Kevyn Adams, who was the Sabres’ senior vice-president of business operations. Before that, he was on the management team at Harborcenter (Buffalo’s very nice practice arena and facility, home of the NHL Draft Combine and located right across the street from KeyBank Center), as well as director of the Academy of Hockey, a development program based out of Harborcenter. He also spent a couple years as a coach with the Sabres before that.
What I don’t see – and maybe he’s been moonlighting – is much scouting experience. Which means Adams has quite the tall task in front of him now that the galleys have been swept clean. I have to wonder if, in their haste to set the ship back on course, the Pegulas may have gone too far with their firings.
Let’s focus on Jankowski. He came over from Hockey Canada, where he was director of player personnel for an assortment of national junior teams, and a head scout before that (including Canada’s gold-medal WJC squad from 2015). He also had NHL experience as a scout in Montreal and as assistant GM with the New York Islanders.
Now, Jankowski was hired on July 9, 2017, which means he only really has two drafts on his Sabres resume: 2018 and 2019. So you can’t put Casey Mittelstadt on him. His crop includes Rasmus Dahlin – the obvious first overall pick in 2018, but one that has indeed paid immediate dividends – and Dylan Cozens, the seventh overall selection in 2019. Cozens was massive for WHL Lethbridge this year and won gold with Canada at the world juniors, tallying nine points in seven games.
Looking further down Jankowski’s crew, you have a solid defensive defenceman with NHL pedigree in Mattias Samuelsson (captain of both NCAA Western Michigan and Team USA’s world junior squad), a nasty crash-and-banger in Matej Pekar and the USHL’s goaltender of the year in towering Swede Erik Portillo of Dubuque, who heads to NCAA Michigan next season.
You also have sweet-skating defenceman Ryan Johnson, who is notable because the first-rounder used on him was part of the ill-fated Ryan O’Reilly trade with St. Louis.
Johnson just finished his freshman season at the University of Minnesota and though he didn’t blow the doors off, he was always seen as a project pick who was going to take years of development. The kid needs a lot of physical maturing, but his quickness is the kind of thing you can’t teach and once his days with the Golden Gophers are done, he has the chance to be a very nice addition in Buffalo. But patience will be needed.
I look at that crop of prospects and see a lot of promise and a lot of boxes checked in terms of future roster needs. But Jankowski and the crew that drafted them are now gone and the future is uncertain.
Now, there is a chance – a 6.5 percent chance, to be specific – that Buffalo wins the first overall selection in the 2020 draft (whenever that ends up occurring). In that case, you’re taking Alexis Lafreniere – no thought required there. But if the maths holds, the Sabres will likely draft seventh overall and potentially as low as 10th.
The 2020 draft class is great up high and even at No. 10 you could get an elite player, but you also need to be really sure in this territory. Do you take Jake Sanderson, the high-rising defenceman? What if big Finnish centre Anton Lundell is still on the board? Or Saginaw scoring machine Cole Perfetti? Each player has their pros and cons and Buffalo is not in a position to muff this one.
The challenge now for Adams is hiring basically an entire scouting department when most NHL are employed already. Could he entice Judd Brackett to join the Sabres as his director of amateur scouting? Brackett would have to be assured that he’d be allowed to do his job without hindrance – a sticking point in Vancouver. Minnesota recently fired co-director of amateur scouting Darren Yopyk and veteran scout Ernie Vargas – so there’s a couple more options.
But you’re talking about assembling an entire team and having them decide on players who all ceased playing games months ago due to the pandemic. What will the scouting department’s philosophy be? It certainly won’t be implemented this year.
Normally, teams meet several times a season to discuss their draft board. This group will get to do it once – possibly with everyone wearing ‘Hello, My Name Is…” stickers on their shirts.
This is the Pegulas’ team and they can run it however they want. But if the goal is to get Buffalo back in the playoffs and competing in the coming years, they can’t take short cuts. And I can’t help but wonder if they cut way too deep here.