By John Vogl
SCARBOROUGH, Ont. – Tim Murray sat expressionless as NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly unveiled the Florida Panthers as the winners of the draft lottery. The Sabres’ general manager had played out the scenarios in his head during the drive north from Buffalo, and he figured someone would leapfrog his last-place club and draft first overall.
He was right. The Sabres lost all season on the ice, so it’s little surprise they lost a lottery, too. They’ll pick in the No. 2 slot at the NHL Draft on June 27 in Philadelphia.
“I’m not disappointed,” Murray said Tuesday night in a Canadian television studio. “It’s kind of what I was expecting.”
Despite the continuing run of bad luck, Buffalo will select in the top five for only the second time since 1987. They took Thomas Vanek fifth overall in 2003.
“We’ll get a good player, and I think there’s a great chance we could get a guy that we have No. 1 on our list,” Murray said. “I think with the way the draft sets up, we probably have a better chance of getting the guy that we have No. 1 than we had a chance today of getting the first pick.
“To me, it’ll all work out.”
There’s a chance the Sabres could have two of the top five picks. The New York Islanders own the No. 5 selection, but they have until June 1 to decide whether to give it to Buffalo or deliver their 2015 first-round pick to the Sabres as part of their October trade for Vanek.
“We haven’t made our mind up yet,” said Trent Klatt, the Islanders’ head amateur scout.
New York GM Garth Snow did not attend the lottery.
“I certainly know staying at five there’s a better possibility of us getting their pick versus if they had moved to one,” Murray said. “There’s a 50-50 chance that we’ll have two picks in the top five, and we’ll be prepared for that.
“I don’t have a preference. If it’s this year, we know where they are this year. We know it’s a top-five pick this year, so we know we’re going to get a hell of a player. There’s a lot of uncertainty about next year. I’m not a big fan of uncertainty, so we’d be quite happy with it this year.”
The NHL has been conducting a draft lottery since 1995, but it revamped the rules last year to give all teams that fail to make the playoffs a shot at the No. 1 selection. The team that finishes last has a 25 percent chance of winning the lottery and retaining the top pick. The rest of the first round is conducted in reverse order, so last-place Buffalo had a 73.5 percent chance of falling to No. 2. It did.
(New Jersey, which had a 1.5 percent chance of winning the lottery, was ineligible because of a salary cap violation. Another lottery would have been conducted had the Devils won.)
Buffalo became the 13th last-place team in 19 lotteries to lose the weighted contest. Florida finished at the bottom last year, but Colorado won the lottery to bump the Panthers to second. They’ll get the top spot this year.
“Very good day for the Panthers,” said Travis Viola, the vice president of hockey operations. “We’re still just evaluating what we really want.”
There are three players considered worthy of being drafted at the top: defenseman Aaron Ekblad and forwards Sam Bennett and Sam Reinart. Viola said the Panthers boast their best depth up front. That might lead them to take Ekblad. The Sabres were far and away the worst offensive team in the NHL and have a good corps of defense prospects, so forward might be their desired selection.
Buffalo’s scouting staff will meet in May to rank the prospects.
“We have a forward that we have somewhat of a consensus in the group that is at the top of the forward list,” Murray said. “We’ve got a lot of needs. We’re just going to take the best player available, whether we feel that’s a forward or a defenseman.”
The rebuilding Sabres are expected to be a lottery team again next year. The NHL is discussing whether to make changes to the process.
“I still believe in that concept that the worst overall team should have a chance to get better, so that’s not going to change,” Daly said. “What the managers have asked us to do is take a look at it and see if further tweaks might be appropriate. Having said that, we’re satisfied with the way the draft lottery system works now.”