The Buffalo Sabres won the top selection in the 2021 N.H.L. entry draft at the league’s lottery Wednesday in Secaucus, N.J. The draft is scheduled for July 23-24.
Buffalo endured an 18-game losing streak, missed the playoffs for a 10th consecutive season and finished six points behind the Anaheim Ducks, the next-worst team, who will pick third.
The University of Michigan defenseman Owen Power has been most widely projected to be taken first, but there is not the same level of consensus that existed in 2020 when the Rangers selected Alexis Lafreniere No. 1 overall.
“It’s a great moment for our franchise,” Buffalo General Manager Kevyn Adams said. “It’s obviously been a tough year for a lot of different reasons. We’re here and we’ve very happy to have this selection,”
Adams added that his team “needed to get better in every area, in every way.”
Anaheim was the only team to slip from its projected spot based on the regular season, falling to No. 3 from No. 2. The Devils will select fourth. They had the league’s third-worst record, but were given the same odds at the top pick as the Seattle Kraken, who will select second just two days after the expansion draft.
The Rangers ended up at No. 15, the final pick available to lottery teams. They missed the East Division playoffs but had one more point than the Montreal Canadiens, who are currently playing the Winnipeg Jets in a second-round series in the North Division.
After rules changes, the lottery draws determined the top two picks, rather than the first three. Next season, two other changes will take effect.
First, teams cannot move up more than 10 spots from their projected pick based on their regular-season finish. Last season, the Detroit Red Wings finished 23 points behind the next worst team but ended up picking fourth, the same fate that befell the last-place Ottawa Senators a year before (though they had traded their pick to Colorado). Second, from 2022 onward a given team can only pick first overall twice in any five-year period. Previously, the Edmonton Oilers picked first in three straight seasons and four times in six years.
Complications in draft preparation created by the coronavirus pandemic have forced scouts to adapt. Many developmental leagues and foreign pro circuits experienced pauses, truncations or outright cancellations of their seasons, while travel and in-person attendance were severely limited.
The Philadelphia Flyers, for example, could not use their usual Quebec-area scouts because of travel restrictions, so they had to add staff in the Maritimes.
“It’s been a challenge, for sure,” Brent Flahr, Philadelphia’s assistant general manager, said in a phone interview. “The good thing is that if this were 15 years ago, without the video programs and access to video we have, it’d be an even bigger problem.”
Canada’s top three junior leagues, a major source of prospects, did not go unscathed: The Western Hockey League played a regular season but not a postseason; the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League is staging its championship series; but the Ontario Hockey League did not play at all.
Center Mason McTavish, whose father played briefly in the N.H.L. before having a long career in Europe, was a displaced O.H.L. product. McTavish, born in Switzerland but raised in Canada, played in Switzerland’s second-tier league and finished second in N.H.L. Central Scouting’s North American skater rankings behind Power.
“Once the O.H.L. kept postponing their start, I came to the realization that they probably weren’t going to start,” he said in a phone interview. “So I started looking around in November.”
He added, “I really wanted to make sure I was going to be seen in my draft year.”
The N.C.A.A. held its championship, won by Massachusetts, but St. Lawrence, Notre Dame and Michigan were forced to withdraw from the tournament because of Covid-19 protocols.
That deprived the tournament of Michigan’s three freshman prospects who are potential top 10 picks — Power, center Matthew Beniers and left wing Kent Johnson. Beniers had decommitted from Harvard with the Ivy League season uncertain.
Power (Canada) and Beniers (United States) are both competing at the World Championships in Riga, Latvia. Johnson has been working with private coaches in British Columbia, Canada.
Johnson said that despite Michigan’s removal from the tournament because of positive tests, he felt fortunate to have skated with Beniers and to have had continuous practice time with one team from August through March, continuity that some of his peers missed.
“Guys want to play hockey and guys want to play games, especially at this age when development is pretty huge,” Johnson said in a phone interview.
Although they had a more limited look at some prospects than they would have in the past, the Sabres have the same opportunity to find a difference maker.
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