Struggling Sabres, Hurricanes land top two picks in NHL Draft

Lottery results could rejuvenate once fierce rivals who have each fallen on hard times

The Carolina Hurricanes selected Russian-born right wing Andrei Svechnikov with the second overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft. (Courtesy of the Barrie Colts)

RALEIGH — On June 1, 2006, the Carolina Hurricanes and Buffalo Sabres met for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final with a date for the Stanley Cup against the Edmonton Oilers awaiting the winner.

That afternoon, Sabres defenseman Jay McKee was ruled out with an inopportune infected shin, joining fellow blueliners Dmitri Kalinin, Teppo Numminen and Henrik Tallinder on the shelf.

The Hurricanes, as everyone knows, emerged victorious, led by three points from the future Mr. Game 7, Justin Williams.

Eric Staal, in the second year of his NHL career and — thanks to the lockout — third pro season, only managed two shots on goal and a minus-2. Still, he finished the Cup-winning season as the Hurricanes’ top scorer and an emerging superstar.

The Sabres returned to the conference final the next season and made trips to the playoffs in 2010 and 2011, but in the 21st century they were never as close to winning their first Cup as 2006.

Carolina also returned to a conference final, in 2009, but that has been the team’s only playoff appearance since winning the Stanley Cup 12 years ago.

So it seems fitting that the two franchises’ fates were reunited Saturday night at the NHL Draft Lottery.

Buffalo held the best chance at earning the top selection come June 22, having finished last in the league standings. Carolina was a long shot, having been initially slotted to pick 11th overall.

Once the ping pong balls fell into place, though, the former rivals were side by side.

The Sabres got what they couldn’t get in 2015 when they had the best odds at picking first and selecting generational talent Connor McDavid. They instead picked second that year and landed Jack Eichel, a star player in his own right who has been unable to pull Buffalo out of its funk.

This time around, they’ll get both the extra defenseman they could have used back in 2006 and the once-in-a-lifetime talent they missed out in 2015: Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin.

While the Hurricanes certainly would have been thrilled with Dahlin, they will happily pick second overall for the first time since they took Staal back in 2003.

Most draft analysts have Russian Andrei Svechnikov, who played for the OHL’s Barrie Colts this year, as the best forward in this year’s class. He had 40 goals in 44 regular season games this season, earning Rookie of the Year honors in the OHL.

There’s also Czech winger Filip Zadina — he also played in North America this year, with the Halifax Mooseheads in the QMJHL — who teamed up with Carolina’s 2017 first-round pick, Martin Necas, to star for their country at the World Junior Championships last winter.

And Brady Tkachuk — son of Keith and brother of Flames winger Matthew — is the type of physical menace and scorer not often seen in the NHL anymore. The power forward who turns 19 in mid-September will be the oldest first-time player in the draft and captained Team USA to bronze at the World Juniors.

Any of the three could have the type of impact Staal had in 2005-06 and beyond — perhaps leading Carolina back to the top of the Eastern Conference. Don’t be surprised if their old foes in Buffalo — led by Dahlin — are waiting to meet them if they do.