- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 23, 2015

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) - The Buffalo Sabres are all but certain to select Boston University center Jack Eichel with the second overall pick in the upcoming NHL draft.

“I figured you guys knew that, so I wondered why I had to come here,” Buffalo general manager Tim Murray joked last week at a news conference previewing the draft.

Murray has said drafting Eichel, the 18-year-old Hobey Baker winner, will be the easiest decision of his career.

But it will be just the beginning of a busy draft weekend for the Sabres, who hold four of the top 51 picks, including the No. 2 and No. 21 spots in Friday night’s first round.

“This is a big step for us in terms of becoming big boys in the league,” Murray said.

Buffalo is rebuilding from the bottom after consecutive last-place finishes and Murray’s purging the roster of veteran talent.

Murray made his first big offseason move last month, bringing in new coach Dan Bylsma to replace Ted Nolan.

Bylsma coached star center Sidney Crosby and won the Stanley Cup during his six seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Last month, he got a firsthand look at his next star center, Eichel, during the World Championships in the Czech Republic. Bylsma was an assistant coach and Eichel a top-line forward on the United States team that finished fourth.

“He stacked up right there with his skill and size and ability to play the game,” Bylsma said at his introductory news conference. “Jack’s going to be a good pick for anybody who takes him.”

Eichel began acclimating himself to Buffalo earlier this month when the Sabres hosted the NHL scouting combine.

“Everyone’s really welcoming,” Eichel said. “Nothing’s set in stone, but it seems like this is where I’ll end up. And people are really excited about the future.”

Eichel has not yet ruled out returning to college for his sophomore season, and said he won’t make his decision until after the draft.

Bylsma’s presence makes Buffalo even more welcoming to Eichel.

“I’d be more than excited to play for him,” Eichel said. “He brings a lot to the table. Obviously, he’s coached some of the best players in the word.”

Eichel’s anticipated arrival will merely add to an emerging group of young players already in Buffalo’s system. They include center Sam Reinhart, who was selected with the No. 2 pick last year, and defensemen Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov, two 2013 first-round picks who enjoyed regular playing time as rookies in Buffalo last season.

The Sabres also acquired the fourth overall pick from the 2009 draft, winger Evander Kane, in a February trade with the Winnipeg Jets, giving up a former first-round pick, defenseman Tyler Myers, and the 25th pick in this year’s draft.

Still, Buffalo is in needed of reinforcements at every position, and will be less predictable with the No. 21 pick.

The Sabres acquired the additional first-rounder in a 2013 trade that sent Thomas Vanek, the fifth overall pick in the celebrated 2003 draft, to the New York Islanders.

Murray said he is open to trading the 21st pick for a “top-six forward, or top-three defenseman, or No. 1 goalie.” He is also open to moving up or down in the draft, depending on the circumstance.

Murray said he won’t draft to fill specific needs.

“It’s best player available,” he said. “If you have a weakness or a lack of a certain position, go out and trade for that position. The draft guys could be a year away, could be three years away. You have to look big picture when it comes to the draft.”

Buffalo will seek to acquire a starting goaltender by trade or in free agency, Murray said, but the Sabres are also likely to take a goalie at some point in the draft.

“If at all possible, you should take a goalie every draft,” Murray said. “Because I think they’re a little more of a wild card than a forward or defenseman.”

___

AP sports writer John Wawrow contributed to this report.

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