“Are you ready, Legion of Doom? Here come the Buffalo Sabres!” – Rick Jeanneret (1942-2023)
The Sabres took the hockey world by storm last season. They finished one point behind the Florida Panthers for the second Eastern Conference Wildcard spot with a 42-33-7 record. But this is the year when the Sabres are all about action and want to end the longest playoff drought in NHL history at 12 seasons.
The Sabres are a young but talented team with Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin and goal-scoring magician Tage Thompson leading the charge. Then they have ascending youngsters in Dylan Cozens, Owen Power, Jack Quinn, J.J. Peterka, and recently drafted prospects Zach Benson and Matt Savoie. The Sabres are just about over that rebuilding hump, and in a perfect world where everyone is healthy, this could be the year they embark on their quest to become an elite team in the NHL.
Key Additions and Departures
Dustin Tokarski, G
Erik Johnson, D
Justin Richards, C
Connor Clifton, D
Vinnie Hinostroza, C (Pit)
Craig Anderson, G (retired)
Malcolm Subban, G (StL)
Austin Strand, D (AHL)
Ilya Lyubushkin, D (Ana)
Many hockey-minded folks can say that Thompson just came out of the woodwork and has turned into a legitimate superstar before our eyes. The 6-foot-7 behemoth notched a career-high 47 goals last season, leading all Sabres forwards and ranking sixth in the league. With his magic hands and big-rig mentality, Thompson has become relied upon in the Sabres system to find the back of the net. I wouldn’t doubt if he hit the 50-goal threshold this season. Last season, 27-year-old Alex Tuch scored a career-high 36 goals, and having those older leaders in Tuch, Jeff Skinner, and captain Kyle Okposo is essential as they have been paramount in this new stage the Sabres find themselves in.
The other young gun close to his ceiling is Cozens, who registered 31 goals and 68 points last season, playing significant minutes for the Sabres. While he had the offensive numbers, he also displayed some physicality and had 36 takeaways, showing signs that he can become another dynamic power forward in the Sabres system, Cozens held a faceoff win percentage (FOW%) of 48.3%. It’s a big season ahead for the ‘Workhorse from Whitehorse’ as Cozens and Thompson will each enter the first year of a seven-year contract. 24-year-old Casey Mittelstadt rounds out that group of forwards; the former seventh-overall pick registered a career-high 15 goals and 44 assists last season.
The Sabres quietly scored the third-most goals in the NHL last season. If they can maintain this new standard of offense, they’ll have a real chance to make the playoffs, something that Buffalo has not seen since 2010-2011. If the dominant line of Skinner-Thompson-Tuch can play like they did last season and be reliable, the Sabres should have no problem being a playoff contender.
The Sabres had a bit of trouble in 2022-23 keeping the puck out of the net; according to MoneyPuck.com, they held an expected goals against per 60 of 3.46, ranking sixth worst in the league. It’s hard to expect much when the oldest defenseman on your team is only 29 years old. The blueline is Dahlin’s playground; the Swedish defenseman notched 15 goals and 58 assists for 73 points in 78 games last season, becoming the first Sabres defenseman since Phil Housley to hit the 70-point plateau. This will be a big season for Dahlin, who is in the third and final year of an $18 million contract he signed in 2021.
On his left side is Mattias Samuelsson, a hulking 6-foot-4, 227-pound stay-at-home style defender. Samuelsson racked up 91 blocked shots and led the team with 107 hits. As we go down the pairings, we will likely see Power alongside Connor Clifton, forming an intriguing new pairing. Clifton spent the 2022-23 season with the Boston Bruins, where he tallied 23 points and 60 penalty minutes in 78 games and led the Bruins with 208 hits despite patrolling the point at just 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds. Talk about a guy who likes to bang boards. During his rookie campaign, Power recorded 35 points in 79 games, earning a Calder Trophy finalist nod. The 2021 first-overall pick is expected to have an even more significant impact this season.
While the Sabres seemed to have identified they have a young defense crop, they signed veteran Erik Johnson. The 35-year-old brings 15 seasons of experience to the table, along with a 2022 Stanley Cup ring. While Johnson will play low minutes, he’ll help instil a winning culture.
This is where it gets weird. The Sabres have money to spend, and insiders speculated around the trade deadline that they were potentially looking to acquire a goaltender; ultimately, that didn’t happen. With Craig Anderson hanging up the skates, calling it quits on a remarkable 20-year career, the Sabres now look toward Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and rookie Devon Levi.
The Sabres also added UFA Dustin Tokarski to their roster, who will start the season with Rochester in the AHL. The Sabres could become more reliant on Luukkonen, who had been touted as an NHL starter. The 24-year-old posted a .892 save percentage and a 17-11-4 record last season and slowly but surely seems to be finding his groove. But Levi has the inside track to overtake him. Having a goaltending prospect like him in the pipeline is something Sabres fans have been waiting forever for. The 21-year-old had the NCAA in a chokehold for a couple of seasons, winning back-to-back NCAA Goaltender of the Year Awards. Levi saw seven games of NHL action during the 2022-23 campaign, where he went 5-2. The No. 1 gig is probably his to lose. Eric Comrie is also in the mix for the No. 2 or 3 job.
Head coach Don Granato has played a pivotal role in the Sabres’ turnaround over the last few seasons since joining the club in 2020-21. While the club has yet to make the playoffs under his reign, that should change drastically soon. Granato has achieved an 82-88-21 record. His past work with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program suits him well to work with young players.
It will hurt the Sabres to lose Jack Quinn, who will miss the first few months of the 2023-24 season with an Achilles injury. However, this brings an opportunity to light for one of the Sabres’ young rookies. The Sabres have some excellent prospects in their system; we talked about Savoie and Benson briefly; it’s not inconceivable for one of them to make the opening night roster depending on how camp goes. Savoie and Benson play for the now-relocated Winnipeg Ice (Wenatchee Wild) in the Western Hockey League (WHL). Benson notched 98 points (36 goals, 62 assists) in 60 games this past season. He scored the second most points in WHL among draft-eligible players, trailing Chicago Blackhawks first overall pick Connor Bedard.
Other rookies to keep an eye on are Jiri Kulich and Brandon Biro. Kulich was selected No. 28 overall in the 2022 NHL Draft and made his AHL debut last season, recording 24 goals and 46 points in 62 games; he added 11 points in 12 AHL playoff contests. Biro, who is 25, spent four years with Penn State before joining Rochester in 2020. Last season, Biro notched 51 points in 49 games as he was limited due to a season-ending injury. Biro will surely be a player who will battle hard for a roster spot at training camp.
1. Can Tage Thompson score 50? This is the big question and something I made a bet on last season. Tage was just three goals shy of hitting 50, and if he can replicate his shooting percentage from last season, 50 will be a cakewalk. This is a guy who has only trended upward in his career. The first season, he scored three, then seven, then eight, then 38 goals in 2021-22 and finally 47 last season. These are good odds that he can reach the 50-goal milestone; last December, he potted five goals against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
2. Does Rasmus Dahlin put it all together for a Norris Trophy season? Dahlin has shown the ability to do it all. If he can tighten his defensive play further and couple it with his scintillating offense, we could be looking at a season for the ages.
3. Do the Sabres have enough to get over the hump into the playoffs? This is the defining question of Buffalo’s season. It will depend on healthy players and everyone contributing night in and night out. If we have learned anything about this team over the last few years, they are resilient. If the Sabres can close the gap between goals for and goals against, this is the season where they explode into new territory.
This seems like the season the Sabres can go for it and become a playoff team. A lot has to go right, which means star players like Thompson are healthy, but with the way Granato has this team running, it’s hard not to see them ooze success for years to come. Adding grizzled veteran and Stanley Cup champion Erik Johnson to the blueline will help mold that team together even more. A second-place Wildcard finish is a fair bet.
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