It’s no secret that the 2021-22 season is going to be a difficult one for the Sabres. Kevyn Adams has embraced a
tank rebuild and while Jack Eichel remains a Sabre, a cursory glance at Buffalo’s training camp roster should give plenty of indication of what this season will look like.
You may not think this rebuild is anything like the last one the Sabres embarked on in 2013 but when you look closer it shares many of the hallmarks. Veteran talent traded for futures, stockpiling draft picks, investing in a youth movement. The reason there are similarities between the two is because most rebuilds in the NHL follow the same basic formula, and like it or not, they’re all in some way, shape or form, a tank. One aspect of this rebuild which will differ from the last go around will be the likes of Dylan Cozens, Rasmus Dahlin and Casey Mittelstadt.
When Darcy Regier began tearing things down in 2013, none of the picks the Sabres were investing in held key positions on the NHL roster. Zemgus Gigrensons and eventually Rasmus Ristolainen would (almost by default), but ahead of the teardown, there were few key picks wearing a Sabres sweater on a regular basis. I supposed you could count Cody Hodgson and Tyler Ennis in that group, but having three top 10 picks already playing is much different than the last time.
This creates a bit of an interesting scenario for the Sabres and the fans alike. For starters, it gives the fans something more interesting to track as the season goes on. While there may be a lot of losses, Cozens, Dahlin, Mittelstadt and others will be driving the bus and eating fairly hefty minutes. Compare that to watching guys like Matt D’Agostini or Phil Varone in 2014 and at the very least there will be something you can feel better about investing in this year. What’s worrying about their current roster construction is that Cozens and Mittelstadt have little, to no cover at forward. This is a thin roster and aside from maybe Girgensons, there aren’t too many obvious candidates to eat more difficult matchups so Cozens and Mittelstadt don’t get caved in on a nightly basis.
The Sabres will have the opportunity to put a lot of young, promising players in positions to grow this season. While Don Granato said that Craig Anderson and Aaron Dell are leading the goaltending competition, a few strong preseason showings could put Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen on the opening night roster. Brett Murray’s strong play at the Prospects Challenge needs to be taken with a grain of salt due to the age and experience range of the event, but he still has the profile of a physical, power forward to challenge for a bottom six role. Jacob Bryson and Mattias Samuelsson are both going to get extended opportunities at the NHL level this year and at least one, if not both, will open the year in Buffalo’s top six. Oskari Laaksonen will start the year in Rochester but as one of the few right-handed defensemen in the system, he’ll probably be one of the first recalls depending on injuries.
None of this is to say that each and every player on the roster is destined for greatness, but for the first time in a long time, it doesn’t feel like Buffalo’s prospects have their path to the NHL blocked by otherwise forgettable veterans.
It’s hard to pin down too much about what’s been happening in practice because so many of Rochester’s bodies are still in camp. There’s roughly 20 players in camp ahead of the preseason opener against the Blue Jackets who will be driving east on the 90 within the next week. Buffalo already sent Josh Bloom, Olivier Nadeau and Viljami Marjala back to junior and I’d expect something similar for the 20 invites on AHL deals in the coming days.
Once that culling has taken place, we’ll get a much better look at how the roster is shaking out and where different youngsters are fitting in.
I’ll stop well short of saying anyone should be excited over the prospect of this Sabres season. But I think there will actually be reasons to keep track of what’s going on. It’s unlikely that Jack Quinn or JJ Peterka will see any sort of significant time in the NHL but they ought to get ample opportunity to impress with the Amerks this year. Peterka is especially interesting given how strong of a post-draft season he had in Germany.
What’s going to be important for this season (and probably the next one or two as well) is to balance expectations with reality. It’s unfortunate to say after 10 years without the playoffs, but the Sabres are going to require a level of patience with this rebuild. A level that was probably forgotten the last time around.
There are reasons for optimism scattered through the pipeline. Most of this year will probably suck but there are things for the Sabres to build on which might just make both the short and long term far more palatable.