The hope tank is pretty empty around Western New York as the Sabres open another season. Going headfirst into a rebuild, the season isn’t expected to be much to write home about but there are still storylines worth tracking. Here are 10 big questions worth asking ahead of the 2021-22 season.
When does the Eichel saga end?
It’s the story that won’t die and for good reason. The Sabres best player and only remaining player of note from the summer sell off remains at an impasse with the club over treatment of his neck injury. Countless inches of column space and airtime has been devoted to the subject and while there have been recent reports that seem to indicate some progress being made, it doesn’t seem as if anything is imminent at this time.
I also find it curious that Elliotte Friedman has pointed out the potential for Eichel to have to return to the ice for Sabres before a trade is finalized. He’s spoken of it hypothetically every time, but I can’t help but wonder what’s being said behind closed doors that may be prompting him to float the idea as many times as he has. Things could certainly turn quickly if the Sabres are able to reach an agreement with a team willing to allow Eichel to have the disc replacement surgery he favors. Exactly when that happens is anyone’s guess.
How does the power play function without Eichel?
Eichel was a big part of Buffalo’s success with the extra man. His shooting threat helped alleviate pressure on Victor Olofsson and Rasmus Dahlin and his playmaking abilities found seams that others would miss. The unit will also be without Sam Reinhart who was a bull in front of the net and playing passes off the goal line. The pair represents the loss of 218 power play points over the last six years.
Eichel and Reinhart are being replaced by Casey Mittelstadt and Tage Thompson, respectively, a pair that doesn’t quite carry the same scoring threat. Losing Eichel and Reinhart has the potential for a ripple effect on the rest of the unit. Mittelstadt won’t garner quite as much respect for his shot, meaning teams can devote slightly more attention to Victor Olofsson. Should that be the case, what impact will that have on Olofsson’s goal and point totals on the year? He’s probably a player they’re counting on to be a contributor this season. If he’s unable to replicate his past performance on the power play, what does that mean for the bigger picture.
Rasmus Dahlin may not have as much freedom to operate at the point since the threat of Eichel will be gone. As for Thompson, he certainly won’t be able to clean up tips and loose pucks the way Reinhart did and he doesn’t have the passing prowess of his departed teammate either. As the season starts, the changes on the extra man aren’t encouraging.
Who will lead the Sabres in scoring?
Missing Eichel and Reinhart makes this a somewhat spicy debate. Can Olofsson still produce if the power play is muted? Will Dylan Cozens enjoy a breakout season? Can Jeff Skinner recapture his scoring touch? Does Rasmus Dahlin have the ability to blossom once again?
Dahlin may have the best opportunity here as he’s going to see plenty of ice at even strength and on the power play. Without Eichel present, he may find himself triggering their attack more often than not. If he can carry the water on the extra man, he’d be my bet. A safer choice may wind up as Casey Mittelstadt as he’s poised to center the team’s top line and should have ample opportunity to produce at even strength. If Jeff Skinner finds the scoring touch again, Mittelstadt will likely be the direct beneficiary.
How will the goaltending impact them?
No one is expecting a Cinderella run out of this Sabres team. Their goalies to start the season are a 40-year old who was contemplating retirement and a journeyman backup who, until last season, hadn’t seen an NHL game in four years. It is not a confidence inspiring duo.
What needs to be determined is what impact will they have on the team this season. Anderson is no stranger to a hot year and he’s enjoyed a great many during his career. A hot season behind this team and at 40 years old may look quite a bit different than helping carry the Senators to the Eastern Conference Final in 2017, but it could still do wonders for Buffalo’s overall outlook.
A lot of the chatter about the Sabres trying to reestablish culture and build a winner includes keeping their young players from getting crushed under the weight of losing. If the team’s goaltending holds up their end of the bargain, there ought to be plenty of room for those players to grow. Conversely, it will be hard to move past the negativity should the goaltending falter and saddle the team with tough losses.
Where do the youngsters fit in?
Casey Mittelstadt is poised to center the top line and Rasmus Dahlin will be doing similarly on the team’s top pair. Dylan Cozens might be getting a bit of shelter to start the year but that trio along with Rasmus Asplund, Anders Bjork, Jacob Bryson and Tage Thompson are all getting the opportunity to play prominent roles this year. Players tabbed to fill out the new core are being put in positions to play key minutes at even strength and on special teams.
Others like Oskari Laaksonen, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, JJ Peterka, Jack Quinn and Mattias Samuelsson will be high on the recall list as the season progresses. Exactly what hierarchy the team follows is yet to be seen as Arttu Ruotsalainen looks like he’s going to spend the early part of the year in the press box.
Don Granato hasn’t been shy about putting his young players in positions where they can succeed and/or grow. That’s certainly the case as the team breaks camp and there are still opportunities for others to carve out new roles as injuries crop up or if recalls are earned later in the year. Even with a player like Ruotsalainen stuck in the press box early on, this year appears to differ from past seasons in which young players won’t be blocked by veterans when it comes to getting playing time.
Who takes the biggest step?
Probably a three-horse race here between Cozens, Dahlin and Mittelstadt. Give guys like Samuelsson or UPL a long shot wager if you like as their progress outside of NHL could mean big things for their future. But for now, I’d expect Cozens to take this mantle. He had a so-so rookie season that was punctuated by some injury issues and a bout with COVID. Given a full offseason to prepare and a healthy regular season, I’d expect to see his counting stats climb and for Cozens to start establishing himself as a vital cog for the Sabres rebuild.
What kind of player is Rasmus Dahlin?
Is it the dynamic talent we saw as a rookie or the confused and tentative defender of the last two seasons? Armed with a bridge contract, it will be up to Dahlin to prove if he’s worthy of the long-term, big money deals that his peers have locked down this season. He’s going to be given ample opportunity but will he take it might be the larger question. His play in the preseason wasn’t overly encouraging, but just starting the season the way he’s ended the last two would be a massive step in the right direction.
How many bodies are out at the deadline?
You can categorize this season however you like and even if you don’t agree that the Sabres have all the hallmarks of a tanking team, you can bet that many of their remaining veterans will be on the block ahead of the trade deadline. Will Butcher, Cody Eakin, Vinny Hinostroza Robert Hagg and Colin Miller are the team’s most notable UFAs and should garner some attention in the spring. I’m betting that at least four players (not counting Eichel) are dealt from the current roster by the deadline, opening the door for more prospects to play key roles in the stretch run.
Will they average more than 10,000 attendance?
Not one of Buffalo’s three home preseason games surpassed 7,000 in paid attendance. As it’s been reported, those numbers are tickets sold, not butts in the seats. For those who either attended or saw pictures of each of the contests, it’s clear that the actual attendance was far below the officially reported figures.
Sabres season ticket holders are required to purchase tickets for preseason games, meaning you can infer there are fewer than 7,000 people who still hold full season ticket packages. So far it doesn’t seem like that policy extends to people who bought half or quarter-season packages, but no matter how you cut it, the outlook for the team’s attendance is bleak.
This calls back to the darkest days of bankruptcy and league control when the team had fourth-worst attendance in the league at 13,776. It wasn’t common to see seas of empty seats in those days too and there are stories of ushers encouraging fans to move down to the lower bowl so it looked filled out for national games on ESPN.
Hitting an average attendance of 10,000 should be pretty simple and the figure represents what should be a comically low number for a National Hockey League team. The November opening of the Canadian border will certainly help matters as more fans will have access to get to Buffalo for games, regardless of their rooting interests. Montrea, Ottawa and Toronto games will almost certainly boast more robust figures, which should keep the Sabres from a truly embarrassing figure to end the season. But if it weren’t for that recent change and using the preseason as a barometer, it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that Buffalo could have been flirting with an astonishing attendance number.
Who to keep an eye on besides Shane Wright?
As it stands right now, Shane Wright is the big prize for the 2022 draft. He earned exceptional status in the OHL and scored 66 poitns as a 15 year old. COVID derailed his 20-21 season but he piled up points at the U18 Worlds (14 in five games) and you can bet his counting stats will be huge this season with Kingston. Wright will be the reason Sabres fans are biting their nails on lottery day, but Buffalo won’t be left high and dry if their card doesn’t come up for the second year in a row.
Matthew Savoie will get plenty of attention playing for Winnipeg in the WHL this year. He rolled up 38 points in 34 games (21+17) with Dubuque due to COVID’s impact last year and he has seven points in four games (1+6) as of this writing for Winnipeg this season. He’s an exciting center who would do wonders for Buffalo’s pipeline if selected next summer.
It sounds like Brad Lambert has had a tough start to his Liiga season and extended struggles will push him down the draft order. But ahead of this season, he was highly touted for his dynamic offensive traits.
Connor Geekie isn’t a marquee name in this draft class just yet and there’s a fair bit of debate over the players who will fall between picks two and 10. However, he’ll be playing in Winnipeg along with Savoie and after playing at a point per game pace in the shortened WHL season last year, Geekie could see his draft stock climb with a big offensive year. He’s much bigger than Savoie at 6’4” and the power forward aspect to his profile could be attractive to a lot of people.
That’s a very short list of players in a draft class that’s almost certainly going to see plenty of movement in the coming months. Do a bit more research to extend your list beyond the four names above as the Sabres appear destined for a draft slot in the top five of the 2022 draft.