The last few months haven’t been kind to the Sabres. Injuries have plagued the roster as losses keep stacking up. They’re flirting with winning only 10 of their last 50 games and another lost season has fans wondering when the reinforcements might arrive.
Unlike previous seasons, the Sabres prospect pipeline is a bit richer these days. Meaning there’s more than just one or two prospects worth looking forward to seeing. Jack Quinn was just returned to Rochester after recovering from injury. He joins JJ Peterka, who is steaming along at a point per game pace and Ukko Pekka Luukkonen, who is working back from an injury of his own. Mattias Samuelsson and Peyton Krebs are already in Buffalo and there’s an opportunity for Ryan Johnson, Devon Levi and Owen Power to arrive once their respective NCAA seasons wrap up.
Some of Buffalo’s Buffalo’s CHL prospects could even see action in Rochester on ATOs when their seasons end.
There ought to be space on the Sabres roster for some of those prospects to fill out after the trade deadline. There could be upwards of four-to-six openings depending on how many deals the Sabres swing and who they move on from. Thanks to the later start to the NHL season, NCAA prospects can play in far more games than they would under normal circumstances, which is a great sign for the ability of Johnson, Levi and Power to impact the Sabres lineup.
Exactly when those three could arrive is still up in the air. A few well-placed losses could get the trio to Buffalo sooner, which is what this rooting guide is for.
It should be pointed out that there is an obvious benefit to each of these players going deep into the NCAA Tournament or winning a National Championship. I’d assume everyone has a slightly different level of interest in how quickly each of the three sign contracts with the Sabres. For the sake of this exercise, let’s assume everyone is hoping to see the trio of Johnson, Levi and Power in Buffalo as soon as possible.
The following dates are important to keep in mind going forward: NHL trade deadline, March 21; B1G hockey tournament championship March 19; Hockey East championship, March 19, NCAA Regionals, March 24-27, Frozen Four, April 7-9; Sabres and Amerks final regular season game, April 29; AHL playoffs begin on or after May 1.
The Sabres play 19 games post-deadline and the Amerks play 17 in that same span. That’s a significant slate of games which can provide valuable development time for players throughout Buffalo’s pipeline. Each of the three NCAA prospects are affected differently by their upcoming schedules, but the big picture here is that the sooner they get to Buffalo, the better.
Power’s situation is probably the most straightforward of the three. There’s little to no question about what’s next for him. He’s proven himself against professionals at the World Championships and Olympics. He’s ready to sign an NHL contract the minute his NCAA season ends.
Michigan has been on the shortlist of National Championship favorites all year and that hasn’t changed as they enter the B1G tournament ranking fifth in the nation and second in the pairwise. Even an early exit from their conference tournament won’t keep the Wolverines out of the NCAA tournament, which means the earliest Power could sign a contract would be March 28. It’s conceivable that losing to Michigan State in their best-of-three this weekend (March 4-6) could serve up a tougher first round opponent in the NCAA tourney, but the timeline doesn’t really change here. Michigan will be playing until March 27 at a minimum, so you don’t really have to keep an eye on their scores until then.
There’s also reason to root for Power and the Wolverines to win a National Title. Not only would fellow Sabres prospect Erik Portillo play a major role in that accomplishment, but playing to April 9 wouldn’t keep Power from playing in Buffalo like in previous years. That’s the beauty of this year’s schedule. Additionally, if Power is unable to play in more than nine games, he’d be a 10.2c free agent at the end of his entry level deal, giving the Sabres additional bargaining power on his second contract. Plus, it wouldn’t hurt to let him play as many meaningful games as possible before signing his deal.
Johnson and Minnesota are in a similar situation to Power and Michigan. They hold a top-five pairwise (third) and national (second) ranking along with holding the top seed in the B1G tournament. Getting upset early in the B1G tournament (first game comes on March 12) won’t keep them from playing through March 27 at the very least. So, there won’t be much value in rooting against Johnson until that point.
The benefit to getting Johnson signed is that a return to Minnesota would raise questions of testing free agency and the will he, won’t he headache that accompanies the endeavor. That option hasn’t been mentioned with regard to Johnson, but the door would be open if he did return. As noted above, the NHL schedule runs past the end of the NCAA season. So, the Sabres have the ability to offer him NHL games no matter what. But getting him under contract and on the ice would benefit all parties.
That means pushing for an early exit from the B1G tournament and tougher first round opponent in the NCAA tourney. Then rooting for an early exit from the NCAAs with the hope that Johnson could be in blue and gold before April 1.
Levi probably has the juiciest rooting interests for the coming days and weeks. Despite what has been a Hobey Baker-worthy campaign from Levi, Northeastern are firmly on the pairwise bubble (16th as of this writing). The Huskies are tied for second in Hockey East with Merrimack, who they close the regular season against this weekend. They were swept by Hockey East’s number one team, UMass earlier in the year and just lost 1-0 to Vermont, one of the worst teams in the country this season. It’s very hard to peg just what sort of team Northeastern is, and with Atlantic Hockey’s auto-bid set to bump one team from the pairwise, the Huskies are in a precarious spot.
Not only do they need a pair of wins against Merrimack (March 4-5) to keep the two seed in Hockey East, they probably need them for whatever pairwise boost they would offer. Even then, they’ll need a strong showing in the Hockey East tournament to stay off the pairwise bubble. If their offense doesn’t show up for their quarterfinal on March 12 (or this weekend against Merrimack), Northeastern could be done next weekend. Levi could also continue his superhuman play and carry the Huskies to a conference title and NCAA auto-bid.
If you’re hoping Levi can add some stability to the Buffalo crease, root for the former.