Entering the year, the Sabres were very much in a state of flux. Jack Eichel hadn’t been traded, nor had he gotten the surgery he preferred. Buffalo’s offseason pointed towards another difficult season as the team continued to rebuild. With so much uncertainty surrounding the on and off-ice business of the team, I put together a list of 10 big questions that would likely define the 2021-22 season.
As the season wraps up, I wanted to take some time to look back on each of those topics and see just how they affected the Sabres as the season progressed.
When does the Eichel saga end?
You’d think that this would be cut and dry, with all the drama wrapping up once the trade call went through. Instead, many fans in Buffalo have remained attentive to Eichel and the Golden Knights.
Vegas has suffered a fairly significant dip as they dealt with a wave of key injuries as the calendar flipped to 2022. That backslide has put plenty of focus on where the first round pick they owe the Sabres will fall. The best possible outcome would be for the pick to fall to 11th overall, just one shy of the top-10 protection added in the trade. Though that’s quote the longshot given the math between Vegas and the teams behind them. The more likely scenario is that their pick falls somewhere between 13 and 15 if they fail to qualify for the postseason.
From the Sabres perspective, the short-term return has been exceedingly positive. Alex Tuch has endeared himself to the fanbase while Peyton Krebs has had many flashes of brilliance since making his Sabres debut. They’re both poised to be pivotal pieces of Buffalo’s core as the team works back to relevance. Paired with the picks, there’s been a lot of short and long-term promise from the deal. How much we hear about the deal once the first-round pick is determined remains to be seen.
How does the power play function without Eichel?
Eichel and Sam Reinhart were power play mainstays for the Sabres. Eichel’s ability to impact entries and his dual threat as a passer and shooter kept opponents from shifting coverage to one side of the box. Reinhart’s net-front presence was good for 29 power play goals from 2017 until last year. The pair were key cogs to Buffalo’s man advantage and how the unit would look, let alone function was a big question entering the year.
There were plenty of bumps in the road as the season progress, with some healthy stretches where power play production was more of a concept than anything else. Victor Olofsson’s injury played a role in that, as did having players who weren’t as well suited to their power play roles as others may have been. For example, Tage Thompson’s shot can compete against anyone in the league, but he hasn’t been an ideal fit in the Ovechkin/Stamkos spot on the left circle.
Those struggles are a thing of the past now, as the power play has been revelatory the last few weeks. Buffalo’s hot streak on the man advantage has seen the unit climb to 12th in the league at the time this post was published. All while Olofsson has been playing most of his power play time on the team’s second unit. Buffalo’s ability on the power play lately is a big reason you can the over/under for tomorrow’s game against the Devils is 6.5 on Betway. You can bet the over at -120 or you can take the Sabres at +115, pretty good odds for a team that’s been feeling themselves.
You could make a pretty strong case that the second unit has become the more cohesive of the two. As Kyle Okposo and Olofsson have found a good working relationship finding shooting opportunities from the right side – even if it’s odd to see Olofsson posted on the left side at times. Dylan Cozens has been terrific in the bumper role and Peyton Krebs passing ability has made you miss Eichel’s seam passes a little less.
How the power play will look in the future makes for a good debate. If Olofsson is healthy, it’s hard to justify keeping him off the top unit. Krebs is probably the best passer on the team, is he also worthy of a promotion? Could Cozens supplant Jeff Skinner in the quasi-Reinhat role on the crease or along the goal line? Don’t forget that Jack Quinn will be arriving in the fall, giving the Sabres another righty with a big shot. The Sabres will have some options on the man advantage next year and it should make for a good training camp storyline.
Who will lead the Sabres in scoring?
The original blog was written prior to the season opener, so Casey Mittelstadt’s injury and lengthy layoff wasn’t expected just yet. Similarly, no one saw Tage Thompson’s season coming. Looking back, my money was on Mittelstadt taking advantage of the big minutes in the top six to wind up as Buffalo’s leading scorer. I thought Rasmus Dahlin had a chance to sneak up on him with some power play production, but things have gone quite a bit differently.
Thompson has broken 60 points and Jeff Skinner isn’t far behind. Dahlin will probably fall just short of 60, which is a shame as that would’ve been an impressive milestone for him to hit. Looking forward, getting Dylan Cozens (37) and Peyton Krebs (22) to take a step up next year to give the Sabres more potency in the middle of the lineup.
How will goaltending impact the Sabres?
This one went about as poorly as it could. Craig Anderson’s injury put Aaron Dell and Dustin Tokarski front and center and the results were predictable. The Sabres allowed five or more goals in 10 of the next 15 games and won only five of the next 20.
Buffalo had to deal with injuries throughout the year as even Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and Malcom Subban succumbed to injured reserve and Michael Houser once again had to be signed to an NHL deal. The Sabres wouldn’t be a playoff team with a true NHL starter, but they’d be a hell of a lot closer. Improving in net will be priority one for the offseason, as the Sabres will need a steady presence to platoon with UPL. As much as Anderson has helped the vibes, an upgrade is necessary.
Where do the youngsters fit?
The names I focused on in the spring were Cozens, Dahlin and Mittelstadt with a little less attention paid to Anders Bjork, Jacob Bryson and Tage Thompson. Bjork failed to live up to even the most conservative expectations and doesn’t appear to have much of a future in Buffalo. Mittelstadt’s injury derailed any progress he could have built on from 20-21 and now it’s hard to see exactly where he fits with Cozens, Thompson and even Krebs.
As for the others, it’s been a pretty great season. Dahlin needed a little time to warm up, but he’s been a revelation since the All Star Game. He looks like he did as a rookie, which is an exciting prospect for fans to consider. Thompson’s breakout has been the story of the season while Cozens has enjoyed some steady improvement. You probably wish Cozens had cashed a few more goals along the way, but he’s taking the steps you want to see. It’s easy to see him and Thompson as their top two centers next year.
Bryson has carved out a role on the team’s third pair, though I think he’s more effective on the right as opposed to the left. That’s a good thing as Owen Power has arrived and Mattias Samuelsson has been terrific since he was recalled. The youth movement has to be one of the top three things that has fans excited for the offseason and the start of 2022-23.
Who takes the biggest step?
My preseason prediction was a race between Cozens, Dahlin and Mittelstadt. Mittelstadt was quickly disqualified from this race and Cozens just didn’t put up the counting stats that most people would be looking for in terms of a big developmental step. He’s been better than he’s getting credit for, but he hasn’t taken the jump that Thompson has. Obviously.
Thompson is the clear winner here with 36 goals and counting. He came out of nowhere to not only explode as a goal scorer but cement himself as an NHL center, something few could have ever predicted. Honorable mention goes to Dahlin who despite a slow start, looks like the dynamic prospect from Frolunda again.
What kind of player is Dahlin?
Most of my focus on this question focused on the struggles he had under Ralph Krueger. He dealt with another slow start this season, but the revival is something we haven’t seen from him. It may have simply been a case of getting the stink of Krueger and Steve Smith off him. Either way, he’s become the influence on the game many expected him to be as a draft prospect.
It would be nice if he could hit the ground running in the fall and there isn’t a month or two of waiting for him to wake up from the offseason. But this spring, more than any other in his career, has me hopeful for what he’ll carry forward into the next season.
How many bodies are out at the deadline?
My expectation was up to four UFAs being moved with a more appropriate figure being two, maybe three. Instead, it was just one. Robert Hagg was sent to Florida while the Sabres held onto their remaining UFAs. That might’ve caught some by surprise, but the team felt strongly about what they were building and opted to not grab some extra mid-and-late round picks. Hard to say if they’ll miss those picks. But I’m always in favor of more lottery tickets.
Will they average more than 10K attendance?
It doesn’t look like the Sabres will hit a 10,000 average for the year. They sit at 9,755 for the season and they’ll need some big crowds over the final week or so to climb above 10,000. That number is probably inflated a bit when you consider the Hertiage Classic counted as a home game for the Sabres. Either way, the early season dregs killed their chances to build any positive momentum. I doubt they’re anywhere near 9,000 next season.
Who to keep an eye on besides Shane Wright?
For most of the season it looked like Shane Wright, Matt Savoie and the other big names in this draft would be on Buffalo’s radar. The last couple of months have pushed the Sabres down a bit in the draft order (barring a lottery win). Now it’s time for discussions over Simon Nemec, Connor Geekie, Frank Nazar and Cutter Gauthier. Not to mention prospects in the middle and bottom of the first round that can be had with Vegas and Florida’s picks. I’m sure we’ll hear bout Jimmy Snuggerud a fair bit due to the connection with his dad. I know I’ll be digging in on Marco Kasper and some of the USDP prospects as we creep closer to the draft.