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Reviewing The Buffalo Sabres’ 2021-2022 Season

07 May

Buffalo has always been an important franchise in the NHL, despite their recent long string of losing seasons. With the club finally showing signs that they might be ready to be a competitive team next season, we here at Rayonsports have decided to do a year end review of the team for the first time since the 2015-2016 season.

 

Front Office/Coaching

 

It’s been musical chairs in both the general manager and head coaching positions with the Sabres during their long non-playoff drought, but it’s possible that owners Terry and Kim Pegula have finally hit on a winning combination with GM Kevyn Adams and coach Don Granato. Adams was patient in dealing with Jack Eichel’s situation and did a great job of prying the best deal possible from the Vegas Golden Knights when he landed Alex Tuch, Peyton Krebs and a pair of draft picks for his disgruntled star. The jury is still out on the draft picks he has made but it was a no-brainer in grabbing Owen Power at the top of last year’s draft. As for coaching, there’s no denying the work Granato and his staff have done in both developing young players into the best versions of themselves (Tage Thompson, Rasmus Dahlin), and in turning around the careers of supposedly overpaid veterans who previously underachieved (Jeff Skinner, Kyle Okposo). The next challenge will be turning the progress made into an actual winning season in 2022-23.

Forwards

 

The Sabres made the transition from a forward group led by offense-only Eichel and Sam Reinhart to a more well-rounded and versatile unit this season. Thompson’s emergence and the addition of Tuch were 2 examples of this. Both were key power play pieces and also top contributors on the penalty kill. Skinner’s revival into a 30+ goal scorer and Okposo banking 20+ while also being a locker room leader were priceless. Okposo is a prime candidate to take on the captain’s role next season. Granato was patient with Victor Olofsson and was rewarded when the young winger produced after being fully recovered from an injury to also score 20+. Casey Middlestadt has suffered setbacks in his development due to injuries but when healthy he looks to be an important player going into the future. Dylan Cozens continued to develop and although he still has the potential for more growth in his game, he is a solid teammate who can be counted on to stick up for his fellow Sabre players. Krebs is still raw but he shows flashes of possessing some impressive skills and looks to be a major part of the team’s future. Zemgus Girgensens is another veteran role player who figures to stick around and provide important minutes on a third or fourth line. Vinny Hinostroza was signed to a one year free agent contract, and his play earned him a future here. Adams should make him a priority to re-sign. John Hayden was signed to a similar deal to add some toughness to the lineup. He was scratched from the lineup most nights but always ready when called upon. The rest of the forward group could see some shuffling next season. Rasmus Asplund and to a lesser degree Anders Bjork have shown they can be contributors, but it will likely be the end of the line for veterans like Cody Eakin and Drake Caggiula, a forgotten piece who was injured most of the year. All of the bottom-end forwards will be challenged for roster spots by the young bucks coming up from the AHL, including Jack Quinn, J.J. Peterka, Arttu Ruotsalainen and Brett Murray, among others. There are also top players in the pipeline, most of whom will need to mature and develop in the junior ranks, college and minors.

Defensemen

 

This unit going forward will be led by a pair of top draft picks of recent years, Rasmus Dahlin and Owen Power. Their games are not necessarily the same but they already appear to be headed toward being the best at their position. Dahlin has developed nicely under Granato’s tutelage, earning his first All Star game appearance, while Power jumped straight from the college ranks into the lineup and never looked out of place or intimidated. When the season concluded, the remaining top 4 defensemen were a combination of speed and puck-handling ability in Jacob Bryson and Henri Jokiharju, and size and toughness in Casey Fitzgerald and Mattias Samuelsson. The rest of the D corps consists of veteran journeymen Colin Miller, Mark Pysyk and Will Butcher. It’s unlikely all of them will be back in 2022/23. The only AHL prospect who might make the leap to the Sabres’ roster next season is Oskari Laaksonen. Ryan Johnson, a first round draft pick from a couple of years ago, is returning to college for another season.

 

Goaltenders

 

This is the team’s top area of concern going into next season. They will have to make a move here if they expect to compete for a playoff spot. Craig Anderson was a warrior as the top netminder this year, but he is 40, injury-prone and an unrestricted free agent who isn’t sure whether or not he wants to continue to play. Dustin Tokarski did about as well as expected when he had to play, but he is an AHL goalie if truth be told. There has to be an upgrade made here. In the system, the other options are Malcolm Subban, another AHL-level goalie, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who was to be the goalie-in-waiting but can’t stay healthy and Michael Houser, who played in the ECHL with Cincinnati this year and probably belongs there. A pair of top-fight prospects who should eventually compete for the #1 goaltender spot for the franchise, Devon Levi and Erik Portillo, both decided to remain in school for another year, and aren’t ready for the NHL yet anyway. Whether Anderson returns or not, there is a crying need for a legitimate NHL-caliber bridge type netminder to hold the fort until Levi and Portillo are ready.

 
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