Welcome to our latest series here at Last Word on Hockey. The Puck Drop Preview series takes you through each team as the season is fast approaching. The preview will focus on the narratives surrounding the team ending last year, during the offseason, and heading into the 2021-22 season. Puck Drop Preview also focuses on what the season has in store for each team from a roster and expectations perspective. Join us, as we look at all 32 teams before the season starts. Today, we take a look at the 2021-22 Buffalo Sabres.
2021-22 Buffalo Sabres
To say that the past season was tough on the Sabres is an understatement. They were the worst team in the league even with a couple of good additions in the off-season. Taylor Hall and Eric Staal ended up not living up to expectations – which is definitely not entirely their fault. And to top the messy cake, Jack Eichel had a season-ending injury in March – that still requires treatment. Buffalo’s season was not good at all. However, a few good things happened as well.
Their disastrous experience with former head coach Ralph Krueger finally ended and as soon as new head coach Don Granato took over the bench, things got a little better. He managed to take them off a winless streak that almost broke the NHL’s record and their players started playing with more confidence. They looked happier – relieved, even. That does not mean their general manager, Kevyn Adams, was happy.
The trade deadline arrived and Buffalo made their biggest move late at night, trading Taylor Hall and Curtis Lazar to the Boston Bruins in exchange for Anders Bjork and a second-round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft. Brandon Montour was sent to the Florida Panthers for a 2021 third-round draft pick, and the culture in Buffalo seemed to take a huge turn. They ended the season with a 15-34-7 record. Out of the 15 wins, nine were under coach Granato.
If their 2020-21 season was underwhelming, Buffalo’s offseason was probably worse. The Sabres’ first move in this off-season was taking ‘interim’ out of Granato’s title and officially signing him as their head coach. However, what was promised to be a busy offseason for the Sabres, proved to be exactly the opposite.
Fans were expecting Eichel to be moved before the expansion draft. That didn’t happen. Then they were expecting to move him before the entry draft. Didn’t happen either. In fact, until the moment this piece was written there was no update on their captain whatsoever. Their first deal was a much anticipated one but not one that anyone saw coming.
On the first day of the Draft, Rasmus Ristolainen was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers. On the second day of the draft, the Sam Reinhart trade to the Panthers happened. It was no surprise, as Reinhart also wanted out. However, that doesn’t mean fans were happy – they weren’t.
Buffalo lost more players than added. Jake McCabe, Linus Ullmark, Will Borgen, Carter Hutton and Riley Sheahan are just a few of the players that walked away. They added goaltenders Craig Anderson and Aaron Dell, defencemen Mark Pysyk, Robert Hagg and Will Butcher, and forwards John Hayden, Ryan MacInnis and Vinnie Hinostroza. Buffalo also re-signed free agents Casey Mittelstadt, Rasmus Asplund, Drake Caggiula and Henri Jokiharju. For now, only Rasmus Dahlin is left to be signed. However, it is hard to believe Dahlin’s contract won’t be signed in the near future.
Now, this is a more delicate topic than any others. Adams has already said he’s looking to rebuild the team around their young players and he wanted to take a cautious approach in the offseason. So far, that’s exactly what he has done. Drafting Owen Power, acquiring prospect goaltender Devon Levi in the Reinhart trade and piling up some draft picks was a good start. However, this season is set to be another very underwhelming one for Sabres fans.
Anders Bjork – Casey Mittelstadt – Victor Olofsson
Drake Caggiula – Cody Eakin – Vinnie Hinostroza
Extras: John Hayden, Ryan MacInnis
The reality here is that Buffalo needs help. It is a fact that Eichel won’t be ready for the start of the season and hopefully, he’ll be traded before he is, in fact, ready. They don’t have a solid top six that can faceoff – and win – against the other teams in their division. Asplund, Mittelstadt, Cozens, Thompson and Bjork are five guys that flourished under Granato. Olofsson was good on the power play but still needs to improve a lot on his even-strength offence. But overall this is still a top-six mostly formed by guys with no more than three seasons of NHL experience. This can be a huge step for the young group to prove themselves to be the future of the franchise.
It is on the bottom six that things start to get really complicated. Summarizing everything: Buffalo does not have proper bottom-six players. Skinner just got out of his worse season so far, Okposo hasn’t played since April 15 and Girgensons didn’t play at all last season. There goes their third line. Of course, they can all bounce back and be healthy but it’s still an ‘if’ in their roster.
In the fourth line, there’s another question mark. Caggiula was decent defensively but Eakin has not been good for Buffalo. Throughout 46 games, he had three goals and seven points, the lowest he’s ever scored in his career in 40+ games. Hinostroza, however, is coming from a decent span with the Chicago Blackhawks. He scored four goals and 12 points in 17 games. One thing that is certain is that coach Granato will likely change the lineup a lot before settling down with it.
Rasmus Dahlin – Henri Jokiharju
Will Butcher – Colin Miller
Jacob Bryson – Mark Pysyk
Extra: Robert Hagg
Defence is also a big question mark for Buffalo. They lost Ristolainen and Brandon Montour to trades, and McCabe walked away. The only veteran that was with them in the 2020-21 season is Colin Miller – and he’s coming from an injury suffered in the World Championship in May. Butcher is coming from a season-ending thumb injury that required surgery. This leaves their second pair a little unpredictable for the new season but it can work.
Regarding Dahlin and Jokiharju, there’s not much to say besides that they have everything to be a great top pair this season. They played well together under Granato and held their ground against teams like the New York Islanders and the Bruins.
Bryson was a replacement for when McCabe got hurt right at the beginning of the season and ended up becoming a regular. He played 38 games during his rookie season and was decent defensively, leaving room for improvement in a few aspects like his skating abilities. Their biggest problem is on the right side of the blue line, having only Mark Pysyk to be Bryson’s defence partner. It wouldn’t be a surprise if a new signing happens in the next few weeks.
The word problem has been used a little too much in this article but in the goaltender department, it is more necessary than in any other. Buffalo signed Anderson and Dell as their goaltending duo and together, they played 11 games last season. Losing Ullmark to the Bruins and not signing a solid goalie will hurt Buffalo more than any other problem if they don’t figure out a very solid defensive system.
Players To Watch
The 22-year-old player was incredible under coach Granato, scoring nine goals and 17 points in 28 games after the coaching change. If he does get the top-line spot this season, it could be a huge turn in the right direction for the young player.
Coming off a difficult rookie season, catching COVID in March and then getting multiple injuries, Cozens is a big candidate for a breakout season. He’s big, strong and fast, having proved he can be very solid defensively. The 20-year-old player still needs to work on translating his offensive success in juniors to the NHL level but this can be a big season for the youngster.
Prediction for the 2021-22 Buffalo Sabres
If Buffalo fans are expecting their team to make the playoffs this year, it’ll be a huge disappointment. They are in a division with the current back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions and five other playoff teams. The playoffs are for sure not an option this year. However, it will be a crucial season for their younger players to take in bigger roles and show that they can be huge assets for their team. That can mean they’ll be in the top three for the 2022 Draft – again. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, with the next draft class being full of great players that can help the team in the future.
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