Last Word on Hockey’s Puck Drop Previews are back for the 2022-23 season! As the regular season approaches, Last Word will preview each team’s current outlook and stories to watch for the upcoming year. We’ll also do our best to project how things will go for each team over the course of the campaign. Today, we’re previewing the 2022-23 Buffalo Sabres.
2022-23 Buffalo Sabres
Trying to predict what the Buffalo Sabres will look like in the new season is always a fun ride. They’re either at the top of their game or going straight down without stopping to say hi. It’s a chaotic experience every season. However, things are, in fact, starting to look a little brighter for them as their prospects develop and their players start getting better and closer to what they were promised to be. Last season was an excellent example of that.
After the disastrous 2020-21 season, the Sabres entered last season with one goal: don’t be the worst team in the league again and don’t go around breaking bad records. They managed to do all that. It wasn’t the best season ever and it was once again filled with injuries, mishaps, and bad luck that put them in a difficult position throughout the season. However, they got a lot better as the year went on and what had everything to be a once again bad season, turned into a development year for multiple players.
Tage Thompson took giant steps toward success, Jeff Skinner had a bounce-back year after becoming Ralph Krueger’s favourite benched player. Rasmus Dahlin also had a bounce-back year and started to look like himself. They acquired Alex Tuch and Peyton Krebs from the Vegas Golden Knights in the Jack Eichel trade and that was a big boost for the young team. And of course, things were looking great for their top prospects at their respective levels. It was time to move on from all the drama and learn how to play as a team.
And that’s what they did. Buffalo managed to finish the season fifth in the Atlantic Division and 24th overall. Not bad for a team that was literally at the bottom the year prior. But to continue their work, the general manager was supposed to make some moves this off-season. That’s not exactly what happened.
Adams took a safe approach to this off-season. With them needing to reach the cap floor, many thought he’d throw money on some big name and try to bring reinforcements for the team. But with how he approached other things throughout his two years as the general manager, that wasn’t accurate at all.
The only considerable big signing for Buffalo this off-season was Ilya Lyubushkin. To be fair, they did need a blue liner and the market for defencemen wasn’t really the best in the world. But the fans were expecting some bigger signings like a good goaltender – Darcy Kuemper and Jack Campbell were available. They got Craig Anderson and Malcolm Subban for another year instead, as well as promising backup Eric Comrie.
Now, it wasn’t the best off-season but it could be worse. It can always be worse. However, Craig Anderson did prove himself worthy last season (even with the injuries) and Subban barely played with them after sustaining an injury on his first game as a Sabre. But he was a constant presence with the team, including participating in their outdoor game dress-up with the other players. He was a good team player off the ice and even though he’s not the best goalie, he will help. Hopefully.
Jeff Skinner – Tage Thompson – Alex Tuch
Peyton Krebs – Dylan Cozens – Victor Olofsson
Rasmus Asplund – Casey Mittelstadt – Jack Quinn
Vinnie Hinostroza – Zemgus Girgensons – Kyle Okposo
This is a similar lineup to what head coach Don Granato was icing last season. Skinner, Thompson and Tuch worked really well together and there’s no reason to change what’s working.
Krebs, Cozens and Olofsson didn’t play that many games together throughout the season, with Krebs spending time in Rochester once he was traded but the trio also worked out just fine. If they can keep up the good work and improve their scoring, they’ll be a solid second line for at least a part of the season, while Quinn develops and sharpens his NHL game. He and Olofsson could exchange line spots throughout the season, as Quinn is already used to playing with Krebs in Rochester.
This is a fun game to play. Guessing the bottom six is always a “you’re totally wrong and they’re not doing that” experience but let’s try to do it right this time. Asplund and Mittelstadt have been playing together for a while and it’s working. Asplund was one of the players that took a big step last season and if he can keep it up, Buffalo has a good third/second line winger this season. Quinn is coming from an injury but if one had to guess, he’ll make the team out of camp. To be honest, there’s not much there to keep him out of the lineup for too long.
Now, trying to guess the fourth line is always a shot in the dark. It makes sense to put all the older guys in there and say it’ll work. Because it did work last season. Okposo had a really good season for the first time in a long time, Hinostroza was also a good addition to the team – and he got rewarded by getting a one-year extension (as he should). And Girgensons had his injuries but also played really well. You don’t mess with the team that’s winning and those three are playing well together. There’s no reason to split them.
Now, Granato could (and probably will) change them throughout the season and test new lines as the games go by but it’s safe to say that this could be their starting forward lines for the first game.
Mattias Samuelsson – Rasmus Dahlin
Owen Power – Ilya Lyubushkin
Jacob Bryson – Henri Jokiharju
All eyes are going to be on Rasmus Dahlin this season (as mentioned later), and with the emergence of some other young defensemen in the organization, he could have his breakout year playing on his off-side. Dahlin played nearly 140 minutes on the right side last season paired with Samuelsson (per MoneyPuck), and it was some of the best hockey he’d played in his career. Samuelsson, taken 31 spots after Dahlin in the 2018 Draft, earned the trust of Granato rather quickly and was thrust into tough situations, averaging nearly 20 minutes of ice time per game through 42 NHL games last season.
Then there’s what could be one of the most fun defence pairs to watch in the league next season. Between Power and Lyubushkin, Buffalo’s potential second pairing averages 6’4″ and 208 pounds. With Power’s electric skating and his cerebral all-around game poised to make him a Calder Trophy candidate this season, the 2021 first-overall pick will enter his rookie campaign with a solid defensive counterpart in Lyubushkin. While the team’s general lack of offseason activity may have been disappointing, the signing they did make on defence should prove to be impactful.
A bit of a surprise riser throughout his years in the Sabres organization, the 24-year-old Bryson has become one of the unsung heroes of Buffalo’s blueline. Playing exclusively in the NHL for the first time last season, Bryson did have just 10 points in 73 games but also had one of the most analytically sound profiles among Sabres defencemen. Signed to a two-year contract this past offseason paying him $1.85 million per season, he’ll be relied upon to prevent the team’s bottom pairing from becoming a liability with his sound two-way game.
Jokiharju will likely slip down the lineup after a disappointing 2021-22 season. The Finnish defenseman did play almost 22 minutes per game last year, but his defensive game slipped at times and he was limited to 60 games played. He’ll likely be given a bit of a reduced role by Granato this season so that he can recapture the skills necessary to be a top-four defenceman in the NHL.
Again, Buffalo enters the season with question marks in goal. Anderson performed admirably in his age 40 season, compiling a winning record despite a sub-.900 save percentage. His consistency and health will be a season-long storyline. That’s where Comrie comes in. After bouncing around on the waiver wire for what seemed like forever, he became the full-time backup in Winnipeg last season and didn’t disappoint. He started just 16 games behind Connor Hellebuyck but had a spectacular .920 save percentage despite facing a high volume of shots. The Sabres hope to catch lightning in a bottle and get a similar performance.
Players to Watch
As said multiple times before, Dahlin is set to shine this season. After struggling to get things started in the big league, last year was a big season for the star defenceman. He was able to find his game again and the promise of a star talent made back in 2018 was finally catching up. Now, Dahlin should continue improving and playing his best game to help the Sabres climb back from the dark.
Owen Power is also a big promise this season. After a brilliant sophomore year in Michigan and really good performances in the eight NHL games he played, it’s time for the big guy to step up in his rookie year. He finished the season with a big blast, scoring his first home goal and helping the team get their last win of the season. Now he’s set to continue his star path to the top.
Prediction for 2022-23 Buffalo Sabres
Without making a huge amount of changes this offseason, it would be hasty to expect the Sabres to make a playoff appearance this season, especially considering the step forward taken by other Atlantic Division teams like the Detroit Red Wings and Ottawa Senators. The focus of this season will again be on the development of young players and improving their consistency as a team. Don’t necessarily expect them to be a bottom-feeder team, as they’re sure to take some steps forward, but also don’t expect them to end their decades-long playoff drought until at least 2023-24.
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