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The Buffalo Sabres Became Surprise Team

On the first day of training camp in October, 2022, as Buffalo Sabres’ forward Kyle Okposo stood at the podium answering questions, one question made him particularly thoughtful. After having already spoken about the make-up of the team, the development of the team’s culture, and the camaraderie, a reporter asked, “What’s possible?” Okposo reflected for a moment before responding, “A lot, I would say.” Then, after a pause of around five seconds, he continued,  “There’s a potential that you’re always looking for, and we don’t know what that is. There’s never….there’s always surprise teams in the league – both ways – and nobody has really any idea who those teams are gonna be.” 

A that moment, the impression was that those two words, “a lot,” meant he was thinking of Stanley Cup Playoffs, but was reluctant to make that promise not only to the fans, but also to himself. He may have hoped the playoffs were possible, but he was right if he was thinking the Buffalo Sabres would become a surprise team.

The Surprises

Although the Sabres didn’t win enough to earn a playoff spot, they still managed to accomplish “a lot.” They ended with 42 wins and a win percentage of .555, and the late-season run for a wild card spot was unexpected. Aside from the number of wins, though, the group became a surprise team for more than just the improvement seen in the wins and losses compared to the previous years. They have four players who scored more than 30 goals (Tage Thompson (47), Alex Tuch (35), Jeff Skinner (34), and Dylan Cozens (31), and two players in the conversations for NHL AwardsRasmus Dahlin and Owen Power could be in the running for the Norris Trophy, and Owen Powers‘ name has come up for the Calder Trophy. 

However, for all those surprising accomplishments, the Buffalo Sabres still failed to break the decade-long playoff drought. There is still work to be done to get to a post-season.

There Are Needs to Address

The lockers are now empty, some players are heading back to their hometowns or preparing for the World Championships, and coach Don Granato, general manager Kevyn Adams, and the rest of the staff can begin planning for next season. There’s plenty of time to tweak the roster and address shortcomings if changes to the roster are even necessary. Having better players still won’t be sufficient, if the staff can’t solve some of the problems that prevented the team from winning more games. There is more to finding success than having better players.

The Buffalo Sabres Have Devon Levi, but….

If newcomer Devon Levi‘s performance through the final games of the season is any indication, he is most likely the starter for 2023-24. The goaltender signed an entry-level contract with the Sabres in March, following a stellar career for the Northeastern Huskies. He quickly proved he was more than ready to handle the speed of the NHL. But, he is not the cure-all for the lack of defence that plagued the Sabres in too many games. Even he will need help — not only from a strong defense corps, but also from the forwards. There was a lack of defensive-zone awareness many times throughout the season, an awareness that coaches can easily teach. The Buffalo Sabres allowed 297 goals and finished the season with a goal differential of minus 4. Teams with negative goal differentials are lucky to make the playoffs, and it seldom if never happens.

How to Win Face-Offs

Another issue that has to be addressed is the team’s ability to win face-offs. Overall, the Sabres’ face-off win percentage was 45.1%. This number has to improve. Compare the Buffalo Sabres to the two other teams who won wild card spots. The Florida Panthers were at 48.9%, and the New York Islanders at 51.7%. In the west, the Winnipeg Jets won their face-offs 48.9% of the time. The Seattle Kraken, at 45.3% , weren’t too much better than the Sabres, but they allowed only 252 goals. Losing face offs in key moments hurt the Sabres.

The Buffalo Sabres did achieve a lot this past season, especially considering it was playing meaningful and important games well into April, fostering hopes for at least a wild card spot. The Sabres became one of those  “surprise teams” that Kyle Okposo was referring to. A few more wins, a few more face-offs won, a little tighter defense, and the First-Round Series Preview could have included a piece about the Buffalo Sabres. Next season, making the Stanley Cup Playoffs can’t be a surprise for anyone.

Main Photo: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports


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