Last Word on Hockey’s Puck Drop Previews are back for the 2023-24 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 throughout the campaign. Today, we’re previewing the 2023-24 Buffalo Sabres.
2023-24 Buffalo Sabres
Trying to predict what the Buffalo Sabres will look like in the new season is always a fun ride. This season will be especially difficult after an unexpectedly great performance last year. They were so close to making it to the playoffs that fans could almost feel the taste of it. Many of their players took gigantic steps towards brilliance. Don Granato proved once again that he is more than capable of leading this team to success. And they bounced back, as predicted by Last Word in the prior Puck Drop Preview.
It was a development season. No one expected them to be as good as they were and honestly, it was fair. Being one of the youngest teams in the league is not easy. Plus, it certainly doesn’t help when your goaltending is formed by a rookie, a 40-year-old and a guy who’s been more injured than healthy. But, even though the odds and everyone else were against them, they pulled through. Buffalo might not have gone to the playoffs but last season was just as important.
Rasmus Dahlin was brilliant and almost 100 percent back into his normal form. Tage Thompson was godly and so was Alex Tuch. The kids were (once again alright), with the addition of Owen Power to bring more speed, size and a much-needed boost to the defensive system. Once again, their prospects did great and they had a really good draft.
In addition to all of that, they finished fifth in the Atlantic, only a win away from the second wild-card spot. It was frustrating and disappointing to see such a great team not make it. They probably wouldn’t have gone too far but it would be nice. However, as we move on from the past season and look forward to the next, there’s only one question lingering. What comes next for the Sabres? Let’s find out.
This offseason was the same old tale as all the others since Kevyn Adams took over. Not much happened and what did happen, was right at the start. Fans didn’t have much new to celebrate since the signing of Erik Johnson and Connor Clifton. They re-signed Zemgus Girgensons and Tyson Jost but other than that, nothing big happened.
A handful of fans and enthusiasts expected them to make a trade or sign a goaltender. However, to waste assets or money on someone who could potentially take up a roster space they will very much need is not a smart move. Especially after you signed Johnson and have Jacob Bryson on your active roster. With two young, developing goaltenders, the Sabres cannot afford to split valuable development time with an older guy who would only stay for a year. They already have Eric Comrie for that.
Now, it wasn’t the best off-season but it could be worse. It can always be worse (remember when they signed Taylor Hall?). However, every year one more piece falls into place and the big, messy, 1000-piece puzzle starts making more and more sense. This season will bring more clarity and hopefully more success to a young, rockstar Buffalo Sabres. The key word is hopefully.
There’s not much to say about the top line beside “it’s raining goals”. The combination Skinner-Thompson-Tuch was the highlight of the Sabres 2022-23 campaign and that says a lot about them. Even with a few injuries and mishaps, they were still fantastic together.
Another line that was extremely successful for the young team was their version of the kids’ line. Peterka-Cozens-Quinn gave opponents enough of a headache to make some players very upset. However, Jack Quinn had to undergo surgery to repair an Achilles injury and will be out for four to six months. This is a very tough loss for both the team and the player, as he was expected to take on more responsibilities.
However, this means Mittelstadt will have to step up and bring his talents to the already very talented group. Hopefully, they can find the chemistry and help the 2023-24 Sabres get to the next level.
Buffalo’s bottom six is always a difficult thing to predict. While they have a solid and reliable top four, the two other lines are constantly changing. However, a line that worked well for the Sabres last season was Girgensons-Okposo-Jost. They didn’t have a bunch of goals but they played against tough opponents and succeeded for a good part of it. We should see more of them to start the season.
The third line would likely consist of Krebs-Mittelstadt-Olofsson but with Quinn hurt, it won’t happen. Also, you have to play Greenway when he’s making $3 million a season. When Buffalo got him, it was a big question mark. Why? Probably because he had 11 points in 62 games last season. However, the expectation is that he’ll bounce back and help this 2023-24 Buffalo Sabres team grow.
Mattias Samuelsson – Rasmus Dahlin
Owen Power – Connor Clifton
Henri Jokiharju – Erik Johnson
Extra: Jacob Bryson
Defence is where the Sabres needed help the most. With Samuelsson constantly getting hurt and the lack of right-shot players, they had a problem. They probably still do. The signing of Clifton to pair up with Power was probably the best move they made this offseason. It would have been unreasonable if they decided that Jokiharju was enough for Power. And if that happens even with two new defencemen that can help, Sabres fans can riot.
However, there’s still a big question regarding this top four. Will Clifton be able to keep up with Power and play big top-four minutes? With the Bruins, he didn’t have to take this big of a responsibility. He was playing 17 minutes a night and going against bottom six players. Meanwhile, Owen Power was playing against the top lines for almost 24 minutes a night. And he succeeded. If Clifton is able to keep up, this 2023-24 Buffalo Sabres have a great top four on their hands.
The bottom pair is a mess. Bryson cannot be a full-time NHLer and if that happens, it will be a mistake. A big mistake. The best option here would be to alternate him, Jokiharju and Johnson, especially due to Johnson’s history. He’s great and a team player but he shouldn’t be playing full time either. This means they wouldn’t have a reliable bottom pair but they have no other option. Having Jokiharju or Johnson play their off side is not a good idea. So, for now, alternating is the best option.
Extra: Eric Comrie
This is a very, very risky move to make. Both Levi and Luukkonen are young and don’t have a lot of professional experience. The first is entering his first full NHL season and the second is a sophomore. It can be the recipe for a disaster and Buffalo can deeply regret the decision not to bring any other goaltenders to the team. However, they’re talented, calm and collected. They can deal with the pressure and if they can’t, it’s not the end of the world. This season’s focus is learning. Let them learn and grow and the best way to do that is by giving them the chance to fail.
Players to Watch
Levi joined the team right by the end of the season. After much speculation if he’d even sign, happiness overloaded the fanbase when the announcement came. Now, along with Luukonen, he will have to take the big responsibility of starting a large portion of the season. But if there is one thing Devon Levi knows how to do, it is rise to the occasion. He works well under pressure and can remain calm even in the most chaotic of situations. His mindset and peaceful demeanour can help not only himself but the entire team. Levi will be a great addition to this team starting this season. And, even though he is young and inexperienced, he’s already a star for the Sabres.
Cozens is set to have a great year. As their second-line centre, he’s taking more and more responsibility and he’s doing it beautifully. The 22-year-old took a big step last season and his offensive game improved considerably. His trajectory has been consistent for the Sabres and Cozens is set to reach 70 points next season. As the young player enters his third NHL season, his role with this team is getting bigger and he will rise to the occasion.
Prediction for 2023-24 Buffalo Sabres
With Quinn out long-term and two goalies at the beginning of their careers, expecting the 2023-24 Buffalo Sabres to take the step to the playoffs can be a little delusional. However, this is a team that proved everyone wrong last season and was as close as one can get to a spot. And that was with a semi-retired goaltender and a bunch of injured players. It’s been a bumpy ride and the past 11 seasons were disappointment after disappointment, so let’s not get anyone’s hopes up. However, if there is a time to believe, now is that time. Because this team is getting really good really fast.
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