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Buffalo Sabres

(image from Jeffrey T. Barnes/AP Photo)

Buffalo Sabres 2021 – 2022 Season Preview: Can it get any worse?

Buffalo Sabres
(image from Jeffrey T. Barnes/AP Photo)

The Buffalo Sabres Are an Absolute Mess

The Buffalo Sabres are an absolute mess. Last season, they finished dead last in the NHL with a 15-34-7 record, and there was a losing streak of 18 at one point. They have not had a winning season since ’11-’12, nor have they made the Stanley Cup playoffs since ’10-’11. This upcoming season is looking just as bleak as those recent, with superstar center Jack Eichel still involved in an ongoing feud with the organization attempting to be traded away. The Taylor Hall experiment did not work at all last year, and he’s been shipped off to Boston where he is playing his best hockey since that MVP campaign with the New Jersey Devils. Sabres fans probably don’t need to hear this anymore, but this organization has hit rock bottom, and it’s going to be years until this team is ready to compete again.

Buffalo is going into full rebuild mode…again. After the team selected Jack Eichel no. 2 overall in the 2015, there was rightful optimism that this team was going to eventually be contending for a championship. For his career, Eichel has 355 points in 375 games played, an incredible ratio that helped earned him the captain’s patch for Buffalo. Unfortunately, they haven’t gotten anywhere in Eichel’s first six seasons in the NHL, and he’s pissed. A herniated disk in his neck forced him to play in just 21 games last season. Rumors were already swirling about if he was going to be traded at the deadline last year if Buffalo didn’t perform well, and with Eichel being shut down for the remainder of the season, any chance of a mid-season trade went out the window. Eichel, who makes a $10 million salary, has yet to undergo surgery on his neck, claiming the Sabres have failed him at every turn. In return, general manager Kevyn Adams stripped Eichel of the Sabres’ captaincy earlier this week. It’s likely he’ll never pay for them again and sticking it to the Sabres organization has only hurt them even more.

Offseason Moves

Let’s get back on track, because Eichel hasn’t been the only player the Buffalo Sabres have focused on this offseason. To start, they traded 6’4” defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen to the Philadelphia Flyers for defenseman Robert Hagg, who led the NHL in hits in ’18-’19. Hagg, 26, was one of the pieces in a package deal that also sent the 14th overall pick in the ’21 NHL draft and a 2nd round pick in 2023. Buffalo used no. 14 to select Isak Rosen, a right-wing prospect out of Sweden.

Veterans Jake McCabe and Linus Ullmark are also gone. McCabe, 27, and Ullmark, 28, both spent their entire careers with Buffalo before signing in free agency with the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins, respectively.

Now for the new guys. Buffalo signed two goaltenders to one-year deals worth $750,000: 40-year-old Craig Anderson and 32-year-old Aaron Dell. These look like temporary Band-Aids until 22-year-old prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen is NHL-ready. Defensemen Will Butcher and Mark Pysyk are also here – Butcher via a trade for a fifth-round pick from the Devils and Pysyk on a one-year, $900,000 deal in free agency. Butcher could be promising. He’s 26 and put up 44 points as a rookie in ’17-’18. His game is offensive focused, and he’ll look bad at times in his own zone, but maybe he unlocks some of that NHL all-rookie team level of play in a new city. Finally, forward Vinnie Hinostroza was brought to Buffalo on a one-year contract worth just north of $1 million. He’s been a solid bottom six forward for about five seasons.

Youth’s Time to Shine

Since this is a rebuild, young players need to show signs of improvement. Two names that come to mind in terms of the future of the Buffalo Sabres are Casey Mittelstadt and Dylan Cozens. Both play center, and Buffalo hopes they can become a great one-two punch down the middle for years. So far, 22-year-old Mittelstadt has yet to live up to his value. He was selected no. 8 overall in 2017 and has just 61 points in 155 career games. Cozens, 20, was selected no. 7 in 2019. He showed some flashes of greatness in his rookie season last year, but ultimately finished with an unexciting 13 points in 41 games. 23-year-old Tage Thompson also comes to mind as a key piece to Buffalo’s future. Standing at 6’6”, 215 pounds, he could offer major problems in front of the net.

Buffalo also has promising young talent on the blue line. Rasmus Dahlin was taken no. 1 overall in 2018. He has been as good as advertised offensively, putting up 107 points in 197 games all before turning 21. His defense needs some work, but Buffalo just rewarded him with a three-year, $18 million contract extension. Dahlin should be paired up with 22-year-old Henri Jokiharju now that Ristolainen is gone. Jokihaju is a former Chicago Blackhawks first-round pick and was traded to Buffalo in 2019.

Lineup Projection

Here are my projected lines for the’21-’22 Buffalo Sabres:

Jeff SkinnerDylan CozensVictor Olofsson
Anders BjorkCasey MittelstadtTage Thompson
Rasmus AsplundZemgus GirgensonsVinnie Hinostroza
Drake Caggiula Cody EakinKyle Okposo

Thompson’s size will help Mittelstadt, 5’11”, 200 pounds, feel a little more comfortable moving around the ice. Jeff Skinner is definitely regretting his decision to stay in Buffalo, or is he? He signed a contract extension through ’26-‘27 worth $9 million annually following a surprise 40-goal season in ’18-’19. Getting paid that much money doesn’t sound so bad to me, but he probably wishes he was playing for a contender. Olofsson is decent, but 15 of his 32 points came on the powerplay in 56 games last season. Kyle Okposo is only 33, but it seems like he’s been in the league for 25 years. Buffalo’s paying him $6 million a year, so they’ll feel like they have to play him on a nightly basis.

Rasmus DahlinHenri Jokiharju
Will ButcherColin Miller
Robert HaggMark Pysyk

Dahlin is most likely going to be Buffalo’s next captain, assuming he doesn’t throw a fit like Eichel. His -56 career +/- minus rating is awful, but that’s more in part of lack of talent surrounding him. He’ll make his money in the offensive zone, though. Colin Miller is a veteran who is defensive minded. He’ll help eliminate some of those goals allowed that are Butcher’s fault. This unit won’t be very good, and they might look even worse because of the goalie situation behind them.

Craig AndersonAaron Dell

This goalie room reeks of lack of talent. Craig Anderson is 40-years old. His last year as a starter (’19-’20) saw him sport an 11-17-2 record, 3.25 GAA, and .902 save percentage. Aaron Dell has been a career backup. Last year, Dell went 1-5-0 with a 4.14 GAA and .857 save percentage. That is not a recipe for success. How long is it until Luukkonen gets some action? I give it around 15 games.

Where Will They Finish?

Last. In both the Metropolitan division and entire league. There’s no overthinking this one. Without Eichel, the Buffalo Sabres are the worst team in the NHL. There are bright spots, but those bright spots are very young and inexperienced. They are going to have to take their licks for a few years to figure it out. They did get to pick first in the 2021 draft, and they used that pick on Owen Power, a 6’6” defenseman from the University of Michigan. He won’t be here for a couple of years, however.

Head coach Don Granato and GM Kevyn Adams have a lot on their plates. Granato took over for Ralph Krueger partway through last season, and his 9-16-3 record outshined Krueger’s 6-18-4 crap show. The Sabres are a team that ranked 28th league-wide in goals for and 29th in goals allowed. This team needs to move on from Jack Eichel. It would offer them a fresh start. If they want to compete, they cannot have drama in and out of the locker room. For ’21-’22, the Buffalo Sabres open at +20000 odds to win the Stanley Cup. Save your money. Don’t be tempted. This team is going to be awful. Hopefully they can turn it around quickly, and by quickly, I mean anything less than six or so seasons.

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