Buffalo Sabres 2023-24 NHL Season Preview
It’s been a while since there were actual expectations for the Buffalo Sabres. Even in the best days of the Jack Eichel era, success felt more like a pleasant surprise than something truly sustainable. Sure enough, any momentum the Sabres collected for over a decade fizzled out even quicker than it developed. Some previous Sabres teams had intriguing parts. But none ever seemed likely to accomplish anything meaningful.
The 2023-24 Sabres aren’t a juggernaut. They have weaknesses and question marks. They aren’t Cup contenders. What they are is one of the youngest teams in the league with talent up and down the roster that just got its first taste of a playoff chase last year. Buffalo came up one point short, but it wasn’t an agonizing finish; it was a hopeful one. And this season, the Sabres might just finally be ready to realize their potential in a season that lasts more than 82 games.
Projected Lineup (Via Daily Faceoff)
|Jeff Skinner||Tage Thompson||Alex Tuch|
|J.J. Peterka||Dylan Cozens||Casey Mittelstadt|
|Jordan Greenway||Peyton Krebs||Victor Olofsson|
|Zemgus Girgensons||Tyson Jost||Kyle Okposo|
|Mattias Samuelsson||Rasmus Dahlin|
|Owen Power||Connor Clifton|
|Henri Jokiharju||Erik Johnson|
As you’d expect from a young team on the rise, the Sabres didn’t feel the need to splurge over the summer. The team re-signed veteran depth forwards Zemgus Girgensons and Kyle Okposo, its longest-tenured member and captain, respectively. Buffalo did have a clear weakness at right defense and several options to fix it. The Sabres did bring in two right-handed blue-liners, but it’s reasonable to ask whether they’re the right guys for the job.
In his prime, Erik Johnson would be a slam-dunk “yes” to this question. The former No. 1 pick was a steady second-pair option for the Blues and Avalanche for over a decade. But now at 35 and coming off a down year, a rapid decline could be starting. It’s only a one-year commitment, but the upside doesn’t seem particularly high.
There is more of that in Connor Clifton, a bit of an analytics darling who thrived defensively last year for the Bruins. Dig into his underlying numbers and you’ll see that he played very well when partnered with Hampus Lindholm and Dmitry Orlov and pretty poorly with everybody else. Clifton played a very sheltered role in Boston, so while heading to the Sabres might get him minutes next to budding star Owen Power, it will also likely pit him against the toughest competition in his fairly green NHL career (2022-23 was his first season exceeding the 60-game mark).
Three Players to Watch
- Tage Thompson — In just two years, he’s gone from bust to great to bonafide superstar. Going from eight to 38 to 47 goals is an unprecedented leap. Both the eye test and the numbers say Thompson, acquired as part of the return for Ryan O’Reilly in 2018, is one of the game’s top centers. His story almost seems too good to be true, but Thompson can erase that disbelief if he can be the first Sabre to suit up at 1C in a playoff game since Derek Roy.
- Rasmus Dahlin — Like Thompson, Dahlin’s development hasn’t been linear. The 2018 No. 1 pick got off to a strong start in the NHL but stagnated a bit as Buffalo toiled under Ralph Krueger. Last year, he erased any doubts about his future as one of the game’s top blueliners, scoring at nearly a point-per-game pace with stellar underlying numbers. He’ll be an RFA at season’s end, which should only inspire him to see if he has an even higher level than the already impressive one he was at last season.
- Devon Levi — Last season, the Sabres finished 23rd in team save percentage and 26th in goals against. Levi could be an antidote to both problems. Acquired along with a 1st for Sam Reinhart, Levi has spent the last two years leading Canada to World Junior glory and playing at an absurd level of Northeastern University. He looked legit in a seven-game NHL stint last season, stopping 3.1 goals above expected. Among goalies with at least seven games, he ranked 14th in goals saved above expected per 60. Living up to the hype over a full season will be harder, but Levi looks like Buffalo’s goalie of the future.
Riser & Faller
Riser: Casey Mittelstadt’s glow-up last season wasn’t quite on Thompson’s or Jeff Skinner’s level. Still, Mittelstadt more than doubled his previous career-high point total last season, finally looking like the player Buffalo hoped it was getting when selecting Mittelstadt No. 8 in the 2017 NHL Draft. He’s slated to start the year on the wing in the top six but could slide to 3C once Jack Quinn returns from injury a few months in. Either way, Mittelstadt is back in Buffalo’s long-term plans after being an afterthought this time last year.
Faller: While Alex Tuch’s breakout has been much appreciated, Peyton Krebs was arguably supposed to be the centerpiece of the Jack Eichel trade. Drafted 17th overall, Krebs has so far developed as well as most players drafted by Vegas so far — not very. He showed some promise in 2021-22, scoring 22 points in 48 games, but tallied only four more in 74 games last year. Krebs fits the same identity as many prospects before him. He’s flashed skill at times at the NHL level but hasn’t put it all together yet. He’s still 22, and the Sabres’ pro-player development is proving to be one of the league’s best. This is a big year for Krebs, though.
The Big Question
Can they keep the puck out of the net enough? They may have signed some defensemen, but none are the big-name top-four staple some thought they might push for. Levi has promise, Eric Comrie’s a decent option and maybe this is the year Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen finally breaks out. Most of Buffalo’s top forwards aren’t very defensively conscious, either.
The Sabres still have work to do. They remain weak on defense and Quinn’s injury shows their talented forward group still isn’t quite among the sport’s most dominant. But this is a Sabres team that, for the first time in years, isn’t lacking for star power beyond one player. There are some elite talents on this roster and a handful of players who complement them beautifully. Time will tell if they are the ones to lead the Sabres to their first Stanley Cup. But continuing to lead them in the right direction seems more likely than not.