This year’s Buffalo Sabres team is one of promise. The organization has done an excellent job of building its roster with young players, veterans and players entering their prime years. When combined, it should give them one of the better teams they’ve had in recent memory. That does not mean that the work is done with building the team, and there are still players on the roster who have work to do to prove they are pieces the team can rely on long-term. They are on the cusp of being a playoff team but are likely not there yet, so this season will provide a chance for the team to let these players prove themselves to showcase what they can bring to the table moving forward.
One of the more interesting players on the Sabres’ roster is Casey Mittelstadt. He was selected eighth overall by the team in the 2017 NHL draft but has yet to really live up to that pedigree. He has certainly shown flashes of the player he can become and possesses strong playmaking and passing abilities, but injuries have hampered his young career to this point. Since playing 77 games in his first full season with the Sabres, he’s played in a combined 112 games in the last three seasons.
The main thing Mittelstadt will need to prove is his availability. There is no doubting his talent, but whether or not he will be able to remain on the ice for a sustained period of time is a real concern. Towards the end of this season, he seemed to be heading in that direction, playing in most of the team’s games from the middle of February through the end of the season.
During that span, he seemed to find footing when playing with Victor Olofsson and Rasmus Asplund. This line provides a steady defensive player in Asplund and someone for Mittelstadt to distribute the puck to in Olofsson. It should be a trio the team keeps together, letting Mittelstadt build chemistry and consistency with a combination that has worked in the past. It is a big season for Mittelstadt to prove himself, and he will have the opportunity to do so if he can keep himself on the ice on a consistent basis.
When the Sabres traded Alex Nylander for Henri Jokiharju prior to the 2019-20 season, it was viewed as a major success for the future of the Sabres’ blue line. For the most part, he has been a solid piece for their defense core, which has lacked talent for the better part of the last decade. The most notable issue with him is likely the number of minutes he has played over the last few seasons. He is not a defensive liability by any means, but he is definitely not a top-pair defenseman, which is what he has been deployed as the last few seasons.
Circumstances have certainly changed around the defense core this season. Owen Power and Mattias Samuelsson will be full-time NHLers, and the team signed Ilya Lyubushkin to enhance the depth on the right side of their defense. This should serve to benefit Jokiharju, as he will play further down in the lineup and against opponents who are more suited to his defensive skill set. He should also have a strong partner this season, with the Sabres’ depth on the left side giving them options for who to pair with them on the right side.
The most important thing he will need to prove this season is that he belongs on this blue line. With the future of this defense including elite players like Rasmus Dahlin and Power, Jokiharju has the chance to show he can insulate the higher-skilled defensemen and create a strong pair to enhance the defense as a whole.
Calling the Sabres’ goaltending in recent seasons a mess would be a massive understatement. It has been somewhat of a revolving door, and the team desperately needs a stable presence in net. This offseason, they brought in Eric Comrie in hopes he can bring that stability. At this point in his career, he’s relatively unknown, playing in only 28 career NHL games, and his stats are not too impressive either. However, last season something seemed to click for him. In the 16 games he started for the Winnipeg Jets, he posted a 10-5-1 record with a .920 save percentage and 2.58 goals against average.
Signing in Buffalo gives Comrie a shot to prove he can be a starting goaltender in the NHL. He has yet to start games on a consistent basis, and with the Sabres looking for someone to take the reigns in net, this seems like a win-win situation for both sides. It was also a low-risk move for the team, as they only committed to him for two seasons.
A lot of the players on the Sabres roster have things they need to prove this season, but these players specifically are in prime positions for make-or-break years. The organization has done a terrific job of putting their players in positions to be successful, and this season they will be able to judge them fairly.
Mittelstadt has a solid line where he can now prove he belongs in the lineup moving forward, Jokiharju will have a decreased role, which should help his overall play, and Comrie has a real opportunity to show what he can bring to the table as a consistent starter. They have cultivated a culture that will allow these players a space to prove they belong not only this season but in the seasons to come as well.
Zach Rohde is a Buffalo Sabres Contributor for THW. Growing up in the Buffalo area during the late 2000s, the Sabres success fueled his passion for hockey. He has written about the Sabres for another site in Buffalo previously, and covered Buffalo Sports for a brief time as a freelance sports assistant for Spectrum News Buffalo before moving to a full time position in general news. Twitter: @ZachRohde