The Buffalo Sabres have played 33 games so far in the 2021-22 NHL season, amassing a record of 10-17-6, placing them at 28th out of 32 teams and at sixth place in the Atlantic Division. Despite their poor record, though, some players have managed to stand out and are projected to have career statistical seasons. Tage Thompson, for example, has set a career high in goals (12) and points (22) this season, and there’s still more than half the season to go.
Other players, however, have been underwhelming, some even plain bad – just like the team that they’re playing for has been. Now as door has closed on 2021 and we’ve turned the calendar to 2022, here are three Sabres players looking to bounce back over the second half of the season.
The first player that came to my mind when planning this piece was Anders Bjork. Bjork was acquired at the 2021 NHL Trade Deadline last April in the deal that sent Taylor Hall and Curtis Lazar to the Boston Bruins, and impressed in his Sabres debut under then-interim head coach Don Granato, scoring twice and showing off his speed and skill. Since last season, though, Bjork has had trouble contributing offensively, which is principally what general manager (GM) Kevyn Adams brought him in to do.
Bjork is 25-years-old, so he’s still relatively young and could potentially develop into a valuable middle-six player. But right now, it’s not looking good. The six-foot, 197 pound former draft pick of the Bruins has just four goals and one assist for five points through 29 games this season, along with an unimpressive minus-6 plus-minus rating.
That’s less points than American Hockey League (AHL) call-up Brett Murray, who filled in from the Rochester Americans in lieu of injured Sabres forwards and has earned his spot in the lineup ahead of players like Bjork. It’s also less points than Cody Eakin and Zemgus Girgensons, two players who were supposed to be fourth liners for the Sabres this season. Bjork has looked more like the player that began to fall out of favor with the Bruins than the player Adams thought he could be, which is not a good sign.
All is not lost, though. Bjork has played just 182 NHL games in his career, and came close to hitting the 10-goal and 20-point threshold back in the 2019-20 season, so the potential for offense is there – it just needs to be unlocked. Hopefully a clean slate in 2022 can jumpstart his offensive game and turn up his play to a new level.
Henri Jokiharju is an interesting player, in that he hasn’t necessarily been bad this season, let alone during his time with the Sabres; he just hasn’t been all that great, either. For a right-shooting defenseman paired next to Rasmus Dahlin, I think it’s fair to expect a little bit more from him points-wise, and in terms of special teams contributions, in addition to the strong defensive play he’s exhibited in most of the games he’s played in.
Jokiharju is 22-years-old, making him one of the younger players on this team and placing him right in that sweet spot for the “young core” that the Sabres are looking to build around. At six-foot and 200 pounds, he’s not the tallest defenseman out there, but he plays a sound defensive game and knows how to use his body to out-position his opponents. As a former first-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks, he entered the NHL with a high ceiling, and I still think he’s yet to truly break through the glass.
In 17 games this season, Jokiharju has one goal, four assists, and five points. If not for an injury that kept him out for half the games, his stats might be a little more impressive. He’s never been known for his offense in his career, but I think the potential is there. Playing alongside Dahlin should earn you more points than Robert Hagg and Mark Pysyk, both of whom currently have more points than Jokiharju.
If Jokiharju stays healthy in 2022, he’ll have every opportunity to prove himself as a top-pairing d-man under Granato’s tutelage, and hopefully he’s able to develop into an effective defenseman in all areas of the ice like some of his counterparts have. Dahlin could use a partner on the blue line to balance him out, and I hope Jokiharju is that player.
John Hayden hasn’t been with the Sabres for long, but given the role he’s played this season, I wish we could have seen more out of him in 2021. In 2022, I hope he can get on the scoresheet more frequently and add value to the bottom-six forward group – they most certainly need it.
Hayden is a big body forward, standing at six-foot-three and weighing in at 223 pounds. He’s 26-years-old, so he should be entering the prime years of his playing career, although he hasn’t been able to establish himself as an NHL regular up until now. Drafted back in the 2013 NHL draft by the Blackhawks, he has made his way into 211 NHL games, scoring 13 goals, 20 assists, and 33 points. He’s proven to be clutch in some tight-game scenarios, shown by his three game-winning goals (GWG) and one short-handed point (SHP). However, his career high in points is just 13, set back in the 2017-18 season.
It’s clear that offense and points production is not Hayden’s strong suit – he has the least amount of points this season among Sabres forwards with 10+ games played – but I’d like to see a little more contribution in other ways in 2022, including away from the puck, physically, and on the penalty kill, to name a few.
With no goals and two assists in 26 games this season, it’s clear he won’t be leading the Sabres in points this season. But here’s hoping he can turn around his game and start to contribute in other manners in 2022.
Sabres Looking To Bounce Back As A Whole
The year 2021 was not a kind one to the Sabres. They set the record for longest losing streak in NHL history in the salary cap era, tied the longest playoff drought in NHL history by missing their 10th straight postseason, and became embroiled in a months-long drama with former captain Jack Eichel, resulting in his trade away from the team and the beginning of the official new rebuild. However, with every negative comes a positive, and the Sabres have begun to chip away at the hard task of righting this ship and turning a new leaf in the franchise’s history. As a whole, they’ll look to bounce back in 2022, and that begins with each and every player and individual in the organization.
Brandon is a Buffalo Sabres Contributor for THW and Co-Host of THW’s ‘Sabres Scoop,’ who received his Master of Science in Sport Administration from Canisius College in Buffalo, NY, and founded his website, Seltytending, in 2017. He is an avid hockey writer and podcaster with prior work experience in the OJHL, NWHL, and NCAA. Twitter: @BSalts15