Despite their current record, the Buffalo Sabres’ middle-six forward lines are in desperate need of a spark. While the top line of Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart have carried more than their fair share of the load on offense, players like Conor Sheary, Casey Mittelstadt and Kyle Okposo (among others) have been ice cold as of late. In fact, the Sabres’ middle-six hasn’t produced a single goal (or assist for that matter) in the last three games.
Fans have talked about it since the beginning of the season, and as the team’s scoring depth struggles continue, it may finally be time to call in reinforcements from the AHL. With a healthy mix of veteran and rookie prospects making their mark with the Rochester Americans this season, Sabres general manager, Jason Botterill certainly has options.
Amerks’ Young Guns
As soon as the 2018-19 campaign began, the Amerks have enjoyed excellent production from some of their younger prospects, who have so far exceeded expectations. As it stands, Rochester holds the top spot in the AHL’s North Division. While their veteran contributors have played a critical role in the team’s success, they wouldn’t be where they are without young Swedish standouts, Victor Olofsson and Alex Nylander.
A seventh-round pick in the 2014 draft, this season has been Olofsson’s first taste of North American action after spending the previous three years developing in the SHL. His adjustment period to the smaller rink was essentially non-existent as he started the 2018-19 campaign with 10 points in his first nine games. With 24 points in 25 contests to date, he leads all Rochester forwards in that category.
As a natural goal-scorer on the wing, the 23-year-old may be exactly the type of catalyst the Sabres need right now in order to get things going offensively. His proficiency on the power-play would be a welcome addition as well. At the moment, Buffalo ranks 18th in the NHL with a 19.1-percent conversion rate with the man-advantage as their second unit has been all but useless all season.
After a 2017-18 season that left a lot to be desired, Nylander has shown significant improvement this season and he too has made a strong case for an opportunity with the big club. Though he’s far from a greenhorn at the AHL level with more than two full seasons of minor-league experience, at 20 years old, he’s still the youngest player on the Amerks’ roster.
With 20 points in 27 games this season, he’s found his scoring groove after just barely producing at a half-point-per-game clip last season. While there are still flaws in his overall game, particularly on defense, he too could be the type of fast, creative presence that could help jumpstart the Sabres’ middle-six. As the eighth-overall pick in the 2016 draft, fans are eager to see him in action after some were ready to label him as a bust after last season.
Related: Buffalo Sabres Prospect Pyramid
Along with the youth and rookie options at their disposal, the Sabres have a few AHL veterans who continue to make an impact in the minor leagues. Players like C.J. Smith and Danny O’Regan are nearing (or have reached) the age where they can’t really be considered “prospects” anymore, but they’re still young and could have NHL futures.
At the conclusion of his 2016-17 collegiate season with the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, Smith signed a free-agent contract with the Sabres playing two games with the big club to close out the year. Since then he has spent all of his time in Rochester where he has provided consistent, reliable scoring production for the Amerks.
With 23 points in 28 games this year, he is second on the team in points among forwards. His balance, consistency, and underrated two-way ability might be the perfect combination of what the Sabres need to bolster the third line. At 24 years old, he’ll need the seize the opportunity, should it present itself.
O’Regan is in a similar boat. As a 25-year-old who has spent the vast majority of his career in the minors, a call-up with the Sabres could very well be his last opportunity to lock down a permanent role at the NHL level moving forward. After coming over at the trade deadline last season as part of the deal that sent Evander Kane to the San Jose Sharks, he too has served as a solid offensive producer in the Amerks’ top-six.
Though his 16 points in 28 games this year don’t exactly jump off the scoresheet, it’s the little things he does well behind the scenes where he excels. His versatility to play both center and wing is also a big advantage as the Sabres have deficiencies at both positions at the moment.
Either way, the Sabres have an open roster spot after waiving Patrik Berglund’s contract for the purpose of termination. Because of this, a call-up announcement before the Sabres’ game against the Washington Capitals tomorrow is a distinct possibility. It will be interesting to see which player Botterill and the gang decide to give an opportunity to first. Through 35 games, Buffalo has yet to call up a single forward from the AHL.