The Buffalo Sabres’ 2021-22 season ended as it has in each of the past 11 campaigns: on the outside looking in. Although in doing so, the team set an NHL record for the longest postseason drought, it was an encouraging year for the Sabres. The team displayed marked improvement since 2020-21 and could be ready to compete by this fall, though that largely depends on their offseason.
Now that the season is over and the dust has settled, some players deserve special commendation (for better or worse). Here are the award winners for your 2021-22 Buffalo Sabres.
Unsung Hero: Vinnie Hinostroza
A major plus for the Sabres this season was that numerous new players fit in well and made solid contributions. Despite his status as the game’s oldest goaltender, Craig Anderson shouldered the weight of his team admirably, while John Hayden never hesitated to drop his gloves to defend a teammate. However, the most notable unsung hero was Vinnie Hinostroza.
One of the Sabres’ biggest issues in recent years has been finding production from their bottom-six forwards, and Hinostroza helped provide a solution. The Chicago native put up 13 goals and 25 points despite missing 20 games due to injury. This included two tallies in the Heritage Classic in March that helped Buffalo defeat the arch-rival Toronto Maple Leafs.
Unfortunately, he was somewhat overshadowed by the many other stories the Sabres had this season, but Hinostroza should not be overlooked. Management should consider re-signing him this summer, as he was the embodiment of an unsung hero this season.
Most Improved Player: Kyle Okposo
The Sabres had numerous players who bounced back impressively, making this a tough decision. Jeff Skinner’s rebound campaign – that saw him record 33 goals one season removed from playing so poorly that he was a healthy scratch -would easily earn him this honor at any other time. Although that storyline had fans talking all year long, it was Kyle Okposo’s 2021-22 that truly stood out.
After years of declining performance due to injuries and personal troubles, Okposo looked to be the odd man out on Buffalo’s roster entering this season, and doubts loomed about his future with the team. However, the Minnesotan posted a remarkable and unexpected return to form with 21 goals and 45 points in 74 games. It was a level of play that many forgot he was capable of and reminiscent of his days with the New York Islanders.
Okposo also established himself as the leader of the Sabres and earned the affectionate nickname “Dad” in the process. His efforts were rewarded when he was named Buffalo’s nominee for the Bill Masterton Trophy for perseverance, and he stands a good chance of winning. Though he’s a free agent after next season, it’s unlikely the Sabres will let him go anywhere. Every team needs its father.
Breakout of the Year: Tage Thompson
It’s safe to assume nobody saw this one coming. Since he was acquired in the Ryan O’Reilly trade in July 2018, it seemed as if the Sabres had ruined Tage Thompson’s development so much that he stood little chance of becoming anything more than a semi-productive fourth-line player. Coming off a 2021 season in which he recorded just eight goals and 14 points, there wasn’t much hope left for the talented youngster. But by season’s end, he hadn’t only had the biggest breakout campaign on the Sabres, but arguably in the league.
The 24-year-old exploded for 38 goals (good enough for 12th in the NHL) and 68 points while transforming into a legitimate offensive threat that opponents need to regard with caution, and the combination of his quick release and accurate shot made life very difficult on goaltenders (from ‘Tage Thompson on ‘earning back the respect’ in Buffalo, growing up and breaking out,’ The Athletic, 4/19/22).
It was a welcomed metamorphosis for the Sabres, especially since the O’Reilly trade was starting to look like a complete failure for them. We must wait until next season to see if Thompson can build off this stellar run and replicate his success, but he put the hockey world on notice this season and could be a major weapon for the Sabres in the future.
Least Valuable Player: Aaron Dell
This is a tough category because every player on the ice is essential, and no player tries to play poorly. But Aaron Dell wasn’t Buffalo’s Least Valuable Player this season because of his play on the ice. Though, to be fair, it wasn’t great. The netminder had a 1-8-1 record in 12 appearances with a 4.03 goals-against average and a .893 save percentage, nowhere near as impressive as his trademark equipment.
Instead, he earned the LVP award because of the situation he put his team in. Buffalo experienced a goaltending crisis for the second consecutive season after a rash of injuries forced them to again use six different goaltenders (from ‘Sabres have sudden goaltending crisis as Luukkonen and Subban both out long term,’ The Buffalo News, 1/12/2022). Dell was recalled from the Sabres’ American Hockey League affiliate, Rochester Americans, and given the reigns after Craig Anderson, Dustin Tokarski, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, and Malcolm Subban all fell before him.
Though it seems obvious that this would be a bad time for the rare goaltender suspension, Dell didn’t get the memo, delivering an unnecessary and frankly ridiculous hit on Drake Batherson of the Ottawa Senators on Jan. 25 that got him banned for three games. It made a dire situation even worse for the Sabres and made Dell the target of many an angry fan. Not so coincidentally, he didn’t appear in another game after that and likely won’t again.
Most Valuable Player: Rick Jeanneret
Yes, on the surface, it might seem ridiculous to name a television commentator as the team’s Most Valuable Player, but when you think about it, how could it be anyone else but Rick Jeanneret? He was set to retire after the 2021 season, his 50th with the Sabres franchise, and it would have made sense to go out on such an impressive number.
But the 79-year-old returned for one last ride solely out of dedication to the fans of Buffalo, stating he didn’t want his final foray to be a season of empty arenas. Such loyalty from the Hall of Famer in part allowed Western New York to relish its favorite sports voice one last time and also gave the team the opportunity to offer Jeanneret the farewell he so rightly deserved.
Though the last game of his career on April 29 was a fitting and highly satisfying sendoff, the highlight of the season for the Sabres was earlier, on April 1, when the team honored Jeanneret throughout their game against the Nashville Predators. Dubbed “RJ Night”, it was an evening jam-packed with nostalgia and gratitude, as the Sabres and fans gave an earnest and heartfelt thank you to the man who is arguably more iconic than any player to ever don the Buffalo blue and gold.
Related: Sabres’ Adams & Granato Show Optimism In End-of-Season Availability
The evening reached a crescendo after the game when, in an impromptu moment, Alex Tuch and Cody Eakin helped the iconic broadcaster onto the ice so that he could take a photo with the team. It was a heartwarming sight that had every viewer reaching for the Kleenex. Jeanneret’s career may be over, but his spirit and legacy will live on in every person who ever had the joy of listening to him call a Sabres game. Thank you, RJ.
A Bright Future Ahead in Buffalo?
Though they missed out on the postseason once again, the 2021-22 season turned out immensely better than most fans were anticipating last October. The Sabres still have improvements to make, but the team took a huge step forward on the road back to respectability and could arrive ahead of schedule. So for now, Sabres fans can rest knowing that the team appears to be headed in the right direction. Will the Sabres be contenders come the fall? We can only wait and see.
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