The start to the 2021-22 season for the Buffalo Sabres has been, to put it mildly, a lot. While the team sits with a respectable 7-7-2 record through their first 16 games, this has come behind some serious peaks and valleys in their play. After a hot start, they went ice-cold before starting to level out, leading to where we are now. The good news is that the Sabres are looking competitive on the ice, even if they are likely competing for a pick in the 2022 draft lottery.
However, when you look at the significant roster changes that occurred to the Sabres over the last calendar year, the fact that they are putting up a passable win/lose record is impressive. The team looks nothing like it did back at the start of the 2020-21 season, with trades and offseason departures completely reshaping the roster over the last calendar year.
With the NHL season well underway, let’s check in on some of the players who departed the franchises in recent months to see how they are doing with their new teams.
Sabres’ 2021 Trade Deadline Moves Have (Mostly) Found New Homes
When it became clear that the Sabres wouldn’t be competing in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the franchise did what they could to trade as many valuable assets at the trade deadline to recoup some future capital. They did a decent job selling off pieces, even if not every move was seen as a big win.
First, let’s look at the two players who were sent to the Boston Bruins in a package deal: Taylor Hall and Curtis Lazar. As the primary piece of this deal, there were big expectations for Hall in Boston, and he turned in a solid eight goals and 14 points to end the 2020-21 regular season, along with five points in the playoffs. After this, he re-signed with the Bruins to a four-year deal and has taken on a reduced middle-six role with the franchise, producing nine points in 13 games played.
Lazar, on the other hand, has acted as a solid depth player when called upon. While he has only played eight games this season, he is taking on more than 13 minutes of ice-time in those starts while throwing down 18 hits. Given his low-cost $800 K contract that expires in the 2022 offseason, this has been a solid value add for the cap-strapped Bruins.
Next, let’s look at Brandon Montour, who was traded to the Florida Panthers. Since joining the Panthers, Montour has been a solid third-pairing defenseman who can jump into more ice time as needed. In 17 games played, he is averaging more than 16 minutes of ice-time and has chipped in nine points (including three on the powerplay). Given the three-year, $10 million contract he signed during the 2021 offseason, he should continue to be a perfect fit for Florida as they look to break their playoff series victory drought.
As for Eric Staal, he has yet to get a contract for the 2021-22 season. Given that he isn’t ready to retire yet, there’s still a possibility that he could take the ice this season, even if it is just in a fourth-line leadership role.
Finally, goaltender Jonas Johansson decided to stick with the Colorado Avalanche after starting eight games for them after his trade. He signed a one-year deal with Colorado and has made two additional starts for them this season. So, while he hasn’t gone on to be a consistent backup, he still is playing a useful role for the franchise when called upon.
Major 2021 Offseason Moves Are off to a Mixed Start
Next, let’s discuss the Sabres’ 2021 offseason departures, of which there were many. First is Rasmus Ristolainen, the embattled defenseman who Buffalo sent to the Philadelphia Flyers for a surprisingly solid return. Through 13 games, Ristolainen has found a solid starting role with the Flyers, as he is earning almost 21 minutes of ice time each night while bringing a physical game to the franchise. Sure, his play isn’t always perfect, but he seems to be fitting in well with his new team.
Sam Reinhart, the other big offseason trade, has also started to make a mark on his new team. While he was moved to the offensively deep Panthers, he has been called into a top-six role while they fight through a handful of injuries. Through 17 games played, he has scored 11 points, which is a good start considering how competitive it is to get ice time in Florida.
Next is Linus Ullmark, the often-injured goaltender who played well with the Sabres throughout the 2020-21 season. Due to this, the Bruins gave him a four-year, $20 million contract as Tuuka Rask decided on his NHL future. So far, Ullmark hasn’t established himself as a starter with the Bruins, as he has split time with Jeremy Swayman and posted a less-than-stellar three wins in six starts with a 3.01 GAA and a .903 SV%.
Their other former starting goaltender, Carter Hutton, has found himself in a much more difficult position. While many thought he could become a consistent starter for the beleaguered Arizona Coyotes, he lost that potential job to Karel Vejmelka, got blasted in his three starts with a .741 SV% and a GAA above 7, then suffered an injury that cut short any chance he had of turning the season around.
Depth Players Who Haven’t Found a Role Outside Buffalo
The final group of players who left Buffalo this offseason were depth names that weren’t playing big minutes for the franchise but still were taking on starting ice time.
Two of these players found their way to the Seattle Kraken, as Will Borgen was claimed at the expansion draft and Riley Sheahan signed a one-year deal. Neither player has had much impact on the ice for the fledgling franchise yet, with Sheahan being waived and Borgman not starting a game yet in 2021-22.
Finally, veteran defenseman Matt Irwin signed with the Washington Capitals on a two-way deal to act as a leader for their AHL squad who can be called up when needed, and Tobias Rieder decided to depart the NHL entirely after the better part of seven seasons. The German forward returned to Europe to play in the SHL, where he has put up seven points in eight games for the Vaxjo Lakers.
Sabres Departures Are a Reason for Their Lacking Depth
Given the amount of turnover Buffalo has experienced over the last 10 months, it’s truly incredible that the franchise is playing competent hockey at all. Once you include the Jack Eichel trade, they have lost eight forwards, three defensemen, and three goaltenders in less than a calendar year, something that would test the depth on the best teams.
So, even if many of these departed players haven’t gone on to be franchise faces with their new teams, they still were taking on ice time that the Sabres had to replace. That’s no easy task, and it is another explanation as to why Buffalo has struggled once they got hit with a handful of injuries to start the season.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.