How Much Have the Buffalo Sabres Actually Improved?

Coming off a 2021 campaign that featured the sixth coaching change under Terry Pegula, the end of the Jack Eichel era and a record-tying losing streak, morale for the Buffalo Sabres may have been at an all-time low this past fall. Fans were likely asking themselves if the franchise had hit rock bottom or if things could somehow still get worse.

Entering the 2021-22 season, the Sabres set their eyes on one thing; improvement. The odds of the team contending for the postseason were slim at best, but better results on the ice would be needed to win back fans and the players knew it. Under head coach Don Granato, in his first full season, the Sabres committed themselves to a hard work and hustle mentality. Genuine effort is essential and no team wins without it, but it doesn’t always translate to success. Has it for Buffalo? Let’s examine the team in each of its three main areas and decide.

For the second straight season, Buffalo’s situation in net has been disastrous. After a season in which the team needed six goalies and with Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton leaving in free agency, general manager Kevyn Adams opted for a contingency plan. The Sabres signed 40-year-old Craig Anderson to allow Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen to continue his development.

Though Anderson has largely played well, trusting the oldest goaltender in the game to stabilize your team was a big gamble, and it backfired. Anderson was injured on Nov. 2 and didn’t return for nearly three months until Jan. 29. Dustin Tokarski took over but was soon lost to COVID and missed almost two whole months himself.

The Sabres’ top tandem going down opened the door for Luukkonen to return. The 22-year-old impressed in his second stint before being bitten by the injury bug as well. Aaron Dell and trade acquisition Malcolm Subban then stepped up, but it didn’t last long. Subban was soon lost for the season due to injury while Dell got himself suspended for a foolish and unnecessary hit on Drake Batherson of the Ottawa Senators.

Malcolm Subban Buffalo Sabres
Acquired from Chicago, Malcolm Subban is one of six goaltenders used by the Buffalo Sabres this season. (Photo by Justin Berl/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Fans were happy to see Michael Houser back after his Cinderella run at the end of last season, but his presence for the second straight year was indicative of the team’s lack of depth in net. Luckily Anderson and Tokarski were both well enough to return by the time Houser was placed in COVID protocol, saving Buffalo from having to use its seventh goaltender of the season.

Whether the Sabres need a new strength and conditioning coach or if the creases at KeyBank Center are cursed, having six separate men in net over the course of a single season is never a good look, and the Sabres have done it in consecutive years. Keeping the puck out has been Buffalo’s Achilles’ heel all season and the team has lost a host of tight contests because of it. Sabres management is confident that Luukkonen is the guy going forward, but unless they can solve the injury problem, it won’t matter. The Sabres haven’t had a bona fide starter since Ryan Miller departed almost a decade ago and they simply can’t afford to be bogged down by subpar goaltending any further.

Defense: A Logjam & Dahlin’s Struggles

The Sabres were hit the hardest on the blue line this past offseason, losing their top pairing. Rasmus Ristolainen was traded to Philadelphia for defenseman Robert Hagg and two draft picks, while Jake McCabe signed with Chicago in free agency. Additionally, Will Borgen was claimed by the Seattle Kraken in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. To fill the void, Adams brought back a familiar face by signing Mark Pysyk.

It’s truly been a story of hit or miss for the Sabres’ defensive corps this season. Youngsters Rasmus Dahlin and Henri Jokiharju have been put together by Granato for a majority of the season and the results have been tough to watch. Dahlin is currently minus-13 on the season and though Jokiharju is only minus-2, he hasn’t been much better. The two have struggled to play off each other and the reason for their continued pairing is a mystery. Conversely, Jacob Bryson has been a positive while Casey Fitzgerald and Mattias Samuelsson have provided boosts after being recalled due to injuries.

The biggest problem for Buffalo’s defense this year is perhaps the log jam. Bryson, Hagg and Colin Miller have all taken turns as healthy scratches as Granato has tried numerous combinations to create the best top-six. Teams looking to upgrade defensively could be targeting Hagg and Miller and it’s possible that both of them could be dealt by the March 21st Trade Deadline.

Adams will have to decide which of the two is more expendable (or perhaps more valuable in return). Reducing their cast of characters on the blue line could help the Sabres form a more cohesive defensive unit. It hasn’t been as bad as it could be overall, but so-so defense combined with so-so goaltending won’t result in winning very often.

Offense: A Pleasant Surprise & Thompson’s Eruption

After trading Sam Reinhart to Florida Panthers at the 2022 NHL Entry Draft, the injured Jack Eichel was the only viable offensive weapon the Sabres possessed entering this season. Given this, one could assume that it’s been dismal for Buffalo on the scoring front. But shockingly, it hasn’t.

Despite a lack of offensive firepower on paper, the Sabres haven’t had much trouble finding the back of the net and are averaging 2.67 goals per game. Tage Thompson has led the way with 20 goals and 38 points. The 24-year-old’s sudden transformation from shaky youngster to legitimate scoring threat has given the Sabres new life and makes the Ryan O’Reilly trade look less disastrous (from “Tage Thompson scores hat trick, growing into top-line player”, The Athletic, Feb.20, 2022).

Tage Thompson, Buffalo Sabres
Tage Thompson’s breakout season has drawn the attention of fans and analysts alike. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

On a similar note, Jeff Skinner is enjoying a strong bounce-back campaign and also sits at 20 goals. The importance of this for the Sabres can’t be overstated since Skinner is the team’s highest-paid player and under contract until 2027. He and Thompson could both easily reach 30 goals at their current pace. It would be the first time Buffalo had multiple 30-goal scorers in a season since Thomas Vanek and Drew Stafford in 2010-11.

Related: Sabres Weekly: Thompson, Dahlin, Eichel & More

Kyle Okposo has had a revival as well (12 goals and 28 points) and Alex Tuch has been dominant since debuting at the end of December (21 points in 19 games). Dahlin’s defensive mistakes have been made up for with his eight goals and 25 assists, he’s on pace for career highs in both.

It hasn’t been all smiles on offense. Victor Oloffson has regressed significantly, going 30 games without a goal until last Tuesday, and hopes for a breakout year from Casey Mittelstadt have been dashed due to injuries. Still, the Sabres’ scoring ability has been the surprise of the year and has helped the team stay competitive.

Ruling in the Sabres

Though Buffalo’s record as of Feb. 20 is 16-27-8, few of those losses have been blowouts. The team has managed to keep a majority of games close and many defeats can be attributed to its aforementioned issues in net. The boys in blue and gold are far from perfect and there is still much to be ameliorated. But the Sabres are infinitely better than they were at this time last year. The upward trend has been slow but steady, and if it continues, a bright future could be in the works for Sabres fans.

Sign up for our free ‘Sabres Substack Newsletter‘ for all the latest.

Latest News & Highlights