We continue our series examining the Tampa Bay Lightning’s opponents this season. Up next is the Buffalo Sabres. The team has made strides lately to make itself more competitive and has a talent pool that is stacked. As a result, they will be much more of a challenge to play against for teams in the Atlantic Division as their defense could develop into one of the most feared in the league. Let’s examine their roster for this season.
Sabres Have Plenty of Firepower
The Sabres didn’t waste any time offering Tage Thompson, the team’s leading scorer last season, a seven-year, $50 million contract, which kicks in next season. As a first-round pick by the St. Louis Blues at the 2016 NHL Draft, he played one season there before being traded to Buffalo in the Ryan O’Reilly deal on July 1, 2018. Since then, he has played in 182 games and scored 94 points. He had a breakout season last year as he transformed the team’s power play into a consistent threat.
Adding to the offense are two veterans, Kyle Okposo, who can be a steady 20-point goal scorer, and Jeff Skinner, who tied his career high in points last season at 63. Alex Tuch, the 26-year-old power forward who came to Buffalo in the Jack Eichel trade, is one of the few offensive players with Stanley Cup Playoff experience, which he gained with the Vegas Golden Knights.
One of the emerging offensive stars who can learn from the veteran players is Dylan Cozens, who at only 21 years old makes fantastic moves with the puck and has great skating ability. Casey Mittelstadt, the Sabres’ 23-year-old center, has helped the team increase its power play production. Last season, he missed several games. If he can stay healthy, he is a dependable playmaker.
The Defense Leads the Sabres
Although Owen Power may get most of the media attention, Rasmus Dahlin is quietly emerging as the top defensive player on the team. Spending his entire young career with the Sabres, he has played 277 games and scored 160 points. The Swedish 22-year-old was the first overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft.
Helping Dahlin this season will be the 6-foot-6, 213-pound aptly-named, Power. Also drafted as a first-overall pick (2021), there are high expectations and quite a bit of hype that follows this young man. He started eight games for the Sabres last season and netted two goals, one assist, and was a plus-3. Henri Jokiharju is another young defenseman who has shown his value on the penalty kill and the power play. Once this unit gels, it will be a physical force on the ice.
Coach Don Granato Can Mold Sabres Into a Contender
Don Granato finally has a team he can call his own after taking over for Ralph Krueger in March 2020. His guidance and patience with the younger players can help mold the team into a contender and possible playoff team within the next few seasons. The fans in Buffalo should be excited to watch this team play.
Related: Sabres’ Top-6 Is Getting Crowded
NHL experts rank the Sabres’ prospect pool first in the NHL, or at least a close second. The team has promising talent, such as 18-year-old Matt Savoie, who was the first pick in this year’s draft, and center Noah Ostlund, who is also 18 and was selected 16th. Winger Jack Quinn played two games for the Sabres last season and scored a goal and an assist.
Granato has a young but hungry team who hasn’t made it to the playoffs in over a decade. They need to solidify their starting goalie. Signing free agent Eric Comrie gives Buffalo a goalie who had a 2.58 goals-against average (GAA) and a .920 save percentage (SV%) with the Winnipeg Jets last season. They also retain 41-year-old Craig Anderson, who started 31 games last season, Malcolm Subban, and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, whose .917 SV% last season was impressive in limited action.
How the Lightning Match Up Against the Sabres
Last season, the Sabres finished fifth in the Atlantic Division. The Lightning played four games against them with their final game coming on the road in February. If they can weather the storm without Zach Bogosian and Anthony Cirelli, they should be able to defeat the Sabres, although the games will probably not be blowout wins.
At this point, the Lightning have better, more experienced players than the Sabres. However, with Buffalo’s rebuild finally looking like it’s ready to pay off in the next few years, they will not be an easy team to win against going forward. They have players who are just waiting for their chance to prove themselves. An impressive win against the 2022 Eastern Conference champs and two-time Stanley Cup winners is a perfect way to prove that they have arrived.
Lydia Szyjka is a writer for The Hockey Writers. Growing up in Tampa, she graduated from H.B. Plant High School—never dreaming her Tampa Bay Lightning would win three Stanley Cups. She is director of communications for a Catholic university, where she is the editor of the alumni magazine. An avid hockey fan, she and her husband live in Delaware and watch every Lightning game on the NHL’s Center Ice.