Welcome back to my Toronto Maple Leafs Opponent Preview series. In this series, I will be previewing each team in the Atlantic Division, and breaking down how they match up against the Maple Leafs. The purpose of this series is to refresh people on how teams in the Atlantic Division are built for the 2021-22 season, especially considering the Maple Leafs haven’t played most of these teams since 2019-20.
Last time around, I broke down how the Maple Leafs’ matched up against the Boston Bruins. You can find that piece above. This week, I will be continuing in alphabetical order and taking a look at how the Maple Leafs stack up against the Buffalo Sabres in 2021-22.
2020-21 Record: 15-34-7 (37 points, missed the playoffs)
Notable Additions: Robert Hagg, Craig Anderson, Vinnie Hinostroza, Brandon Davidson, Will Butcher, Mark Pysyk
Notable Losses: Rasmus Ristolainen, Sam Reinhart, Linus Ullmark, Jake McCabe, Carter Hutton, Riley Sheahan
2021 Draft: Owen Power, Isak Rosen, Prokhor Polpatov, Aleksandr Kisakov, Stiven Sardarian, Josh Bloom, Oliver Nadeau, Viljami Marjala, William Von Barnekow, Nikita Novikov, Tyson Kozak
2019-20 Season Series: 2-2-0 (outscored 13-15)
The Buffalo Sabres and their fans have had it harder than any other NHL team over the past decade, which says a lot considering I’m a Maple Leafs writer. After a comically bad 2020-21 season where they lost a record-matching 18 games in a row, and spent most of the season without star forward Jack Eichel, they head into the 2021-22 season with a roster that somehow looks worse than it did last season. However, they always make the Maple Leafs’ lives hard when the two teams play, and their season series result from 2019-20 serves as a testament to that.
Sabres’ Offense Loses One Big Piece, Eichel’s Future in Doubt
The Sabres’ offense got worse following the offseason. Their biggest loss up front was Sam Reinhart, and their biggest addition was Vinnie Hinostroza. Though, I doubt the offseason moves are the biggest concerns among fans right now. Franchise centre and captain Jack Eichel is still involved in his surgery dispute with the Sabres, and even when they finally resolve it, it feels like the relationship between Eichel and the club is damaged beyond repair.
He injured his neck on March 7, and the Sabres not letting him get surgery to repair a herniated disk has been the story of the offseason. His name has been involved in just about every trade rumour you can think of, and it still doesn’t look like he’ll be ready to start the season. Like I said, even if this situation comes to a resolution eventually, I don’t think he’ll be a Sabre the next time he plays. This is just speculation, obviously, but I can’t imagine they’re on the best of terms right now.
How Do the Maple Leafs Match Up?
I almost feel bad writing this paragraph, but the Sabres’ offense simply has no chance matching up against Toronto’s. If they start the season without Eichel, they will have to rely on the likes of Victor Olofsson, Casey Mittelstadt, and Dylan Cozens for points. The former two are both solid players while the latter has only one NHL season under his belt. With Toronto boasting the likes of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and John Tavares, there’s simply no competition between the two teams.
Sabres’ Defense Loses Two Big Pieces
Lost in all of the Eichel drama was the Sabres’ trade of Rasmus Ristolainen to the Philadelphia Flyers. While Ristolainen has arguably regressed in recent years, he has been a staple in the Sabres’ top four essentially since he was drafted. While they did recieve Swedish D-man Robert Hagg in return, he doesn’t make up for the loss of Ristolainen and other pieces such as Jake McCabe.
With Ristolainen and McCabe out of the picture, and 2021 first overall pick Owen Power returning to the University of Michigan, Rasmus Dahlin will have his work cut out for him on the back end. Although, even then, the 2018 first overall pick seemed to take a step back in his development last year due to how bad the Sabres were. The additions of Hagg and Brandon Davidson should help depth-wise on the back end, but otherwise there’s not too much more to write about.
How Do the Maple Leafs Match Up?
Once again, the Maple Leafs’ defense blows the Sabres’ defense out of the water. The funny thing is, in previous years, this may have been a lot closer of a battle. The Maple Leafs were without a good defensive core for as long as I can remember. Only within the last two years, with the additions of T.J. Brodie and Jake Muzzin on the back end, did the Maple Leafs have a better defensive team than we’re used to. The Sabres simply don’t have the experience nor the skill on the back end to compete with Toronto’s.
Sabres’ Goaltending Suffers Clear Downgrade
With Eichel being limited to 21 games last year, Linus Ullmark was one of the only factors preventing the Sabres from being even worse than they were. He had a record of 9-6-3 with a save percentage (SV%) of .917 and a goals-against-average (GAA) of 2.63 in 2020-21, which are Vezina numbers for the team he was on.
With the departure of Ullmark to the Bruins, as well as backup Carter Hutton, the Sabres will look to veteran Craig Anderson and journeyman Aaron Dell to fill the void between the pipes. Anderson was good in 2020-21, but his sample size was limited to six games and he’s also 40 years old. The last time he had a GAA below 3.00 was in 2016-17. So, needless to say, the loss of Ullmark was a big one.
How Do the Maple Leafs Match Up?
I feel like a broken record at this point, but the Maple Leafs have the better goaltending between the two teams. Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek has potential to be a very good tandem in Toronto, with the primary concern being both goalies’ ability to stay healthy. Matched up against Buffalo, however, they should feel good about their odds.
Head Coaching Matchup: Sheldon Keefe vs Don Granato
This is the first matchup where it could honestly go either way. Granato and Keefe are both relatively inexperienced as head coaches. Obviously, on the forefront, Keefe would appear to be the better coach because he’s seen more regular season success. But you’d have to take the team he’s had to work with versus the team Granato had into consideration.
The Sabres slightly improved under Granato, playing to a record of 9-16-3 as opposed to the 6-18-4 record Ralph Kreuger had before he was fired. Granato and Keefe have never coached against each other before, so we’ll have to revisit this after the season ends.
Sabres Prospect Corner
The Sabres’ eighth overall pick in 2020 was one of many Ontario Hockey League (OHL) players who gypped the system and spent the year in the American Hockey League (AHL) with the cancellation of the 2020-21 OHL season.
He impressed in his small sample size with nine points in 15 games, and seeing that he will be turning 20 on September 19, he should be a prime call-up option for the Sabres, barring any injuries up front. That is, if he doesn’t make the team out of camp.
Lukkonen remains the Sabres’ top goaltending prospect, and it goes without saying that if one of Anderson or Dell goes down with an injury, the 22-year-old will be the first in line to replace them. Given Anderson’s age and Dell’s status as a journeyman backup/third goalie, it’s hard for me to envision a scenario where those two will be the tandem at the end of the year, so the ball will be in Lukkonen’s court to secure a full-time NHL job with a strong training camp.
With the departures of McCabe and Ristolainen on the back end, the Sabres need somebody to fill the void as that physical, two-way defenseman, and Samuelsson fits the bill. He surprised with some impressive offensive numbers in his rookie AHL season, tallying 13 points in 23 games, so it’s entirely possible he make the team out of camp. If not, he will almost certainly be one of the first ones summoned if a defenseman goes down with an injury.
Nov. 13, 2021 @ Buffalo
Mar. 2, 2022 vs Buffalo
Apr. 12, 2022 vs Buffalo
2021-22 Season Prediction: Eighth in Atlantic
The Sabres are far and away the worst team in the Atlantic Division. Even with the benefit of sharing a division with other weak teams such as the Detroit Red Wings and the Ottawa Senators, the Sabres simply do not have the talent to compete with the other teams, even if they get Eichel back at some point.
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It’s a dark time in Buffalo, and while they will likely give their fans something to look forward to should prospects like Quinn, Lukkonen, and Samuelsson secure full time roster spots as the season goes on, they have no chance at even competing for a playoff spot.
Alex Hobson is a third year broadcasting student at Niagara College. He has been writing about sports since 2005 and has been with The Hockey Writers since October of 2020. He covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, World Juniors, and the NHL Entry Draft, and is also part of the Maple Leafs Lounge Podcast, presented by THW. For interview requests or any other inquiries, you can follow Alex’s social media pages listed at the bottom of his articles like this one.