The NHL season is just about a month away, and as training camps and prospect tournaments roll out this month, there are a lot of different ways the Buffalo Sabres could decide to fill out their roster. Between their top-end talents and their high-value prospects, there are a lot of decisions that will need to be made by general manager Kevyn Adams as he attempts to break the playoff drought this season. There were not a lot of moves made this offseason, but the ones that were made addressed some of the biggest concerns coming out of 2022-23.
The defense has been solidified, the offense is still packed high with scoring talent, and the goaltending looks promising. On paper, this team looks dangerous, young, and hungry to win a lot of games this season. After missing the playoffs by one point, these players will be chomping at the bit to get back to playing hockey, and with new motivations fueling them, they are poised to be one of the most dangerous teams in the NHL.
Goals, goals, and more goals was the motto of last season, and while it was the most exciting thing about the Sabres, it was also sort of a flaw for them as well. They constantly tried to function under the premise of “outscore our problems” similar to how the Edmonton Oilers do, but they sacrificed a lot defensively to make this happen. Going into this season, the forwards still need to maintain their level of offensive play, but they also need to make better efforts towards the defensive side of the puck if they want to have different results from last season.
They have loads of talent at the top with Tage Thompson, Alex Tuch, Jeff Skinner, and Dylan Cozens leading the charge, but they also have some great young players looking to break out or continue their recent success in Casey Mittelstadt and JJ Peterka. The top-six group combined with the solid depth they acquired last season in Tyson Jost and Jordan Greenway will go a long way toward the success of this team. In their 13th forward position, a few candidates like Lukas Rousek or even Brett Murray could fill that role to be rotated in as needed, or in case of injury. Both play strong two-way games and have scoring touch, so they would be premier options for that slot. Every player in the forward group has scoring talent, and head coach Don Granato has shown he can pull that out of any player on his team. Now, he just needs to find the right combination to keep the scoring high, and the goals against low.
The Sabres added two solid defenders to their roster during free agency in Erik Johnson and Connor Clifton, and they simultaneously addressed their need for more right-handed defenders to round out their group. Since adding them, they have only shed one defender from their roster in Ilya Lyubushkin as they traded him to the Anaheim Ducks, leaving them with a surplus of defensive players. The remaining defenders are Henri Jokiharju, Jacob Bryson, Riley Stillman, and Kale Clague, and while it is good for their depth overall, it is not likely that they retain all of these players.
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Certain defenders like Rasmus Dahlin, Owen Power, and Mattias Samuelsson function as the core of this defensive group, so the remaining defenders will be fighting to attain the remaining three spots in the lineup. Someone like Clifton would be a great addition to the second pairing alongside Power, so that would leave two spots for the remaining players to fill. Johnson is on the older side at 35 years of age, so he may not play the entire season and be rotated in and out of the lineup as needed. That leaves one full-time spot and one part-time spot. Any one of the remaining defenders would be a good choice, but there will still need to be cuts somewhere. Most likely, one of them will be Bryson, as he does not stack up well compared to the others.
Sabres Goaltending Is the Key
Last season, besides the now-retired Craig Anderson, the Sabres goaltending left a lot to be desired until Devon Levi stepped in for the last stretch. Going into this season, a trio that features Levi along with Ukko Pekka Luukkonen and Eric Comrie will vie for the right to play in the crease. While Levi is the favored candidate, that does not eliminate the chance that the other two goaltenders could challenge him; both have more NHL experience, and Luukkonen especially has gone through some great development. Nothing is set in stone when it comes to this position for Buffalo, so the fight will be on once training camp and preseason come around.
Comrie will get to fly under the radar if he is not traded or waived once the season starts. There is always a chance he comes to training camp and impresses the coaches so much that they keep him and do a three-goalie rotation like last season. While it isn’t ideal, it does allow for them to keep every goalie fresh and rested for each game they play. I for one believe that he would be best served in a third-string role as Luukkonen and Levi duke it out for the starting job, and Comrie steps in if one of them is injured or needs a break. If Buffalo is to make the playoffs this season, their goaltending will need to be much better. With youth and skill on their side, it should be very possible.
Projecting the Full Lineup
All things considered, the roster will look fairly similar to last season except for a few minor modifications. Jack Quinn will be out with an injury, so he will not be a part of the opening night projections. His absence in the top-six group leaves room for a few different options, but based on some late success stories last season, there are a couple of players that can fill his spot perfectly. That combined with the many possibilities on defense, the Sabres roster should look similar to this on opening night:
Line 1: Jeff Skinner – Tage Thompson – Alex Tuch
Line 2: JJ Peterka – Dylan Cozens – Casey Mittelstadt
Line 3: Jordan Greenway – Peyton Krebs – Victor Olofsson
Line 4: Zemgus Girgensons – Tyson Jost – Kyle Okposo
Extra Forward: Lukas Rousek
Defensive Pair 1: Mattias Samuelsson – Rasmus Dahlin
Defensive Pair 2: Owen Power – Connor Clifton
Defensive Pair 3: Henri Jokiharju – Erik Johnson
Extra defender: Riley Stillman
Starting Goaltender: Devon Levi
Backup goaltender: Ukko Pekka Luukkonen
These combinations combine the strengths of each player with the chemistry that was displayed at the same time between them. With Quinn out, that leaves Buffalo with a scoring need up front, so they will need to keep Victor Olofsson for the time being, and it also allows Mittelstadt to continue his success in the top-six. For their extra defenders, I feel that Stillman will be in the rotational spot with Johnson as Clague possibly is sent to the minors. Jokiharju will assume the full-time spot on the third pairing as he is still a solid defender overall. Their forward group may need some versatility, so having Rousek as their 13th forward will give them the most flexibility when they need to fill a role. He showed last season that he can play well, and he deserves a full-time look while the top prospects remain in development.
Sabres Have What They Need
Some people might notice that I did not include any big-name prospects like Zach Benson, Jiri Kulich, or Matt Savoie in my lineup projection. If this were a few years ago while the Sabres still needed every bit of help they could get, I absolutely would have included one or more of them, but as things sit with the Sabres organization now, they do not need these players to be rushed to the NHL. Benson will definitely show a few reasons he could be on this roster during training camp, but he will likely be sent back to his junior team. Kulich will show why he is the inevitable replacement for Olofsson, but he too will be sent back to Rochester to season himself, while being a prime call-up candidate. Savoie is the outlier for me as he deserves a spot the most, but will likely be sent back to juniors as well.
The Sabres do, in fact, have what they need in order to ice a playoff hockey team. They have scoring options at both ends of the ice, hungry young goaltenders with world-class talent, and a coach that has shown he can win with a combination of speed and skill. All they need to do now is get off to a good start and play some consistent hockey throughout the season; which means not having random 6-8 game losing streaks and needing to claw their way towards a wild card spot. There are a lot of variables that need to go right, but this group has shown they can do it. If they can play something that resembles defense, score nearly as well as last season, and get goaltending that is just above average, the Sabres will finally be a playoff team.