The Buffalo Sabres look poised to finish among the worst teams in the league for the 2021-22 season, as they did last year. The team traded away players such as Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen, and Jack Eichel is expected to be moved before training camp begins. Both of their goaltenders in Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton signed with new teams in free agency, and they brought in Craig Andersen and Aaron Dell to replace them. Looking at various metrics, Andersen and Dell are among the worst tandems in the league. When compared to all goaltenders that played in one game last season, they ranked 29th and 75th, respectively, in terms of their goals saved above expected (GSAA) at 5v5.
Although the team’s weaknesses will be exposed next season, there are still many reasons to remain a fan. There is finally a direction to this team’s future, and there should be hope moving forward.
1. The Young Players Will Be Fun To Watch
The future is looking bright in Buffalo. Sabres general manager (GM) Kevyn Adams made it clear that the young core moving forward will consist of Rasmus Dahlin, Dylan Cozens, Jack Quinn, and Owen Power. Mix in a recent draft selection in Arttu Ruotsalainen, who played 17 games in 2020-21 and scored five goals and six points.
Dahlin, who is looking to be extended over the next year, was the first-overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft. He has been solid in his career, but is looking to establish himself as a premier defensemen in the league. His career-best season came during the 2019-20 season, producing 40 points over 59 games, a prorated 55-point pace over an 82-game season. The team is expecting him to lead the charge, with Cozens driving the force as a forward. Speaking of Cozens, there are many aspects to his game that are entertaining.
2. Cozens Is Not Afraid To Answer The Bell
It is far too premature to make Cozens the captain in the immediate future, but he is a player that exemplifies leadership qualities. He even said it himself at his end-of-season press conference, stating ‘I want to be here (in Buffalo) for a long time,” and that he wants to play more of a leadership role next season.
Cozens got into two fights during his rookie season, squaring off against New York Rangers‘ Ryan Lindgren and Kevin Rooney. He held himself well in those matchups, and proved to be a physical force on the ice. As he looks to take the next step offensively in his career, he will not be fighting as much, but it is nice to know it’s in his repertoire.
3. Owen Power Is The Real Deal
For the second time in four drafts, the Sabres had the first overall selection. In 2018, they used their pick to select Dahlin, and they followed a similar trend in 2021, choosing Power from the NCAA. The chances that Power is not a bona fide first-pairing defenseman are very slim. However, there is an argument to be had about if he has the most upside from this draft class, as prospects in Matthew Berniers and William Eklund could have higher ceilings.
Power will most likely be spending next season with the University of Michigan, citing that he wants to go back to school and enjoy the campus life he missed out on last year. It may take a few years to see him as an NHL regular, but don’t be disappointed. Quinn Hughes and Cale Makar are recent examples of defenders taking the NCAA route for a couple of years to develop their game. If Power amounts to those names, which is the expectation, then he will be among the premier defensemen in the NHL.
4. The Influence Of Sam Ventura In The Front Office
On July 5, the Sabres hired Ventura as Vice President of Hockey Strategy and Research. He joined Adams in the front office and was a prominent member of the Pittsburgh Penguins analytics department for a few seasons. It isn’t easy to know his full evolvement on roster decisions, but it appears to be paying dividends for the organization. The team traded Ristolainen to the Philadelphia Flyers and received a huge haul. Securing the 14th overall pick in the 2021 draft was already above market value, but they secured a 2022 second-round pick in what is known to be a deep draft class.
On top of that, the Sabres made a notable change in preference to the players they were selected in the 2021 NHL Draft. Players such as Prokhor Poltapov, Alexander Kisakov, and Oliver Nadeau were selected because of their skill and potential upside. The team also shifted Jason Nightingale in their analytics department to focus on a scouting role. There is no doubt that both of these hires have influenced the team’s recent moves.
5. Don Granato Showed Positive Signs As Head Coach
After the firing of former Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger, the team needed a new leader. They promoted Granato as interim head coach, as he was previously an assistant coach with the team. Throughout the last 28 games of the regular season in 2020-21, his record was 9-16-3 to end the season. That may not seem pretty, but when digging into those games, it should be noted he was brought in the midst of the team’s 18-game losing streak. He was not the problem during the final stretch; the roster’s talent was the main issue.
Dahlin was able to play to his potential after the Granato hiring, as he was activated onto the odd-man rushes and showcased his dazzling skill. He put his players into positions to succeed. Ruotsalainen was called up for a 17-game stint and was able to produce five goals in that span, as he primarily played with Cozens at 5-v-5.
6. The Goaltending Tandem Will Be Fun
The Sabres parted ways with their goalies from last season, as Ullmark signed with the Boston Bruins and Hutton signed with the Arizona Coyotes. As mentioned above, Anderson and Dell were brought in as their replacements, and that tandem projects to be among the worst in the league. The positives that can be taken away from these signings is that they both wanted to be here. In Anderson’s case, it was reported that he would retire after last season, but he pounced on the opportunity to become the team starting netminder potentially. In Dell’s case, he is basically guaranteed a spot as the backup goaltender and will have a chance to prove himself as an NHL goaltender.
There is also an outside chance that Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen gets an extended look with the team after appearing in four games for the Sabres last season. He had a tough season last year, playing in three different leagues. With Rochester, his save percentage (SV%) was just .888 through 14 games played. He is just 22-years-old, and can become a bona fide starter in this league, but he still needs more time to develop.
7. Vinnie Hinostroza Is A Value Addition
The Sabres needed to sign forwards to the team after the recent roster moves, and adding in Hinostroza for one year at a $1.05 million average annual value (AAV) could provide positive value. After going scoreless with the Florida Panthers in nine games, he was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks, and became a different player. He scored four goals and 12 points in just 17 games, and considering the Blackhawks were not a great team, he could be thrust into a position to succeed with the Sabres.
As well, he endeared himself onto the fanbase already in his opening press conference. He stated that he has Buffalo Bills’ Quarterback Josh Allen on his fantasy team. A 40-minute conversation with Granato, his former assistant coach with the Blackhawks, led to him signing in Buffalo. He is a two-way winger that has trouble finishing the chances he creates. He basically is an extreme budget version of Taylor Hall in that sense.
8. Rick Jeanneret Is A Legendary Broadcaster
There is quite the history between Jeanneret, a 40-year broadcaster, and the Sabres. From calling goals scored by the infamous “French Connection” consisting of Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin, and Rene Robert, to the 1999 Stanley Cup Final versus the Dallas Stars. He has yet to see the team win, and as the team heads towards a rebuild, it may be unlikely that we ever get to hear the Stanley Cup-winning call that Sabres fans deserve.
Still, Rick is calling games for the MSG Network, making a potentially dreadful season exciting.
9. The Atlantic Division Is Back
The Sabres played in the MassMutual East division during the 2020-21 season, and only played the same seven teams throughout the course of the year. With the divisions going back to normal in 2021-22, the team will play their rivals for the first time in over 19 months. The Toronto Maple Leafs are always an exciting opponent, as there was the connection between American superstars Eichel and Auston Matthews.
The Sabres are expected to be the worst team in this division, as the Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings are expected to improve. Playing new opponents will allow for more storylines, and will make the season more interesting.
10. Shane Wright Is The Ultimate Goal
After a disappointing 2021 draft class, the following two are expected to produce the best talent of the coming decade. The odds are low that the Sabres win the first overall selection in back-to-back years, but it is possible. Shane Wright is ranked first, and that is unlikely to change. He was granted exceptional status into the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) at 15 years old, and scored 39 goals in 58 games as a 16-year-old. He is projected to become one of the NHL’s best centerman for over a decade.
If the Sabres don’t win first overall, there is still plenty of talent available in this draft. Ivan Miroshnichenko, Danila Yurov, and Brad Lambert are among the best forwards available within the top ten. It is still far too early to evaluate this draft class, but it looks extremely promising.
Although it initially seemed quite challenging, there are ten reasons to cheer for the Sabres in this upcoming season. The next iteration of the core will continue to develop, and the return in a potential Eichel trade could add more electrifying young talent into the system.
This team will not be competing for a playoff spot, but they will try their best. There will be some players that surprise, and it should be a lot of fun to watch.
Jordan Jacklin is a freelance writer who covers the Buffalo Sabres here at The Hockey Writers. Jordan is a student at Ryerson’s Sport Media program and uses analytics and video scouting to evaluate your favourite players in the game.