Spending years developing players can be tough for any hockey club. Developing defensemen the right way is even more difficult, especially when an organization has been in a rebuilding state for a decade. In the 2018 Draft, the Buffalo Sabres selected Rasmus Dahlin first overall, but they also picked up defenseman Mattias Samuelsson in the second round. While his development has taken a more natural route by making his way to the American Hockey League (AHL) first, Samuelsson has become exactly what the Sabres need at this stage of their rebuilding process.
Standing at a solid 6-foot-4, and weighing in at 227 pounds, Samuelsson has an ideal frame for a shutdown defenseman. Throughout his development, he has not shown much by way of offensive numbers, but his skills lie in his ability to be a stay-at-home defender that any goaltender would be thankful to have. Seeing him step up to the NHL this season and become the Sabres’ best defensive player is a breath of fresh air. He has shown the ability to be what the team was trying to make Rasmus Ristolainen for years, and if he trends in the right direction, he could have a longtime defensive partnership with Owen Power.
Early Expectations for Samuelsson
Samuelsson was set to appear in the prospects tournament held by the Sabres at their Harborcenter facility, but before he had a chance to play any significant time he suffered a leg injury and was sidelined for the tournament and the start of the season. As soon as he was healthy, he was assigned to the Rochester Americans to get himself conditioned and ready to play some games with the big club. He had a solid season in the AHL the previous season by putting up 13 points in 23 games and showed that he could be relied on in pressure situations.
His defensive prowess poised him to get significant playing time on a Sabres roster that was depleted and in need of some steady defense. During the course of the season, Dahlin established himself as the top defender the Sabres had, but all his flashy plays could not overshadow the simplistic but efficient style of Samuelsson. Most of the veteran Sabres defensemen had moments of doubt each game and lapsed in their awareness. Samuelsson was brought up to end that and learn the hard way how to stop the league’s top talents each night, all at the mere age of 22.
A Limited Look at Samuelsson
His injury at the start of the season, combined with general manager Kevyn Adams’ philosophy of developing players slowly, allowed Samuelsson to play 42 NHL games this past season. In that limited look, coach Don Granato used him in every significant defensive situation. He manned the top penalty-killing unit, and was shifted around to multiple defensive partners who had offensive instincts. Samuelsson had proven that he could lock down the zone he was covering, and every night he just kept getting better. His physicality and positioning were noticeably better than any of the other Sabres defenders.
In his 42-game half season played in the NHL, Samuelsson managed to accumulate 10 points, all of which were assists. He has yet to score his first NHL goal, but he came very close multiple times. His time was spent playing with Jacob Bryson and Rasmus Dahlin towards the end of the season and he thrived in the spotlight. His play style allowed Dahlin to take chances offensively and move the puck up ice with confidence. He is the type of defender that can be put on any pairing and be the rock that anchors it.
Samuelsson’s Final Grades
Puck movement was something that he struggled with early on, but as his confidence grew, so did his offensive play. Samuelsson was a key part of the defensive core as he was forced to handle odd-man rushes and 1-on-1 situations better than anyone else on the team. Growing both sides of his game only made him less one dimensional. With that being said, his final grades would look like this:
- Scoring – C
- Playmaking – B-
- Leadership – B
- Defense – A
- Teamwork – A-
Should Samuelsson continue to progress in his development, his offensive numbers should jump a little more. He may not turn into a goalscoring defenseman, but he could easily contribute 35-40 points playing a top-four role for the Sabres in the next few years.
The Future for Samuelsson Will Be Long and Difficult
He has the frame to block shots with ease, he has the height and reach to make his stick a nuisance for opposing players, and he has the hockey IQ to know when the best time is to step up and when it is time to stay back. Combining all of these things together gives Samuelsson the opportunity to be one of the Sabres’ top-two defensemen. Having him alongside the towering 6-foot-6 Owen Power would be an intimidating sight for any opposing offense. Having him play with Dahlin will only allow both players’ offensive numbers to climb. As a Swiss Army knife type of player, he can be inserted anywhere needed to improve the lineup where it may be weak.
He is still young and has one year left on his contract. If the Sabres intend on keeping him as a key part of their team, they should lock him up sooner rather than later. His value is still yet to be fully determined, but they could get some great years of him playing some significant minutes if they spend a little money on him now. Signing him to a 5-8 year extension would be ideal, especially if they can sign him for anywhere in the $3-5 million range. Samuelsson has the tools to be everything the Sabres need to start winning games. He already has the chemistry with potential future starting goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, so that only helps them. It will be interesting to see him take the step into a full-time NHL spot, but he is definitely up for the challenge.
I have been a hockey and Buffalo Sabres fan since I was in middle school. Through the good times and the very long bad times, I have stuck by this team with the hope that one day we would become a powerhouse in the NHL. Now I join The Hockey Writers as I hope to talk about this Buffalo Sabres team on an upswing. I love this team with all my heart, and I take pride in my ability to know players, prospects, and so much more. As a hockey fan I have a particular taste for young players and prospects; doing mock drafts, looking up stats, guessing potential, doing player comparisons, all of it. The idea of the future skill in the NHL is one of my favorite things to think about, write about, and talk about. I am also an avid NHL gamer with a top ranked team in the “Threes Eliminator” mode.