This is the first piece in a series of articles that will evaluate players competing for spots on the Buffalo Sabres opening night lineup. Each article will focus on a particular position. Disclaimer: A Jack Eichel trade could entirely blow up this analysis at any moment.
Being a centreman in the NHL is no easy task. It’s much tougher than being a wing. Centermen are responsible for matters at each end of the ice, and the best ones can be counted on for points as much, as they are expected to break up a cycle in their own end and create a breakout.
For the 2021-22 Buffalo Sabres, the position is most likely to be filled with players who are relatively inexperienced with this responsibility. In the words of Mike Babcock, “there’s pain coming.” But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be something to watch this season.
The players that will compete for roster spots with the Sabres during training camp — set to begin mid-to-late September — are a younger crop that will be given a great chance to develop their skills through the school of hard knocks. Some might excel at certain points and see their success dry up in others. Some might seem stuck in a rut for prolonged periods of time. As with any young group, the steps backward can be as important as the steps forward.
In hockey, as in life, good habits are developed through experience — and a lot of that is earned through mistakes. So how will the following players react to the opportunity that is knocking on their door?
Off-Season Depth Chart: Sabres’ Centers
On paper, as of this moment, Jack Eichel is still the number one centre. He very well could still be in that spot come opening night, judging by the way things are going. If that’s the case, I will have a fun time analyzing what that means for the Sabres and Eichel, and what it says about general manager Kevyn Adams. I will omit Eichel from this exercise because it’s almost a foregone conclusion that he will be traded at some point.
The other caveat I should mention is that there is a strong possibility — just shy of certainty — that the Sabres will receive a centerman in return when an Eichel deal happens. That will obviously change the roles of the players mentioned in this article in some way.
Will that trade return be a first line centerman? Will it be someone who could develop into a first line centerman faster than Casey Mittelstadt or Dylan Cozens? Almost impossible to say. With Eichel gone, there will be a huge organizational need to fill the massive mineshaft-sized hole that his departure will leave. All that is to say that the center position on the Sabres roster this upcoming season will be a very intriguing storyline to follow. Which makes it the perfect place to start on The Hockey Writers’ look at the team’s off-season depth chart. No doubt there will be shifts as the season moves on.
As it stands today, the following players will battle for their roster spot down the middle of the lineup:
- Casey Mittlestadt
- Dylan Cozens
- Cody Eakin
- John Hayden
- Ryan MacInnis
- Sean Malone
- Andrew Ogilvie
Seven players and four spots. Throw in the fact that wingers like Zemgus Girgensons, Vinnie Hinostroza and Rasmus Asplund all have experience playing center, and we have ourselves a wide-open battle for spots on down the middle that will be very interesting to watch develop.
I’ll leave those wingers out of this as well just in case they do end up where they’ve been playing most recently — on the wing. But don’t count out the possibility that they could end up making a move to the middle.
First and Second Line
Let’s start at the top and work our way down. When it comes to the big gaping hole on the top line, it’s open season, and a couple of young guns will be eyeing their chance to jump right in and show what they’ve got. One of these two could find themselves centring the first line, and perhaps they’ll share the responsibilities a little bit unless a trade or signing brings in a new asset with a little more experience.
At 22, it’s hard to imagine some players jumping into a first-line centre role — unless your name is Auston Matthews or Connor McDavid. But with the timeline for Eichel’s return still unknown, the organization is likely to take a “nothing ventured, nothing gained” approach to filling the 1C position. Barring some new talent joining the roster by the start of training camp, it will be a wide-open competition. Should Mittelstadt sign a deal by then (he is a restricted free agent without arbitration rights), he will get his shot right alongside all of the others.
Last season, after shaking off an abysmal start to the campaign, he put up 10 goals and 22 points in 41 games. His shooting percentage was around 16 percent. That included a couple of four-game point streaks. He averaged around 16 minutes of ice time each night and impressed as a second-line centre. Mittelstadt should get every chance to fill the vapid spot at the top of the lineup, which will be a big draw for him to sign his next contract in Buffalo.
This player reminds me a bit of Tyler Bozak with the Toronto Maple Leafs, circa 2013. That says less about how the two players are comparable in terms of their on-ice talent, and speaks more generally towards Bozak’s position that year, as well as the one Mittelstadt may find himself in this upcoming season.
Although Bozak was a bit more mature at 27, he was still relatively unknown and tasked with centring the first line on a weak team. If Mittelstadt wants to earn this top-line center spot, he needs to emulate what Bozak did and become a defensive backstop while continuing to improve on his already decent 48.98 faceoff percentage.
Considering he is only entering into his sophomore campaign after a rough rookie season, putting Cozens in the top-line center role will probably come as a tough pill to swallow to most. But the fact is, the Sabres don’t find themselves with a whole lot of choice. Here is a player that might impress enough out of training camp to earn the role. No one is saying he hasn’t shown promise, and he does have the size, coming in a 6-foot-3. But keep in mind, there’s not a lot of meat on those bones yet.
It’s safe to say that the Sabres will be expecting more from him down the road after a 13-point season over 41 games. There were many plus sides last year, and let’s not forget that he battled a few injuries through last March and was added to the COVID Protocol list during that crazy time period when it seemed like the entire team caught the virus after playing the New Jersey Devils.
Why do I have him slated to be competing for the 1C role? Because I truly think he will get a chance to serve in that spot at some point this year. That could be right out of the gate before teams have gotten the train fully rolling. You have to admit – it would be a pretty great time to dip your toe in the water and get some experience. Though competition at the NHL level is fierce any time of the year, if there were one soft spot, it would come within the first ten games.
For a player who won’t turn legal drinking age in the United States until February, it’s safe to say this will be a growth year. Most people expect that Cozens will eventually end up as a number one center in the NHL. Maybe he’ll get a chance to audition for that job sooner than we think, especially if head coach Don Granato comes out of training camp throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks.
Third and Fourth Line Pivots
Eakin was a healthy scratch to end the last season. But that contract of his and that aforementioned crater at the top of the lineup means he will be back in the fold, likely in a third-or-fourth-line role.
He’s in the final year of a two-year $4.5 million contract signed in October 2020, and will be motivated to have a good season to keep a job in the NHL. For a guy who scored 22 goals and 41 points in 2018, and earned a reputation as a tough player to play against over five seasons in Dallas, the 30-year-old forward is on a slippery slope. Last year he totaled only seven points in 46 games and doesn’t offer much offensive promise for 2021.
However, should Eakin return to even a shadow of his former self as a player with a fresh new sheet of seasonal ice, he could adequately fill the third line role while options in the system work their way through their development. Heck, if he improves a hell of a lot over last season, he might even make his way out of town in exchange for some draft currency and a chance to compete in the playoffs. The future is in your hands, Cody.
Hayden has, in the past, brought a ton of physicality to the table while spending time in Chicago, New Jersey, and Arizona. He’s had a few forgettable seasons, but the most likely upside for the Sabres is he fills in a bottom-six checking role. His 6-foot-3, 215-pound frame, and his 84 hits last year back that up. He will challenge for the fourth line center role out of training camp.
Despite all this brawn, Hayden is not a neanderthal, at least off the ice. He’s a Political Science major, as the following Tweet from the Chicago Blackhawks shows us. He’s shown an interest in getting involved in the community, and the Sabres likely saw those smarts and that awareness when they decided to bring him on board. Quality people that can play the game are an asset, and Hayden looks like he can fit that mold long-term.
His only two goals last year with the Coyotes were game-winners. That doesn’t make him a game-breaker and isn’t really significant in any way outside of the cool factor. But it’s a neat fact to go out on.
The “There’s a Chance” Club
Andrew Ogilvie will be the front runner for promotion from the AHL’s Rochester Americans unless his play falters. But during the COVID craziness last season, he found his way onto the fourth line center role and played well enough. It’s more than likely that he ends up playing the bulk of games this season with the Amerks, but with this roster as it stands, you never know.
Ryan MacInnis was a free agent pickup who battled at last year’s training camp with Riley Nash for the fourth line spot in Columbus. He lost that position to the veteran Nash but did spend some time with the Blue Jackets in the fourth line role, especially after Nash was traded to the Maple Leafs in early April. If he has a good camp, he could challenge for a spot on opening night. Oh — and he’s also the son of NHL Hall of Famer Al MacInnis. Fun fact.
Sean Malone is a 26-year-old free agent signing, who spent most of his time last year with the Nashville Predators‘ AHL team, the Chicago Wolves. He did manage an appearance in a single game with the Preds, picking up an assist. Malone will battle for a bottom-six role with the Sabres on a two-way contract. He was drafted by the Sabres in 2013 and is a born Buffaloite. He will be no stranger to the Amerks roster, where he spent the 2017, ‘18 and ‘19 seasons, but he could find himself with the big club if his play is steady.
The positioning down the middle will be one of the many key battles that will take place during next month’s training camp. But Granto’s ability to adjust this young roster accordingly to the changing roles that players will develop for themselves over the course of a season will be an important thing to watch as well. Will he stick with his guns and play the same players in top one and two roles? Or will he be flexible and move players around to find the best fit for the future? With the playoffs a distant dream, the upcoming season will be more about the results of experiments and theories as the Sabres work different calculations on who they have worth keeping on board and building around.
Mike Carter is a freelance writer and contributor for the Buffalo Sabres with The Hockey Writers and NHLTradeRumors.Me He is @mikecarterlives on Twitter. Mike has been writing professionally since 2012, with stints as a reporter in northern British Columbia and Edmonton, Alberta. He now calls Salmon Arm, B.C. home.