Since the end of last season, the Buffalo Sabres have drastically changed their roster, with forwards such as Sam Reinhart being traded from the team. It is also expected that Jack Eichel will not be suiting up for the team, as he is anticipating a trade. That leaves players such as Casey Mittelstadt, Dylan Cozens, and Victor Olofsson being put into higher positions in the lineup. There are plenty of opportunities on this team to get ice time.
Let’s try and configure the opening night roster with the remaining forwards and predict the four forward lines. There are some reasons to believe that players like Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka could crack the lineup. Both players had a strong showing in the development camp and the prospects challenge. Arttu Ruotsalinen is looking to build off his stint from the end of last season and become a full-time NHL player.
With all of these factors in mind, it is time to project the forward lines of the Sabres heading into the season.
First Line: Jeff Skinner – Casey Mittelstadt – Victor Olofsson
For Olofsson and Mittelstadt, this will likely be the most significant opportunity of their careers. There are first-line positions for the taking, and I believe these players are suited to fit them. Olofsson is looking to take the next step that he wasn’t able to last season. With players like Reinhart and Taylor Hall out of the equation, he will be relied upon offensively for this team. Jeff Skinner is poised to have a bounce-back season, as his shooting percentage should rise from 8.3 percent last season. It is one of the weaker first lines in the league, but it is filled with players looking to prove themselves.
According to Natural Stat Trick, looking at these three players’ previous history together, they played 5:57 minutes at 5v5 as a unit last season. Mittelstadt and Skinner played the most out of the trio, spending 126:51 minutes at 5v5 throughout last season. It’s potentially a new combination for the most part, so that it may be a neat experiment.
Second Line: Anders Bjork – Dylan Cozens – Arttu Ruotsalainen
After the trade deadline, this trio was assembled to form the second line, entertaining to watch. A highlight from last season was Cozens using his foot speed to create a two-on-one opportunity and pass to Ruotsalainen for the one-timer goal. Those two have on-ice chemistry together, and Anders Bjork compliments both of their games. The question surrounding this line is whether Cozens is a center at the NHL level, and if he isn’t, can Ruotsalinen handle that position? Training camp and the early stages of the regular season will be the time to discover this question.
Diving into their statistics as a line from last season, they played 93:37 minutes at 5v5 and only sustained a 45 CF%. This means that they were outplayed by the opposing team whenever they were on the ice, so they should be cautious. This trio had good moments together, but there is room to shake up if necessary.
Third Line: John-Jason Peterka – Rasmus Asplund – Vinnie Hinostroza
As for the other players, Rasmus Asplund is valued by the organization, as shown by Skinner waiving his no-movement clause (NMC) at the expansion draft so the team could protect him. He is a solid bottom-six forward and scored seven goals and 11 points in 28 games last season. Throughout 82 games, that is a 32 point pace, and that is standard production for a guy in his position.
Vinnie Hinostroza is an underrated player who excelled offensively after being reacquired by the Chicago Blackhawks, scoring 12 points in 17 games. When diving deeper into the numbers, he is strong at driving the play. His expected goals for percentage (xGF%) are in the 78th percentile in the entire league, but he has trouble finishing, which was in the 19th percentile. All three of these players offer different skillsets, and I believe they could fit together as a line.
Fourth Line: Drake Caggiula – Zemgus Girgensons – Kyle Okposo
Zemgus Girgensons has not played a game for the Sabres since March 9th, 2020, as he had been sidelined with a hamstring injury. He is all set to return for the 2021-22 season and will find himself paired with a new linemate in Drake Caggiula, who the team claimed off waivers from the Arizona Coyotes last season. Caggiula is a gritty forward who has limited offensive upside. He scored two goals in 11 games for the team last season, so he is looking to build upon that.
Kyle Okposo is the last member of this line, and his expectations are set pretty low. He plays a challenging game, but his injury issues have caused his scoring abilities to decrease and make him a replacement-level player. He still has two years left on his deal, which has an average annual value of $6 million. The hope is for him to stay healthy throughout the year.
These forward lines are among the league’s worst, but they feature young players that project as key members moving forward. Cozens will have to prove if he can play center at the NHL level over a long sample size, Skinner will need to rebound for this team to score, and Peterka will have to shine in training camp to get a chance to play. There are plenty of questions heading into the season, but I believe these forward lines could be close to what they will be on October 14th when they play the Montreal Canadiens.
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.