The Buffalo Sabres will begin their 2022-23 season on Thursday and the hype is there and then some, as well as the expectations. Despite an inconsistent start to their 2021-22 campaign, they caught fire in the second half and played at a 102-point pace over the final two months, looking like a team renewed that is perhaps finally ready to return to playoff contention. Fans and media alike have been waiting since then to see if they can carry over that success to a full season.
With last season’s roster largely intact, a new goaltender in Eric Comrie and a newly-minted captain in Kyle Okposo, it’s time to see what these Sabres are made of. Are they contenders? That could be the case, but many things will need to go their way this season.
Skinner, Thompson & Co Need Strong Follow-Ups
It goes without saying that the Sabres’ postseason hopes hinge almost entirely upon the performance of their top stars. Despite what seemed like a lack of talent on paper, they showed a surprisingly efficient offense that recorded 232 goals on the year, third most amongst non-playoff teams. Tage Thompson’s stunning 38-goal breakout performance was the biggest reason why alongside a remarkable bounce-back season from Jeff Skinner that saw him score 33.
With Skinner being the team’s highest-paid player at $9 million per year and Thompson recently signing a $50 million extension, both will need to prove last season wasn’t a one-hit-wonder. Buffalo can’t afford to settle for meager returns from its top stars and will need them to continue to shoulder the weight to allow the rest of the lineup to follow suit.
Alex Tuch, whose 38 points in 50 games made him a sensation last year, also faces high expectations and Okposo is in that category as well. After posting his best season since arriving in Buffalo in 2016, the Sabres rewarded his perseverance with the team’s captaincy. Even at age 34 and in the final year of his contract, the dad of the Sabres will have to lead the way once again.
Comrie’s Time to Shine
The Sabres’ biggest acquisition this summer was goaltender Eric Comrie, whom they signed to a two-year contract. With Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen once again being assigned to American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate Rochester Americans, Comrie and Craig Anderson will be the team’s top two netminders to start the season. Though Anderson played very well last season despite being the oldest player at his position, how heavy of a workload he can continue to handle is debatable and Comrie is more than likely to emerge as the number one as the season progresses.
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The former Winnipeg Jets backup was never able to break the glass ceiling due to the presence of Connor Hellebuyck and he’ll have the chance to finally prove himself as a starter in Buffalo. However, the Sabres are rolling the dice on Comrie. The team hasn’t had much luck with establishing new goaltenders in the past decade, as since Ryan Miller departed in 2014, every new candidate to fill the role has failed for one reason or another.
Coming off consecutive seasons in which the team has endured a goaltending crisis, it needs stability at the position in the worst way. Even if their sights are set on the likes of Devon Levi or Erik Portillo down the line, the Sabres need Comrie to come through in 2022-23.
The Kids Will Have to Be Alright
The Sabres already had a fairly young roster, and it just got even younger, as head coach Don Granato named both Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka to the opening night roster. Adding Owen Power to the mix means they will have quite a few players learning on the fly, which makes the presence of veterans like Okposo, Anderson and Zemgus Girgensons all the more important. Power especially will have a spotlight on him as he begins his rookie year.
And though Peyton Krebs, Casey Fitzgerald and Mattias Samuelsson looked strong after being recalled last season, they’re still learning as well. The team has the leadership to guide them but the fact remains that the youngsters will have to grow up fast. Rasmus Dahlin, though himself only 22, has emerged as a leader as well and should help his young contemporaries along.
Can Buffalo Snap the NHL’s Longest-Ever Playoff Drought?
It’s been 11 years since Buffalo last experienced postseason hockey, which is an NHL record. With the Seattle Mariners qualifying for the Major League Baseball postseason this year for the first time since 2001, the Sabres and the National Football League’s New York Jets are now co-owners of the second-longest playoff drought streak in the big four North American professional sports. Only the NBA’s Sacramento Kings have a longer streak at 16 years.
Above all else, for the playoffs to return in 2023, the team will have to turn in a complete season and prove it can win meaningful games. Though the strong finish to last year was encouraging and made believers of many fans, the issue for the Sabres is that a majority of that run came after the playoffs were out of the question. If the team wants to still be playing in the spring, it will have to prove that it can win when it counts and maintain consistency.
If the Sabres can at the very least contend for a playoff spot this season, it will be great for the franchise going forward. Buffalo’s biggest problem has been its inability to capitalize on any progress it builds for itself. Fans are tired of waiting and want to see their team back in the playoffs. This might not be the year where that happens, but the Sabres need to take a further step forward this season. All eyes will be on KeyBank Center on Thursday.