The center position is the most important position in all of hockey. Championship teams are built around four capable centers that contribute to their success on a nightly basis. Since 2015, the Buffalo Sabres have had only two centers to build around which has helped contribute to their lackluster performances over the last few seasons. Now, general manager Jason Botterill has made it a priority to help solidify the team’s depth at center and has a good group of players ready to help turn the team around.
While Botterill isn’t responsible for adding Jack Eichel to the organization, he and head coach Phil Housley can be credited with handing the reins of the team over to him. Last season, Jack made great strides in his maturity off the ice, his game on the ice and has become the emotional heartbeat of the team.
Eichel is the franchise center, a piece that so many teams wish they had. He is a building block for Buffalo and will be for the remainder of his career. The team will go as far as their future captain will take them.
He has been one of the players to take responsibility for the Sabres situation and has said that he will be the catalyst of change . While Eichel does need to continue to develop his game, he has been the Sabres’ best player over the last two seasons, leading the team in scoring even with injury-shortened seasons.
No matter who has played on his wing, Eichel has been the driver of offence for Buffalo. He is the best piece that the Sabres have on their roster.
Having a franchise center like Eichel in the organization is a crucial building block for Botterill to have in his attempt to build a championship caliber roster in Buffalo.
At his exit interview, Ryan O’Reilly told reporters that he has lost his love of the game. His comments stirred up rumours about his future in Buffalo but the truth is the Sabres need O’Reilly on their roster to be successful.
Although Eichel is the franchise centerpiece, O’Reilly is the best all-around center that the Sabres have. He is the Sabres workhorse, he plays every situation, takes all crucial face-offs and is one of the more consistent offensive producers the team has.
The World Championships have been very good for O’Reilly the last two years – he has been a consistent producer on a roster loaded with talented players and hopefully can regain his love for the game in Denmark.
In an interview with TSN’s Darren Dreger, he reaffirmed his love for the city of Buffalo and his desire to be a part of the solution going forward. Although the Sabres could get good value for O’Reilly, Botterill knows how crucial it is to have four effective NHL centers on your roster and Ryan is one of the best two-way guys in the league
Keeping him will allow the Sabres to shelter younger players like Casey Mittelstadt and Rasmus Asplund until they are ready to take on bigger roles with the team. O’Reilly may not be the leader the Sabres have wanted him to be, but his play on the ice has been as advertised and Buffalo will benefit from having him on the roster.
Botterill took Middelstadt eighth overall at last year’s NHL Draft. He gave Sabres fans a preview of what he can do when he electrified the crowd in Buffalo at the 2018 World Juniors, winning MVP and scoring 11 points in seven games.
After his impressive freshman campaign at Minnesota (30 points in 34 games) came to a disappointing end, Botterill managed to lure his top prospect out of college and signed him to his entry-level deal. Mittelstadt didn’t disappoint, showing his skill and impacting the Sabres in his brief NHL stint at the end of last season with five points in six games.
Mittelstadt doesn’t shy away from the spotlight and should have a big impact in his first full NHL season next year. With Eichel and O’Reilly already slotted into the top two center positions, Mittelstadt will be able to play a third line role while playing special teams to help him adjust to the NHL.
Asplund has spent the last few seasons developing in the Swedish Hockey League with Farjestad and is ready to make the jump to the North American game. He will likely need to develop with Rochester but he should be able to play top-six minutes with the Amerks next season (if he signs his entry-level deal).
As a two-way center, Asplund looks to be a prototypical penalty-killing third-line center who can provide offence when needed, as evidenced by his career-high eight goals and 28 points in the SHL last season. He will be an anchor for the Sabres’ bottom six for years to come once he’s ready for the NHL.
Davidsson fits the same mold as Asplund, a speedy two-way center that can be effective in different aspects of the game. He will spend next year with Djurgardens and will look to build off an impressive nine goal, 21-point campaign and could be in the running for an entry-level deal at the end of next season.
When he is ready Davidsson can play a similar role to current Sabre Zemgus Girgensons. A bottom six forward who can play center or the wing and play up in the lineup when needed. The Sabres haven’t gotten enough out of Girgensons or Larsson, and adding Davidsson into the fold would be a big upgrade over those players.
Malone played his way into the Sabres’ future plans with his season in Rochester. He didn’t wow anyone with his offensive numbers – 12 goals and 10 assists in 73 games – but he consistently improved as the season progressed and looks to be on the path to becoming a nice bottom-six prospect for the Sabres.
He has the skill to provide offence and has shown a commitment to playing responsibly in his own end, perfect characteristics for a fourth line center on a successful team.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, Botterill’s former team, won two Stanley Cups thanks to a group of centers that included the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Matt Cullen and Nick Bonino. At the time of the 2017 Stanley Cup Championships, these four players were all key contributors.
Botterill has brought the same mentality to Buffalo, and the Sabres can actually say that the center position is a position of strength heading into next year. The next year’s center group will feature three of the players listed above, with Sean Malone possibly competing for the fourth line role.
With more than two quality NHL centers on the roster next year, Buffalo can ice four competitive lines who can all contribute something offensively, something that the worst scoring team in the league desperately needs.
Brock U Sport Management Grad
Niagara College Journalism Grad
Former intern at The Hockey News