Sabres’ Defensive Prospect Pool Is Thin but Skilled

The Buffalo Sabres have some of the best young defensemen ready to play on their NHL roster, with Rasmus Dahlin, Owen Power, and Mattias Samuelsson leading the charge. Now that their best defensive prospects have matured and graduated to the NHL, this leaves the remainder of the prospect pool thin on the defensive side. Minor league talents like Casey Fitzgerald have shown great promise and have the potential to be reliable call-ups throughout the year, but the future of the Sabres’ blue line rests on the shoulders of their junior league and college prospects.

In the 2022 draft, the Sabres had three first-round picks and chose to pick three forwards. While this bodes well for the future of the scoring depth, it left a massive hole on the defensive side of things as they did not take a defender until the fourth round. They took another in the fifth round as well, but after those two, the remainder of the picks were again forwards.

Kevyn Adams Buffalo Sabres
General manager Kevyn Adams of the Buffalo Sabres, 2020 NHL Draft (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

Looking at both the offensive and defensive prospects themselves is fascinating because they all possess great offensive talent and skating ability. This gives a glimpse into the direction that coach Don Granato wants his team to go and is a great adjustment for how the game of hockey is transitioning as a whole. The Sabres have their big hulking defenders in Power and Samuelsson, so having a pool of prospects that are more shifty and offensively inclined will be great for balancing the roster.

Right-Handed Sabres Defenders Are Running Scarce

Every team wishes they had the perfect balance of three right-handed and three left-handed defensemen on their starting roster, and the Sabres are no different. While their opening lineup will consist of Henri Jokiharju and Ilya Libyushkin manning the right side, their prospect pool is lacking when it comes to right-handed defenders. The prospects that fit the description and have legitimate upside will have every opportunity to make the roster in the coming years. The only question that remains is which of them will perform the best.

The top prospect on the right side has to be Casey Fitzgerald. He made the jump to play some key NHL minutes this past season and showed that he has the ability to hold his own. He has been a long-time development project, as he was drafted in 2016 by the Sabres and has not made the NHL lineup in any way until this year.

In 36 games with Buffalo, Fitzgerald put up no goals and six assists. He was moved around the lineup to fill in the holes that were left by injuries, and he looked decent. His overall numbers were nothing to write home about, but he made some big strides by the end of the season. At the ripe age of 25, he will be looking to make the full-time NHL jump this year to see if he can steal a roster spot from a fringe player like Jacob Bryson.

Casey Fitzgerald Buffalo Sabres
Casey Fitzgerald, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Next in line would be Oskari Laaksonen, who was a Sabres third-round pick in 2017. He was one of the Rochester Americans’ best defenders this past season, but he still needs to find a way to make an NHL push. While he has only spent the past two seasons in North America, he has adjusted and shown noticeable improvement each year. His defensive awareness is solid, but where he excels is his passing ability. Reading a play and developing it from his own end to create a scoring chance is where he stands out, and that is something the Sabres could use deeper in their lineup. He will not be a shoo-in for a Buffalo roster spot by the time training camp starts, but he can be expected to get a good look compared to Fitzgerald.

The third defender to round out the right side is 2022 fifth-round pick Vsevolod Komarov. He combines the strength of a mid-sized defender with the scoring instincts of a forward, similar to how Hurricanes defender Brent Burns plays the game. He has an above-average shot with some shifty skating ability. His speed leaves something to be desired, but at such a young age, he can always improve on that. Still very much a raw talent in need of refining, Komarov is set to return to the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts for his second season. Throughout the course of the year, expect to see him jump in his point production as he makes a case to be a future Sabres blueliner.

Sabres Diamond in the Rough Defender

The Sabres have yet to sign one of their top defensive prospects in Ryan Johnson, so calculating his future with the team is difficult without his commitment. He has one more season left to sign his entry-level deal, and then he could walk himself to unrestricted free agency next summer. While Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams works to secure him in the prospect pool, there was another hugely underrated pick in the 2022 draft that he made.

Mats Lindgren Kamloops Blazers
Mats Lindgren, Kamloops Blazers (Allen Douglas / Kamloops Blazers)

Mats Lindgren was the Sabres’ fourth-round selection in the most recent draft, and his talent level surpasses his draft pedigree. He stands at a modest 6-foot-0 and weighs in at 176 pounds, so while he isn’t large by NHL standards, he has a very good frame on him.

Lindgren is a left-handed shooting defender with the vision of a playmaker. He can quarterback a power play, start a rush from his own end, and finish a play himself if given enough room. He has the speed to break out of the defensive zone and make the right pass in a split second if he gets pressured. He has a similar play style to Vancouver Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes in a lot of ways, and if the Sabres development staff can hone his raw talent, they could have a stud partner for Dahlin or Power in the future.

Established Defensive Core Gives Sabres Flexibility

The Sabres have the benefit of knowing they can rely on Dahlin as their top defender and that they can pair him reliably with almost anyone. Jokiharju can be slotted next to nearly any other defenseman, and there will be no change to his game as well. Both have become steady options as the top prospects continue to grow, but adding a big body like Lyubushkin to the fold is a bonus level of stability as Samuelsson and Power make the jump to the NHL full-time.

Both young players have shown great skill and will have every chance to succeed, but there must always be a backup plan. The Sabres know better than most teams that injuries can derail a season, so having depth in your lineup is important. Having options like Fitzgerald and Laaksonen in Rochester to call up will be a big key for their defensive depth and consistency.

Related – Blackhawks Making Same Rebuilding Mistakes as Sabres

As the years go by, young defenders like Johnson, Lindgren, and Komarov will develop their skills further, but nothing is certain. Raw talent will only get a young player so far these days, so all of them have massive steps to take if they want to make it to the Sabres’ main roster one day. While Buffalo continues on its rebuilding path, they will need to add more defensive talent along the way. Having a handful of prospects is not good enough to remain a strong team long-term, so adding more playmaking and skilled skaters to the back end will only push them towards finally breaking the playoff drought.

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