Sabres’ Injury Bug Allowing Young Players to Step Up Big

The Buffalo Sabres have had an up-and-down 2021-22 NHL season so far, capitalized by their red hot 5-1-1 start to the season and the cooling down (read: crashing down to earth) that followed. With just three wins in their last 10 games, the Sabres sit at 8-11-3 in the standings, and sixth out of eight teams in the Atlantic Division. With American Thanksgiving having come and gone, it’s safe to assume that teams far out of a playoff spot at this point in the season are going to have a hard time making a push for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the Sabres are in that boat right now. While this is exactly where they were expected to be this season, one can’t ignore a major factor in their recent struggles: injuries.

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The Sabres have been hit hard with the injury bug, losing dozens of man games to injury and seeing many of their key, core players sit out because of various ailments. First-line center Casey Mittelstadt has been on injured reserve (IR) since the first game of the season when he left the game with an injury, and starting goalie Craig Anderson has missed more than half the Sabres’ games with an injury of his own. Henri Jokiharju and Victor Olofsson have also missed time, while newly-acquired Alex Tuch didn’t touch the ice in a Sabres sweater until this week. But while all these players have sat out, young players and minor league call-ups have stepped up in their place, and have made a great impact on the team.

Thompson & Dahlin Leading the Charge

Two players in particular have stepped up big time for the Sabres: forward Tage Thompson and defenseman Rasmus Dahlin. Thompson, whose career high in points before the 2020-21 season came last season when he scored 14 total points, has already surpassed that mark and set a new career high of 16 points – and we’re just a quarter of the way through this season. He leads the Sabres in goals (10) and points (16) at the time of writing, and is on track to score 60 points, which would blow all his previous NHL seasons out of the water.

Thompson is contributing on special teams, too. He has two power play goals, and a career-high 15.6 shooting percentage (S%), finally putting his lethal shot and ability to find the net to good use. While his play improved after the firing of former head coach Ralph Krueger in the second half of last season, there was no indication that he had the ability to lead this team in points – so where did this come from? Well, the key might be what looked like a minor change before the season by new head coach Don Granato: moving him from right wing to center.

Thompson is a natural center, and hasn’t played that position in the NHL before. In place of an injured Mittelstadt, he’s had time to challenge Cozens for the first-line center spot, and has proven he’s capable of driving his own forward line. Fans should be excited and impressed with Thompson’s breakout season, and it will be exciting to watch if he’s able to sustain his scoring pace over a full 82 games.

While Thompson is leading the forward group, Dahlin is leading the blue line. Dahlin leads the Sabres in assists this season with 11, and leads all Sabres d-men in points with 14. He also has one goal and five assists on the power play good for six power play points (PPP), which is currently on pace to match his rookie season and career-high numbers of 20 PPP. Dahlin has seen a true resurgence to his offensive game this season, and it’s a major factor in any of the success the Sabres have seen this season.

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Dahlin’s career-high in points came back in his rookie 2018-19 season, when he scored 44. He’s currently on track to score 52 points, which would truly prove he didn’t lose his offensive game, and under a new coaching system that allows him to thrive and play to his strengths, he can be the true No. 1 defenseman that Sabres fans thought the team drafted first-overall in the 2018 draft.

Young Core & Prospects Stepping Up

Thompson & Dahlin aren’t the only young players stepping in and filling bigger shoes while players are out injured. Rasmus Asplund, the 23-year-old forward who just signed a two-year contract worth $850,000 AAV this past summer, is fourth on the team in total points, with five goals, seven assists, and 12 points. He has also contributed on special teams, adding 3 PPP and shooting at a 12.5 S%. He’s played well above his pay grade so far this season, and has earned his full-time spot in the lineup after being up and down between the NHL and the Sabres’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate Rochester Americans last season.

Rasmus Asplund, Buffalo Sabres
Rasmus Asplund, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Cozens, the Sabres’ first-round choice in the 2019 NHL draft, is enjoying a solid sophomore season through 22 games, scoring six goals, six assists, and 12 points so far this season. He scored just four goals and 13 points in 41 games played last season, so he is well on track to surpass that mark and set a new career high, all while gaining the experience of playing up and down in the lineup and building chemistry with his new wingers. He has also added 3 PPP and is shooting at an impressive 16.2 S% so far this season.

A lot of players are stepping up, but they didn’t all start the season on the opening night roster. In fact, two of the Sabres’ prospects on the Amerks have played well enough to earn call-ups to the big club: Brett Murray and Mark Jankowski. Murray, who I thought played well enough in the preseason to make the opening night roster, has played in four games for the Sabres now and scored his first NHL point with an assist in a game last week. He then scored his first NHL goal this week against the Seattle Kraken and added an assist for his first career multi-point game. Jankowski, who has impressed in the AHL with 12 points in 13 games, just signed a one-year contract worth $750,000 AAV with the Sabres, and is sure to draw into the lineup at some point soon.

While many players have stepped up in a big way, there are still some players that have failed to meet their expectations this season, namely Arttu Ruotsaleinen and Anders Bjork. Ruotsaleinen, who has scored just two goals and two assists in 16 games played, was just sent down to the AHL in favor of new call-up Jankowski, and it’s hard to see him making his way back any time soon unless another player gets injured or gives general manager (GM) Kevyn Adams a reason to send them down to call Ruotsaleinen back up. Bjork has just three goals on the season, and as the main piece coming back in the trade that sent Taylor Hall to the Boston Bruins last season, he’s expected to step up and play better than he has so far.

The Veterans Are Getting It Done, Too

The young core of players on the Sabres have made for some exciting hockey to watch, even if the Sabres are on the outside looking in and are doubtful to make the playoffs this season. However, the veterans have been getting it done, too, and some older players have had an impressive run through the first quarter of the season as well. Kyle Okposo, the oldest player on the Sabres roster, is currently tied for second in points with six goals, nine assists, and 15 points. That’s a huge rebound for him, and it couldn’t come at a better time for the Sabres as he serves as a mentor for the young players in this new rebuild.

Kyle Okposo, Buffalo Sabres
Kyle Okposo, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Jeff Skinner is another player who has seen a major rebound in his own game, scoring eight goals and 15 points of his own after a greatly disappointing season last year that saw him go a full calendar year without scoring a goal. With Skinner’s $9 million cap hit, it’s an encouraging sign to see him begin to return to form. Another player returning to form is defenseman Colin Miller, who has two goals and nine assist for 11 points so far, and has looked more like his pre-Sabres self when he was a member of the Stanley Cup Finalist Vegas Golden Knights in the 2017-18 season. Olofsson is also enjoying a good season, and is point-per-game with 14 points in 14 games.

The Sabres were never expected to be good this season, and they have been better so far than many expected them to be. Even in the face of injuries to their core players, they have seen young players and minor-leaguers step up and make an impact, something all fans can be happy about. When players like Mittelstadt and Tuch return from injury, I expect them to help the Sabres be even more competitive and make some noise as the 2021-22 season progresses.

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