The 2021-22 NHL season is officially a quarter of the way done, and the Buffalo Sabres are 8-11-3 through their first 22 games on the season, good for 19 points and sixth in the Atlantic Division. Most people expected them to be dead last in the standings this season, and although they’re not too far from that spot, they’re also not quite there, nor do I think they will finish there at the end of the season, either. One big contributing factor to their recent struggles following such a hot start is the slew of injuries they have faced, perhaps none more important than Casey Mittelstadt’s, when he left the first game of the season and hasn’t returned since.
But the Sabres may be getting a boon to their roster sooner than later, as Mittelstadt is skating with the team again, and newly-acquired Alex Tuch skated in a Sabres sweater for the first time this week, an encouraging sign that both players are close to returning to play in the Sabres lineup. When they do, they are expected to have a major, immediate impact on the ice.
Sabres Await Mittelstadt’s Return As the 1C
Since being selected at eighth overall by the Sabres in the 2017 draft, Mittelstadt has had sky high expectations placed on him, and he hasn’t quite been able to meet those expectations yet. At six-foot-one, he has the right frame for a skilled NHL center, but it wasn’t until last season that he really started to fill out and gain the strength he needs to compete on both sides of the puck. Still just 23-years-old, though, he finally looked like he had found his game toward the end of the 2020-21 season under new head coach Don Granato.
Mittelstadt’s previous career high in points came in the 2018-19 season when he scored 12 goals and 13 assists for 25 points in 77 games played. Last season, he came close to blowing those numbers out of the water with 10 goals and 12 assists for 2 points – in just 41 games. He also added six power play points (PPP) and shot at a 16.4 shooting percentage (S%), both career highs for him. That was on pace for just over 40 points, which would have been a true breakout season.
Many expected Mittelstadt to break out this season, but it’s had to wait. He left the first game of the season with an upper-body injury and has missed the last 21 games, so he hasn’t even had a chance to prove himself as the No. 1 center. He’s in the first season of a three-year contract worth $2.5 million average annual value (AAV), so he has plenty of time to prove he’s worth a big pay day down the road, and I expect him to make a difference as soon as he returns to the lineup.
As for who his line mates will be, I expect Mittelstadt to play down the middle next to whichever wingers have been putting up the biggest numbers. It could make sense to play him up and down the lineup, and see which wingers he can build some chemistry with. A good veteran option could be Kyle Okposo, while a lethal goal-scoring option like Victor Olofsson would make a lot of sense, too. Once he gets back into the swing of things, Mittelstadt should work his way back up to the first-line center slot competing with Dylan Cozens for the role.
Tuch Biding His Time Before Sabres Debut
And now for a player that Sabres fans have had to patiently wait to see pull a Sabres sweater over his head: Tuch. Acquired as the only proven NHL player returning in the trade that sent Jack Eichel to the Vegas Golden Knights, Tuch is expected to be an effective offensive threat for the Sabres during this new rebuild and beyond. At six-foot-four and 217 pounds, he is built like a power forward and has proven he can score in the NHL.
Tuch has 61 goals, 78 assists and 139 points in 255 NHL regular season games played, and has a career high in points of 52. Last season with the Golden Knights, he scored 18 goals, 15 assists and 33 points in 55 games played, which was on track to surpass his career high over a full 82 games. He missed the beginning of this season due to an offseason shoulder surgery that he’s had to recover from, but he’s sure to slide into the Sabres’ top six when he does take the ice for a game.
Tuch is in the third season of a seven-year contract worth $4.75 million AAV, so he’ll be around during this rebuild and beyond as a core piece of the Sabres lineup. He could realistically play alongside Mittelstadt, and would be a boost to a young center like Cozens’ line, as well. He practiced with the team this week in a non-contact practice jersey, which is a good sign that he’s working his way into the lineup.
Sabres Projected Lines With Mittelstadt & Tuch
The Sabres’ lineup will look a little different when Mittelstadt and Tuch both return. Mostly, it will look more filled out and skilled than it has to date. Here’s how the lines could look:
Line 1: Skinner – Mittelstadt – Hinostroza
Line 2: Asplund – Thompson – Olofsson
Line 3: Bjork – Cozens – Hayden
Line 4: Girgensons – Eakin – Okposo
Extras: Murray – Ruotsaleinen – ?
Pair 1: Dahlin – Pysyk
Pair 2: Bryson – Jokiharju
Pair 3: Hagg – Miller
Injured reserve: Anderson
It remains to be seen exactly when Mittelstadt and Tuch will rejoin the Sabres lineup for a game, but it’s looking like it will be sooner than later that they do. Sabres fans are sure to have more exciting and competitive hockey to watch whenever they make their eventual returns.
Brandon is a Buffalo Sabres Contributor for THW and Co-Host of THW’s ‘Sabres Scoop,’ who received his Master of Science in Sport Administration from Canisius College in Buffalo, NY, and founded his website, Seltytending, in 2017. He is an avid hockey writer and podcaster with prior work experience in the OJHL, NWHL, and NCAA. Twitter: @BSalts15