Buffalo Sabres Mailbag: Luukkonen, Free Agency, Ryan Miller & More

Welcome to the April 2022 edition of my THW Buffalo Sabres Mailbag. We’re in the homestretch of the 2021-22 NHL regular season, and the Sabres have officially been eliminated from Stanley Cup Playoffs contention. That makes it the 11th straight season the Sabres have missed the playoffs, which sets the new NHL record for longest playoff drought. It’s hard to feel too down about that, however, because Sabres fans have been treated to a different type of team lately: one that’s fun to watch, winning some games, and – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – getting hopes up for next season.

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Without further ado, let’s dive in to another Sabres mailbag, full of questions from Sabres Twitter that are begging to be answered as we enjoy the end of the regular season. (Note: Some questions have been edited for clarity and style).

Who is a player that you’d like to see the Sabres sign in free agency this off-season? – @boehringerm98

It’s crazy to think that Sabres fans can once again turn their heads to look ahead to the NHL free agency period in the summertime, because the Sabres are once again on the outside looking in with their elimination from the playoff race. But free agency is fun, and it’s fun to pick and choose which players you’d like general manager (GM) Kevyn Adams to take a run at and try and sign. Of course, we would all love if the top free agents lined up, pen in hand, ready to sign with the team – but alas, that’s just not how it’s going to play out. So here’s a realistic list of players the Sabres could and should go after to fill out their roster, with a couple of wish list players sprinkled in to make things interesting.

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Two forwards on expiring contracts with low cap hits that I think the Sabres should go after are New York Rangers forward Colin Blackwell, and San Jose Sharks forward Alexander Barabanov. Neither of these players are big names in the NHL, but each player would bring a useful skill set to the Sabres forward group that I envision will need to be filled out before next season with some serviceable players.

Kevyn Adams Buffalo Sabres
General Manager Kevyn Adams of the Buffalo Sabres, 2020 NHL Draft. Adams has a lot of work to do in the offseason, and the NHL’s Free Agency period will be a major opportunity for him. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

Blackwell has 10 goals and 19 points this season, and 51 points in 128 career games. He carries just a $725,000 average annual value (AAV), so he wouldn’t be too expensive to sign to his next contract, and would be a good fourth-line replacement for the likes of Cody Eakin. Barabanov brings some more offensive potential: he has 10 goals, 27 assists, and 37 points with the Sharks this season, and has just 85 games of NHL experience, so likely hasn’t tapped his full offensive talents yet. He could be a good middle-six forward for the Sabres, and wouldn’t demand too much of a price hike from his current $1 million cap hit. At 29-and-27-years-old, respectively, Blackwell and Barabanov could be good options for the Sabres next season to fill out their roster.

Related: Sabres Weekly: Thompson, Comebacks, Point Streak & More

Now for a couple of “wish list” players: Colorado Avalanche forward Andre Burakovsky, and Pittsburgh Penguins forward Rickard Rakell. Burakovsky is on an expiring contract making $4.9 million, and he is undoubtedly going to bargain for more money than that on his next deal. The question is: will the Avalanche pay him more? It’s hard to say. In 70 games played this season, the 27-year-old has 20 goals, 33 assists, and 53 points, and could thrive in a more prominent role on a team like the Sabres, where he would play a bigger part than he currently does on the Avalanche. Not to be outdone, Rakell is another player due for a raise: he’s on a bargain deal making just $3,789,444, and at 28-years-old, is probably looking to get paid big-time on his next contract. He has 19 goals and 36 points this season, as well as 347 total points in his 561 game career. He would be a valuable addition to the Sabres, who could use some veteran players with skill and speed to help this young core take the next step.

Will UPL be ready to start next year? – @johntlammers77

That’s a great question. I’m not sure how much the average Sabres fan has thought of Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen since he was sent down to the Sabres’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate Rochester Americans for good after a short, nine-game stint with the big club, but I’ve thought about him quite a bit, particularly because I don’t see why he couldn’t have started over a goalie like Dustin Tokarski. In his nine games with the Sabres early this season, Luukkonen went 2-5-2 with a 2.74 goals against average (GAA) and .917 save percentage (SV%). His record wasn’t great, but his stats were – especially for how the team was playing in front of him.

I understand wanting to shield Luukkonen from a nightly barrage of shots from teams better than the Sabres, but he held his own at the NHL level over a short period, and already looks lightyears ahead of where he was just last season when he made his NHL debut. To add, he’s on the last year of his entry-level contract (ELC) at the time of writing, and is up for a new deal, which will be interesting to watch as negotiations play out.

Luukkonen is 23-years-old now, and at 6-foot-5 and 217 pounds, is truly growing into his big frame and learning the ropes of professional hockey. His AHL numbers don’t quite reflect this, however. In 28 games with the Amerks this season, he has a 3.52 GAA and .895 SV%. Further, over three AHL seasons, he has never posted a GAA below 3.00 or a SV% above .900, which would make any fan worry if he’ll develop into the NHL starter he was supposed to be when he was drafted in the second round of the 2017 draft. There’s only one way to find that out: give him a fair shake.

I think that the current goalie situation in the Sabres locker room makes for a perfect opportunity for Luukkonen to crack the NHL squad out of training camp next season, and barring any free agent goalie signings or the unlikely re-signing of Craig Anderson, Luukkonen could (and should) get his shot at earning NHL starts.

Do you think the Sabres retire Ryan Miller’s No. 30 next year? – @dkokkinis12

I love this question, and my answer to it is short and sweet: I really hope so. There have been a good number of Sabres players who have won over the hearts of fans in their more than 50 years of history, and Ryan Miller ranks up there with the all-time Sabres greats. I don’t think many would argue with Dominik Hasek’s status as the No. 1 goalie to ever pull a Sabres sweater over his head (or any NHL sweater, for that matter), but Miller has to come in right after him.

Sabres fans are in the team history-honoring mood of late, as many are still riding the high from the emotional, excellent banner-raising ceremony held a few weeks ago for legendary Sabres play-by-play announcer Rick Jeanneret. So, why not start planning for the next person who deserves to have their number retired: Miller? After all, the Sabres made free-agent signing Aaron Dell change his number from 30 to 80, so it seems like it’s just a matter of time.

Ryan Miller, Buffalo Sabres
Ryan Miller, former Buffalo Sabres goalie (File Photo)

Miller’s career stats with the Sabres rank near the top of all major goalie categories. Among Sabres goaltenders all-time with 100+ games played, he ranks first in games played (540); third in GAA behind Hasek and Martin Biron (2.60); is tied for second with Robin Lehner behind Hasek in SV% (.916); ranks first in wins (284); and second in shutouts (28). He also led the Sabres to two Eastern Conference Finals series in back-to-back seasons in 2006 and 2007, and was considered the best goalie in the world at one time, around the time he won a silver medal with the United States in 2010. His career is nothing to scoff at, even though he could never catch the elusive Stanley Cup.

If he were to have his number retired, Miller, who wore the number 30, would join Jeanneret and seven other players who have had their number raised to the rafters of the KeyBank Center: Dominik Hasek (39), Gilbert Perreault (11), Rick Martin (7), Rene Robert (14), Tim Horton (2), Danny Gare (18) and Pat LaFontaine (16).

Which Sabres player do you think has been the biggest surprise this season? The biggest letdown? – @Anonymous

There are a couple of candidates for each of these distinctions, so I’ll try to narrow it down to one or two of the most fitting answers for each of these categories. Let’s start with the distinction that no player wants to be given: biggest disappointment. When it comes to the most disappointing player, I would venture to say that defenseman Will Butcher, who signed a deal with the Sabres in free agency, is at the top of the list for me. Not that he has been so bad it’s been noticeable, but more-so because I feel like he’s almost been a non-factor for this team.

Butcher has only made his way into 36 of the Sabres’ 74 games this season, and has potted two goals, six assists, and eight points. While offense isn’t everything for a d-man, it does count for something, and he hasn’t been exceptional defensively, either. Take rookie Mattias Samuelsson as a contrasting example: he only has nine assists on the season, but has been perhaps the Sabres’ best defensive defenseman next to Henri Jokiharju, so he contributes in a different way. I never expected Butcher to be the stud he was once projected to be, but I did expect him to be a bit more effective when he was signed.

Now onto the biggest surprise of this season: Tage Thompson. Thompson has had a true breakout season, and there are still 8 games left at the time of writing. In 70 games played, he has 32 goals, 26 assists, and 58 points. He leads the Sabres in goals and points, and also in power-play points (PPP), with 14 points coming on the man advantage. For a player that many Sabres fans were ready to give up on and call a bust, he has really come into his own playing as the team’s first-line center, and it makes the years to come truly exciting for him and the team.

Related: Sabres Show Signs Of Progress With Strong March

I do have an honorable mention for the Sabres’ biggest surprise this season, and I would be remiss to not mention him: Jeff Skinner. Skinner has taken a lot of heat for his steep cap hit of $9 million, but it looks as though much of his struggles in the Sabres’ past two seasons before this one were due to former head coach Ralph Krueger demoting him to the fourth line. Since Don Granato has taken over and put him back on the first line, he has had one of the most impressive bounce-back seasons in a long time. He has 30 goals, 24 assists, and 54 points, as well as 10 PPP. He is on pace to score 61 points, which would rank as the second-best season he’s had in his entire career.

Where do you think the Sabres finish next year in the NHL standings? – @Anonymous

The Sabres were expected to finish near or at the very bottom of the NHL standings this season, and that’s where they spent most of the season. But over the last six weeks or so, they have picked it up and played some good, entertaining hockey, and have the wins to show for it. It’s taken them as many as three places up in the overall standings, and given fans a glimpse into the future of this young core of players and what they are capable of.

Buffalo Sabres Henri Jokiharju Casey Mittelstadt Jeff Skinner Rasmus Dahlin
Henri Jokiharju, Casey Mittelstadt, Jeff Skinner and Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Through 74 games this season at the time of writing, the Sabres are 26-37-11, good for 63 points and 25h in the overall NHL standings. That puts them ahead of seven other NHL teams: the Chicago Blackhawks, Ottawa Senators, Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, Seattle Kraken, Montreal Canadiens, and Arizona Coyotes. Considering where some of those teams were expected to finish the season (hint: much higher), I’d say that’s a chip on the Sabres’ shoulders. Much of their recent success came in the month of March, wherein they went 8-3-2 and beat several teams in playoff position. If this isn’t an indication that they are showing signs of growth, I don’t know what is.

I don’t want to get too ahead of myself here, however, so let me temper expectations a little bit by saying: I don’t think the Sabres will make the playoffs next season. I think there are just too many teams right now that are better and further along than they are, and it will be an uphill battle. However, with that being said, I do expect them to finish closer to the middle of the pack than the bottom of it, between 18th – 22nd in the overall standings. That would be a major improvement in and of itself, and that type of stride would definitely get me on board for the season after that.

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