Welcome to the December 2021 edition of my THW Buffalo Sabres Mailbag – the last one of the year! We are now well past the quarter point of the 2021-22 NHL season, and the Sabres find themselves amid a pretty long losing skid, although they have still managed to look competitive in most games on most nights. Like many other teams, they have been hit hard by the injury bug, have been forced to call up players to fill in for injured NHLers, and even made a trade to address their desperate goaltending situation. While it looks like the Sabres are in for a tough 2022, there is still a lot going for this group of players, and lots to be excited about.
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 look to turn the calendar on a new year. (Note: Some questions have been edited for clarity and style).
Thoughts on Luukkonen’s first game of the season? He looked comfortable despite the loss. – @TheGameDayDad
You’re one hundred percent correct that Ukko-Pekka Lukkonen looked comfortable in his first game of the season with the Sabres, and I think he’s looked even more comfortable in the two games he has played since. I was actually at the game at KeyBank Center last Tuesday when he started against the Anaheim Ducks, and I thought he kept the Sabres in the game, despite not facing that many shots (he stopped 21 of 23 shots). Even though his American Hockey League (AHL) numbers aren’t all that great this season with the Rochester Americans, it’s clear he has developed quite a bit since he appeared in some NHL games toward the end of last season, and the team’s patience with him seems to be paying off.
Luukkonen started back-to-back games against the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals on Friday and Saturday night for the Sabres, and stopped 29 of 31 shots and 40 of 42 shots in those games, respectively. It seems no matter how sloppy the Sabres’ defense has been in front of him, he’s found a way to keep them in the game and given them a chance to win, or at least come away with a point, as was the case in the Capitals game. All in all, I think he has really shown his growth and development in the small sample size he’s given, and I think Sabres fans should be bullish on him as a prospect overall.
Given the recent goalie woes (poor play, injuries), do you see the team sticking with UPL this season? – @dkokkinis12
On the latest episode of THW’s Sabres Scoop, my co-host Jordan Jacklin and I discussed this exact topic at length. I personally kind of danced around what exactly it is that I think the Sabres should do with Luukkonen this season when some of their goalies return from injury, and it really is hard to say. Despite his exceptional play in the three games he’s appeared in this season, I still think it might be the best decision to send him back to the AHL to play with the Amerks and help him avoid the painful rest of the season the Sabres are in for.
The Amerks are 13-6-0 through 19 games this season, good for 26 points, placing them second in the North Division, behind only the 17-1-2 Utica Comets. They currently sit at sixth overall in the AHL standings, and look like legitimate contenders this season. Luukkonen would have the chance to be a part of really good Amerks team, and potentially get some Calder Cup Playoffs experience while leading the team from the crease. This would definitely suit him better than sitting on the Sabres bench in the NHL. That being said, that definitely puts the Sabres in a tough spot, though, since the options they do have at the goaltending position as of right now aren’t much better.
First up: Craig Anderson. Anderson was a late free-agent signing before the 2021-22 season, and impressed in the first few games, winning four of his six starts and posting a 2.50 goals against average (GAA) and .921 save percentage (SV%). Unfortunately, he’s spent the majority of this season on injured reserve (IR), and was just downgraded to month-to-month, effectively tabling him for a soonest return of sometime in the new year. Due to this, it’s hard to see him returning as the team’s starter this season, or beyond it for that matter.
The other options the Sabres have aren’t much better, either. Dustin Tokarski, who has played in 14 games and is out with an injury of his own, has just four wins this season and an abysmal stat line of a 3.28 GAA and .903 SV%. Aaron Dell, who has played seven games this season, has yet to record a win in that span and has an even worse 4.52 GAA and .872 SV%. The newly-acquired Malcolm Subban, who sustained an injury during his first game in a Sabres sweater, might be the only viable option if the Sabres want to remain at all competitive.
When he comes back from his injury, do you think Malcolm Subban could really be a starting goalie for the team this season? – Anonymous
The short answer is that he’s going to have to be. The Sabres’ goaltending depth was always going to be a question, stretching back before we were heading into this season and up to the time of writing. An Anderson-Dell duo didn’t look that attractive, and a Tokarski-Dell duo was even less attractive, so general manager (GM) Kevyn Adams had to do something to address a goalie situation that only seemed to be getting worse every day. That something was going out and acquiring Subban for next to nothing, which was a low-risk, low-reward move – which is okay to do in this situation.
Subban has only made it into one game for the Sabres so far, giving up six goals on 25 shots before leaving with an injury. He’s back skating again, which is an encouraging sign, but it’s up in the air as to whether he’ll perform or not. Over the last two seasons, Subban has recorded a 3.18 GAA and .890 SV%, followed by a 3.20 GAA and .900 SV%, both statistical seasons that he would rather forget. He’s also never started more than 22 games in a season, his highest mark to date which he set with the Vegas Golden Knights back in the 2017-18 season. There are a lot of question marks surrounding him, but the Sabres have more to gain than they have to lose in letting him play as much as possible.
Where will the Sabres finish the season in the standings? – @boehringerm98
This is a really good question, and it’s actually not as easy for me to answer as you might think. The Sabres got off to a red hot start this season with a 5-1-1 start through their first seven games, which I’m pretty sure no one expected them to do. It had many of us thinking (myself included, admittedly): “Is this team better than they’re supposed to be?” The answer to that, as I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, is a resounding no. The Sabres now have a record of 8-15-4, good for just 20 points to put them at sixth out of eight teams in the Atlantic Division.
Since their hot start, the Sabres have gone 3-14-3, managing to win just three of their last 20 games overall. That is a dismal streak of losing, and has dropped them all the way down to 28th overall in the standings. They are just eight points ahead of the last-place Arizona Coyotes, and five points and three points ahead of the division rival Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators, respectively. They are 1-7-2 in their last 10 games, and lost six straight regulation games before stealing a point in a shootout loss against the Capitals. Long story short, they’ve been really bad lately.
And now for my prediction as to where the Sabres will be in the standings when this NHL regular season draws to a close: they’re staying right where they are. I’m not sure if that’s controversial or not, but it’s where I realistically see them finishing. They have too much raw, young talent that is driven to play well and to win to be as bad as a team like the Coyotes, and I think they’re just in a better spot to compete than, say, the Habs or the Senators. 28th place is better than last, and they’ll still likely land a top-five draft pick in the 2022 draft, so I’d be okay if this prediction came true.
What happens first: the Sabres win a playoff game, or Rick the dog gets potty trained? – @johntlammers77
From the literature that I’ve read on our four-legged friends, it’s estimated that it can take anywhere from four months to one year for a typical dog to be potty trained. By that logic, even if Rick the dog takes a really long time to learn, I think he’s on track to reach that milestone sooner than the Sabres are to winning a playoff game, seeing as they’re all but out of it already this season. We can always hope though.
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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