The calendar has officially turned from 2021 to 2022, and in this new year, you might be making some resolutions in an attempt to better yourself for the future. NHL teams are no different, and the Buffalo Sabres have some New Year’s resolutions themselves, hoping to close the door on a 2021 filled with losing, drama, and heartbreak, and looking to open the door into a brighter era of Sabres hockey. Here are three resolutions the Sabres will be looking to make good on as we march on into 2022.
New Year’s Resolution 1: Stay Hard To Play Against
The biggest thing the Sabres were looking to do ahead of the 2021-22 NHL season when Don Granato took over full-time head coaching duties was to establish an identity. Approaching the halfway mark of the regular season, I think they’ve done that. The Sabres have made it known around the NHL that they’re not going to be easy to play against, and any points won against them will have to be fought for and pried from them, tooth and nail.
“As a group, I think we’ve been playing good,” said Tage Thompson, who currently leads all Sabres players in goals and points with 12 goals and 22 points through 33 games. “Obviously haven’t gotten a ton of the results lately we’ve wanted, but I think we’ve done a lot of good things. A lot of that success is coming from the guys around me.” (From ‘’When we play with confidence, good things happen’ | Sabres beat Habs 4-1’ NHL.com, 11/26/2021)
As far as their place in the standings, I think the Sabres are right around where people thought they would be: 28th out of 32 teams, with a poor record of 10-17-6. To add, they’re just 2-5-3 in their last 10 games, so needless to say, they haven’t done a whole lot of winning of late. But one thing is for certain: they’ve been tough to beat, even up against the best of the best.
This season, the Sabres have beaten the reigning Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning, the Anaheim Ducks, the Edmonton Oilers, and the Winnipeg Jets, and have played in multiple one-goal contests against the Pittsburgh Penguins. When it comes to the NHL’s top teams, even they are having a hard time winning games against the Sabres, which is a huge boost to the young team’s confidence and morale.
“It’s good. I think when we play with confidence, good things happen,” Thompson said after a recent Sabres win. “It’s fun to play when you’re playing like that.” The Sabres will look to capture more of that confidence as the season progresses, but they’ve already made some good steps toward achieving that goal.
New Year’s Resolution 2: Play A Full 60 Minutes
While the Sabres have unarguably made strides from last season up to now in terms of being harder to play against, they continue to lack one thing that good, experienced teams possess: the ability to protect leads and finish games. In other words, they’ve had trouble playing a full 60 minutes. Now, a lot of this can be attributed to the fact that the Sabres are a young, inexperienced team that, quite frankly, hasn’t known what it’s like to win in the NHL. By making small strides and progressively getting better as the season goes on though, they’ll hopefully get better at this.
There have been several instances this season where the Sabres have started a game strong and gotten the jump on their opponents, but later sat back on their heels and watched two points slip away as the other team battled back for the win. The most recent instance of this was in their last game against the Boston Bruins, their first of 2022, when they got up to a 3-1 lead thanks to some nice plays by Peyton Krebs and Alex Tuch in their Sabres debuts, only to squander the lead to Bruins and go on to lose less than one minute into the overtime period. By eliminating these bad habits, the Sabres will be that much better of a hockey team all around.
Much of the learning curve in learning how to win in the NHL can be attributed to the young core the Sabres have, and the process of learning how to win as a cohesive unit. “Great teams know how to win with a lead…We’re still a young core,” said Tuch, acquired in the trade that sent former captain Jack Eichel to the Vegas Golden Knights last November. “We’re still gonna learn from one more experience…But, you know what, it was one that we let get away, for sure.” (From ‘Krebs, Luukkonen provide bright spots in SO loss’ NHL.com, 1/1/2022)
Getting comfortable while playing with a lead will be one of the most important habits the Sabres will look to form in 2022, as playing strong defensively in tight, close-scoring games is a key that good teams need to master if they want to make it all the way to the ultimate prize at the end of the playoffs.
New Year’s Resolution 3: Find A Starting Goaltender
I wrote last December that if there were one wish general manager (GM) Kevyn Adams and the Sabres could wish, it would be to find a starting goaltender. I also wrote that, as things stand now, Malcolm Subban and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen were the No. 1 and No. 2 choices they had at the moment, respectively. Believe it or not, I don’t believe that’s a bad place to be, nor do I think it’s worst-case scenario for the Sabres to have to finish out the season that way. Although, in a perfect world, Luukkonen would be saved the long, dreadful Sabres season by playing with the Sabres’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate Rochester Americans and would get some wins under his belt with the Amerks. But this isn’t a perfect world, after all.
Since being acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks for future considerations earlier this season, Subban has played in three games with the Sabres, going 0-2-1 with a 3.56 goals against average (GAA) and .876 save percentage (SV%). Luukkonen, on the other hand, has played in seven games this season, going 2-3-2 with a 2.54 GAA and .927 SV%. Luukkonen definitely has the better numbers, but I think Adams and company would prefer if Subban could carry the load of starts down the stretch and take some of the pressure off of Luukkonen, since things have been as challenging as they have been for the team as a whole, despite his strong play to date.
Of course, the Sabres do have other goalies in their system. They’re just either out on injured reserve (IR) like Craig Anderson, out in COVID-19 protocol like Dustin Tokarski, or just plain haven’t been good enough to warrant another NHL start this season, like Aaron Dell. Or, they’re off playing NCAA college hockey at some of the best teams in the United States, like Devon Levi and Erik Portillo.
At the end of the day, I think the Sabres already have their future franchise starter in the system, and I think his name is Luukkonen. “Let’s face it, in this league, your best players are the reason you’re in games,” Granato said when asked about Luukkonen recently. “And sometimes your best player’s a forward, sometimes he’s a D. You’re pretty damn happy in this league when it’s the goalie.
“He played to that level tonight, and I said after the game … what I was most excited about was his body language, his confidence. He made it look easy. He made shooters look like they had to work harder than he had to work because of his positioning, athleticism and size and those things.” In 2022, Luukkonen will look to establish himself as the Sabres’ true No. 1 goalie, and I think come the 2022-23 NHL season, he’ll be in a position to take the reins and do just that.
Sabres Bringing Good Habits Into 2022
The Sabres have a lot to work on in 2022. They’ve also done their due diligence in making sure that they are in the best position to begin to right the ship and win some games to build the confidence of this young core, and are already bringing some good habits into the new year. Despite their poor record, the Sabres have looked like a more confident, cohesive group of players with a ton of upside and raw talent waiting to be developed an unleashed a couple of seasons from now, giving fans some true hope for the future – something they haven’t seen in some time. Hopefully 2022 brings better days to the KeyBank Center in Buffalo.
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