Buffalo Sabres fans will have to wait another season to see the team’s 2021 first-overall pick suit up in blue and gold. According to The Buffalo News, defenseman Owen Power has elected to return to the University of Michigan for his sophomore season. Power’s decision to go back to college also means he will be available for Team Canada at the 2022 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships.
Power will play heavy minutes in every situation for Michigan, whereas a roster spot in Buffalo would have likely come with a lesser role to ease him into the grind of an 82-game NHL season. While the Sabres expressed confidence that Power would immediately excel on their roster, conversations with Power and his family, as well as Michigan coach Mel Pearson, led to this decision.From, ‘Sabres’ No. 1 Overall Pick Owen Power to Return to Michigan for Sophomore Season,’ Lance Lysowski , The Buffalo News, 8/19/2021.
The news should catch no one off guard. In a June interview with NHL Network, Power said he was “leaning” towards an NCAA return. Last year it was difficult to play hockey anywhere in the world, which played a part in Power’s decision to return to the Wolverines this fall. Michigan was supposed to play in the NCAA tournament last spring but had to back out because of multiple positive COVID-19 test results. The team also played without fans, which deprived Power of the atmosphere ex-college players always rave about. Entering the upcoming season, the stacked Wolverines team is projected to compete for the league championship, and Michigan has had the most first-round picks drafted into the NHL of any college with 30.
It’s rare for a first-overall pick not to jump right into the NHL, but it’s not unheard of. The last time it happened was also with a defenseman when Erik Johnson was drafted first overall by the St. Louis Blues out of the U.S. National Team Development Program in 2006 but opted to play one year in the NCAA with the University of Minnesota Gophers before joining the Blues in 2007.
At 18, Power played a key role in the Wolverines’ season in 2020-21, appearing in all 26 games and picking up 16 points for an average of 0.62 points per game. After their season was cut short by the COVID-19 cases, Power went overseas to Riga, Latvia, to compete with Team Canada at the 2021 IIHF Men’s World Hockey Championships. There, he proved he has the size and talent to compete at the NHL level, logging an average of 25 minutes of ice time in the medal round, and he didn’t look the least bit out of place. Here’s what head coach Gerard Gallant had to say about his play in the tournament:
With experience competing against elite international talent under his belt, we should see Power improve at the NCAA level. With the chance to gain more experience in Edmonton at the 2022 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship, Sabres fans will have even more reason to tune in.
Defensemen are famously late bloomers. It takes longer for them to adapt to the NHL game from college or junior. For that reason alone, this seems to be the right choice for Power. However, this is what he had to say about it: “I think right now; I’m probably leaning more towards going back (the NCAA),” he told NHL Now’s Mike Johnson in June. “It’s something I’d like to do just to try and get the true experience playing college hockey. At the end of the day, it obviously depends on what the team wants and what everyone around me thinks is best. I don’t think there’s really a bad option. But, I would say I’m leaning a bit more towards going back to school right now.”
One thing is clear: Power will make an impact when he arrives in the NHL. He’s a big body (6-foot-5) and skates with authority. His passing skills and vision are second to none at the college level, which has produced some good NHL defensemen lately, including 2020-21 Norris Trophy nominee Cale Makar of the Colorado Avalanche. Another bonus is that while Power returns to school, the Sabres roster will have a chance to develop clear leadership roles to guide him when he joins the team.
Power will eventually join Rasmus Dahlin as stalwarts on the Sabres’ blue line, meaning that despite the short-term woes fans may have to endure in the meanwhile, the future on the back end looks bright.