With just six games left on the schedule, the Buffalo Sabres are nearly finished with another disappointing season. Fans have had one eye on the offseason for the better part of two months as the team has languished at the bottom of the NHL standings.
While the majority of the team has had disappointing seasons, there have been a handful of players who have improved their stature in the eyes of management and the fanbase. These are the five players on the Sabres who have improved their stock the most in 2020-21.
Buffalo’s top offensive performer found the scoresheet again on Tuesday, scoring the Sabres’ lone goal in a 3-1 loss to the New York Rangers. Reinhart has been the only consistent offensive threat the team has had this season, and it’s the latest in a growing track record of consistent production.
With 22 goals in 48 games (a 38-goal pace over an 82-game season), Reinhart has now topped 20 goals for the fourth straight season and the fifth time in the last six campaigns. What’s perhaps most impressive about his performance this time around is that he’s done most of it without the benefit of playing with franchise center Jack Eichel.
Reinhart’s status as an impending restricted free agent has brought into question his long-term future in Buffalo, especially as the franchise faces another rebuild. But Reinhart has emerged as a legitimate top-line player, and at age 25, is just beginning his prime seasons. With a healthy Eichel returning in 2021-22, his production doesn’t figure to dip anytime soon.
Entering this season, there were many who feared that the former eighth overall pick was heading towards “bust” status. Mittelstadt entered 2020-21 with just 17 goals and 28 points in 114 career games and looked like he would become, at best, a bottom-six forward.
But after a slow start under former head coach Ralph Krueger (one goal, five points in only 13 games), Mittelstadt has been rejuvenated under interim coach Don Granato.
With an assist in Tuesday’s game, the 22-year-old now has eight goals and 13 points in 22 games under Granato (a 30-goal, 49-point pace over a full season). Some of this can be attributed to luck: Mittelstadt’s 18.0 shooting percentage this season is well above his career average of 12.3. But the young forward has also greatly improved his two-way play after coming into the league being viewed as a pure skill player.
The emergence of Mittelstadt, along with fellow former first-round pick Dylan Cozens, has given the Sabres two promising options at the second center spot behind Eichel.
The Ryan O’Reilly trade will forever be a sore spot for Sabres fans. How could it not be? They trade away a top-six center and then immediately watch him win the Conn Smythe Trophy with the St. Louis Blues.
It was even worse considering the middling return the Sabres got back from the Blues. Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka were disasters. The first-round pick that became Ryan Johnson has yet to pay dividends at the NHL level. And Tage Thompson entered the 2020-21 campaign having appeared in just one game in the previous season.
But Thompson has started to recoup a little bit of that value for the Sabres over the past couple of weeks. Like Mittelstadt and so many others, Thompson has seen his numbers jump noticeably under Granato. After scoring just two points in 13 games under Krueger, Thompson has eight points in 19 games under Granato. He’s also found great chemistry on a line with Mittelstadt and Rasmus Asplund. If he ever truly learns to use his massive 6-foot-7 frame to his advantage, he could turn into something special.
Realistically, though, Thompson looks like he can carve out a role for himself as a reliable third-line winger. It might not seem like anything special, but it’s a far cry from where his reputation was at the beginning of the season.
Jake McCabe’s season-ending injury early in the campaign put a lot of pressure on Buffalo’s defense corps, and the results have been mixed to say the least. But one player who’s proven he belongs has been Bryson.
A fourth-round pick from the 2017 Draft, Bryson was a bit of an enigma coming into the season. Not viewed as one of the franchise’s top prospects, it was unclear what his future in Buffalo would be. But his performance in 2020-21 has shown that he could end up becoming quite the late-round find, something the Sabres have sorely lacked in recent years.
Bryson has seven points in 32 games and boasts a minus-one rating, quite impressive considering he plays on the worst team in the NHL. The underlying numbers aren’t as good, as Bryson sports a 43.8 expected goals for percentage (xGF%), per Natural Stat Trick. It’s likely a result of his freewheeling, end-to-end play, which can create excitement in the offensive zone but also odd-man rushes coming back the other way.
If the Sabres can find a way to reign in Bryson a bit without sacrificing his offensive potential, he could develop into an intriguing blue line option.
It’s difficult for a player who’s missed extended time due to injury twice in the same season to improve his stock, but that’s exactly what Ullmark has done in 2020-21. Sidelined with another lower-body injury and unlikely to return this season, Ullmark has a 9-6-3 record, a .917 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.63 goals against average (GAA).
Those aren’t Vezina Trophy-caliber numbers by any means, but they’re quite impressive for a goalie on a team with a 13-30-7 overall record. Much has been made about the dire state of Buffalo’s goaltending situation outside of Ullmark. And while Dustin Tokarski has shown flashes and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen hasn’t looked out of place as a rookie, it’s clear that the 27-year-old Swede is far and away the Sabres’ number one option in net.
In fact, you can argue that Ullmark’s fellow netminders have boosted his stock as much as himself. General manager Kevyn Adams has expressed his desire to re-sign his top goalie this offseason, as Ullmark will become an unrestricted free agent. Considering how well he’s played relative to his teammates, it ought to be an easy decision.
It’s awfully hard to make meaningful strides on a last-place team. But Sabres fans have to be happy about what they’ve seen this season, especially recently, from this group of players.
Born and raised in Buffalo, NY, Nick has a Bachelor’s degree in history from Boston University and a Master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University. He interned at Little League International where he covered the Little League Baseball World Series. Nick then spent over three years as a newspaper sports reporter and editor at the Bradford Era in Bradford, PA and the Daily Freeman in Kingston, NY. He is currently living in Buffalo where he is still holding out hope for a Bills Super Bowl and/or Sabres Stanley Cup.