May 8 was the last time the Buffalo Sabres played an NHL game. Though the preseason is meant for player analysis, training, and getting back in the flow of competition, this season has a different feel. It has a normal feel. The Sabres’ preseason opener on Tuesday, Sept. 28, is highly anticipated.
Sunday’s Blue and Gold scrimmage was followed by a handful of roster cuts. The team’s 2021 draft picks, Josh Bloom, Viljami Marjala, and Olivier Nadeau, were sent back to junior, while tonight, the Sabres visit the Columbus Blue Jackets (7 PM ET). New faces on the blue line and young skaters battling for a spot on the opening night roster will be followed, but the main focus will be in the crease.
Sabres’ Competition in Net and New Faces Highlight Preseason Opener
Head coach Don Granato and his staff, as well as the Buffalo faithful, have a few performances to evaluate, but most of their attention will be on three areas in particular: the competition in net, new additions to the blue line via trade, and the young forwards vying for NHL experience.
Craig Anderson vs. Aaron Dell
The opening-night starter has yet to be decided. It was assumed that Aaron Dell would patrol the crease, but the veteran Craig Anderson has made Granato’s decision a tad more difficult. Neither Anderson nor Dell allowed a goal during the Blue and Gold scrimmage, and based on last season’s performance, the nod should go to Anderson. Dell had a .857 save percentage in seven games played with the New Jersey Devils, while Anderson had a .915 save percentage, and made two playoff appearances for the Washington Capitals. However, these numbers were likely influenced by the teams in front of them and not necessarily their abilities.
About the two netminders, Granato said: “If it started tomorrow, those two guys would be one and two.” He added, “Their resume says they’re the guys who can handle this.”
That also implies that Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen will start with the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League (AHL). Yet, there is a chance the young goalie will be on the NHL roster sooner rather than later.
Anderson is not on the roster for tonight’s preseason opener, so Dell gets the nod. Dustin Tokarski is his backup.
The Sabres’ Newbies
Tonight will show how well Will Butcher and Robert Hagg fit on the blue line. Both defensemen were acquired via trade this offseason. Hagg will replace Rasmus Ristolainen as the Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers swapped blueliners — Buffalo also received two draft picks in the exchange. Butcher was taken off the Devils’ hands for future considerations.
“They said they really wanted me here. It’s a fresh start for me with new coaches, new teammates,” Hagg told NHL.com
Butcher and Hagg were on opposite groups during the Blue and Gold scrimmage. Butcher was paired with Ethan Prow and Hagg skated alongside Colin Miller. Hagg is not in the lineup tonight, and Butcher will again be paired with Prow on the second line.
Sabres Young Forwards
Granato will have an uphill battle in Buffalo, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Due to the long rebuild, the Sabres have developed a pool of prospects, and he has had to toy with his lines since the beginning of training camp. But the preseason, and maybe the full 2021-22 campaign, will give him a chance to evaluate the organization’s youth and find the right groupings.
Related: Sabres Preseason Section
The Jack Eichel drama is still unfolding, but Jack Quinn, 20, and Arttu Rustsaleinen, 23, are two names to follow. Quinn was Buffalo’s first-round selection at the 2020 NHL Draft and registered nine points in 15 AHL games last season. Rustsaleinen played well in the Prospects Challenge and played 17 games for Buffalo in 2020-21, with six points.
John-Jason Peterka, 19, was great for Germany this year. In six appearances on the national squad and five more for the U20 team, he recorded 11 points. Between his time with EHC Munchen and EC Salzburg, the winger posted 36 points in 42 games with a plus-14 rating. He scored a goal in the Prospects Challenge and created a slew of chances.
EHC Red Bull Muenchen’s John Jason Peterka (GEPA pictures/ City-Press) Brett Murray, Rochester Americans (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)
Brett Murray, 23, who skated on a line with Peterka during the Prospects Challenge, may have the best opportunity to land on the opening-night roster. He played two NHL games last season, with a plus-1 rating. He also played 27 games and scored 20 points for Rochester during his 2020-21 AHL campaign.
Peterka and Quinn will be wingers on the first line tonight with Dylan Cozens at center. Murray will play alongside Ruotsalainen on the third line.
Sabres and Youth Worth Watching
Even though there are new additions on the blue line and young players vetting for an opportunity to make the NHL roster, the main competition to focus on tonight will be in net. The lines can be tinkered with, but solidifying the starting goalie will help the blue line get accustomed to and build confidence with a new netminder.
There’s a lot to look forward to, but there are also a lot of questions that need to be answered. Welcome back, Sabres fans.