Last season the Buffalo Sabres had little, if any, expectations for their forward group. Jack Eichel had yet to be traded, Sam Reinhart was gone, and Jeff Skinner was coming off one of the worst offensive seasons in his career. The difference a single year makes is nothing short of amazing for this team. Skinner turned back into his former self, Tage Thompson became a number-one center, Alex Tuch was a leader and driving offensive force, and down in Rochester the Sabres’ top prospects Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka blossomed into NHL-caliber players.
Going into this season, coach Don Granato has a wonderful dilemma on his hands. He already has the reliable line of Skinner-Thompson-Tuch to score in any situation, and now he has two more young talents primed for an NHL entrance. The Sabres also have Victor Olofsson coming off of a career-high point total last season, and meshing him with Dylan Cozens or Casey Mittelstadt will be a massive opportunity for him. With all of this scoring talent accumulated up front, there is a log jam that will cause some players to be moved down the lineup, or possibly traded by year’s end.
Sabres’ Youth Will Make Lineup Decisions Tough
Quinn has shown that one season is not the ultimate judge of his talents. One year his production will be lower than expected, but then the following year will be the one where he figures out what is needed out of him to be a productive player. This fact was evident in his junior career, up through his current pro career with the Rochester Americans.
In the season prior to being drafted by the Sabres 8th overall, he scored 12 goals and 32 points in 61 games with the Ottawa 67s. Then, the following season when he was drafted, he potted a massive 52 goals and 89 points in 61 games. When he came to the Americans, he had very little to show as he scored only two goals and nine points in 15 games. This lack of production motivated him and gave him the drive to become dominant once again the following 2021-22 season as he scored 26 goals and 61 points in 46 games while adding a single goal and assist in his two-game NHL callup. He has shown that it takes him time to adjust to a new league, but that he will eventually become the goal scorer he is meant to be.
Peterka made his way to North America this past year and spent it dominating the American Hockey League (AHL). His playmaking skills were on display regularly as he led the Americans in scoring, putting up 28 goals and 68 points in 70 games. He also got a two-game NHL look by the Sabres but failed to register a point during that time. In those two games, he still looked like an NHL player, though, as his drive for scoring chances and ability to read plays were among the best for the team on those nights.
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One or both of these players will be on the opening night roster for the 2022-23 Sabres. With the potential they bring and the scoring ability they possess, Granato will be giving them both a serious look to round out his top forward group. The question then remains of whose spot they take.
The Outliers in the Sabres’ Current Lineup
With the top forward group being anything but set in stone, there will be a few players that could end up being outliers and shift to the bottom six. Casey Mittelstadt is the first player that comes to mind due to his injury problems from last year. He was poised to be the Sabres’ top-line center but fell to injury early in the year. Each time he came back to the lineup, he was not there long before the injury bug bit him again. What was promising was the fact that he made the most of his chances when he was in the lineup. He scored six goals and 19 points in 40 games while being regulated to a third-line position, and he did so with a determination to regain his position in the top forward group. Should he be healthy this season, he has the capacity to score 20 goals and push for top-six playing time again.
Kyle Okposo is the second player that could find himself losing a spot to the youth developed in Rochester. There is no question that he was a key contributor last season as he scored 21 goals and 45 points, but his talents beyond the scoresheet are where his value truly lies. He is poised to potentially become the next Sabres captain, and that leadership will mean the world to the young players learning from him. His role fits as a third-line player who has the ability to move up if needed, and he is a reliable option for the second power-play unit. Giving the second-line roster spot to Quinn or Peterka will allow that player to grow, and give Okposo the opportunity to mentor the other youngsters that accompany him in the bottom six.
The Sabres Have Potential Up Front But Need Results
It is fun to talk about the theories for what the projected lineups will be in the coming seasons, but where it matters is the results. The question to be answered is if Quinn and Peterka are ready for the NHL and if they can find a way to produce consistently. Will Quinn have another learning season where he scores very little and adjusts his game the following year? Will Peterka lose his scoring touch in the NHL? These uncertainties will cause a massive impact on the Sabres’ scoring potential.
Having Skinner, Thompson, and Tuch will be a safety net for the young players, and having Olofsson, Mittelstadt, and Cozens develop further will be of paramount importance. Olofsson still has the capacity and scoring ability to reach the 30-goal mark, and if he finds chemistry with the right players, he can easily hit it. Cozens making the most of his chances and actually finishing them this coming season will determine his value to the top-six. Should he continue to be snakebitten, he will likely find himself moved down the lineup for someone like Mittelstadt.
Results are all that matter now as the development process continues. The log jam up front will create competition for ice time, and only put pressure on everyone to continue scoring. The prospects chosen at the most recent NHL Draft all have high potential to be in the Sabres’ future top-six, and the youth movement will only improve the current product on the ice. As a result, it will be fantastic to see who will stay and who will be moved in favor of young players in the coming years.