The Buffalo Sabres have work to do before they can firmly establish themselves as Stanley Cup contenders. The team is in a unique situation where the roster has plenty of promising young prospects that are worth the team’s devotion but has simultaneously (and unexpectedly) shifted gears towards winning now with the acquisitions of veteran needle-movers Taylor Hall and Eric Staal over the offseason.
Related: Buffalo Sabres’ 50-Goal Scorers
Failure to properly navigate the troubling waters ahead will put the Sabres in the notorious sports purgatory; wherein a team is winning enough to inspire local fans yearly only to subsequently come up short, tarnishing their draft equity in the process. To summary plainly, if you’re going to suck, it’s best to suck enthusiastically.
Unfinished Business for Sabres Management
If newly appointed general manager Kevyn Adams rejoices too extensively on his signings thus far, he will be undone just as swiftly as those contracts were established. He needs to remain active in improving the roster surrounding the superstar in the making Jack Eichel while ensuring the future of the team is not too dramatically sacrificed. How many times have Sabres fans agonizingly watched a presumedly failed draft pick turn prominent once they have been sent elsewhere?
The five prospects listed below should be deemed untouchable in my estimation for the upcoming 2020-21 season. Before proceeding, it’s important to note eligible prospects are the players affiliated with the Sabres who are 22 years old or younger, regardless of NHL experience (spoiler alert: Eichel is not eligible since turning 23 years old last October).
Rasmus Dahlin (D, 2019-20: Buffalo, NHL)
I shouldn’t have to debate this one. And yet, while the whispering is dim, Rasmus Dahlin has started to receive skepticism from exasperated enthusiasts looking ahead at others league-wide (Colorado Avalanche’s Cale Makar, Vancouver Canucks’ Quinn Hughes, and the Dallas Stars’ Miro Heiskanen are coming off stellar seasons in 2019-20). The former No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft wrapped up a fruitful sophomore season in his own right, collecting 0.68 points per game (on pace for 56 points over an 82-game span) as a 19-year-old. He displayed clear-cut signs of being an elite talent all throughout with his ability to improvise and stickhandle under pressure.
The skeptics must recognize Dahlin is far and away the youngest of the sensational group of defensemen in the league, and he did so while playing on the worst team among those listed. Such notions do not necessarily point towards the Sabres’ blueliner being the greatest of the bunch, but it does suggest fans should consider context more deeply and practice patience when dealing with prospects that are not yet fully autonomous adults.
Dylan Cozens (C, 2019-20: Lethbridge, WHL)
The Whitehorse native drafted seventh overall in the 2019 NHL draft was one of top players in the WHL, amassing 85 points and 38 goals over 51 games played. One only needs to look at a full game in which Dylan Cozens is a part of to understand his value – he is a complete player with the work ethic needed to succeed at the NHL level, his exertion on constant display.
No matter the role he fills for the Sabres in 2020-21, Cozens’ skillset and intangibles will be key to a deep Sabres playoff run. He has great skating ability to go along with his 6-foot-3, 185-pound frame. He does the dirty work that doesn’t always reflect on the statsheet but makes for an irreplaceable two-way center. The Sabres ceiling this season will largely depend on Cozens’ ability to transfer his dominance in the WHL to the big league.
Henri Jokiharju (D, 2019-20: Buffalo, NHL)
The blue-liner drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks was acquired by the Sabres in 2019 for Alexander Nylander. Henri Jokiharju has played a full season with the club since the trade, a season in which he regularly displayed his exceptional poise and hockey IQ for a youngster. His offensive play isn’t particularly distinct like some of his peers, however he’ll provide consistency and a solid defensive foundation that is critical to scraping together wins in the drawn-out season.
I expect he’ll remain under the radar to some fans but his ability to kill penalties and move the puck decisively will undoubtedly keep him in the Sabres defensive rotation for the foreseeable future.
Jack Quinn (RW, 2019-20: Ottawa, OHL)
The 18-year-old prospect is coming off his best season in the OHL in which he scored over 50 goals. Jack Quinn, selected eighth overall in this year’s draft, proved many doubters wrong over the past season by improving the one part of his game that desperately needed refinement – his skating. While it is still far from where it ultimately needs to be, Quinn has taken the necessary steps in amending his one glaring weakness and he’ll always have the creativity and skills to embarrass opposing defenders.
Despite his proven ability at a young age, many Sabres hopefuls were critical of the draft choice when Marco Rossi was still on the board. While I normally avoid harping on draft decisions, I find it hard to argue against picking Rossi at that spot as it would have cemented the team’s future at the center position alongside Eichel. Regardless of whether the Sabres made the correct choice, Quinn deserves a chance to prove his worth, but he will need to continue to work on his skating, which can sometimes impede his team on defense.
Casey Mittelstadt (C, 2019-20: Rochester, AHL)
In my opinion, the case for Casey Mittelstadt being on this list is simple – he had a rocky 2018-19 season that was no fault of his own, in which he was put in a position that most teenagers could not handle when he was thrust into the second-line center position at 19 years-old. There’s only a handful of players that would have succeeded in his shoes, so that should not detract from his abilities.
He is a great playmaker who can create chances at the NHL level, but was set up to fail over the last couple of years with everchanging coaches and GMs that surely had a negative impact on his development. I’m not saying he’s a guaranteed regular on the roster, but its simply too early to pull the plug.
What Can Fans Expect for Next Season?
Maybe these skaters won’t break out in 2020-21 given their age and lack of experience in the NHL. The Sabres know to an extent what they’re getting from these marquee names, however, successful teams are built on players who step up and go beyond the expectations dictated by their role. The Sabres have significantly bolstered the team’s ceiling this offseason, but where it goes from here will depend on Buffalo’s promising franchise cornerstones.