We’re nearing the end of the 2021, and that means it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Unfortunately, hockey fans won’t have much hockey to watch, since the NHL and NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA) have agreed to begin their Holiday Break early after Tuesday’s games, with practices resuming on Dec. 26 and the regular-season schedule planned to resume on Dec. 27. Santa is still scheduled to make his rounds around the globe, though, and Buffalo Sabres fans are hoping he stops by the KeyBank Center in downtown Buffalo to spread some holiday cheer.
With Christmas just a few days away, Sabres fans have plenty on their wish list when it comes to this team and this season. Here are a few things Sabres fans are asking Santa for on their wish lists this year.
Steady Goaltending From Subban
This wish has got to be at the top of a lot of wish lists this year. Steady goaltending is something the Sabres have not truly had in a long time, not since the days of Ryan Miller. The closest they’ve been to icing a true starting goaltender was with former goalie Linus Ullmark, but he opted to sign a four-year contract with the Boston Bruins during the offseason, so that option departed when he decided to move on from the Sabres. After testing the talents of Craig Anderson, Aaron Dell, Dustin Tokarski, and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, and in response to a slew of goalie injuries, general manager (GM) Kevyn Adams pulled the trigger on a trade to shake things up, acquiring Malcolm Subban from the Chicago Blackhawks for future considerations.
On paper, Subban doesn’t have much more experience than any of the goaltenders the Sabres currently have in their system, save Anderson, the 40-year-old veteran who has been out on injured reserve (IR) and is listed as month-to-month. Subban has never started more than 22 games in a season, and has posted back-to-back seasons with sub-par statistics, posting a 3.18 goals against average (GAA) and 3.20 GAA alongside an .890 save percentage (SV%) and .900 SV% over the last two seasons. From a cursory glance, none of those numbers are too encouraging.
But Sabres fans shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Subban for how he’s performed in the past. While his Sabres debut was a game to forget, his second start between the pipes was a performance to remember: he stopped 45 of 48 shots against the high-powered Pittsburgh Penguins offense en route to an overtime loss, posting a .938 SV% that night. At 27-years-old, he has the potential to be a steady goalie option for the Sabres this season and potentially the next one, and at the very least is a much better option than the other goalies they currently have. The No. 1 wish list item is for him to provide the Sabres with a fighting chance every game, and to steal some points in the standings when he can.
A Boost From Tuch to the Offense
A close second to steady goaltending on the Sabres wish list this year is a boost to the offense, in the form of the debut of newly-acquired Alex Tuch. Sabres fans have had to wait on Tuch, who came back as one of the pieces in the deal that sent former captain Jack Eichel to the Vegas Golden Knights, and they’ll have to wait a bit longer due to games being postponed, even though Tuch was set to make his Sabres debut this week coming back from injury. The Syracuse, New York native and lifelong Sabres fan is sure to make an immediate impact whenever the Sabres play their next game, though, which is hopefully next Monday Dec. 27 against the New York Islanders.
Tuch has solidified himself as a great middle-six power forward in the NHL, and has shown he has the ability to drive the offensive forecheck for his forward line. At six-foot-four and 217 pounds, he is a big body and can outmuscle his opponents off the puck in the “hard” areas of the ice, like the half wall and the corners. In 255 career games, he has scored 61 goals, 78 assists, and 139 points, while notching 29 power play points (PPP) and holding a career shooting percentage (S%) of 10.2. He has a career high in goals and points of 20 and 52, respectively, both coming back in the 2018-19 season with the Golden Knights. Last season, he scored 18 goals and 33 points in 55 games, and was projected to post new career highs prorated over a full 82 games.
At 25-years-old, Tuch is about to enter the prime of his career, and would fit nicely as a piece on the right wing of either the Sabres’ first or second lines, where he could skate next to Casey Mittelstadt or Dylan Cozens and build some chemistry. The Sabres don’t have another player with the same skillset as Tuch, which should make for an exciting injection of offense and a different dimension of firepower than we’ve seen thus far this season. Among the top wishes Sabres fans have this year, this one is definitely among them.
Casey Mittelstadt Healthy & Contributing
In order for Tuch to play with Mittelstadt at center, Mittelstadt has to get healthy and back on the ice first. While the Sabres have played 30 games total so far this season, he has played in just four of those games, missing the other 26 games sitting out on IR. He has one goal in those four appearances, and was slotted primarily at the first-line center position. The 23-year-old was positioned to have a breakout season under new head coach Don Granato, as his play picked up exponentially in the second half of last season after former head coach Ralph Krueger’s firing.
In 41 games last season, Mittelstadt scored 10 goals, 12 assists, and 22 points, scoring at almost a point-per-game clip toward the end of the season. His previous career high in points was 25 points in 72 games in the 2018-19 season, which he would have shattered over a full 82 games. That’s why expectations were so high for him this season, and it’s been hard to watch him get so banged up and miss so much time with his injuries.
What Mittelstadt needs most right now is a break, and this temporary pause and postponement of games for the Sabres and the rest of the NHL might buy him some time to personally rehabilitate and recover and hope to come back into the lineup. Granato said this week that he believes Mittelstadt’s injury is not season-ending, and he does believe that he will return to the ice at some point before the end of the 2021-22 season. Sabres fans can only wish for this to be true.
More Competitive Hockey In 2022
The Sabres weren’t expected to be competitive this season, and most fans expected them to be in a battle for dead last in the NHL standings. However, with their hot start, they showed a glimpse of what could happen when a group of players comes together and plays an effective, inspired system that lets every player play to their strengths. They haven’t enjoyed much success since, though, and find themselves sitting at sixth place in the Atlantic Division and 27th overall in the NHL standings, with a record of 10-15-5, good for 25 points.
In 2022, I think it’s fair to say that Sabres fans are wishing for – and are certainly deserving of – more competitive hockey and meaningful hockey games. 2021 was not a good year for the Sabres, and I’m sure fans would rather forget it altogether (I know I would). 2022 holds a lot of potential, even though it looks like the Sabres are headed for a record-setting 11th straight season of missing the playoffs.
Come next October, the Sabres could be better-positioned to be a better team for a lot of reasons: 2021 first-overall pick Owen Power could join the roster for his rookie season; Jack Quinn, J-J Peterka, and Peyton Krebs could all have a legitimate shot at making the jump to the NHL; and the goaltending situation might look a lot different then, for the better. There are always reasons to be optimistic and the magic of Christmas can never be counted out on making some of our wishes come true. Adams could also do his best to help, too.
Have any last-minute Christmas wishes for the hockey gods? Share them in the comments below!
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Brandon is a Buffalo Sabres Contributor for THW and Co-Host of THW’s ‘Sabres Scoop,’ who received his Master of Science in Sport Administration from Canisius College in Buffalo, NY, and founded his website, Seltytending, in 2017. He is an avid hockey writer and podcaster with prior work experience in the OJHL, NWHL, and NCAA. Twitter: @BSalts15