The Buffalo Sabres have a plethora of young talent waiting in the wings for next season. With the team shaping up to be more competitive, it would not make much sense for general manager (GM) Kevyn Adams to go on a free agent spending spree. The fact remains that a number of Sabres prospects have developed into NHL-caliber players in Rochester this season, so they will be given ample opportunity to take on a full-time role with the big club next year.
Players like JJ Peterka and Jack Quinn will carve themselves out a piece of the scoring roles on the Sabres, and Mattias Samuelsson has made it abundantly clear that he will be a reliable part of the blue line for many years. Owen Power joined the team earlier this week after a heartbreaking loss in the Frozen Four with a stacked Michigan team, and he will most likely not see a day in Rochester based on the Sabres’ need for solid defenders (from ‘Frozen Four Loss Marks The End of an Era’, The Michigan Daily, April 11, 2022). The question, then, is which players are the odd men out? Which young players either have not shown enough growth to justify keeping them, or have simply been outdone by other players for their current roles?
Jacob Bryson got his first real shot at the NHL last season during the COVID season, as many of his teammates went down with illness or injury, and he showed a lot of good things that year. His biggest asset is his speed, but beyond that he plays a decent defensive game, along with a very predictable offensive one.
Bryson should be able to make scoring chances happen with the skating skill that he possesses, but he just doesn’t. All he can do is make solid passes and get back in a play if he messes up at the offensive blue line. Beyond that, he does not make much use of his shot, and he gets bullied off the puck very easily by players with any size advantage. The Sabres’ blue line has a number of quality players, and Bryson doesn’t fit the dynamic anymore.
While most of these skills are good to have in any defender, Bryson doesn’t seem to be a better option than anyone else on the Sabres’ blue line. Should they keep him, he seems to fit in as the seventh defenseman for next season. He is still a decent player and would most likely prefer to find a place to have him playing full time, as opposed to whenever injury may call for it. He’s a restricted free agent (RFA) at the end of this season, so the Sabres could trade his rights to another team in order to garner another future asset. Ultimately it comes down to the gameplay. Bryson just doesn’t have the size to defend against bigger players in the NHL, and in the end that’s a liability.
Unfortunately, this is a case of when a free agent signing from Europe doesn’t pan out. Routsalainen has had a very good year in Rochester this season (49GP – 18G – 29A – 47P), but he hasn’t been able to translate that success to the NHL on the occasions he has been with the Sabres. His ice time has always been in a bottom-six role, but he did see some power-play minutes during his NHL stints. The problem is that a player like him will not want to stick around in Rochester forever. He will want time in the NHL based on his minor league production, and that will not be in the cards for the Sabres next year.
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He has decent skating ability, is willing to be gritty and plays an agitator role. Plus, he has a very good shot. These skills all are giving him a lot of success in the minors, but that success will not be enough to give him a roster spot in Buffalo. Too many other players will fill his role more reliably, and he will be on the outside looking in for any playing time.
A possible indicator that the Sabres have no intention of retaining Routsalainen is the fact that he normally wears No. 25, and that number recently went to the first overall pick in the 2021 draft, Owen Power.
Power wore No. 22 at Michigan, so the expectation was for him to take that number, as nobody on the team officially wears it. The issue here is that Jack Quinn wears No. 22, and it’s assumed that the number is being reserved for him when he joins the Sabres full time next season. This might be speculation, but considering Routsalainen has his contract expiring at the end of this year, it’s likely he and the Sabres cut ties for now so he can return to the Finnish League.
Bjork was the player part of the very underwhelming deal that sent Taylor Hall to the Boston Bruins after a failed experiment here in Buffalo. Right off the bat, Bjork was on fire. He was pressuring pucks, creating chances, and finishing a handful himself as well. Once the dust settled last year and this season began, all of the “trade mojo” and excitement was gone. Bjork moved into a bottom-six role, but he couldn’t hold on to it. He has been outclassed and outplayed by the likes of John Hayden, and as soon as Zemgus Girgensons returned from injury, the writing was already on the wall.
He is under contract for another season at a $1.6 million cap hit, and while that number is not difficult to retain, it isn’t worth keeping either. Unfortunately, Bjork has not contributed much this season, scoring only six points in 52 games (the same number of points he had last season with the Sabres in 15 games) while having one of the worst plus/minus numbers on the team as well (minus-15). None of his stats point to anything worth retaining for next year, and the Sabres should look to move him at the draft if possible.
Bjork is meant to be a solid power forward and two-way player. He can throw his weight around decently and does have good scoring touch, but none of these have translated to long-term NHL success. He isn’t noticeable most nights, and for this reason, head coach Don Granato has made him a healthy scratch on more than one occasion. Effort is everything to this team right now, and while Bjork does have it, his production doesn’t match the effort to give him a spot over anyone else.
The future is very bright for the Buffalo Sabres, and it’s a fantastic problem to have where too much young talent is pushing for playing time on a regular basis. That helps keep players driven and hungry, because at any time their spot can be taken from them by another person. The players mentioned above are the ones that should be moved or let go for depth and performance purposes, but that does not mean they don’t deserve a shot somewhere else.
There are plenty of young talented players waiting in the wings for a shot at the NHL. Isak Rosen and Prokhor Poltapov — from the 2021 draft — will both make cases in next year’s training camp, while Power will see NHL action for the remainder of this season. Erik Portillo and Devon Levi both will play another year in college before joining the goaltending ranks (from ‘Record-setting goalie prospect Devon Levi informs Sabres he’s returning to school’, The Buffalo News, April 4, 2022). Simply put, there is a lot to look forward to in the coming years, and it’s time to move past players that aren’t cutting it.