Ready Or Not, Here They Come
The Sabres appear to be done with free agency after making two quiet additions in the form of defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin and goaltender Eric Comrie. The team’s young group of promising players will not face much external competition to make the team, as Jack Quinn and John-Jason Peterka have only Anders Bjork and Arttu Ruotsalainen to beat out for roster spots (in addition to wild card guys like Brett Murray and Sean Malone).
This is a young man’s team with a few chosen elders and the results of the season will largely be decided by the under-25 crowd. For those wondering which players are in that group, here’s the list: Casey Mittelstadt, Tage Thompson, Peyton Krebs, Jack Quinn, Rasmus Asplund, JJ Peterka, Rasmus Dahlin, Henri Jokiharju, Jacob Bryson, Mattias Samuelsson, Owen Power and potentially Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.
Sure, Jeff Skinner, Kyle Okposo, Craig Anderson, Eric Comrie and Victor Olofsson will have something to say about where this team finishes, but ultimately it will be the progress of the young vanguard that determines whether this club is playing any Meaningful Games in March. Whether it’s fair to put that kind of pressure on the young core is another question entirely, and one that General Manager Kevyn Adams must believe should be answered in the affirmative because there will be no progress in the standings without major development from the young guys.
After all, it would be hard for Okposo to top the unexpected Renaissance season he experienced last year, a season in which he scored more goals (21) than at any other point in his Sabres tenure, while also tying his highest Sabres point total with 45. It’s highly unlikely he significantly improves on that. Likewise, Jeff Skinner bounced back in a major way last year as he tied his career high in points with 63 – a mark he met twice before: once with the Sabres and once with the Carolina Hurricanes. That’s a proven high-water mark for him. Alex Tuch, a young man in his own right at 26, but an elder statesman on this team, hit a career-best .76 points per game last year, and while his effort and intangibles are off the charts, it’s fair to wonder if he has met his offensive ceiling as well.
The Sabres need those three players to hold onto last year's level of success and hope that the young group behind them can find another gear to propel this team out of the NHL’s cellar because it’s hard to imagine that group significantly improving on their respecting 2021-22 performances. The young forwards available to the Sabres who could provide a boost certainly offer some progress, starting with noted tall center Tage Thompson, who shot out of a cannon last year and put up a season no one saw coming.
The Oyster Bay, New York product (or Phoenix, Arizona product, depending on whether you look at Capfriendly or NHL.com) had a shockingly good season last year as Don Granato moved the 6’7” forward to center where he put up 68 points in 78 games. It’s tough to start this list with Thompson because improving on that season feels greedy in some ways; if he merely duplicates that 38-goal season, fans are likely doing cartwheels through Alumni Plaza. His progress will be measured in his improving on his defensive game while maintaining his offensive game rather than adding to his points-per-game or goal totals.
Breakthrough performance possibilities among young Sabres forwards are best exemplified by Dylan Cozens and Casey Mittelstadt. The former is seen as two-way forward who can play both wing and center while contributing rugged play when called upon. The Sabres will need more than 38 points from Cozens – should he win the second-line center position – if the team is to improve dramatically. This team has been roaming the desert looking for a 55-point second-line center since Ryan O’Reilly had a Darcy-style suffering meltdown and went west, and Cozens offers the promise of that defensively minded center who can hold his own at both ends of the rink. And if Cozens does indeed move to the wing, as he did during the World Championship tournament this year, then former 8th overall draft pick Casey Mittelstadt might be a candidate for that second-line center position.
True, Sabres fans have been waiting for that outcome since Mittelstadt was given the pivot job behind Jack Eichel in 2018 following the departure of the aforementioned-and-current St. Louis player. Mittelstadt still has untapped potential, but after a couple injury plagued seasons, coupled with whatever Ralph Krueger did to literally every player on his team – well, hope has basically run out on Mittelstadt. The Sabres would improve dramatically if he’s able to finally come into his own.
And now we get to the true out-of-the-blue hopefuls. Jack Quinn could have a rookie-of-the-year type season like he had in the AHL in 2021-22, or JJ Peterka could prove to be a better Vinnie Hinostroza at only 20 years old. Maybe 21-year-old Peyton Krebs comes out of nowhere to beat out both Cozens and Mittelstadt as the second-line center. Realistically, the Sabres will need a big offensive season from one of the rookies while also getting a 55+ point season from a center candidate if they’re to improve.
Meanwhile, on defense, it’s all about limiting the bleeding.
Year five is at hand for former first-overall selection Rasmus Dahlin, and the Sabres need him to find another gear if they’re to take a step forward. By this time in his respective development, fans had written off the other Rasmus – Rasmus Ristolainen. That fate hasn’t befallen the young Swede, despite the fact that Dahlin only eclipsed Ristolainen’s year-four point total by 8, but Dahlin will need to significantly increase his production and decrease the blunders if the Sabres are to improve dramatically.
Owen Power will take his lumps as a rookie. That said, they will need him to be a reliable defensive presence who can initiate a breakout reliably. Is it unfair to pin the progress of a team on a rookie? Absolutely, but that is the position the Sabres put themselves in under Adams, so Power will need to be a stalwart on the back end. Likewise, Mattias Samuelsson will need to up his point total while embracing the role of defensive stalwart. He and Lyubushkin must comprise the defensive conscience of this team.
Lastly, Luukkonen will need to be impactful at times this season. Sure, Anderson and Comrie will start the year, but Luukkonen will be called upon when injuries and fatigue inevitably strike the team’s 41-year-old goaltender. If Luukkonen can be a difference maker in those moments, the Sabres have a chance to improve.
The word “if” features prominently in all of these scenarios.
That’s the position Kevyn Adams put these players in, conceivably because he believes they can answer the “ifs” better than recycled veterans. Time will tell if the youngsters can rise to the occasion, or whether they’re in over their heads.