Trying to predict the Sabres' lines – or any hockey team’s lines for that matter – is often an exercise in futility as injuries derail the best laid plans, and coaches are likely to throw names in a blender when a team is healthy if things aren’t going particularly well. That said, it’s fun to think about, and because the Sabres roster is essentially set barring any mid-summer additions, let’s try to figure out some combinations for your 2022-23 Buffalo Sabres.
Jeff Skinner – Tage Thompson – Alex Tuch
You don’t mess with the classic pairings.
Peanut butter and jelly. Gin and tonic. Forrest and Jenn-ay.
Sure, Don Granato pulled the rip cord on this Sabres trio late in the season, but there’s little doubt that they will be reassembled periodically throughout the year. The three of these players complement each other too well to be apart for long stretches of time. For example, let’s take a look at the highlight compilation of Tage Thompson’s breakout 38-goal season to see how the trio managed to elevate one another’s game when they played together.
Skinner really doesn’t get enough credit for his playmaking. He had some unbelievable feeds to Thompson this season as he passed through goalies from behind the net into the slot, fed no-look backhand passes directly onto Thompson’s stick, and generally looked to dish to his linemates more he typically has in the past. The $9m man had the second-most assists of his career this year and had only two fewer apples than his career high. Thompson, of course, is the primary trigger man on the line with Skinner and Tuch cleaning up the garbage after the 6’7” center fires the puck on net. Tuch, meanwhile, is bullying the opposition in the corners and digging pucks out for the two snipers. There’s one highlight in the above highlight package where Tuch straight up throws his man down in the corner, takes his lunch (with the puck) and feeds it to Thompson for the goal. This trio just works.
Victor Olofsson – Peyton Krebs – Jack Quinn
Reigning AHL rookie of the year Jack Quinn needs someone to feed him the puck, and there is no available player more qualified to do that than Peyton Krebs. At his best, Krebs is a fast, shifty, skilled playmaking center in the vein of Tim Connolly; he’s a guy whose vision, rather than his shot, will define his career in the NHL. In 10 games during the AHL playoffs this season, Krebs had a big, fat goose egg in the goal column, but he had 11 assists in those contests. Quinn needs a center who can provide the kind of offensive chances that Krebs will offer, as evidenced by his 26 goals in 45 AHL games this past year. Olofsson on the left flank provides another sniper target for Krebs to find, and he can also act as the veteran presence on this otherwise incredibly young line. Readers at home are probably thinking this line will get eaten alive defensively, and to that thought, allow me to paraphrase of Back to the Future:
“Defense? Where we’re going, we don’t need defense.”
All gas, no brakes and goals as far as the eye can see.
JJ Peterka – Dylan Cozens – Kyle Okposo
This line can do a little bit of everything (on paper).
They’ll get under the opposition’s skin due to the pesky play of Dylan Cozens and his rugged brand of hockey. They’ll execute sound defense under the veteran tutelage of Kyle Okposo who knows his way around all 200 feet of an NHL rink, and they’ll have some wildcard offensive ability with Peterka as the new guy.
Peterka is somehow still massively undervalued as a rookie breakout candidate after an incredible season as a 19-year-old in the AHL which saw him post 28 goals and 40 assists for 68 points in 70 games. That’s a super rookie season by any measure, and he could put up considerable points playing along two steady contributors like Cozens and Okposo. The latter, as an elder statesman and front runner for the captaincy position, showed that he’s not dead yet when it comes to offensive production. With 21 goals and 45 points, he has plenty of juice left to carry a third-line position on this young Sabres team. Cozens is primed for his own breakout campaign, and when paired with a steady veteran and wily rookie, he could take his offensive game to the next level.
This line has two-way potential with scoring upside to boot.
Sure, this line feels a bit like the island of misfit toys.
There are guys playing their off wing, Mittelstadt is relegated to a 4th line center role like he was under Ralph Krueger when he played with Jimmy Vesey and Connor Sheary, and no one here is particularly good at faceoffs (although Girgensons is probably the go-to guy in the dot as he executed at 49% last year).
Still, every guy here is capable of putting up at least 10 goals, and if you’re getting that from your fourth line, you’re doing well. Honestly, you could throw all three linemates into a blender and throw this trio out on the ice with different combinations and still end up with largely the same results. Asplund and Girgensons will do the hard defensive work, and Mittelstadt provides at least the hope of a bit more offense in a limited role.
Back to Reality:
These lines relegate Vinnie Hinostroza and Anders Bjork to the role of extra forwards which feels somewhat unlikely. The Sabres are paying Bjork and Hinostroza too much money to waive either, so they likely fit into the lineup as result, meaning JJ Peterka and/or Jack Quinn won’t end up making the team. Most years there is a fun young player that everyone is excited to watch with the big team, and the final roster cut shows that player is sent back to Rochester. It’s possible that Bjork and Hinostroza both fit into the lineup while Quinn and Peterka return to Rochester and Brett Murray takes the extra forward role.
Or they win the spots making this a much more fun roster. We’ll see.