After a fifth last place finish in eight seasons and a tumultuous offseason, a new season of Sabres hockey starts this week.
By Jack Seewagen
Over the last decade or so, the Buffalo Sabres have given their loyal fans few things to cheer about. Since being bought by current owner Terry Pegula during the 2010-11 season, the team has had to endure an NHL record ten seasons without playoff hockey. The team hopes to end that drought this season, which is much easier said than done.
During the pandemic shortened 2020-21 season, the Sabres looked as bad as any hockey team has ever looked. They tied an NHL record for consecutive losses with 18, which led to the firing of coach Ralph Krueger. His interim replacement, Don Granato, was named as the new permanent head coach at the end of the season. The team finished with the worst overall record in the league, with a meager 37 points in the shortened season.
The offseason wasn’t much better for the team. Most of the headlines revolved around all-star center Jack Eichel, the team’s captain over the last three seasons. After missing most of last season with a herniated disc in his spine, Eichel’s relationship with the team soured to the point of no return over disagreements regarding a surgery to fix the herniation. While still technically a member of the team at the time of writing, the former franchise player has been placed on the long term reserve list while both parties try desperately to find a move.
Other than Eichel, this offseason saw multiple long time Sabres players move towards greener pastures. After leading the team in points last season, center Sam Reinhart was traded to the Florida Panthers. Veteran defensemen Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe were also traded to the Flyers and Blackhawks, respectively. The goaltending tandem of Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton also found new homes this offseason.
The most notable addition to the team came in the form of defenseman Owen Power, who was the number one pick in this year’s draft. This is the second time in the last four seasons that the Sabres have gotten the top pick in the draft and used it on a defenseman. Power will spend this season finishing up his college hockey career as a member of the University of Michigan Wolverines.
The Sabres do have some veterans returning, most notably winger Jeff Skinner. After scoring 40 goals during the 2018-19 season, Skinner was given a massive eight year contract with the team. Now 29, Skinner has failed to meet the levels he reached that season, and if he doesn’t have a big rebound year, that contract can be viewed as nothing less than a disaster.
With the Eichel situation in turmoil, 21 year old defenseman Rasmus Dahlin is now the new face of the team. The top overall pick in the 2018 draft has shown flashes of brilliance, but Sabres fans expect a lot more out of him, especially since his contract was just extended this offseason. The young swede will be hungry to prove he can be one of the top defensemen in this league.
The Sabres offense is full of young, untapped potential. After an exciting rookie year, 20 year old center Dylan Cozens already has a huge role to play on this team. The same can be said for 22 year old center Casey Mittelstadt, who for the first time since being drafted is set to be a vital part of the team’s scoring attack. Other players like Tage Thompson, Rasmus Asplund, and Arttu Ruotsalainen will look to bring a spark to a team in desperate need of one.
Throughout the entire playoff drought, the Sabres have been void of consistency at the goaltender position. This trend will likely continue this season, as the two current netminders in rotation are 40 year old Craig Anderson and 32 year old Dustin Tokarski. Sabres fans hope this is just a transition period while highly valued prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen hones his skills in the minors.
Unfortunately for Buffalo fans, expectations for this team are at an all time low. The humiliating Eichel saga mixed with departures of several team leaders mean this team is starting from scratch for what feels like the thousandth time over the last ten years. On a positive, the team was so bad last year that even the smallest signs of positivity will feel huge. One can hope that Granato and his young squad can find some sort of identity this year, because if not, it is very likely the team will spend yet another season in the NHL’s basement.