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Buffalo Sabres 2022-23 season preview: Playoff chances, projected points, roster rankings


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Welcome to The Athletic’s 2022-23 edition of the team season previews. Check out all the previews as they’re released right here.

The Buffalo Sabres haven’t made the playoffs since 2010-11. That’s 11 years without a postseason berth and all signs point to that streak extending to 12 years.

Not all bad seasons are created equally though and last year’s Sabres squad is a testament to that. Crushed by the weight of false hope in year’s past, there was something refreshing about the team’s most recent failed season. It didn’t feel like failure at all. It may have been an actual stepping stone with a flickering light shining off in the distance. A strong close to the season was a big part of that.

 

A 75-point season is really nothing to write home about, but it still felt like a win despite all the losses piling up. Many expected the absolute worst for the Sabres, but instead the team showed some promise that better days are on the horizon. The vibes were strong.

Patience is key and there’s still a lot of work to be done to build a sustainable contender. It will take a bit more losing to get there and they’re on the right track for that next season. If it means building it right this time, what’s another losing season anyway?


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The projection

If we’re going off vibes, there are few teams that were stronger than Buffalo last year. The Sabres were excruciatingly bad in 2021 going into the 2021-22 season with very little hope, but they somehow managed a small turnaround, earning 75 points and being a whole lot of fun along the way. Though there is still a lot of work left to be done, things are starting to look up again in Buffalo.

Still, the 2022-23 season is expected to be a trying one with the team’s most likely point total being somewhere in the same ballpark as last season. The Sabres have a 55 percent chance of improving on last season’s point total, but any improvement is likely to be modest at best. For now, baby steps are the goal and even an 80-point season would be welcome progress after a decade of turmoil. Buffalo has a 36 percent chance of reaching that mark or higher. That’s not a bad shot and would represent a solid stepping stone for the team’s rebuild.

In order for this rebuild to work though, another year of being really bad is probably the best course of action – and Buffalo seems well-poised to be just that. Given the depth of this year’s draft, being a bottom-five team is much more appealing.

The Atlantic is full of juggernaut teams, followed by a few teams on the rise. It’s uber-competitive and Buffalo isn’t ready for that yet. Rushing into things is exactly how the Sabres ended up here in a rebuild redux. It sucks, but patience is the key. The Sabres have a roster that demands it, one that looks like it will finish in the neighbourhood of 70-to-80 points this season.

Good vibes can only take a team so far and while the Sabres looked like they had plenty to build off of last season, development isn’t linear. Another season in the league’s basement would be good for the long run. It’s not Buffalo’s destiny, but it is the team’s most likely landing spot next season.


The big question

How big of an impact can Owen Power have in his rookie season?

There were a lot of positive developments in Buffalo last season and one of the most promising in that regard was the play of 2021 first pick Owen Power. He played just eight games for the Sabres which is not a lot to go off of, but those eight games showed a lot of promise and a strong signal that Power would be a special player. He made an immediate impact.

Usually, young defensemen are offered the chance to get their feet wet with sheltered minutes on a lesser pair. Not Power, who was thrown into the deep end immediately and told to swim. Power’s first career game was against Toronto and in that game his most common forward opponents were Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews. Welcome to the NHL, kid.

That matchup didn’t exactly go swimmingly, but Power managed and his responsibilities steadily climbed from there. In each of the next seven games, Power generally received the toughest matchups each opposing team had to offer, immediately logging 22-to-23 minutes per night. At five-on-five, Power trailed only Mattias Samuelsson in ice time.

What separates the defenders who have it and the ones who don’t is their ability to win those minutes. Playing a lot of minutes doesn’t mean a whole lot if a player isn’t actually playing well in them.

That wasn’t the case with Power. He delivered the goods – he earned those minutes.

Buffalo was a weak possession team for most of the season, but that changed when Power arrived. The last month of the season is hardly the place to make judgements, but it’s still notable that every Sabres defender was above 50 percent in expected goals. Power, at 54.3 percent, was second on that list. His presence allowed others to shift into more appropriate roles, the tide that lifts all boats. Power was a strong offensive driver while not giving a whole lot back the other way. Expected goals is also only half the battle – actual goals matter too. Maybe not a whole lot in a tiny sample like this one, but it’s certainly noteworthy that Power was the only Sabres defender to be on for more goals for than against.

Power’s first impression at five-on-five look extremely promising and if he can continue to drive play at that level, the Sabres have a potential franchise piece on the blue line (a second one, in fact, if Dahlin keeps blossoming). It’s probably safer not to anoint Power right away, but what he’s shown in his first NHL taste was definitely tantalizing. Sabres fans have every right to be excited.

That leads us to his projected value for next season. Normally, rookie projections are based on what they did outside the NHL and it takes 15-to-20 games of NHL action before earning a real projection. But Power is a special class of player where exceptions can be made.

Based on his small eight-game sample, Power is already projected to be a true top pair defender, one who can deliver 1.7 wins of value for Buffalo. That’s in a class with players like Jonas Brodin and Mikhail Sergachev and a shade above Moritz Seider’s rookie season at 1.54 wins (though Seider is projected to be stronger in his sophomore season at two wins). That was a Calder-worthy season and it’s no surprise that Power is the preseason favorite to win it this year.

Perhaps it’s an overzealous ranking, one that puts undue pressure on Power to be an immediate difference-maker as a rookie. But there was a reason he was selected first overall and what he’s shown so far makes him plenty worthy of high expectations. Power looks like he can be a cornerstone piece for the Sabres, one that can spark a turnaround for the franchise.

 

The wildcard

Is Eric Comrie the goalie Buffalo has been searching for?

We’re not going to go all the way back to the start of the Sabres’ playoff drought because that’d be excessive. So let’s stick to the last three seasons’ worth of goalies who started games: Linus Ullmark, Carter Hutton, Jonas Johansson, Andrew Hammond, Dustin Tokarski, Michael Houser, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Craig AndersonAaron Dell and Malcolm Subban. That’s 10 guys since the beginning of the 2019-20 season. Not great. Not great at all.

Anderson, Subban and Luukkonen are back in the fold, but they’re all imperfect fits; Anderson is 41, Subban’s career save percentage is .898 and Luukkonen couldn’t stick in the NHL last season despite the organization’s glaring need for something — anything — resembling a viable option. Devon Levi is a solid prospect with long-term potential, but he’s got a grand total of zero professional games under his belt. So, all signs point to Eric Comrie getting a long look — and based on his first protracted NHL stint last season, with the Jets, he deserves it. Comrie put up a .920 save percentage in 19 appearances last season with a Goals Saved Above Expected of 9.9. The latter was 14th in the league.

If that’s what he brings to the table for Buffalo, they’d take it 10 times out of 10. And frankly, he doesn’t even have to be that good. After years of searching, “reliably average” would be good enough. Between him, Luukkonen and Levi, they’re at least on track to have options.


The core

Alex TuchTage Thompson Jeff SkinnerVictor Olofsson, Owen Power, Rasmus Dahlin, Craig Anderson

The Sabres have been building a core that seems to finally be coming into their own. The flashy new piece of that is Power, who got off to a very strong start. But he’s not the only defenseman who faces high expectations. Dahlin’s play trended in the wrong direction after his rookie year, but he’s really started to turn it around as of late. So maybe 2022-23 can be the breakout season the Sabres have been waiting on, considering how much he’s already grown under head coach Don Granato over the last year.

There’s still some risk to his game that burns Buffalo, and he isn’t some stalwart at defending his own blue line. But he can lead the Sabres’ breakout to spark offensive plays. And he was one of the better puck-distributing defenders with a high rate of primary shot assists that measured up to players like Aaron Ekblad and Mikhail Sergachev. Maybe with Power in the fold full time, there’s a bit less pressure on Dahlin. And with more growth from the forward group, he’ll have more offensive support to continue finishing his setups.

Up front, Tage Thompson is coming off a breakout year where he scored 38 goals and 68 points in 78 games. A shift to center clearly suited him, and helped him finally hit the stride envisioned for him. In all situations, his shot rate and expected goal generation is close to his 2020-21 numbers, but this time he had the finishing to match.

Below the surface at five-on-five, Thompson had some of the best underlying numbers of his career in the 49-percent range with his actual goals percentage following suit. There’s still some defensive warts in Buffalo and goaltending issues weighing him down, but it’s a sign that this year may not be a one-off. Since the model factors in more than just last year — it’s the last three years which are weighed by recency and adjusted for age — it’s not sold on him just yet. But that can easily change if Thompson shows this was a step in his progression that he’ll continue to build on. He’s projected to be worth 1.5 wins, but was on pace for 2.1 wins last year. That’s top-line caliber. That’s what the Sabres are banking on after handing him a $50 million extension.

That raise will make Thompson the second highest paid forward in Buffalo. The leader is still Jeff Skinner. His play may not match the salary he makes, but he’s still a productive part of this team. He rebounded to score at the second highest rate of his career, with 2.77 points per 60. At five-on-five, he helped the team’s offensive generation more than any other regular. Skinner’s shot generation played a big part in that; after an uncharacteristic dip in shot volume, he was closer to what was expected of him and had the shot quality to match. He was one of the best players on the team at entering the zone with possession, and creating chances in transition.

Thompson and Skinner showed last year what a strong duo they can be, as two players who can each generate scoring chances to keep defenders on their toes. The question is who rounds them out. The options are likely between Victor Olofsson and Alex Tuch, and each one played a good chunk of ice time there.

Olofsson is the more underwhelming option and his stock has dropped off in recent seasons. At five-on-five his game has fallen off and he’s turned into a bit of a power play specialist thanks to his efficient shot. At even strength Olofsson doesn’t stand out enough offensively, nor is he a plus defensively. Maybe usage plays into it as he’s better suited playing with a pass-first option. With Thompson and Skinner, he really doesn’t have that.

Another player whose offense leans toward shots over passes is Tuch. The winger clicked with Thompson and Skinner in about 379 minutes of five-on-five ice time together, where they earned a 54 percent expected goals rate. But keeping that trio together may lead to some lineup imbalance. First, it makes the team top-heavy, putting all their eggs in one basket. Second, it keeps three forwards who can all drive into the zone and generate a high rate of shots together instead of spreading the skillset around the rest of the top-six. Either way, he looks to be a great fit with his new team since joining them in the Jack Eichel trade. He’s getting a lot more playing time on a thinner Buffalo team – and he’s been very effective so far with that extra time. Tuch played at a 2.5-win pace last season on the strength of a 62-point pace with strong underlying numbers.

Between the pipes, the Sabres don’t have that typical ‘core’ starter. They’ll likely have a tandem, headlined by Craig Anderson who took over the starting job last year. His workload wasn’t the easiest behind a below-average defensive team at five-on-five that offered little goal support.

Even with that workload in mind, however, he still conceded 7.8 more goals than expected in all situations. The more this team grows, the more support he’ll have. An average goaltender can be fine if the team around him can make up for his weaknesses, but that probably won’t be the case here. There are questions if Anderson can even still be average at 41 years old. Goaltending is volatile as is and only gets dicier as players age. So it’s worth watching just how much he plays this year, and whether anyone else can push for more playing time. Comrie is the best bet, but Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen has a shot too.

 

The support

At the top of the stack for Buffalo are two young forwards at slightly different points in their development. If the Sabres manage to turn things around for real, it’s a safe bet that Dylan Cozens and Peyton Krebs will have a lot to do with it. Cozens, headed into his age 21 season, is farther along; he had 13 goals and 25 assists in 79 games, with some interesting stuff happening under the hood. His even-strength defense needs work — not uncommon for young players — but not enough to sink what he brought offensively; no Sabre was better at generating scoring chances off his zone entries than Cozens, and he showed a nice balance between creating shots for himself and his teammates. He also, by all accounts, seems to be a plus-character player, if that’s your thing. There’s a lot to like.

Krebs is the same draft year as Cozens and comes with some added attention, as one of Buffalo’s primary returns in the Eichel trade. After an early-season callup from the AHL, he didn’t look out of place, with seven goals and 15 assists in 57 NHL games. The production and pedigree he showed in juniors didn’t manifest itself in his underlying numbers though which is the primary reason his projected value is so low. With Krebs on the ice, his teams had a sub-40 percent expected goals rate while earning just one-third of the goals last season. Buffalo has had a strong recent track record of helping forwards hit their potential – see Thompson, Tage – so there’s reason to believe Krebs can still hit his potential. But there are worrying warts so far that still need to be ironed out.

That track record is what made Casey Mittelstadt a trendy breakout choice ahead of last season. Injuries threw a wrench in all that, and he wound up scoring just six goals in 40 games, though he started rounding into shape by season’s end. Mittelstadt is still just 23; it’s a crucial developmental year for him, just like last one was — but it’s still easy to imagine him turning into a reliable third-line center behind Thompson and Cozens.

The rest of the forward group is dotted with some useful players. The fact that Kyle Okposo returned for a full schedule and 21 goals was one of the best stories of the season. Rasmus Asplund posted the best defensive numbers on the team (2.08 xGA/60) and did enough offensively to finish as a plus GSVA. Vinnie Hinostroza, after years of bouncing around, earned a $1.7 million contract extension and is a useful fourth liner.

The most interesting of all though will be Jack Quinn, the eighth overall pick in 2020. It was a controversial choice at the time, but that’s looking less so after he torched the AHL last season with 61 points in 45 games. That’s extremely impressive for his age and he’s a big wildcard for the Sabres this season. A strong rookie season could bolster the team’s depth scoring and push the Sabres up another level.

Defensively, the main addition was Ilya Lyubushkin, who carries some value as a defense-only option. He makes sense as a potential partner for Power. Mattias Samuelsson, a first-rounder in 2018, has size and the potential to be an effective, long-term, minute-eating option. He led the Sabres in quality of competition making his positive impact on expected goals all the more impressive. Henri Jokiharju seems like a decent third-pair option, but most data doesn’t back it up. He had a team worst 42 percent expected goals last season.


The best case

While everyone was paying attention to the improved Senators and Red Wings thanks to their offseason adds, the Sabres are the true disruptors of the Atlantic thanks to the growth of their young core. Asking for the playoffs may still be a stretch, but making some noise in the East and showing legitimate strides is a win for this squad.

The worst case

Thompson’s breakout year was a fluke, Dahlin’s development stalls, and that trickles down to negatively impact players like Power and Cozens sending the Sabres back into the chaos they finally seem to have broken out of.


The bottom line

Good as the Sabres were down the stretch — and welcome a sight as it was for the fanbase and hockey fans with a sense of justice  — expecting them to carry a 102-point pace over a full season would be pure madness. The good news? It’d be nearly as silly to expect a full-blown backslide. There are legitimate reasons for optimism, and even if only some of them are borne out in full, it’d represent a major step forward.

The Sabres can make that step — and keep feeling positive about the future — even if they don’t make any kind of real playoff push. In fact, the Sabres can make that step even if, based on point total, they’re still pretty bad. This season is about growth from a handful of key, young players like Cozens and Power, and repeat performances from guys like Thompson, Tuch and Dahlin, even though they may well have more to give. There’s reason for optimism in Buffalo, and it doesn’t need to be fully couched. That, for now, should be good enough.

 

 

 

 

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”
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