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Which Buffalo Sabres players have the most to prove and gain down the stretch?


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The Sabres lost for the fifth time in six games on Wednesday night with a shootout loss against the Capitals. Buffalo got a needed point, but they knew how big that second point could have been. They squandered leads of 2-0, 3-1 and 4-2 before eventually losing in a shootout. After the game, Alex Tuch said he felt like he let the team down with a late penalty that helped the Capitals get the tying goal. Zemgus Girgensons called the loss disappointing, and Tyson Jost said, “it stings.”

With 15 games remaining, the Sabres don’t have much time to dwell on any individual loss. The wild-card race is tight, and the Sabres are not in the driver’s seat. They need a group of young players, most of whom have not been in this situation, to rebound quickly and get on a roll. They’re six points behind the Penguins and Islanders with three games in hand on the latter of the two. The Panthers and Capitals are both ahead of the Sabres as well.

Coach Don Granato and general manager Kevyn Adams have both talked about how this is a development opportunity for the team and individual players. The experience of needing two points, being disappointed when you don’t get them and finding a way to move on to the next game is what it takes to be a playoff team. It’s what it takes to win a playoff series, too.

While this will be a chance for many on the roster to learn what that feels like, it’s also a chance for the Sabres’ brass to evaluate how these players perform in high-stakes situations. These games will be valuable tools when Granato and Adams are reviewing the season and determining which players can handle big roles going forward.

“Everything all year long is an evaluation,” Granato said last week. “You’re going to have to react on things all the time. The season itself is an evaluation. It’s ongoing. It’s what we do is continue to evaluate to make decisions for the next day.”

In the case of the final 15 games, some Sabres are trying to leave a positive final impression before Adams and Granato make decisions about the roster in the offseason.

Which players on the Sabres have the most to prove down the stretch?

1. Ukko-Pekka Luuukkonen

Opportunity can be fleeting for a goaltender. Circumstances outside of a goalie’s control often determine whether they get a chance to start and sometimes even how they perform once they’re in there. Right now, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen is in a position to play big games for Buffalo. Eric Comrie is injured, and Craig Anderson can’t play every game at his age. That leaves Luukkonen with a chance to show he can be the team’s starter next season. His main issue is consistency, which is not uncommon for a young goalie. This is his first full season in the NHL, so the fact that there have been some hiccups along the way shouldn’t be surprising or a reason to write him off. The fact remains, though, that Adams will need to take a long look at the goalie position entering next season when the team will be more ready to compete for the playoffs. Luukkonen has a spot in the NHL picture next year, but he still needs to show whether he should be the starter. According to Money Puck, Luukkonen is 63rd in goals saved above expected and 61st in goals against better than expected. He needs to find the rhythm he had in December to leave a strong impression on the front office.

2. Victor Olofsson

Victor Olofsson has been a healthy scratch the last two games, which sends a message about where the coaching staff thinks he fits into the lineup when everyone is healthy. Olofsson has been a prolific goal scorer in his career, but that’s a skill the Sabres have plenty of at the moment. What they need more of are players who can be reliable in their own end. He has a 43-percent on-ice expected goal share at five-on-five, according to Natural Stat Trick. That’s the worst number of any Sabres player who has played at least 30 games this season. An injury could open up another opportunity for Olofsson to get into the lineup, and he’ll have plenty to prove if that happens. With another season left on his contract that carries a $4.75 million cap hit, Olofsson could be a prime trade candidate this offseason.

3. Jordan Greenway

Jordan Greenway will have a role on the Sabres going forward. The staff believes in what he adds now and in the future. But this stretch of games is a chance for Greenway to show how high he can fit into the lineup. He got to play with Tage Thompson and Jeff Skinner when Tuch was injured and handled himself well. He’s since been playing with Casey Mittelstadt, and Granato has liked what he’s seen from them together. Expect the Sabres to slowly put more on his plate in terms of special teams work as he gets comfortable.

4. Tyson Jost

Any time a player is in the final season of his contract, he’s trying to prove himself. That’s the case with Tyson Jost, who will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season. From where I’m sitting, Jost has earned an extension and a chance to be part of Buffalo’s lineup heading into the 2023-24 season. Adams claiming Jost on waivers was arguably the best outside addition this team has made in the last 12 months. He’s been a reliable bottom-six forward who has shown off some of his offensive skill at times, too. He’s the type of player the Sabres need on the third or fourth line, and I’d expected him to continue to show that in the final month of the season.

5. Henri Jokiharju

Henri Jokiharju is under contract for a manageable $2.5 million next season. He also started to play some of his best hockey of the season recently so he will be part of the Sabres’ plans. Right now, he’s in a top-four role playing next to Owen Power. He’s still only 23 years old, so Jokiharju has a chance to grow along with the rest of the Sabres’ top four defensemen. But the team could look to upgrade the top two pairs this offseason and slot Jokiharju in a third pair role to improve the overall composition of the blue line. In that way, it feels like Jokiharju has a lot to gain by continuing his strong play for the remainder of the season.

6. Riley StillmanJacob Bryson and Kale Clague

These three are all in the same boat as young players fighting for time on the Sabres’ third defensive pair. Stillman has been getting the ice time when healthy because of the physical style he plays. He had excellent games against Toronto and Tampa Bay, showing the potential that excited the Sabres at the deadline. With a $1.3 million cap hit next season, the Sabres will be inclined to keep him.

Kale Clague is a restricted free agent and has played well in spurts this season, too. With the injuries the Sabres have on the blue line, he likely hasn’t seen his last chance at ice time with this group. The same goes for Jacob Bryson, who is scheduled to make $1.8 million next season in the final year of his deal. No position group on the roster will get a closer look than the bottom pair on defense, because the inability to consistently limit chances and goals has held this team back from locking in a playoff berth this season.

“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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