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Sabres’ Granato and Adams on Levi expectations, Dahlin, Power contracts, and more


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Buffalo coach Don Granato and general manager Kevyn Adams each met with reporters for 40 minutes Wednesday to wrap up the Sabres’ season. Let’s jump right into some key takeaways from two of the franchise’s most important decision-makers.

1. It doesn’t sound like the Sabres think Devon Levi needs to play in the AHL. Based on his seven-game sample size, that’s a reasonable expectation. Adams mentioned how many pressure-packed games Levi got to play in, and the Sabres didn’t just hand him those starts.

“He earned it, and then once he performed, you could see the confidence of the team in front of him. And he’s got a great balance of humility and earning everything that he’s done in his life, but with also a swagger and confidence that you need, especially at that position,” Adams said.

Adams and his staff have a few things to figure out in the offseason when it comes to goaltending. One is how confident they are that Levi can earn the NHL net and run with it for a full season. He looks like the special case of a goalie who could skip the AHL entirely. The other thing Adams needs to determine is what their comfort level is with the other goalies on the roster. Craig Anderson retired. Eric Comrie wasn’t able to establish himself as a consistent starter this season because of injuries. They also have Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who showed some bright moments in his first full NHL season but fought the inconsistency that tends to plague young goaltenders. If the Sabres are ready to clear the way for Levi to be their starter next season, will they also be comfortable with one or both of Luukkonen and Comrie sharing the net with him?

Levi might play well enough to make any outside addition unnecessary. But the Sabres won’t know that until he gets to camp and competes to earn a spot. The same goes for Luukkonen and Comrie, who could improve on what they did this season. For a team with playoff aspirations, though, rolling the dice with three unproven goalies is a risk. But Adams has conviction about Levi, and with good reason.

“Every player is different,” Adams said. “I hate thinking about it as putting a guy into a box and saying, ‘This is what you have to do.’ In my opinion, what you have to do is be open-minded, take all of the information in and then make the best decision you can for the organization and the player. Devon is very unique. I want our players to be fearless, and that’s how we’re going to run the organization, too. Donny and myself, we are going to be fearless, and we’re going to trust and believe in our players. When we think they’re ready and in spots to succeed, we’re going to help them. For me looking at Devon, I see a special person; I see a special work ethic, a special talent. We’ll evaluate through the summer. But I think in the small sample size he showed what he can do in this league, and it’s exciting.”

2. Rasmus Dahlin and Owen Power are eligible for contract extensions this summer, and Adams did not make any mystery about where the team stands. He said he views both players as critical pieces of the core, and he has expressed that to their respective agents.

“These things, they take time. There’s a process that you go through,” Adams said. “But I couldn’t imagine those two not part of us long-term.”

3. As for the free agents, Adams said he’s going to give Kyle Okposo the space to make a decision about whether he wants to continue playing before starting to talk about a contract. Adams expressed an interest in bringing back Okposo and Zemgus Girgensons, two of the veteran leaders. If Okposo wants to keep playing, it’s hard to envision him playing anywhere other than Buffalo. With Girgensons, his market could determine whether the Sabres bring him back. At 29 years old, he could have suitors for a multiyear deal if he tests the market. But Adams has at least made it clear the team values him and is interested in trying to find a contract solution that makes sense for both parties.

4. Tyson Jost is a restricted free agent and has told Adams he wants to be in Buffalo long-term. From the sounds of it, the Sabres are still figuring out if Jost makes sense in their long-term roster construction. Adams said, “We’ll have those conversations coming up here now as we really dig in, reflect on our season and then look forward to next season.” The reality is what happens with Okposo and Girgensons could impact how much room the Sabres have for a player like Jost.

5. On the prospect front, Adams said the Sabres have spoken with University of Minnesota defenseman Ryan Johnson and made their case for why they believe he should sign with Buffalo. Adams said the ball is in Johnson’s court in terms of making a decision. If Johnson were to hit free agency and sign with another team, the Sabres would receive a second-round compensatory pick in 2024, so this isn’t an all-or-nothing situation for the Sabres. It wouldn’t hurt to add a defenseman to their prospect pool, but the Sabres have done everything they can do.

6. Granato acknowledged he “would have liked guys to have stepped up” when the Sabres had injuries on defense. Mattias Samuelsson played through a broken hand at the end of the year and also missed time with a knee injury earlier in the season. Dahlin played through injury and missed a few games. When the Sabres were short-handed on defense, their depth players didn’t rise to the occasion. Adams also said, “There’s areas that we can be better at defensively in front of our goaltenders.” So while the Sabres might bring back a large chunk of the roster to run it back next season, defense feels like an area they’ll look to add to. For one, the prospect depth is thin on the blue line, so adding veterans wouldn’t be blocking anyone from ice time. That combined with the comments from Granato and Adams suggests they’re in a position to add. However, Adams did express some optimism in the core of their defensive group, and he included Henri Jokiharju when mentioning Dahlin, Power and Samuelsson.

“Henri Jokiharju’s really coming along,” Adams said. “People forget he’s still a young defenseman.”

We’ll see if the team’s offseason actions reflect the same optimism about Jokiharju as that statement does.

7. The most fascinating part of this offseason is how much the Sabres will look to add from the outside. Earlier this season, Granato pointed to the jump the New Jersey Devils made and noted they were in a window in which they thought it was appropriate to add some veteran pieces to their young core and make a jump. They’re in a playoff series now and had 112 points. So far, the Sabres have been more patient, not wanting to block prospects from valuable NHL minutes. From the outside, they appear to be entering a phase in which it would make sense to round out their roster with outside veterans. But the Sabres are going to be careful about how they do it based on what Adams and Granato are saying.

“The playoffs is a goal, but ultimately we want to win a Stanley Cup. And we want to give ourselves a chance to win every year because we are in that mode where we are getting in the playoffs and we are fighting. … But we want to get better, so we are going to look at every way we can do that.”

8. From a salary-cap perspective, the Sabres are in a position to spend in free agency or trade for contracts. They ended the season with the most cap space in the league, but the Tage Thompson, Mattias Samuelsson and Dylan Cozens extensions will hit the books for next season. They’re also planning for big-money extensions for Dahlin and Power. If one or both of Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka take a big step, the Sabres will have to think about what those next contracts look like.

“You get to the cap very quickly after next season just based on how we project contracts and how we see things moving forward,” Adams said. “So the reason I tell you that is it sounds great to say, ‘Hey, let’s go get this guy,’ whether it’s a free agent or you make a trade this summer because we’ve got the room. We might have the room next year, but now quickly you maybe have squeezed someone else out or whatever it is.”

9. Adams noted that the Sabres are going to make an effort to get some of their recently drafted Russian prospects into the system. Viktor Neuchev (third round, 2022) and defenseman Nikita Novikov (2021 sixth-round pick) will be eligible to sign once their contracts expire later this month. Prokhor Poltapov is still under contract with his KHL team, so the Sabres can’t yet sign him. Buffalo was able to get Aleksandr Kisakov into its system last offseason, and 2021 third-round pick Stiven Sardarian has been in North America for two seasons and has been playing college hockey at the University of New Hampshire.

10. With every underlying discussion about how the Sabres are building their team is the expectation that this team will get over the edge and into the postseason a year from now. The players made it clear that’s what they expect when speaking over the weekend. Granato and Adams stopped short of making any sort of bold declarations about the postseason, but Granato’s answer to whether next season is “playoffs or bust” showed a glimpse at his philosophy and the quiet confidence he has about what they’re building.

“It’s not bust next year,” Granato said. “It’s set up for year after year. The decisions that we’ve made and Kevyn’s made are to build the stability that was never — it wasn’t built here. So the playoffs or bust … there’s not going to be a bust. There’s stability that’s here that hasn’t been here for years. … We need to keep getting better, and things take care of itself. We need to compete and grow and whatever. And do I have confidence that the results will be playoffs? Yeah.”

Granato also noted the realities of the league. Injuries happen, and the Eastern Conference isn’t a cakewalk. The Sabres had multiple players have career-best seasons, and they need to work to replicate those numbers and get other internal development. There’s an entire offseason of decisions that will show how much they can improve. But whether the improvement is incremental or drastic, as we saw in New Jersey this season, the Sabres are going to have the pressure of playoff expectations entering next season. That’s unavoidable. Based on their timeline and how they’ve played, that should be the expectation. But I don’t blame Granato and Adams for not standing at the lectern and beating their chests with bold proclamations about next season, either.

“I’m not in it to make predictions,” Granato said. “So could you get 110 points next year and not make the playoffs? I don’t know. I guess maybe you could. I don’t know. There’s so many other circumstances. We have to stay focused. Am I worried about or do I look at it as bust? No. Why would I? Why would I worry about those negative terms? Just play. Intense. Compete. I think we’re going to be OK.”

“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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