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Sabres thoughts: Tage Thompson’s injury, the Zach Benson decision and more


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The Buffalo Sabres are about to hit the road for a three-game trip to Winnipeg, Chicago and Washington D.C. The team elected to spend extra time in Chicago after its game against the Blackhawks. They’ll have an off day on Monday and then practice there on Tuesday before traveling to D.C. to finish the trip.

Part of that is because the Sabres haven’t yet had a road trip longer than one game this season. Last season, the Sabres thrived in those situations. They had a 25-13-3 record on the road. They went 3-1 on an October road trip to Western Canada and Seattle. Then they went 3-0 on a road trip to Colorado, Vegas and Arizona in December. In January, they had a 3-0-1 trip to Dallas, St. Louis, Winnipeg and Minnesota.

“It’s much, much easier to feel like a team and prepare like a team,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “Because you’re having all of your meals together and talking to each other the entire day not just for three hours. You talk about team building and extracurriculars for team building. But the best team building is the road. There’s no better.”

It’s no secret the Sabres have struggled to establish a true home-ice advantage over the last two seasons. Whatever the reason, the team seems to press at home. On the road, the players loosen up on the ice and spend time as a group going out to dinner and exploring whatever cities they are in. Alex Tuch mentioned that all of the one-game road trips early in the season haven’t allowed the Sabres to find a rhythm on the road.

“It’s something a team as young as we are can really benefit from,” Tuch said.

Here are some other thoughts on the Sabres 16 games into the season.

1. Zach Benson still has a shot to stick with the Buffalo Sabres.

The 18-year-old is nearing a return from a lower-body injury that has kept him out since Buffalo’s 4-0 win over Colorado on Oct. 29. Since the Sabres drafted Benson No. 13 in June, the WHL product has done nothing but impress the team’s brass at every turn. He was outstanding in the preseason and started the season with a few strong games before his injury slowed him down.

Now the Sabres are approaching decision time. Benson has three games remaining before the Sabres would need to burn a year of his entry-level contract to keep him around.

“There’s a comfort level in what we’ve seen,” Granato said. “But these three games will impact (that decision). He’s done a nice job. We have obviously that line in the sand at nine (games), where the decision has to be made. No decision has been made yet, so these are three big ones definitely.”

2. Granato earlier in the week said this is a totally different decision than the one the team made in sending Matt Savoie back to the WHL. Granato played Savoie only 3:55 in his NHL debut last Friday but took him out of the game because he didn’t want to put him in a spot where he might make a mistake in a tight game that could harm his confidence. The Savoie decision wasn’t based on that 3:55 of ice time. Granato and general manager Kevyn Adams knew when Savoie got injured it was going to be tough to keep him around because of the missed training camp and preseason time that could have been valuable to his development. They felt fortunate to get him into a game so he could experience that, but they didn’t feel he was ready. This is no longer a team solely focused on development.

“We’re much different than we were one year ago, and I’ve said that a lot,” Granato said. “We have to play with greater emphasis. You know, a year ago or two years ago, we had to look in the mirror and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to try to win every night but we have to get better.’ And now it’s, now we have to find ways to win every night. It’s not about, you know, as much of a future. We’ve invested in guys like Thompson and Mittelstadt and Dahlin to the point where they’ve developed, developed, developed. You go in these games now and you’re trying to find any edge possible to win. And you’ve seen me shorten the bench a lot this year and you haven’t seen me do that in past years. It’s different. You coach different in different situations and like I said for (Savoie), I didn’t want to get him personally involved in making a mistake at a time that we needed those two points.”

3. The Sabres’ goalie situation is about to get interesting again. Eric Comrie is ready to return from injury and is expected to start against the Winnipeg Jets. He and his wife are also expecting a baby any day now. So this is another instance in which having three goalies work to Buffalo’s benefit. Comrie will likely need to leave this upcoming road trip at some point, but having him back in the fold should allow the Sabres to scale back on Levi’s time as necessary. As the Boston game showed, Levi is still a work in progress early in his rookie season. Comrie looked like he was ready to grab the job before his injury, and Luukkonen has had some strong moments, too. It’s not ideal that the Sabres are still figuring out their goalie situation a month into the season. Right now, the Sabres are 26th in the NHL in save percentage at five-on-five. They’re waiting for someone to step up.

4. With Tage Thompson out for about a month with a wrist injury after blocking a shot against the Bruins, the Sabres are going to need more from Dylan Cozens. Cozens has eight points in 14 games but hasn’t had a goal since Oct. 27. Even before missing two games with facial injuries and returning to play with a full shield, Cozens hasn’t picked up where he left off last season. Part of that might be because he’s played at least 10 minutes with nine different linemates this season. He’s played both center and wing, up and down the lineup. He also doesn’t love wearing the shield, but he has to put up with it while his injuries heal. Thompson’s absence could provide the type of opportunity that will kickstart Cozens’ season. He was skating on a line with Jeff Skinner and Tuch at practice on Thursday, so you can’t ask for a better chance than that.

5. The Sabres’ start feels different than last season and the major key is special teams. On this date last season, the Sabres had played 17 games and were 7-10. They had 35 goals at five-on-five and had allowed 38. This season, they’ve played 16 games with a 7-8-1 record. At five-on-five, they have 35 goals for and 34 goals against. But last year, the Sabres had 60 total goals through those 17 games, while this team has 46 goals through 16 games. Of course, on this date a year ago, the Sabres were seven games into an eight-game losing streak. This season, the Sabres haven’t had a streak like that. But they also haven’t found any consistency, either.

6. Alex Tuch is nearing a return, and that couldn’t come at a better time. The Sabres have been dealing with one injury after another. Jack Quinn has been on injured reserve all season. Cozens missed a few games, then Tuch missed a few and now Thompson will be out just as Tuch is getting back into the mix. For long stretches of last season, Thompson and Tuch were Buffalo’s two best offensive play drivers. Now they need Tuch to help carry the offense in Thompson’s absence. He may need to take over Thompson’s penalty-killing duties as well. Granato said the Thompson injury is making them take a harder look at using top players on the penalty kill, but he also noted the team can make schematic adjustments in how they pressure on the penalty kill to reduce shot blocks.

7. With Comrie and Benson both likely coming off injured reserve on this trip, the Sabres are going to need to make a roster decision. Thompson going to injured reserve will solve one roster spot, but the Sabres will need to make one more move. Sending Ryan Johnson or Lukas Rousek back to Rochester would be simplest considering neither one requires waivers. But Johnson has played too well to go back to the AHL. He’s helping the Sabres and has shown he can play a top-four role when called upon. Rousek was also one of the Sabres’ better forwards against the Bruins and has been getting steady ice time. The other option is to waive defenseman Jacob Bryson, who has been passed on the depth chart by Johnson. Bryson has a $1.8 million salary, so there’s a chance he would pass through waivers and end up in Rochester. The other option would be sending Levi to Rochester, but that doesn’t seem like something Adams and Granato have considered. Plus, with Comrie possibly leaving the trip early for the birth of his child, the team might need Levi on this trip.

8. Patrick Kane is getting closer to making a decision on where he will play this season. Adams was on the record with The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun this week about the Sabres’ interest. Kane could provide a boost to a team in need of both offense and experience. The Sabres’ power play is among the worst in the league this season, and Kane could help there, too. The question is whether Kane will view the Sabres as a legitimate enough contender. Their 7-8-1 record isn’t inspiring, and the Thompson injury could cast more doubt on their playoff hopes this season. The Sabres might be able to sweeten the deal with more money or an extra year of term on the contract, but Kane clearly has options.

“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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