There have been plenty of surprises for the Sabres this year, which has contributed to a much better than anticipated start. The Sabres look competitive again, and they are a pesky team that doesn’t seem to quit or go away easily. But in reality the Sabres have been helped this year by one major thing: goaltending. Dustin Tokarski has been playing out of his mind when he is on his game, while Craig Anderson has put in vintage performances when he has played. When the off-season began, it looked like the Sabres were planning on being in the fight for Shane Wright when they signed Craig Anderson and Aaron Dell. Dustin Tokarski essentially sent Aaron Dell to the AHL when the season began, and the Anderson-Tokarski pair played well. Just like a 60-year old Rocky Balboa fighting Mason Dixon and going the distance: nobody is laughing anymore.
What looks promising is that the Sabres have four key players who remain sidelined due to injury: Casey Mittelstadt, Victor Olafsson, Henri Jokiharju, and Alex Tuch. Those are four significant pieces that the Sabres currently have out.
So what could the Sabres lines and pairings look like with some of these guys back?
Top Six Line: Skinner-Thompson-Asplund
For the Thompson line, there is no need to touch this line and who would have thought that at the beginning of the season, Tage Thompson would drive his own line? In fact with mitts out right now, an injury to Thompson would probably kill this team’s offensive capabilities. Rasmus Asplund is the Sabres leading scorer, while Jeff Skinner who was buried under Ralph Kreuger, has been given new life under Don Granato. Skinner is fourth amongst Sabres forwards in ice time, so he’s been getting the opportunities, and has five goals in 15 games. The salary will always be a black cloud for Skinner, who knows how long he will be effective as he gets closer to age 30. I still would probably love him if he was making about 4-5 million a year less. This looks like a breakout campaign for Tage Thompson.
Top Six Line: Olafsson-Mittelstadt-Tuch
The Sabres essentially have an entire line out to injury, and this could potentially be a line going forward with Olafsson’s goal scoring and sniping abilities, Mittelstadt’s play making, and Tuch’s size and skill combination could make for a great line. We still do need to see what Mittelstadt really has. Was last year’s late season production a fluke, or is he for real? If the Sabres can get healthy up front, he could potentially have some really solid linemates. As of right now, Mittelstadt looks to be the first one back, with Olafsson a few weeks behind him. Alex Tuch should be the last one back here, and his debut will be highly anticipated in the early winter. Olafsson and Skinner could be interchangeable on this line. It will probably take some time for these guys to get back up to speed when they return, but this should be a highly effective line if it ends up happening.
Bottom Six Line: Cozens- Caggula- Hinostroza
Mittelstadt, Tuch, and Olafsson’s return should allow the Sabres to have a true top six, which right now they essentially have one top six line, with two third lines. Many will say Granato’s system doesn’t have a top line or a line that carries the burden. I don’t necessarily label the lines as line 1, line 2, etc…, so yes that is true to an extent, but that’s more because he doesn’t really have a choice here. As much as I hate to say it, the forwards up front with the injuries we currently have are not a good enough group to round out a top six, but they are still getting it done and overachieving. The Sabres are surprisingly 13th in the NHL in goals forward.
Getting the forwards healthy would allow Cozens to move into a true third line center role where he won’t have a much pressure to produce points and generate offense, even though right now, he is already playing 14 minutes a night which is essentially a third line role. Although he has done well in that regard, he still needs work in his own end just with consistency, although Granato did play his line an awful lot against Connor McDavid, showing some confidence in his abilities, and did well. There will be the occasional hiccup with young players. Playing him with Hinostroza with his speed, as well as Caggula with his grit and agitating abilities is a good combination of players who should continue to compliment each other well.
Bottom Six Line: Okposo-Eakin-Girgensons- the "COG line"
I’m not necessarily calling this the fourth line. There is third line A, and third line B here. When Johan Larsson was centering this line, it was the log line, with Eakin, it’s the "cog" line. This line is the cog in the machine that makes the engine go. They may not feel important to fans, but it is, and it’s a line that’s completely necessary.
It may be the hardest working line on the team, and it’s a line with three guys who have something to prove. Right now, Okposo and Girgensons are playing 16 minutes a night simply because they are getting the power play time, mostly because the Sabres don’t really have anyone else to put on a second power play with three of your best power play options out. The Sabres really missed Zemgus Girgensons last season, and it’s good to see him back out there making a positive impact on the team and taking up a leadership role. Cody Eakin at this stage of his career is a probably best suited for a fourth line center role, but he still remains an effective penalty killer and the Sabres faceoff man, on a team right now that is the worst team in the league at the faceoff dot.
Top Four D: Dahlin-Pysyk
The Sabres will have an interesting decision to make when Henri Jokiharju returns. Do you take Pysyk away from Dahlin and try Jokiharju there or do you leave Pysyk there? Is Jokiharju too talented to leave out of the top four? Dahlin has looked far better out there on a pairing with Pysyk. I’d say, leave it alone. You can always put Jokiharju there later if you need to.
Top four D: Bryson-Miller
There’s been a ton of surprises on this team, from Tokarski, Asplund, Thompson, and Anderson, but Colin Miller has definitely been one of them. This is the version of Colin Miller the Sabres thought they were getting when they traded for him a couple seasons ago. Right now, he has nine points in 15 games, and sees time on both the power play and penalty kill, while being the stabilizing veteran presence for Jacob Bryson, who has been one of the Sabres most reliable defenseman this year.
Colin Miller is playing himself into better trade value, and a respectable contract in the off-season if he keeps it up. Rasmus Ristolainen’s trade has opened up plenty of opportunities for Colin Miller and other defenseman.
Bottom Pair: Hagg-Jokiharju
By default, Hagg-Jokiharju make up my last defenseman pairing, which means, Will Butcher gets sent to the press box. Hagg is the most physical defenseman on the team, and his presence is needed in the Sabres lineup, while Jokiharju playing with Hagg would give him a nice complimentary player to put with him. Will Butcher could still have a role, but he’s best suited to be a situational player and power play specialist at best, however, he really hasn’t been doing that much of late.
The Future: Peterka-Krebs-Quinn and the rest of the kids
Since Peyton Krebs arrived via, the Jack Eichel trade, the Sabres have done a brilliant thing by having him go straight to Rochester. The old regimes of the Sabres may have sent Krebs right to the NHL, but the Sabres present regime is sending him to Rochester to get more seasoning. All three of Peterka, Quinn, and Krebs will be in the NHL soon, and they are functioning as a line in the minors. This is probably the most talented line the Amerks have ever put together in team history and they will be able to develop tremendous chemistry in Rochester. The Sabres could bring these guys up right now, but keeping them down is the wise thing to do here. The same can be said for Ukko-Pekka Lukkonen and defenseman Mattias Samuelson. Many have probably pegged this as a three year plan for the rebuild, but the reality is, the Sabres could be a year closer from being competitive again. 2022-23 could also bring in Owen Power.
The Baby Sabres are growing up right before our eyes.