Buffalo Sabres fans have had the unfortunate ability to be able to identify all too well with Bill Murray’s portrayal of Phil Connors in “Groundhog Day” for the past eight years.
This year resembles a different part of the movie. This season feels more like the darker, middle part of the film in which Phil is defeated by trying to do things in which he feels is the right way only to discover it’s the wrong way and he finds new and inventive ways to off himself only to wake up to “I’ve Got You Babe” and do it all over again — trapped in an inescapable loop until he learns his lesson.
While the Sabres haven’t been guilty of letting a groundhog drive a car or truck, this season is darkened by further hopelessness. The ongoing saga with Jack Eichel rolls on and gets uglier to stomach as the days go by, the new young core of the team is very young, and goaltending still has everyone wondering what they’re going to do.
Setting goals and expectations are an annual thing. There are always things we want to see our favorite teams accomplish and areas we want them to get better with. Question here for Buffalo is: How do you set realistic expectations this year?
The Sabres will most likely be a bottom-five team and a favorite to come away with the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NHL Draft. Whether you want to call it “Blight for Wright” or “Pain for Shane” is up to you, but losses will be easy to come by. Study up on the 2022 draft class if you haven’t already and just know the top prize is Shane Wright.
What could make for a positive story is how players like Rasmus Dahlin, Dylan Cozens, and Casey Mittelstadt grow into larger roles under coach Don Granato. The stark difference between how the Sabres played under Ralph Krueger and Granato gives an air of optimism. Seeing Dahlin stay loose and let loose with some creativity in early practices gives some warm fuzzies.
Dahlin will be the unquestionable No. 1 defenseman and after getting No. 1-like minutes last season, the spotlight is all his. What’s worth watching is how Granato chooses to deploy him. He’s been a steady starter in the offensive zone through his first three years - 66.1 percent of his zone starts were in the offensive zone. Can a No. 1 defenseman be sheltered that much? Yes, they can. In Erik Karlsson’s first three seasons with Ottawa he was deployed similarly while playing more minutes.
One of the things Granato pointed to immediately as camp opened was how the center position is a bit thin. This puts a lot of focus on both Cozens and Mittelstadt to step forward.
Cozens (14:21 average time on-ice) and Mittelstadt (15:53 ATOI) played similar minutes deeper in the lineup but will graduate to the top-six this season because putting any of Arttu Ruotsalainen, Cody Eakin, or Zemgus Girgensons in those roles feels grim. Cozens and Mittelstadt were each drafted to eventually play top-six roles but now they’ll have to do it.
Cozens shouldn’t have a problem surpassing the four goals and 13 points he posted last year but he’ll need to have substantially more scoring in his second season. Mittelstadt’s two peak NHL seasons saw him put up 25 points in 2018-2019 and 22 points last season. If he’s unable to surpass his best season this year… well, at least Girgensons was an all-star as a center in 2014-2015 with 15 goals and 30 points. Maybe all of Eden Prairie, Minnesota can fill up the ballot box?
If there was someone to hope can break out and provide a great storyline it could come from goaltending. Craig Anderson was close to retiring, Aaron Dell is coming off the worst season of his career, and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen is the big Finnish hope.
We’ve seen Anderson shut down Buffalo numerous times over the years and at 40 years old it would be cool to see him rule the net. That said, his last good season was 2016-2017 and he played in four games last season (two starts). You know who he is and what he’s about but how much can he provide for a team that’s going to need goaltending to make up for other shortcomings?
It’s impossible to think Dell could have a worse go of things than he had in New Jersey last year. His .857 save percentage in seven games (five starts) was as bad as it can be. If things get worse, then he’ll be in Rochester sooner than you can blink. Getting back over .900 would be good to see, but since 2018-2019 he’s had a .895 save percentage in 65 games (55 starts). That kind of record leaves the door open to Luukkonen.
At 22 years old, Luukkonen has been talked about in hopeful terms since he was drafted. Jason Botterill and Randy Sexton had a development plan for him. Then they were fired. Then COVID happened. He’s been to Finland and back and has never really gotten a chance to settle in. He needs games against pros and doing that in Rochester would do him a lot of good. In a season where the expectations are minimal, giving him the chance to get back on track would do wonders for him and the team.
It’s going to be a rough year. You shouldn’t have expectations, never mind high ones. There are things to look for and opportunities to be hopeful about, but the best laid plans go sideways in Buffalo far too often to anticipate anything from them. Expect nothing, enjoy hockey being played on the reg, and make sure to eat some Arby’s when listening to Sonny & Cher.