Well, I think its fair to say that we’ve come to the end of a season none of us expected. From the Eichel trade, to the Tage Thompson miracle season…from the Dahlin metamorphosis to the camaraderie sparked by Alex Tuch’s arrival…playing more goalies than I have fingers on one hand to thrashing the Leafs at the Heritage Classic to RJ’s tearful (for me!) final game…to the revitalization of Skinner and Okposo and finding new ways to lose leads to Casey Mittelstadt’s miserable injury luck and Owen Power’s debut…it’s been a surprisingly wonderful ride. I expected to like this year’s version better than last year’s. Not because I had some kind of Yuri Gellar-like forecast for the coming season, but because I couldn’t have despised any team more than last year’s team. What I did not expect is for the obvious improvements from just about everyone that wore the Blue and Gold for more than a half-dozen games, and that includes the coaching staff and Sabretooth.
So for the first time since the summer they signed He Who Shall Not Be Named, I am markedly, almost entirely, looking ahead to next season with an abundance of optimism. And if you held me down and tickled me with a feather right now, this very moment, I would say the Sabres will put up 85 points next year – their best season in a dozen years, mind you – and finish either 9th or 10th in the East. Isn’t that great?!?
But McGee, you may be thinking, that hardly qualifies as optimism. And, to an extent, you would be right. After all, just 10 points? What’s 10 points? If the Sabres scored 2 more shootout goals, 4 more overtime goals, and took 4 more games to overtime instead of losing in regulation, there’s your 10 points. Instead of going 31-39-11, they could finish 37-34-11. That’s how close they are. Talking about 5-6 goals, a few more saves, and a couple more shootout goals over the course of an 82-game season. Doesn’t seem like much. That’s the least they could do, right? With shiny new rookies coming in next year, with the continued development of the kids, that’s better than just a few goals here or there! Right?
I don’t know. That’s the premise of this Fan Post. If I were in Vegas betting on the Sabres to make the playoffs next year, I wouldn’t be able to do without feeling like I threw away my money. Now, maybe I won $100 bucks at the Craps table, so it wouldn’t hurt quite so much…but you get the idea. Why do I think that? Well, the Sabres have a LOT of unanswered questions going into the 2022-23 season. Questions that won’t be answered until we’re already well into the season. That much uncertainty rarely leads to playoff berths. That’s more uncertainty than I’m willing to hypothetically subject my hard-earned money to…but what are these questions? Lucky for you, I’ve compiled them into an easy-to-read list! Isn’t the Internet fun?
Question #1: What IS Tage Thompson?
This might be the most important question of them all. Why? Well, it has such a profound impact on personnel choices, draft choices, and Cap certainty, both short-and long-term. Is Thompson a perennial Top 6 center? Was this his Jonathan Cheechoo year? Is he a 30-35-65 guy? Or is he really a 15-20-35 guy? How much better can he get? Can he get any better? I don’t think anyone really knows…even Tage himself! But if he IS in fact a perennial Top 6 center, BFLO is in much better shape. They only need one more Top 6 centerman and they have plenty of eligible candidates…Cozens, Mitts, Krebs…and they have 3 first round picks this year to look for another one, if they choose to do so. They will have a very defined ballpark contract number to offer him, and assuming he says yes, they can get him locked up for several years at a minimum.
IF Thompson is not a Top 6 center and is more of a 2nd-3rd line guy and just went on a heater this past season, the Sabres still need to find TWO legit Top 6 centers, and while they have some candidates, they are all as big or bigger question marks than Tage. That means if you’re the Sabres, using draft capital to try to nab another high-end center prospect would be likely, which can lead to a team reaching for a player and passing over a bigger talent for a positional need. Not to mention, how do you pay him? He’s got one 38G season, and one…oh, let’s say 18 goal season. Where’s the sweet spot? What kind of term do you give him?
To have Thompson come close to replicating this past season – he did score some awfully lucky goals this year (remember Chicago? Or Calgary?), so I don’t expect another season approaching 40 goals – it makes Kevyn Adams’ job a lot easier. Unfortunately, I doubt we’ll know until we’re halfway through to season…or even later…to really get a grip on what the Sabres have in Tage.
Question #2: What exactly are you getting from the Kids?
There is a possibility that the Sabres will have as many as 6 rookies (if you consider rookies as being players who haven’t played a full season) with Jack Quinn, JJ Peterka, Ukko Luukkonen, Mathias Samuelsson, Peyton Krebs, and Owen Power. That is 1/3 of your entire roster. And for those guys, it’s a legitimate question mark what you’re going to get for a full 82 game season.
Is it possible Quinn and Power are both Calder Trophy candidates? Sure. What about Sammy? A true shut-down defender, ready for 22+ minutes a night? Can Luukkonen play 25 games and post a .910% or better? Could Krebs notch 40+ points and play center? What kind of numbers could Peterka put on the board…35P? More? If these things ALL happen, my expectations will likely be too low. But someone always under-performs. Someone always has a step-back year. The NHL is hard. Not everyone makes it right out of the box. Or ever.
What if Quinn continues to get hurt, or has a hard time finding ice against NHL defenders? Maybe Peterka isn’t getting enough ice time initially and gets sent down…or teams start to key in on Power’s weaknesses and he becomes a liability in his own end? Maybe Luukkonen gets hurt again? Or Krebs struggles against bigger forwards, continues to shy away from the middle of the ice, and is forced to wing? What about the rookie wall? None of these kids have ever played anything approaching a full 82 game season except Peterka.
It probably winds up being a combination of the good and bad. But if guys are getting hurt – Quinn and UPL have injury histories going against them, if no one else does – then who are you bringing up as depth players? Subban? Tokarski? Weissbach? Murray? Or do you add veteran depth – if so, what kind of quality vet can you get who knows they aren’t likely getting a shot at a regular shift when a rookie is healthy?
Lot of things to consider on this front. It’s exciting, but it’s also the most unpredictable of them all.
Question #3: How will this team play with expectations?
If we’re being honest, this team was out of the playoffs pretty early, if they were ever really in the hunt. They were 5-2-1 at Halloween before they lost 5 straight – one in OT. Yes, we are watched them evolve into a dangerous team after the last 6 game losing streak, when they beat the Leafs in Toronto, won 4 of 6, and took off from there. But honestly, they were playing with house money at that point. Long out of the playoffs, with a fan base beaten into submission and a jaded, miserable Buffalo media looking for another way to rake the Pegulas over the coals, no one expected anything from this team. I think that goes for the other 31 teams around the NHL as well. Even while the Sabres were playing good hockey in the last half of the season, teams routinely rolled out their back-up goaltenders to face off against BFLO in the many back-to-backs required by a crowded Olympic schedule. And teams came out flat against BFLO on a regular basis. How often did we see a team getting pounded by the Sabres for the first couple periods before they came out flying in the 3rd and either tied or outright won games they had no business winning?
But with the strong finish, the optimism of a young team, and exciting prospects likely being added to the mix, there’s going to be some optimism around the team. It’s been so long, you almost can’t help it. Some of the curmudgeonly local media, dying for something to write about, seized on this young, vibrant team and their honest, plainspoken coach down the stretch. There’s going to be a groundswell that expects the Sabres to get better, play an exciting brand of hockey, and finally end the playoff drought…however unrealistic that might be. And they will hang these expectations on the Sabres. How will they react to that? Dylan Cozens has played about 120 NHL games. 60 of those were under a cloud, and 40 or so were played for an ambivalent fanbase that didn’t pay attention. When the Sabres lose 5-6-7 games in a row next year and Cozens has 12-15 prime scoring chances and gets stopped every time, and the fans boo, the media asks him the same questions 100x…how does he react to that? How do Krebs, Quinn, Power, even Dahlin and Joker? Can they rally? Can they play twice as hard the next night out, trying to break that string? Or do they pull out a classic Sabre tradition and fold? Are they mentally tough enough to withstand some bad stretches and come back better than ever…or are comments in post-game pressers like those just words to them, as they were to so many dressing rooms before them?
We don’t know. But I’m very eager to find out, maybe more eager than any of the other questions I’ve posed.
Question #4: Can Granato change his coaching style from pure development to trying to win?
There can be no doubt that Granato has been a breath of fresh air this season. We have witnessed the resurrection of the careers of several veteran players, including Skinner, Okposo, Girgensons, and even Craig Anderson. And we’ve seen younger players take big steps forward: Dahlin, Cozens, Joker, Krebs, Asplund, Fitzgerald, Bryson. One player took ten steps forward in Thompson. Others flashed after being beset with injuries, like Mitts and Olofsson. Granato’s honest in pressers, isn’t afraid to critique or praise players by name, but never does it spitefully or to protect his own backside. He doesn’t penalize players for mistakes or relegate them to a handful of shifts – he let’s them play their way out of it. The system is simple, it’s fast, and aggressive, and he lets everyone play within it whichever way they want. In short, he’s a great teacher and a player’s coach.
But, like the previous question, what happens when expectations change? Can Granato change his style? Right now, he rolls four lines and three pairs. He’s conscious of load management. Rookies and 4th liners can get sent over the boards with a minute left to hold a one-goal lead, or slower guys who struggle to score get sent out to make up a one goal deficit. Skinner finds himself on the PK, Eakin on the PP. This is great for developing players, creating accountability and building well-rounded players. Players love this. And its easy to do when you’re under very little pressure to win. But when that pressure ratchets up, does Donny Meatballs start to double-shift Dahlin in the 3rd? Does he roll out his best defensive forwards to hold a late lead? Can he staple a whole line to the bench in a tight game because it gives his team the best chance to win? What about tweaking his system to make it a bit more complex, tougher to defend?
We haven’t seen much of these in-game or even in-season strategies, because the Sabres haven’t needed to make them. There is a very clear intention in place and that is almost solely focused on developing players and giving them opportunities to learn and experience new things. And don’t get me wrong, that’s great. But if there’s organizational pressure, or even external pressure, to win…can Granato and his staff adjust to that shift in mindset? And what does that do to the players?
Question #5: Who, if anyone, will take the Thompson Leap next season?
Last but not least, a big question that impacts how dangerous the Sabres can be up and down the line-up.
I don’t expect anyone in this organization to jump from 8 goals to 38 goals. That’s just crazy talk. BUT, I do think there are several players who could make a quantum leap (great show!) from this year’s version to next year’s. Can Mittelstadt play a full season? Can he get healthy? If he can, I think he could be the breakout guy. What about Olofsson? If he can get a full season playing with a good distributor of the puck – Mitts or Krebs – I don’t think its nuts to think he can put up 35 or more goals playing on the 2nd line and the top PP. What if everything clicks for Owen Power and he can contribute 40P on the 2nd pair and 2nd PP unit? Between he and Dahlin, they could go for 100 points from just those 2 guys on the back-end.
But the guy if I had to put money on, the one I think is most likely to make that big leap, is Cozens. Cozens had dozens of Grade-A scoring chances this year that did not find the twine. He shot just a hair over 8% for the year. That is below par, to say the least. If Cozens shoots at Thompson levels (15%), or even Hinostroza levels (14.1%), he scores 23-24 goals and goes for 50P. He gets to the net, he gets to the middle of the ice, and he played with some less-than-optimal linemates this year. Put him on a line with Krebs and Quinn full-time, maybe as the 3rd line? I think Cozens approaches 60P. Which would be huge for BFLO. He needs to work on his accuracy, and his hands, as well as picking his spots better – you can only go 1-on-3 down the gut of the ice so many times – but if he can improve even moderately in those areas, he could be the Sabres’ breakthrough candidate, recipient of the Tage Thompson Award for 22-23.
Now, it’s possible the answer to this question is ‘nobody.’ And there will be incremental progress from a bunch of players, but no one makes the big jump. That should not be a surprise if things do go that way. But I think that makes it tougher for the Sabres to make a significant leap forward next season. Teams are going to key on that Thompson line to start the year. If the Sabres plan on rolling 4 lines again, someone is going to have to step up and force opponents to game plan for them as well. If Boston is going to match-up Bergeron against Tage, then Mitts or Cozens or Olofsson or whomever needs to step up and force the Bruins to pick their poison. This is part of what made the 05-07 Sabres so awesome…you could not key on a single line. Can it happen again?
These are all questions that beg answering. But I don’t think we, as fans, will know those answers until well into the season. That uncertainty forces me to be measured in what I expect from the Sabres next year. I DO think they will be better…natural improvement, more experience, and hopefully better health alone should account for that. And I do think we’ll have the answers to some of these questions by the end of next season. But for now, I’ll continue to preach patience. The Sabres are, IMO, on the right track. I would love to see them stay on it all the way to this point next year.