For most fans, this past year was an encouraging season for the Sabres. We saw development from many of the organization's young players and rebound seasons from some of the veteran players. As we approach the NHL draft and free agency the Sabres will have quite a few holes they’re looking to address this offseason. Fortunately, the organization did find some answers throughout the season.
Each year before the draft I like to do a deep dive on the Sabres roster and pipeline. For this post I wanted to look at where the organization is strong, weak, and a couple of things I think they can do to continue to strengthen the team going forward.
Anyone who watched Buffalo this year knows the Sabres are defined by their young talent. Defensively, the Sabres are building a strong core that could develop into one of the stronger units in the league. Power, Dahlin, Samuelsson, and Jokiharju are 23 or younger and could be fixtures of the team for years to come. Outside of the current top 4 they have Bryson and Fitzgerald who could be in your bottom pair or 7th defenseman. While I think it’s likely the Sabres are going to try and acquire one more right shot defenseman this year or next year. The current group of young defenseman they have has set themselves up nicely going forward.
Up front they have a collection of good young forwards in Tuch, Mittelstadt, Thompson, Cozens, Krebs, Asplund, Quinn, Oloffson, and Peterka. Now the question is how do they all fit together. Everyone in Sabreland is hoping Thompson continues to become the player he showed this year, but there's no guarantee he’ll be a 30+ goal scorer the majority of his career. Tuch has already shown he can be a top 6 forward on a good team. After that, you are counting on development to see which players above can be good forwards on a contending team. The last question up front is do the Sabres need to have a firm top 6 forwards? Not long ago the Sabres were supposed to be a contending team driven by elite center play, but that doesn’t seem to be their path now. If I had to make a prediction, a cup contending Sabres team is going to be more defined by their top 9 forwards, a strong 4th line, and great defense. Probably not by elite center play or elite wings.
In goal Buffalo has Luukkonen, while he is often injured, he has still shown traits that could make him a starting goaltender. Hopefully in 23-24 he’ll be joined by prospects Erick Portillo and Devon Levi. Although it doesn’t look likely they’ll be able to sign both at this point.
Going forward that gives the Sabres a strong foundation as they continue to build the team. Will all of these players be on the team three to four years from now when the Sabres are more legit contenders? Probably not, but the majority of the team's core is already present on the roster.
The Sabres probably have the best cap position of any team in the NHL. They only have one contract in Skinner that they would like to get rid of some point, although that is not a priority now. We’ve seen the sabres weaponize the cap space a little already by acquiring Bishop this year and Boychuck/Butcher last year. They’ll be in a position to do this more as we get closer to the draft and free agency. However, I don’t expect any significant moves such as acquiring a contract with a lot of term. The space they have will start being occupied by retaining their own players shortly. Olofsson will have a yearly average of 4-5 million this year. Thompson, Cozens, Samuelsson and Asplund will all be looking for extensions next year. The following year you have Mittelstadt, Krebs, Dahlin, Jokiharju, and Power.
As it stands right now you’d expect Thompson, Dahlin, and Power to be three of your bigger contracts along with Skinner. But it’s certainly possible Krebs, Cozens, or Mittlestadt become a true #2 center. If so, how much will that contract be? What if two make a big jump? Obviously those are good problems to have if we continue to have young players make strides heading into this year. It will also have to be something the Sabres account for as they look to reach the cap floor this year. Being flexible in cap space over the next three years would be one of my top priorities if I was Kevyn Adams.
Another obvious strength! Buffalo has 11 picks this year and 8 next year. The part that’s not so obvious, is how do the Sabres utilize the draft picks similar to how they use their cap space. I already talked about the number of young players the Sabres have on their roster so conventional wisdom would say you don’t need to add 19 teenagers in two years to your organization. I’m going to attempt to make a counterpoint to that later in the post. The biggest strength within the draft capital is having 8 picks in the top two rounds between this year and next year. This year that includes 4 picks in the top 41. While the 2022 draft doesn’t appear to have the high end talent of other drafts, it does have a lot of depth. It’s not a stretch to say Buffalo could add a player at 41 they have a first round grade on.
The competing thought starting this year is whether it's more valuable to turn some picks for a player. I don't think pick 16 has as high of value this year as it may in other drafts. Whoever they have in mind at 16 realistically could be available at 28. Players such as Brad Lambert, Issac Howard, Rutget McGroarty, Jiri Kulich, Lian Bichsel, amongst others are some guys who have wide ranging grades on them who could be available at either of Buffalos last two first round picks. That's a long winded way to say the gap in value between picks 16 and 28 is pretty small. So if Buffalo decides to deal 16 or 28, I don’t think that yields you a quality young player without including multiple picks or prospects.
An under the radar weakness for the Sabres partially because of the number of young guys already on the roster. Allow me to explain, Quinn and Peterka will be on the Sabres sooner than later thanks to their rapid development. UPL will almost certainly be one of the Sabres top 2 goalies this year. Ater them you have Ryan Johnson, Devon Levi, and Erick Portillo who are not guaranteed to sign after their next season. Which could leave quite the void in the Sabres system who are pushing for playing time, substitutes for guys who don’t pan out, or depth for injuries. Or in an ideal world, cheaper cap hits if you have a plethora of young guys developing into big time players down the road.
While they have some players from their most recent draft who look good so far. There is no guarantee how they develop over the next couple years. As far as I can tell, Rosen and Kisakov are eligible to play for Rochester this year. Even though both possess a lot of talent, neither should be expected to have the seasons we saw from Peterka and Quinn this year if they do play for Rochester. Both are small and are going to struggle with the physicality of the AHL in their rookie seasons similar to how they did this past year in the SHL and KHL. Josh Bloom, Nikita Novikov, Tyson Kozak and Oliver Nadeau all have had good post draft seasons and are trending up heading into next year, but none will be in Rochester for at least another year. Prokhor Poltapov didn’t have the season I was expecting after Buffalo took him at 33. But is still a quality prospect as he tries to make a bigger impact in the KHL next year. And from previous drafts you're hoping you found some late round magic in either Linus Weissbach, Lukas Rousek, or Filip Cederqvist. It may sound like a lot of players but all you have to do is take a look at the Amereks roster past and present to see draft picks who don’t pan out after signing their ELC. So while the young talent on the Sabres roster looks good, it's important to remember to keep the cupboards stocked.
There's no other way to put it, the goaltending situation in Buffalo does not look good. I do think Devon Levi is going to sign following his Junior season which will help. Erick Portillo will probably look for other opportunities when he sees Levi sign. UPL has shown flashes, his biggest battle right now is staying healthy for a pro season. Until he can do that it’s hard to know what the Sabres actually have in him. This may be a spot they have to address with a trade or big free agency contract down the road if they want stability in between the pipes.
What Should They Do
Take The Picks!!!
First off, I love reading all the mock drafts, draft rankings, and GM for the day fan posts on here. Great posts that really provoke some good conversation and have some clever ideas. Just know, I die a little inside everytime I see a mock offseason that involves the Sabres dealing away a lot of picks. A quick history lesson that I’ll admit may be a bit of a stretch. In 2014-2015 the Sabres were historically bad but looked promising with a collection of young players and ready to take franchise centerman Jack Eichel. Instead of using their picks and building around a young core they were developing (sound familiar), they traded away young players JT Compher, Nikita Zadorov, Mikhail Grigorenko and Breandan Lemieux in addition to picks 21, 25 and 31 in the draft. Now, I know there's no guarantee to who Murray would have selected in the draft had he kept the picks. But the bottom of the first round and top of the second round had some quality players taken that year that could of been used to build around the Sabres two #2 selections they had in back to back drafts.
Lets face it, the Sabres were 25 points out of a wildcard spot this year and 32 points out of winning the division. They are not at the point in the rebuild where trading away a first or second for a young player is going to make them a contender. They are at the point in the rebuild where they need to continue stocking talent and continue developing the talent they have. There seems to be a notion that Buffalo's roster is "set" for the future and there aren't a lot of spots where an additional young player can make the roster in the coming years. I’m high on Buffalo’s young players, but we have been down this road before as I explained above. Don’t make a big swing now, take your picks and provide your organization the depth it’s been lacking for years.
No Big Trades / No Big Spending / Retain Young Talent
By this point many of you have realized if I wrote a "GM for a day" post it would be boring as hell. You also probably know my plan would be the patient one that results in no long term dollars in free agency, no trading away of high picks, and no trading away of prospects. For me that also means retaining Victor Olofsson, for a couple reasons.
First, you’d have to trade a high pick and/or prospect to get a top 4 defenseman or top 6 forward in any deal that involves Olofsson. Which is more than I want to part with at this point in the rebuild. Second, his projected deal doesn’t scare me with the Sabres cap situation. He's still a young player who’s improved his 5 on 5 play and is deadly on the power play. If he gets passed by other players and ends up on your third line it’s not the end of the world. He’ll still be a force on your power play and be a good wing to either Thompson, Cozens, Krebs, Mittelstadt, or a young center the Sabres could take high this year.
As far as free agency goes, I’d stay with the one year contracts. Developing the young guys includes making sure there are spots in the lineup they can actually compete for. Buffalo needs to stay out of situations where they feel they need to play a guy because of the contract they gave him. If someone on a one year deal beats out one of your younger players, that’ll give Buffalo additional time to develop a guy in Rochester and maybe bring him back up later in the season after an injury occurs or if they deal a rental player.
Overall, the Sabres are in a far better position than I expected them to be entering the season. And I’ll admit, while it’s still early in his tenure Kevyn Adams has been a better GM than I originally expected he would be. Now that the playoff drought looks like it could be over sooner than we thought it would a year ago at this time. It doesn’t mean it’s time to try and accelerate things with shipping away assets and spending big dollars. It may take another two years of drafting and developing, but the payoff could be a deep and talented Buffalo roster we haven't seen in years.