Our Buffalo Sabres 2021-22 Preview is a part of our 2021-22 NHL Team Preview Series. Starting September 9th, we have covered one team per day in the leadup to the 2021-22 season. After a crazy busy offseason with a ton of player movement we need something to help summarize what happened and give an outlook of the impact on each team. Make sure to check back each day for the next team in the list!
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Oh, Buffalo, where to begin? Finishing dead last in the NHL with a 15-34-7 record (37 points, .330 P%), the Sabres went through a season they’d love to forget. The first 10 games started out okay (for them), going 4-4-2. But, the Sabres then had a COVID outbreak and were postponed for two weeks. When the team resumed play, everything struggled mightily. Many players, including Rasmus Ristolainen, were hit hard by the illness and the team was out of sync, out of conditioning, and falling behind quickly. They won 2 of the first 6 games after resuming their season. After that, they went on an 18 game losing streak that spanned just over one calendar month.
During this losing streak, former coach Ralph Krueger (with a 6-18-3 record) was let go and replaced by Don Granato, who went 9-17-3 to finish the season. A marginal improvement but still very not good.
The Sabres dealt with nearly every player underperforming or otherwise injured, excluding maybe Sam Reinhart, who has since been traded. Rasmus Dahlin struggled, only had 23 points and was a team worst -36. Prized free agent Taylor Hall only scored 19 points in 37 games before being traded to Boston. Jack Eichel had 18 points in his 21 games but missed most of the season with a neck injury and now wants out. Nine million dollar man Jeff Skinner scored 7 goals all season, including an iconic stretch of not scoring a goal for an entire calendar year.
The Sabres were a collector’s dream in net last season with 6 different goalies seeing the crease. Linus Ullmark was the intended starter but he only played 20 games. Ullmark was the only of Buffalo’s goalies to have a sub-3.00 GAA, and put up the best numbers of any who made an appearance last season.
Does that paint a decent enough picture that the Sabres are in a bad way?
Buffalo’s offseason doesn’t leave a whole lot to be desired, either. Through no fault of the team’s, number one draft pick Owen Power is returning to university hockey for next season. After spending more time on the trade block than Jaromir Jagr did in the NHL, Rasmus Ristolainen was dealt to Philadelphia for Robert Hagg and some draft picks. They traded away their leading scorer Sam Reinhart for Devon Levi and a draft pick. Jack Eichel has made it clear he never wants to put a Sabres uniform on again. And, they lost both of their goalies in free agency. Buffalo barely brought anyone in to replace any of this.
On paper, this team is destined to somehow have an even worse season in 2021-22. It might even be right up there for one of the worst seasons of the past couple decades.
Buffalo Sabres Roster Additions
Buffalo Sabres Roster Subtractions
Buffalo Sabres Roster Overview
So I guess let’s skip down to the third line where we have Jeff Skinner and Victor Olofsson on Casey Middelstadt’s wings. What? That’s their first line? I see.
With Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel out, the Sabres are destined to be rolling with Jeff Skinner (14 points in 53 games), Casey Middelstadt (22 points in 41 games), and Victor Olofsson (32 points in 56 games) as their first line. This is one of if not the worst first line in the entire league. Jeff Skinner is just bad and getting paid $9M to do so. Victor Olofsson is more of a powerplay/offensive specialist. And, Casey Middelstadt is an underperforming prospect about to be thrust into a role giving him 5 more minutes of ice time per game than he played last season.
Dylan Cozens will also find his way farther up the lineup in his sophomore season, likely centring the second line with some combination of Anders Bjork, Rasmus Asplund, Tage Thompson, Vinnie Hinostroza, or Drake Caggiula on his wings.
Arttu Ruotsalainen is also waiting for a shot. Arttu had 2 points in 12 games last season but is fully expected to be able to gain a full time roster spot this season. Ruotsalainen spent most of this time last season with Cozens and Bjork. They weren’t great, below 50% in available metrics, but for familiarity’s sake, the team might choose to let them play together to start the season.
Jack Quinn, who had 9 points in 15 AHL games last season, has a very realistic chance of factoring in due to the lack of depth. Now, the Sabres may choose to keep him in the AHL for development purposes, but he is an offensive player and with the lack of scoring depth on this team, Quinn is an appealing option to try and give some competition to the team that has Skinner, Bjork, Thompson, for example, in its top 6.
As the team shifts things around, we could see any combination of Zemgus Girgensons, Cody Eakin, Rasmus Asplund, or Vinnie Hinostroza centring the bottom two lines. Eakin is a definite centre somewhere as he is the team’s best face-off taker. Girgensons should take a winger spot alongside Eakin on the fourth line, especially with him having not played in a very long time. Kyle Okposo is probably suited to a small role on the fourth line if he is a lineup regular this season.
There isn’t much of a difference between the second line wingers and fourth line wingers on this team, production-wise, so there will be copious amounts of shuffling. Look for players like Hinostroza, Caggiula, and Thompson to show their versatility and play all over the lineup in any situation.
Things are fairly straightforward for the team on defense. Rasmus Dahlin and Henri Jokiharju are the team’s two best on defense and will likely occupy the first pairing. These two spent a lot of time together last season and were a serviceable pairing. The hope is that Dahlin bounces back from an awful season and finds ways to contribute more offensively, both to pump his own numbers but also because the Sabres will need all the help they can get.
The Flyers have used Robert Hagg in a bottom pairing role for a couple seasons now. But, with the weak left side on Buffalo’s defense, I could see him taking on a second pairing placement with the Sabres. Colin Miller is expected to join Hagg on the second pairing this season.
Jacob Bryson got 38 games last season, recording 9 points, playing mostly with Rasmus Ristolainen. But, new acquisitions Robert Hagg and Will Butcher are likely to push him down the depth chart for the time being. Butcher has more experience than Bryson and a bit more of an offensive touch, so with Dahlin being the only other defender with some sort of offensive capabilities, Will Butcher has an upperhand on claiming the final spot on Buffalo’s defense. The team is extremely weak on the right side so Mark Pysyk is a shoe-in for the third RD spot.
Brandon Davidson and Jimmy Schuldt are a couple players who will likely spend the year in the AHL but could see some NHL time. Schuldt has shown a bit more of an offensive side to his game, with 35 points in 90 AHL games, so if Will Butcher struggles Jimmy might get the call-up.
Buffalo lost both members of their intended tandem from last season, Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton, in free agency. This has led to them signing Aaron Dell and Craig Anderson to be the primary goalies for the team. That is a very underwhelming tandem and I highly doubt it is sufficient to cover how weak the skaters and defense are for the Sabres. The starter in this duo is hard to predict (or even guess at the 1A) as Anderson is clearly the better goalie. However, Anderson is now 40 years old and was apparently close to retiring before somehow being enticed to join the Sabres. Aaron Dell was unimpressive last season (well, the last 3 seasons, for that matter).
It makes me wonder if the real plan is for Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen to finally work his way into regular NHL playing time. I’ve been writing about him in Buffalo for a couple of seasons now. Luukkonen got his first taste of NHL action in 20-21 with 4 games, getting the call when every other goalie above him in the depth chart got injured. His numbers in the AHL weren’t that great (3.60 GAA, .888 SV%) so I would be hesitant to pencil him into the NHL team’s roster full-time, for this season at least.
Buffalo Sabres 2021-22 Prediction
8th Atlantic Division
I don’t see any way that this roster is not a clear cut favourite for last in the division. Even though they’ll be competing with Detroit down at the bottom, the Red Wings have a significantly higher ceiling and more proven, skilled players in nearly every position. Even if the team’s prospects make a major impact and take huge leaps forward in their development, there just isn’t enough to really see the Sabres finish anywhere but last.
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