With the Buffalo Sabres season ending a few weeks ago, one might point to the team’s most recent campaign as a failure. Whether that be failing to make the playoffs for an NHL record eleventh straight year, the handling of the Jack Eichel situation, the goaltending carousel, etc., then yes, there is a failure. But the season for the Sabres had many different positive storylines as well. The emergence of Tage Thompson, Owen Power’s debut, Alec Tuch and Peyton Krebs embracing the City of Buffalo after their acquisition from Vegas, and of course, Rick Jeanneret’s 51st and final season with the Sabres.
Starting out at the beginning of the year, the main talking point was what might happen to former captain Jack Eichel. Eichel injured his neck last season on the road against the New York Islanders, sustaining a herniated disk in his neck. Eichel and the Sabres medical staff disagreed with the direction they wanted him to go regarding surgery and recovery. Eichel wanting an Artificial Disk Replacement, and the Sabres wanted him to go with a fusion. The situation turned even uglier when Eichel, just before the season, was stripped of the captaincy, essentially confirming that he would never play for the Sabres again. In November, Eichel got his wish and was shipped off to Las Vegas in return for Alex Tuch, prospect Peyton Krebs, a first-round pick (which turned into the 16th overall pick in this year’s NHL Entry Draft), as well as a third-round pick.
When Buffalo made the trade, it was met with skepticism by many throughout the league. Some wondering why an arguable top 10 player in the league did not fetch more. Some of it had to do with his injury status and recovery time, and the other had to do with his $10 million AAV for the next five years. Looking at it now, it seems like the Sabres are very happy with gaining a top prospect and excellent playmaker in Peyton Krebs, a first-round (16th overall) draft pick, and top line forward Alex Tuch. Tuch came to Buffalo excited to play for a team he grew up watching and idolizing, calling it a “dream come true.” He certainly did not disappoint Sabres fans, recording 12 goals and 38 points in 50 games.
The Sabres finished the year with 32 wins and 75 points, placing them 24th in the league standings. The Sabres struggled finding consistency in their game this year, ultimately leading to another missed playoff run. Goaltending was again a big question mark heading into the season. Veteran free agent goaltender Craig Anderson signed with Buffalo on a one-year deal, making him the starting goalie, while Dustin Tokarski served as the backup. The goaltending tandem did not play poorly to start the year, but defensive struggles and injuries caught up with the team, forcing them to look elsewhere for help. Sabres GM Kevyn Adams made a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks, acquiring backstop Malcom Subban, hoping he could fill the void between the pipes, while both rostered goalies recovered from injury. But inconsistent play by Subban, followed by an eventual season-ending injury, led Buffalo’s goaltending situation into another frenzy. Tokarski led the Sabres in net, while Craig Anderson worked his way back into the lineup late in the year. In the end, both Anderson and Tokarski were solid enough to keep the team in games, and gave them the confidence to win games when taking on playoff and Stanley Cup caliber teams.
A huge bright spot for Sabres fans watching and following the team this year was the emergence of forward Tage Thompson and defenseman Rasmus Dahlin coming into their own and having huge breakout seasons. Thompson made his name known through the league with his six-foot-seven size and wicked wrist and slap-shot. Last season, Thompson struggled with then head coach Ralph Krueger. He did not have the confidence he had that allowed him to play the game freely and use his strengths to his advantage. When Krueger was let go by the club, then interim and now head coach Don Granato expressed his confidence and trust in Thompson, moving him to center, a position he played previously in his early playing days. I don’t think anyone would have predicted the season he had this year. Thompson led the Sabres with 38 goals, which had him at 19th in the NHL in goals, ahead of players such as Sebastian Aho of the Hurricanes, Mikko Rantanen of the Avalanche, and Mitch Marner of the Maple Leafs.
Former No. 1 overall draft pick Rasmus Dahlin had himself a career year as well, posting career highs in goals with 13, and assists with 40 and points with 53. Dahlin was another player whose play drastically improved under head coach Granato. The Swedish defenseman was given the ability to play his game freely with his offensive instincts instead of being held back on a defensive only system. HIs smooth skating ability combined, paired with his offensive defensive style play, allowed him to play in any situation given the opportunity. He quarterbacked their power play, killed penalties and played against top line players such as Conor McDavid and Auston Matthews. Having that number one defenseman, along with prospects like Owen Power and Mattias Samuelsson give Buffalo a strong and heavy backend with more than the skill needed to make to lockdown a playoff spot.
Finally, we get to Rick Jeanneret. During the offseason, the legendary and Hall of Fame Sabres play-by-play announcer announced he would be retiring at the end of the 2021-22 season, making it 51 years with the team. “RJ” started his tenure with the Sabres in 1971, one year after the team was founded. Throughout the years, he called some of the team’s most iconic goals, hits, fights, and saves, while fans would rush to the radio or TV set to listen to him. His enthusiasm and love for the game has brought fans half a decade of excitement and energy. Calls like “May Day”, “Now Do You Believe”, and “The Shot Heard ‘Round The World”, are just a few memories that will be etched in Buffalo hockey history, as well as that of the NHL. On April 1st, RJ was finally given his moment, as his banner was hung from the rafters above the KeyBank Center ice, alongside Sabre legends that include the French Connection, Dominik Hasek, Tim Horton, Danny Gare, and Pat LaFontaine.
The season in Buffalo this year had its ups and downs. Winning streaks with the potential for a breakout season followed by stretches of inconsistent play and mistakes of a young team. Granato has said it before that this team is as close of a group as he’s ever barred witnessed to. Everyone plays for each other and not for themselves. With over $20 million in available cap space, as well as UFA’s, RFA’s, and draft picks in the fold this year, changes are surely to be on the horizon. One has to think GM Adams will be active in the goaltending market with the money to spend. But he has also said he did not want to box out prospects such as Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who is currently in Rochester injured, while his team competes in the Calder Cup Playoffs. Luukkonen serves as just one example, alongside the likes of fellow young backstops Devon Levi and Erik Portillo.
The Sabres will have to find another solid defenseman to play alongside Owen Power, and dig up the money, as well as the draft capital to make something happen. With the young core growing together in Buffalo for years to come, we should see small, but steady improvement in the team’s game, as they slowly climb up the league standings over the next 2-3 years. Buffalo could even be closer than people think with the way they performed towards the end of the season. Time will tell.