Obviously, it’s never a good winter in Buffalo. And winter never stops, so I’m told. Anyway, the one thing that can make the time pass in the darkest months on the shores of Lake Erie is a hockey team worth watching. Kids, the Buffalo Sabres will very much be worth watching this season. So the residents may only need two batches of foot warmers each day.
If you’re in search of a second team or are unaffiliated but need a team slightly below the glitterati to pay more attention to, and kind of attach yourself, the Sabres are probably the ticket. Mostly because they have firepower for days. This is a team that will come as close to a real-life version of “Hit The Ice” as any (was I the only one to ever play this game? With the live octopus on the ice? Forget it). Sabres games are going to feature goals, goals, goals dancin’ on…well, not the Sunset Strip. Whatever strip Buffalo has. Chippewa Street doesn’t really roll off the tongue to parody Motley Crue.
The Sabres return a lineup that had four players who racked up 70 points or more last season, six who had 59 points, or more, four 30-goal scorers (and Victor Olofsson who had 28), and two #1 d-men, or two d-men with #1 potential, who soup up this team’s motor something fierce. It’s led by Tage Thompson, who took a few years to figure out how to play Denis Savard’s game while also being 6-6, but at age 25 put it all together for a 47-47-94 statline that came somewhat out of nowhere. It is truly a sight to see someone this big dance through entire defenses, and the angles he can create with that reach flummox a lot of goalies.
Thompson will have his two main running buddies back in Alex Tuch and Jeff Skinner. The latter used to be the poster boy for the “Yeah, but who gives a sh*t?” All-Stars, indicating that his 40-goal seasons were 40 goals that never came close to mattering. With the Sabres very likely having something to play for this time around, should be a keen watch on what he does when the chips are down in March. Tuch has become just about the most annoying two-way demon in the league, something of a traveling company show of Mark Stone. Fans of any other team learn to dislike him pretty quickly because every shift he’s up someone’s ass and causing turnovers and finishing off chances and generally creating a ruckus.
What makes the Sabres so fun is they’re hardly one line. Dylan Cozens anchors the second line, and they sport Olofsson, and Casey Middlestadt, as well as breakout candidate JJ Peterka. Sadly, shoot-from-anywhere Smash TV weapon Jack Quinn ruptured his achilles in the summer (must’ve been some intense golf) and is likely out until at least the new year.
The Sabres’ real strength though is the cheat code of having both Owen Power and Rasmus Dahlin on the blue line. Both are squaring up to be top pairing puck movers, which means for at least two-thirds of every game the Sabres have someone on the ice to get them up the ice. Power’s scoring hasn’t reached the heights that Dahlin’s has, but he’s also four years in arrears in experience, with last year being his first full season in the league. Erik Johnson and Connor Clifton were brought in to play centerfield for both, though Matthias Samuelsson and Henri Jokiharju may relegate either, or both to the third-pairing.
Are there problems? Of course! It wouldn’t be the Sabres if there weren’t problems! The big one is in the crease, where they’re turning things over to a child. That would be Devon Levi, who is 21, and dominated at Northeastern the past two seasons as well as backstopped Canada last winter to WJC gold. But it’s a huge ask to turn a team’s hopes onto a goalie that has seven professional games of experience. But they might have to, as the alternatives of Eric Comrie, and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen make baby Jesus cry.
On top of that, whoever is in the mask for the Sabres is going to have a lot of work to do. Sure, the Sabres have a lot of offensive weapons, but they also had the habit of pointing them at their own goalie last year too. Buffalo had the fourth-worst xGA/60 at even-strength last year, Though they didn’t give up a ton of attempts. Which means that they were reverse-efficient, making sure whatever they gave up was basically a prime chance. Being this loaded with young forwards generally means there’s a steep learning curve to teach them how to play with and without the puck and on both sides of the ice. Those lessons have to be picked up quickly this year for the Sabres to get into the playoffs.
The Atlantic Division is still something of a stone bitch as well. It’s hard to gauge what the Bruins or the Lightning will be given what they’ve lost through either retirement, attrition, or injury. But it’s hard to fathom either will be bad. The Leafs are still loaded, the Panthers could be anything, the Senators are on the same arc as the Sabres, and the Red Wi…..HAHAHAHA just kidding the Wings still won’t matter. #YzerPlanForever (and it’ll take forever). That’s a lot to navigate through to get into even a wildcard spot, and even more when attempting it with a rookie goalie, and so many important players being under 25.
But hey, nothing worth having comes easy. And it’ll be a lot of fun finding out if they’ve got the sand. Get on board now, you’ll be happy telling people you did later.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate and on Bluesky @felsgate.bsky.social
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