A look at the future of the Buffalo Sabres, their offseason ahead
As the NHL playoffs start to wrap up the first round, the Buffalo Sabres spend yet another year focusing on building a team that will bring playoff hockey back to Western New York.
After an unexpected hot start to the 2018-19 NHL season, the Buffalo Sabres had everyone fooled that their long rebuild was over and they may be a top team in the league. But, a monumental collapse after their impressive 10-game winning streak brought the hockey world back to reality — the Sabres are still missing a few pieces to the puzzle.
It has been a long wait, but the Sabres already have a few of the pieces in their system who can turn the tides and end the Sabres playoff drought. The first piece is Finnish goaltender, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Luukkonen was the top ranked European goaltender at the time of his drafting by the Sabres in 2017. Since coming to play in North America this season, the Finnish netminder has been on a tear — standing at a formidable 6’5,” Luukkonen proved difficult to beat in his season with the Ontario Hockey League’s Sudbury Wolves. The Sabres prospect posted a OHL leading .920 save percentage and an impressive 2.50 goals against average, while tying for the league lead in wins with 38. Beyond statistics, Luukkonen was the focal point behind turning around the dumpster fire that was the Sudbury Wolves — in the 2017-18 season, Sudbury was the worst team in OHL getting only 17 wins, but in the 2018-19 season with the addition of Luukkonen and top OHL pick Quinton Byfield, the Wolves won an impressive 43 games. After Sudbury’s exit from the second round of the playoffs, Luukkonen has joined the Sabres American Hockey League affiliate, the Rochester Americans. Look for Luukkonen to make the Sabres roster in 2020-21 and battle for the starting job as both Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark could be on their way out the door.
The goaltending position will take longer for the Sabres to fill properly, as only one player occupies the position usually and unlike starting quarterbacks, goalies are given more than a six game trial to prove their worth. In the short term, Buffalo can very easily assess their lack of scoring depth.
The top priority is to get leading goalscorer, Jeff Skinner, to stick around on a deal that doesn’t put the Sabres in a bad spot. The Sabres can not overpay him as he has shown how he can be a streaky player — only netting four goals after the March 1 trade deadline when he saw a lot of his time no longer on Jack Eichel’s wing, proving that Eichel was more the driving force behind his career high in goals being achieved.
Aside from trying to keep Skinner at a decent price, the Sabres have a lot to look forward to with Victor Olofsson. Olofsson is a Sabres seventh round pick from the 2014 NHL Draft and has quickly turned into a draft steal who loves to find the back of the net. In his rookie year in the AHL, Olofsson recorded 63 points in 66 games, having 30 of those points come by way of goal.
In the 2017-18 hockey season, Olofsson was teammates with phenom defenseman Rasmus Dahlin and Dahlin raved about the young Swedish forwards goal scoring ability as he led the Swedish Hockey League in goals that season with 27 — Olofsson’s goal total was three more than Canuck’s star and likely Rookie of the Year winner Elias Pettersson, who proved this season that impressive numbers from Europe can translate to the NHL. Other notable prospects who should get a good look next season are: winger Alexander Nylander, centerman Rasmus Asplund, defenseman Jacob Bryson, defenseman Oskari Laaksonen and defenseman Lawrence Pilut should be a top four defender next year.
Once again, the Sabres have found themselves with multiple first round picks and a strong offensive draft class could benefit the Sabres. Buffalo’s first pick is the seventh selection, and in that area the Sabres could have the chance to take the best goalscorer in the draft class, Cole Caufield of the USA U-18 team. Caufield has shined with the program, breaking goal scoring records — Caufield ended his career with the program scoring 106 goals over two seasons, surpassing the previous record of 104 that was set by Phil Kessel. Caufield is small in stature, but everywhere he has gone it has not been an issue and he has dominated — Caufield will score at Wisconsin next season and he will score in the NHL whenever he chooses to leave school.
The Sabres will also have the Blues’ pick which will be in the 20s. In the late first round Buffalo could potentially add more scoring from the best junior teams in Canada. Jakob Pelletier is a winger for the Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Pelletier posted an impressive statline with 39-50-89 in 65 games played; Connor McMichael is a centerman for the London Knights of the OHL, McMichael’s statline was 36-36-72 in 67 games; or take a risk with Russian winger Dmitri Sheshin who had strong numbers for Stalnye Lisy Magnitogorsk in the Russian Junior Hockey League, scoring 20-23-43 in 45 games.
Through general manager Jason Botterill’s first two drafts, he has stayed away from drafting players out of the CHL and is yet to draft a Russian. Botterill has expressed his love to draft European and college players, as you can wait longer before you sign them to a contract. But as we continue to see CHL graduates play well in the NHL and Russian players like Nikita Kucherov, Artemi Panarin and Evgeny Kuznetsov shine — Kucherov was pick 58, Panarin went undrafted and Kuznetsov was pick 26 — Buffalo needs to find their own star from those respective regions.
I know it looks like a lot of things the Sabres need to do, but they do have their core — all they need to do is put the last few pieces together. Expect the Sabres to be contending for a playoff spot next season and in the following year they should be competing to win the division.