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What Went Wrong: Buffalo Sabres

Jeff Skinner

Jeff Skinner

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to What Went Wrong where we’ll look at each team that failed to make the playoffs. We’ll also end each article by highlighting some players of particular interest on the squad. Those are players who either left something to be desired during the 2021-22 campaign, have significant untapped upside, or have some big underlining questions surrounding them going into the offseason.

We’ve already covered the Montreal Canadiens, Arizona Coyotes, Seattle Kraken, Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, Chicago Blackhawks, Ottawa Senators, and Detroit Red Wings. Today we’re looking at the Buffalo Sabres.

Buffalo is a bit of a weird one to judge. Should we be harsher on them because this was the 11th straight season they failed the make the playoffs, which sets an embarrassing NHL record? Or should we accept that the Sabres went into this season with the knowledge that their previous rebuild was a bust and instead focus on the positive signs displayed in 2021-22 that indicated that perhaps this rebuild will be different?

Ultimately you can’t tell the story of the 2021-22 Buffalo Sabres without diving into both narratives, especially given that the old guard lingered into this season. Buffalo traded away Rasmus Ristolainen and Sam Reinhart over the summer of 2021, but moving Jack Eichel wasn’t so easy. Any team that took him would have to accept some big risks given that Eichel would be coming to his new team injured and awaiting permission to have a surgery that the Sabres vetoed. He also came with a $10 million annual cap hit through 2026, so any team taking him would be counting on the idea that he’d be the same superstar player he previously had been after the surgery. Oh, and Sabres GM Kevyn Adams wasn’t backing down on his demands for the trade, so there’s that.

In the end, it took until November before Eichel was traded, but Adams’ stubbornness was rewarded. In exchange for Eichel and Buffalo’s 2023 third-round pick, Vegas surrendered a solid, still reasonably young forward in Alex Tuch, a high-end prospect in Peyton Krebs, Vegas’ 2022 first-round pick, which turned out to be the 16th overall, and Vegas’ 2023 second-round pick. On top of that, Buffalo retained none of Eichel’s cap hit, allowing them to cleanly break away from him.

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It was a good trade for Buffalo, especially under the circumstances, but it also allowed for a moment of reflection. When the Sabres drafted Eichel with the second overall pick in 2015, they thought it would be the start of something special. He was supposed to be the player the ailing franchise built around and eventually lead them to a championship. Eichel largely did his part. He never competed for the Hart Trophy like the man drafted ahead of him, Connor McDavid, but Eichel had 139 goals and 355 points in 375 contests with Buffalo. He tried to make it work there, but in the end, his time represented an era of futility. A time when the Buffalo Sabres failed to even make the playoffs once despite having a young star to build around. Maybe Eichel could have done even more, but it’s hard not to put most of the blame for those failures at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres themselves.

That said, Adams only became the Sabres’ general manager in 2020, Don Granato was gearing up for his first full season with the Sabres when the 2021-22 campaign started, and with Eichel gone, the vast majority of the current Sabres are young and shouldn’t be held accountable for the franchise’s past failures. From top to bottom, this organization is largely starting fresh, so what happened for Buffalo in 2021-22 specifically?

Well, let’s get the bad out of the way first. Yes, they posted a 32-39-11 record and missed the playoffs for a record-breaking 11th season. That’s a black mark on the franchise, but at the same time, in the spirit of starting fresh, this team wasn’t really built to reach the postseason.

The Sabres play in Atlantic Division and going into the season, it was known that Florida, Toronto, Tampa Bay, and Boston were all positioned to be high-end teams. It would have been surprising if any of them missed the playoffs, which didn’t leave much room for the Sabres. With Eichel and Reinhart gone, the Sabres also entered the season with a largely unproven forward core, though ultimately it was their goaltending that was the bigger problem.

Buffalo had absolutely no luck in goal in 2020-21 and had to deploy six different goaltenders despite it being a shortened 56-game season. After that experience, the Sabres wanted to few different viable options to work with going into training camp. They signed Craig Anderson, who would be 40 at the start of the season but had a lot of experience serving as a starter, and Aaron Dell, who they were hoping would bounce back after a rough 2020-21 campaign. Combine that with returning goaltender Dustin Tokarski and an important prospect netminder in Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, and the hope was that Buffalo would at least see some modest improvement between the pipes in 2021-22.

That didn’t happen. The Sabres’ Band-Aid solution resulted in the exact same 3.50 goals against per game that they had in 2020-21. Anderson was sometimes okay, especially under the circumstances, but he ultimately finished with an unimpressive 3.12 GAA and .897 save percentage in 31 starts. Dustin Tokarski didn’t fare any better with a 3.27 GAA and .899 save percentage in 29 games. On top of that, injuries led to the Sabres once again using six goaltenders in net over the course of the season. Among those other goaltenders, only Luukkonen showed any promise with his 2.74 GAA and .917 save percentage in nine starts.

Offensively they weren’t particularly good either, averaging 2.79 goals per game. Still, that was a major improvement over 2020-21 and when you consider all the talented forwards Buffalo let go since the start of the 2020-21 campaign, the fact that they actually took a step forward offensively was encouraging.

Tage Thompson was the highlight of the Sabres’ campaign, breaking out with 38 goals and 68 points in 78 games. Victor Olofsson looked solid too with 20 goals and a career-high 49 points in 72 contests, and Dylan Cozens made strides in his sophomore campaign with 13 goals and 38 points in 79 games. The most pleasant surprise though was Jeff Skinner. After dreadful showings in 2019-20 and 2020-21, he found his game again, scoring 33 goals and 63 points in 80 contests. That’s the kind of performance the Sabres were counting on when they signed him to an eight-year, $72 million contract back in 2019 and while this showing came to late to save the Sabres from having to part ways with their previous core, Skinner might end up playing a key role with the new group.

Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin made strides too, setting career-highs with 13 goals and 53 points in 80 games. Towards the end of the season, Owen Power joined the Sabres too, giving Buffalo fans an early preview of the duo who should command the Sabres from the blueline for years to come.

Taking this as the rebuilding season it was meant to be, there are some positives here. Buffalo’s goaltending is still very much a question mark, they could use more offensive depth, and their defense, while the most promising part of the team, needs seasoning. At the same time though, they already have a lot of the key pieces they need in order to have a successful rebuild and with three first-round picks under their control in 2022, they’re in a position to add further.

Perhaps the biggest question mark for the Sabres going forward isn’t a roster one, but a mentality one. They haven’t made it to the playoffs since 2011 and have no sense of a winning culture. That’s something that’s hard to add and was perhaps part of what ultimately sabotaged their previous rebuild. Instilling that culture isn’t a simple thing. Adding veterans with winning experience absolutely could help, but it isn’t necessarily a magic bullet. After all, Brian Gionta was also part of the Sabres during Eichel’s rookie campaign. Still, it’s a problem that needs to be addressed in Buffalo one way or another as they look to get it right this time with their rebuild.

Players to Watch:

Jeff Skinner – Skinner has had an interesting career to say the least. Taken with the seventh overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, he ranks second in that class in terms of goals (298), behind only Tyler Seguin (305), and third in terms of points (542) behind Taylor Hall (657) and Seguin (686). That’s largely thanks to the fact that he’s enjoyed five 30-plus goal seasons, including the 2018-19 campaign where he scored 40 goals. And yet, he’s had some pretty rough campaigns sprinkled in there. Here’s his goal total in each season in chronical order since the start of his career: 31, 20, 13, 33, 18, 28, 37, 24, 40, 14, 7, and most recently 33. So just at a glance, you can see that his production has been all over the place. Injuries have sometimes played a role in that, but even if you just look at him in terms of points-per-game from 2014-15 onward you’d see he recorded anywhere from 0.80 at his height to 0.26 at his low. He’s perhaps the most inconsistent high-end forward in the NHL today and given that he’s just 30. What will the back half of his career look like? He had one of his up seasons in 2021-22 and the Sabres will have to hope that he steadies going forward given that he’ll come with a $9 million cap hit through 2026-27.

Rasmus DahlinRasmus Dahlin had his best offensive season yet with 13 goals and 53 points in 80 games, but perhaps more importantly, he made strides defensively in 2021-22. His defensive game was the bigger question mark going into the season, so to see him take a step forward in that regard in encouraging. It’s worth noting that while he has 277 games under his belt now, he only turned 22 in April. He’s good right now, but he could get even better. The Sabres have plenty of reason for optimism when it comes to him.

Owen Power – Dahlin was the first overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft and Power went first overall in 2021, giving the Sabres an incredible duo on the blueline. There’s a lot of similarities between them, but Power is bigger than Dahlin and while Dahlin is a clear-cut offensive defenseman, Power is a bit more of a two-way blueliner. Just like Dahlin, he can contribute offensively – after all he had two goals in eight games with Buffalo this season – but between the two he’s probably going to end up being the one who is more defensively inclined. It will be fun to see them play in their first full season together in 2022-23 and the development of those two could eventually lead the Sabres into the playoffs.

Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen – Buffalo’s biggest need right now is unquestionably goaltending. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them once again look towards the UFA market for answers, but in the long run the solution might be internal. Luukkonen showed some promise in 2021-22 and at the age of 23, it’d be fair to give him an opening to compete for a spot on the Sabres’ starting roster. He still has a lot to prove, but if he develops as the Sabres are hoping then it will a long way towards sorting out their team.