For many Buffalo Sabres fans, this season is about the prospects.
There are beacons of hope on the club’s NHL roster, led by Casey Mittelstadt, Rasmus Dahlin, Dylan Cozens and Henri Jokiharju. But the young core is unlikely to snap the 10-year playoff drought until the next wave of talented young players reaches Buffalo.
There’s Owen Power, the defenseman drafted first overall by the Sabres in July. Rochester will be well-stocked with intriguing talent, including Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka. During a season in which you’ll read more prospects coverage in The Buffalo News, here’s a glance at the 15 to watch in 2021-22.
Here are NHL season predictions by Buffalo News reporters Mike Harrington and Lance Lysowski.
1. Owen Power, defenseman, University of Michigan: Back with the Wolverines for his sophomore season, Power will be among the early favorites for the Hobey Baker Award and will patrol the blue line for 25 minutes per game for a national title contender. Standing 6-foot-6, Power can sign his entry-level contract with Buffalo following the season.
2. Jack Quinn, winger, Rochester Americans: Drafted eighth overall in 2020, Quinn’s development was negatively impacted by the Ontario Hockey League not holding a season. Overmatched in the American Hockey League, Quinn had only two goals and nine points with Rochester before undergoing season-ending hernia surgery. The 20-year-old had a difficult training camp but should play on the Amerks’ top line.
While the Sabres’ 3-1 victory Saturday reminded fans what style of play to expect from the club under Granato, it’s unclear who will be in the lineup when the regular season opens Thursday in Buffalo against Montreal.
3. JJ Peterka, winger, Rochester Americans: A second-round pick in 2020, Peterka is a 19-year-old winger who showed flashes of brilliance during training camp and appears on the cusp of helping the Sabres. Peterka almost made the NHL roster for opening night. Instead, he'll have top-six role with heavy minutes in Rochester.
4. Ryan Johnson, defenseman, University of Minnesota: Now a junior and two years removed from his selection 31st overall by Buffalo, Johnson had a breakout offensive season in 2020-21, recording 14 points in 17 games and winning a gold medal with the United States at the IIHF World Junior Championship.
5. Prokhor Poltapov, winger, Zvezda Moskva (VHL in Russia): A dynamic 18-year-old who Sabres director of amateur scouting Jerry Forton described as a “hard skill player,” Poltapov likely will represent Russia at world juniors and is off to a strong start in the country’s second-tier league.
6. Erik Portillo, goalie, University of Michigan: Named the USHL Goaltender of the Year for 2019-20, Portillo appeared in only seven games last season because he was the Wolverines’ backup, but the 21-year-old is expected to start for one of the top teams in the NCAA.
7. Devon Levi, goalie, Northeastern University: Acquired by the Sabres in the trade that sent Sam Reinhart to Florida, Levi delivered a breakthrough performance for Canada at world juniors in January. The 19-year-old unsigned prospect had a record-setting .964 save percentage in seven games, but a broken rib prevented him from competing for Northeastern as a freshman.
“I think as you watch us, you'll see that night to night we'll be getting better and more efficient in different areas, and eventually it will all start to add up,” Granato says.
8. Isak Rosen, winger, Leksands IF (Swedish Hockey League): The Sabres drafted Rosen in the first round, 14th overall, with a pick acquired in the Rasmus Ristolainen trade. Rosen, 18, uses his elite speed to slice through defensive-zone coverage and used an impressive performance at the IIHF Under-18 world championships last spring (seven goals and nine points in eight games) to buoy his draft stock.
9. Aleksandr Kisakov, winger, MHK Dynamo Moskva (MHL in Russia): Kisakov was a second-round pick of the Sabres in July after the 5-10, 150-pound forward totaled 73 points in 61 junior games last season.
10. Stiven Sardarian, winger, Youngstown Phantoms (USHL): A 6-1 forward committed to play NCAA hockey for New Hampshire, Sardarian had 30 points in 50 Russian junior games last season. He made the early move to North America to prepare for the NHL.
11. Linus Weissbach, winger, Rochester: A seventh-round draft choice in 2017, Weissbach developed into a fast, playmaking forward during his four seasons at the University of Wisconsin. Now 23 years old, he has a legitimate opportunity to help the Sabres this season.
12. Josh Bloom, center, Saginaw (OHL): Bloom did not play a game last season because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but he was still selected by Buffalo in the third round. An 18-year-old listed at 6-2, Bloom had some impressive moments during the Prospects Challenge and NHL training camp. He had 14 points in 54 games during the 2019-20 season in Saginaw.
You're not tanking when you're rebuilding with 12 former first- or second-round picks on your roster like this edition of the Sabres, Harrington says.
13. Aaron Huglen, center, University of Minnesota: Finally recovered from a back injury that prevented him from playing in 2019-20, Huglen had 15 goals and 35 points in 39 games with Fargo of the USHL last season.
14. Brett Murray, winger, Rochester: Murray is among the oldest players on this list at 23 years old and has played two seasons with the Amerks, but he’s still a raw prospect trying to develop into an effective power forward. The 6-6 fourth-round draft choice in 2016 had a dominant Prospects Challenge, but he wasn’t as noticeable in NHL training camp.
15. Matteo Costantini, center, University of North Dakota: A Buffalo Jr. Sabres alumni drafted in the fifth round by general manager Kevyn Adams, Costantini struggled at times in the USHL last season, totaling 22 points in 37 games against older competition.