Kevyn Adams' offseason message to the Buffalo Sabres wasn’t overlooked by the players in the dressing room.
Adams didn’t spend his ample salary cap space on a high-end forward or defenseman. The general manager didn’t want to bring in anyone to take ice time and opportunity away from the core players who led the Sabres to an impressive finish to last season.
Instead, Adams addressed two glaring needs on the roster by adding goalie Eric Comrie and right-shot defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin on two-year contracts. If the Sabres are to take another step in 2022-23, they’ll need their top returning players to thrive in prominent roles, like Rasmus Dahlin, Tage Thompson, Alex Tuch, Jeff Skinner, Dylan Cozens, Peyton Krebs, Casey Mittelstadt, Owen Power and Mattias Samuelsson, among others.
Although the roster appears mostly set before the first training camp practices Thursday, there are notable questions surrounding the Sabres, who play their first preseason game Sunday in Washington against the Capitals.
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1. Will Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka make the Sabres’ opening-night roster?
Quinn and Peterka will be given the opportunity to make the team. Though their respective development tracked differently last season, both proved during their time in Rochester that they’re ready to learn in the NHL. Quinn, 21, was named the American Hockey League’s rookie of the year for a regular season in which he totaled 26 goals and 61 points in 45 games. He had a difficult start to the playoffs, but gradually, he began to generate scoring chances and impacted the game in every other way.
Peterka, 20, finished the regular season with 28 goals and 68 points in 70 games after scoring 25 goals from Jan. 1 until the finale April 29. He added seven goals and 12 points in 10 playoffs games. Both learned to be responsible defensively and how to help their team win on nights when they aren’t scoring. There’s roster competition, though. Anders Bjork is still here and determined to carve out a role. Vinnie Hinostroza is back for another season.
“We all know those guys are going to be given every chance to be here based on their performance and growth and performance last year,” coach Don Granato said of Quinn and Peterka in a recent interview with The Buffalo News. “Now, we're bringing them into something way more stable than one season ago. ... We have a greater familiarity as a staff and the players have a greater familiarity in the locker room with what's expected of them and what our daily routine is, all that stuff.”
2. Can Eric Comrie take hold of the starting job in goal?
The Sabres need Comrie to show he’s ready to start 40-50 games this season. Though Craig Anderson is back for his 20th NHL season, the 40-year-old’s workload will be monitored and it would be a surprise if he plays more than 30 games. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen will join the Rochester Americans for what the organization hopes is a healthy, successful season. If Comrie falters, the Sabres’ bridge plan in goal will be in jeopardy.
Comrie, 27, signed a two-year contract with the Sabres following a season in which he recorded an impressive .920 save percentage and 2.58 goals-against average as the primary backup on a bad Winnipeg Jets team. He’s earned a starting opportunity and will benefit from a solid defense corps. Keep an eye on Luukkonen in camp, though. He’ll want to show that he’s ready to be in Buffalo and management would love to see the 23-year-old perform well after he missed the Amerks' playoff run with an injury.
3. How will Owen Power fare in his first NHL training camp?
Power has only played eight games in the NHL and turns 20 in November, yet there’s no question how he’ll fit on the Sabres. He’ll help drive play at 5-on-5, run the second power-play unit, and perhaps he’ll even get time on the penalty kill. Sabres fans need to temper expectations, though. While he’s immensely talented and ready for a significant role, it’s important to remember there will be some difficult moments along the way. He’s learning how to defend against the best players in the world and will face challenging matchups on the road. The real test won’t come until the regular season, but he’ll benefit from having an experienced defense partner in Henri Jokiharju or Lybushkin.
4. Can Rasmus Dahlin avoid a slow start to the season?
There isn’t a singular reason for Dahlin’s slow starts. In 2018, he was adjusting to the NHL. He had a new coach the following season, the pandemic disrupted routines entering 2020-21 and, last season, the Sabres hired a new assistant coach for defense, Marty Wilford, while Dahlin adjusted to playing on the top pair. Dahlin, now 22, experienced a breakthrough in late November. He established career highs in goals (13), points (53) and average time on ice (24:01) last season while being named to his first All-Star Game. The Sabres have multiple defensemen who pair well with Dahlin, particularly Mattias Samuelsson, who showed last season that he can be trusted to face the opponent’s top forwards. There’s no reason to believe Dahlin won’t continue to show that he’s among the league’s best.
5. Is Casey Mittelstadt going to show that he’s ready to contribute?
Mittelstadt was the Sabres’ best player in training camp last fall, and by a wide margin. Then, the 23-year-old suffered an upper-body injury in the season opener that kept him out until December and impacted his play until late in the season. Over the final 26 games, Mittelstadt averaged 16:31 of ice time while recording four goals and 13 points. Mittelstadt has to prove that he can sustain or improve that production for 82 games. He’ll have the opportunity to play center and wing with talented linemates.
It’s not unusual for a young forward to take longer to carve out a role in the NHL, especially one such as Mittelstadt, who has played for three coaches and endured the burden of filling a prominent lineup spot too soon. His development was mishandled by the previous regime, but it’s not too late for him to establish himself.
6. Will Dylan Cozens show in camp that he’s ready for a breakout season?
All signs point to Cozens stepping into an even bigger role. Sure, he had only two goals over the final 37 games last season, but he was driving play offensively, owning the middle of the ice and consistently generating scoring chances. His 30 shots on goal over the final 11 games ranked second among Sabres forwards, and his 16:30 of average ice time was fourth. He finished the season third on the team in individual shot quality in all situations, according to Evolving-Hockey.com, and remember, he was on a 20-goal pace at the All-Star break.
Cozens is still raw in some areas on the ice. He’ll make a greater impact defensively and in the faceoff circle with more experience. And, barring injury, Granato will have more impactful wingers to play alongside Cozens, who established chemistry with Hinostroza and Kyle Okposo last season.
7. Which prospect will stick around NHL camp longer than expected?
Matt Savoie is the easy choice here. Savoie, 18, has the tools to be a standout in training camp and should benefit from competing in the Prospects Challenge. The Sabres can provide an important development opportunity in the form of preseason games. It’s inevitable that Savoie will return to Winnipeg of the Western Hockey League, but it’s important for management to see how he looks against NHL players. Savoie will also get a better sense of what he needs to work on to prepare for a full-time spot in Buffalo.
Among prospects with pro experience, Lukas Rousek looks ready for a long stay in training camp. Rousek, 23, was exceptional in the playoffs with the Amerks, totaling two goals and six points in 10 games as a do-it-all, pass-first, playmaking winger after he missed most of the 2021-22 regular season with an ACL injury. Rousek will need to gain more experience in Rochester, but he has all the tools to have success in camp and, eventually, help the Sabres win games.
“We’re not surprised by any of it,” Rochester coach Seth Appert said of Rousek. “We expect him to be a high-end American League player this year and to start to inch towards trying to be a guy that can get called up to the National Hockey League."
8. Will the Sabres have enough NHL-ready depth up front?
As of now, the only questions facing the Sabres at forward are whether Quinn and Peterka make the roster, and who will fill the hole at fourth-line center. Zemgus Girgensons, Riley Sheahan and West Seneca native Sean Malone are among those competing for the latter spot. Buffalo is strong down the middle with Cozens, Mittelstadt, Tage Thompson and Peyton Krebs. There are scoring options on the wing in Okposo, Quinn, Peterka, Victor Olofsson, Jeff Skinner and Alex Tuch, among others. But the Sabres, like every team in the NHL, need to stay healthy.
They're expected to have a few forwards in Rochester with NHL experience, including Malone, Brett Murray, Brandon Biro and possibly Sheahan. Linus Weissbach is the latest Amerks player to show he might be ready for an opportunity in Buffalo. But the Sabres don't need a situation in which they're forced to rush a prospect to the NHL, such as Isak Rosen, Aleksandr Kisakov, Jiri Kulich or Filip Cederqvist.