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Sabres Mailbag: Why Patrick Kane isn't a fit for Buffalo ... not now, at least

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Rick Jeanerret calls his final game after 50-plus years (copy)

Buffalo Sabres defenseman Mattias Samuelsson (23) battles Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane (88) for the puck at KeyBank Center in Buffalo.

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In a matter of 10 days, the Buffalo Sabres drafted 11 players, inked Victor Olofsson and Vinnie Hinostroza to new contracts, signed two key free agents and held their first development camp since 2019.

Training camp won’t open for another six weeks – the first preseason game isn’t until Sept. 25 – and the games don’t start to count in the standings until the season opener Oct. 13.

You can only analyze and project so much without watching this club on the ice, but there are so many storylines to discuss following that whirlwind two weeks around the NHL.

Now is a good time for another Sabres mailbag, featuring questions submitted by readers on Twitter and via email.

Liam Canadian: If Patrick Kane is interested in signing with the Sabres next summer, should they bring him to Buffalo?

Lysowski: If the circumstances are right. The Sabres must have a need and available roster spots. It would likely require them to move someone out – potentially Olofsson, whose contract will expire following 2023-24 – and decrease the ice time of a young winger. But Kane is still an elite player who would fit perfectly on the ice. Don Granato coached him in Chicago and General Manager Kevyn Adams roomed with Kane at the South Buffalo native’s first NHL training camp. For this to work next summer, Kane must be willing to come on a short-term contract that doesn’t take away precious cap space in future seasons.

And to address all the chatter on social media, Kane isn't a fit for Buffalo this summer. Even if the Blackhawks decide to move him, any trade requires a haul of draft picks and prospects. The Sabres don't want to part with those yet.

Robert Bates: What are the odds the Sabres sign Devon Levi, Erik Portillo and Ryan Johnson?

Lysowski: I’ll rank the three in order of most likely to sign: Levi, Johnson, then Portillo.

When asked at development camp about his decision to return to Northeastern, Levi gave an insightful explanation about his desire to improve and face expectations. Johnson handled his news conference gracefully by expressing his admiration for the Sabres. His situation will come down to opportunity, given the club is well-stocked at left-shot defense.

Portillo’s situation is a mystery. The organization can offer him opportunity and continuity. He would continue his work with development coach Seamus Kotyk, with whom Portillo has a strong relationship. But since Portillo informed Buffalo in April that he is returning to Michigan, he has been left out of Adams’ answers to the media regarding the future in goal.

There are doubts internally and around the league that Portillo will sign with Buffalo. However, he performed brilliantly at development camp, like a prospect with something to prove. And he is close friends with Owen Power. The Sabres have time to recruit Portillo. He is not a free agent until next summer and the club’s previous management always expected Portillo to need at least three years to sign. He has only been a college starter for one season.  

James Maciejewski: Do you think it’s fair for some media members to compare Rasmus Dahlin to Nicklas Lidstrom and Victor Hedman?

Lysowski: Absolutely not. Such comparisons are often a tool used by television producers and broadcasters to drive panel discussions about young players in every sport. Turn on ESPN any day of the week and you will see some ridiculous conversation comparing a current-day NFL quarterback to Johnny Unitas. Sometimes these start innocently by a draft analyst trying to help their readers better understand a prospect’s potential and strengths. There will never be another Lidstrom or Hedman, though. These comparisons lead to unfair expectations. Dahlin’s one of hockey’s unicorns. No one else plays the game like him.

John Wetten: Do the Sabres trade Zemgus Girgensons and/or Kyle Okposo at the deadline?

Lysowski: Girgensons, yes. Okposo, no. If Girgensons avoids injury, he will be a highly sought after checking-line forward whose style of play is tailor-made for playoff hockey. Okposo, on the other hand, seems destined to remain in Buffalo. His contract, like Girgensons’, expires after the season, but I expect the Sabres to extend him at some point, even if it’s simply adding two years. He’s the next captain, an invaluable person to have in the dressing room and an effective player. If Girgensons leaves at the deadline, I can see the Sabres trying to bring him back in the summer. 

@Ringo1256: Can the Sabres have some young guys on the fourth line, instead of veterans?

Lysowski: In theory, yes. But your “fourth line” is typically a group that’s effective on the forecheck and “hard to play against.” The assignment either comes with less ice time or, on the road, a very difficult matchup against the opponent’s top group. It could make sense to place someone such as Peyton Krebs at center with Girgensons and Okposo, depending on the matchup. But you won’t see the Sabres go with 12 young forwards. Girgensons is going to have a role. He’s too valuable to sit.

@mtscott02: Do you think Jiri Kulich has a chance to make the Sabres’ roster? 

Lysowski: No, there’s not a spot for Kulich. The Sabres have three options for the 18-year-old center: another season in Czech Republic’s top pro league, a move to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League or a spot in Rochester. No definitive word on their plans, but he wouldn’t gain anything playing junior hockey against his peers. Another interesting layer to this is Arttu Ruotsalainen’s departure. Do the Sabres put Kulich in Rochester now that Ruotsalainen is gone? There's a development opportunity there, but the clock would start on his entry-level contract and management might prefer a veteran depth player on a two-way contract who could help in the NHL.

Fellow 2022 first-rounders Matt Savoie and Noah Ostlund will play in the Western Hockey League and Sweden, respectively.

@BuffalosGOAT: What are the Sabres’ options if Lawrence Pilut outperforms Jacob Bryson and Casey Fitzgerald in training camp? 

Lysowski: This scenario is unlikely. Pilut had a difficult final season in Russia, hasn’t played against NHL competition in more than two years and he can be sent to Rochester, whereas Bryson and Fitzgerald would require waivers. The Sabres will take advantage of Pilut’s waivers-exempt status to have him start the season with the Amerks. He’ll receive ample opportunity to prove he can help in Buffalo at some point. 

Dan Insinna: What are your projected lines for the season opener?

Lysowski: This is a fun one, but it’s not easy. Here we go:

Skinner-Thompson-Tuch

Quinn-Cozens-Olofsson

Asplund-Mittelstadt-Peterka

Girgensons-Krebs-Okposo

On defense:

Samuelsson-Dahlin

Power-Jokiharju

Bryson-Lybushkin

In this scenario, Vinnie Hinostroza, Anders Bjork and Casey Fitzgerald are healthy scratches. Krebs' presence in that last forward group will help those two veteran wingers create offensively. They should get enough ice time to make it work. Asplund's defensive impact would help Peterka and Mittelstadt take some risks with the puck. 

Pete Schaub: Will JJ Peterka make the opening night roster?

Lysowski: Yes, Peterka proved in the Calder Cup Playoffs that his play without the puck has dramatically improved since last fall, to the point that he can be trusted on the ice against NHL players. One of his challenges will be fending off frustration on the nights when it’s difficult to find time and space in the offensive zone. When the points aren’t coming, young players must find different ways to make an impact.  

Tim Drake: Do JJ Peterka and Jack Quinn surpass the 40-point mark this season?

Lysowski: Not yet. Remember, Dylan Cozens finished with less than 40 last season, despite generating a ton of scoring chances in the second half. There will be difficult stretches as Peterka and Quinn adjust to the NHL schedule. The game is much different than the American Hockey League. Temper expectations for both. They are immensely talented but still only 20 years old. My prediction is both will be around 35 points.

Carson: If Tage Thompson reaches 40 goals again, what salary and term does he get with his next contract?

Lysowski: If Thompson scores 40 goals again as a center, he’s looking at an average annual value ranging from $8 million to $9 million. The biggest question is whether the Sabres will want to go with a long-term pact here. He will be a restricted free agent in the summer of 2023 and doesn't qualify for unrestricted free agency until 2024. Do they go with a three- or four-year bridge deal to kick the can down the road? Or do they go seven or eight years? 

Jacques Huberdeau: What are the benefits of remaining $19 million under the cap ceiling, and how would signing someone to a one-year contract disrupt Kevyn Adams’ plan for the Sabres?

Lysowski: We’ve seen this club spend recklessly in the past and the strategy failed miserably. Adams’ plan is to not block young players and surround that group with influential veterans such as Kyle Okposo, Zemgus Girgensons and Vinnie Hinostroza. Not only do the Sabres need to give young players ice time for development, but this is an important evaluation season. Management needs to gauge who will be part of the roster long-term, particularly at forward where spots could be needed for prospects such as Matt Savoie, Noah Ostlund, Jiri Kulich and Isak Rosen.

On defense, the Sabres added Ilya Lyubushkin, whose tenacity and savviness on the penalty kill complements players such as Rasmus Dahlin. And in goal, Adams signed his stop-gap option in Eric Comrie. This was always going to be a quiet offseason for the Sabres. They prioritized those two, specific needs and want to see the young forwards. We could see the club pursue more of a difference-maker next summer if the group is ready for contend and has a need at a position.

@Schifflz: In your opinion, who has the better season: Victor Olofsson or Casey Mittelstadt?

Lysowski: If we’re weighing this by production, Olofsson. He will continue to be an effective weapon for what should be an improved power play and is likely to receive more top-six opportunities. The goals and points will be there. But don’t count out Mittelstadt. He was the Sabres’ best player in training camp last fall. A bounce-back season seems inevitable because he’ll have talented linemates in a system that fits his strengths. It’s unclear if Mittelstadt sticks at center or wing, but if healthy, he’ll have an opportunity to prove he should be a fixture in the lineup. 

Mike: Will the Sabres weaponize their cap space sometime this offseason?

Lysowski: For the right deal, yes. Adams will add a contract from a cap-strapped team if the move allows the Sabres to add a draft pick or two. Though the Sabres won’t spend close to the cap ceiling, it doesn’t hurt to move further from the league-mandated floor. But such a trade can’t disrupt management’s plan for the roster. There’s zero interest in adding someone who will take ice time away from the young players on the team. And there’s no room on the roster, unless something is dealt. I don't see a contract or player available that makes sense for Buffalo right now.

Nick English: Am I crazy for thinking Dylan Cozens can have 65 points next season?

Lysowski: No way. I’m with you there. His play in the second half, even without the goals, showed me that he’s on his way to a breakout. He consistently generated scoring chances and learned how to attack the middle of the ice. The opportunity will be there for him to make that leap.

Greg Janes: Do the Sabres have any power forwards in the system, or anyone they’re targeting in free agency?

Lysowski: The current roster is set, aside from maybe a forward or two on two-way contracts.

Brett Murray, Olivier Nadeau, Prokhor Poltapov are power forwards in the pipeline. You’ve already seen Murray’s work in Buffalo and Rochester. He will get more games with the Sabres next season. Nadeau had an exceptional season in the QMJHL and helped his club reach the Memorial Cup final, but is expected to miss four to six months after shoulder surgery. He compares his game to Zach Hyman and, like the Edmonton winger, combines a scoring touch with a desire to win every puck battle. Nadeau will likely join the Amerks next spring. Poltapov will spend a few more seasons in Russia, but he has all the tools to be a power forward in the NHL.

@PBRnSabres2: Will Anders Bjork receive a qualifying offer next summer?

Lysowski: It’s too soon to tell. It’s a prove-it year for Bjork. He needs to carve out a role in a deep group of forwards. Bjork has struggled with consistency since his promising production in the weeks following his trade from Boston in 2021. It’s difficult to envision where he fits in Buffalo with Quinn and Peterka likely to be in the NHL. I don’t see the Sabres paying Bjork $1.8 million to play in Rochester, either.

Tyler Marinello: With the Atlantic Division stacked, what’s a reasonable scenario for the Sabres to make the playoffs?

Lysowski: Injuries to key players on the top teams; Boston falling apart early while it waits for its injured core to return; the Sabres receiving reliable, consistent play in goal from Comrie and Craig Anderson; and more production offensively from multiple young forwards such as Cozens and Mittelstadt. It would require a perfect storm. Though I’m not sold on Ottawa’s blue line or Detroit’s plan in goal, Buffalo would likely need 95 points to get in. Tall task at this stage of the rebuild. 

Tim Herriven: What is the ideal split for the Sabres’ goalies?

Lysowski: Ideally, Comrie would handle 45 games, Anderson with 25 and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen gets 12 spot starts. But we’ve seen how snake-bitten the Sabres were the past two seasons with injuries in goal. They need to stay healthy. The key will be to monitor Anderson’s workload. The returns of Malcolm Subban and Michael Houser will allow management to recall Luukkonen to Buffalo when the time is right. He needs NHL games.

@RDub25126029: Any word on a contract for Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who remains a restricted free agent?

Lysowski: Multiple sources told me that the delay isn't the product of any issue in negotiations. The contract is a formality and will be done soon. 

Thank you, as always, for the questions. As a reminder, they can be submitted via Twitter, @LLysowski, or to my email address, llysowski@buffnews.com.

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News Sports Reporter

I've covered the Sabres and National Hockey League for The Buffalo News since November 2018. My previous work included coverage of the Pittsburgh Pirates and University of Pittsburgh athletics for DKPittsburghSports.com.

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“He was always in these organizations that the room just wasn’t there for him to wedge himself in and prove himself at the top tier,” said James Jensen, whose coached Comrie each summer since the goalie was 10 years old. “His affirmation every day was just wake up, work hard and put yourself in a position where you can’t be denied."

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