For the past two years, the Sabres have been attempting to rebuild through drafting and developing players from within the organization. That required general manager Kevyn Adams to make high-profile trades with players like Jack Eichel, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Sam Reinhart to collect players and picks. A quick look at the pipeline shows that the results are starting to show up. The coaching staff still needs to develop the players, but there is more talent to work with in Buffalo, Rochester, and beyond than there has been in a long time.
Not only does this give the Sabres reason to be optimistic about the future with high-profile prospects coming through their system, but it also gives Adams options as the team gets closer to becoming a legitimate contender. The stress to re-sign every player dissipates if you are confident in the players behind them in the organization. The need to spend aggressively for veterans in free agency is lessened when you can develop players internally. And the more enticing prospects you have, the more attractive you are as a trade partner when you’re a competitive enough team to become a buyer at the trading deadline.
Here’s an overview of where things stand with the Sabres’ organizational depth chart. Training camp and the prospect tournament should provide further clarity to the pecking order at each position.
All of a sudden, the Sabres have a deep pipeline of centers in the organization. Buffalo used all three picks on players who have played center in their careers, though the team acknowledged the odds of all three sticking in the middle are slim. The organization has prioritized the flexibility to play both center and wing in their young prospects. The result is a team with a lot of options down the road.
At the NHL level, Tage Thompson’s breakout season was a boon to the depth chart. The 24-year-old looks like a legitimate top-line center after a 68-point season a year ago. The Sabres will need to pay Thompson, who becomes a restricted free agent next summer. But for now, he’s a steal at a $1.4 million cap hit.
Behind Thompson, the Sabres would benefit from Dylan Cozens taking another step in his development. The team’s 2019 first-round pick had a promising second season in the NHL and has already won over the organization with his leadership and toughness. Casey Mittelstadt has started to develop a two-way game that could make him a long-term bottom-six center, depending on how the rest of the team’s prospects develop.
The Sabres will use training camp to figure out what to do with the fourth-line center spot. Zemgus Girgensons has the ability to play in the middle but could also move to wing if one of the team’s younger centers steps up and earns a spot. Sean Malone and Brandon Biro both had their best seasons in the AHL last season and could play NHL minutes if needed. This is also a place the Sabres could look to add to before the season begins.
What’s most exciting about this position is the long-term potential of the prospects. Matthew Savoie could be a spark plug on offense given his play, speed, and tenacity. Noah Ostlund impressed with his hockey sense and playmaking ability at development camp. And Jiri Kulich has the best shot of the bunch. To have those three prospects, along with players like Jakub Konecny and Tyson Kozak, gives the Sabres plenty to be optimistic about down the road.
The Sabres have reinforcements coming on the wing as multiple young prospects are ready to break through to the NHL. Jack Quinn, Buffalo’s 2020 first-round pick, had a monster season in the AHL last year and should earn a spot in the NHL next season. The 20-year-old had 61 points in 45 games for Rochester last season and got a call up to the NHL to get his feet wet.
“It was just great experience to see what it was like and just mentally kind of know what to expect,” Quinn said. “That just helps with being confident and training and knowing what you’re getting yourself into, knowing what you’re preparing yourself for come September and October.”
Quinn should crack the lineup in some capacity this season. He’s part of the reason the Sabres didn’t want to be too aggressive by adding expensive free agents at forward. They wanted players like Quinn, who have earned a chance to compete for minutes to have a path to the lineup.
The top two spots at left wing should be locked in. Jeff Skinner rebounded last season under Don Granato, and Victor Oloffson just signed a two-year extension. If healthy, they should both be top-six forwards unless Quinn really bursts onto the scene as a rookie.
The Sabres will have to figure out the best combination on the fourth line and how Girgensons fits. Does he provide the most value at wing or center? That could depend on how those around him at those two positions play during camp and the preseason.
Buffalo has a few potential NHL players deeper down the organizational depth chart, too. Alexander Kisakov, a recent second-round draft choice, is in the process of making his way to the United States. Josh Bloom had 61 points in the OHL last season. Filip Cederquist has developed enough to earn an entry-level deal. And Viktor Neuchev, the 2022 third-rounder from Russia is worth watching. Sabres director of amateur scouting Jerry Forton said the team’s analytics staff had a first-round grade on him.
J. Ratkovic Berndtsson
The Sabres shouldn’t have much issue in the short or long term at right wing. Alex Tuch was the ideal addition in the Jack Eichel trade. He’s a productive player, is locked up long-term and is genuinely thrilled to be playing a few hours down the road from his hometown. He’s everything Adams is looking for in trying to build this team. The same could be said of Kyle Okposo, who is in the final year of his contract but getting rave reviews from the front office and coaching staff. He has a chance to be captain this season and could play in Buffalo beyond this season. The Sabres also brought back Vinnie Hinostroza after a 25-point season, so they have plenty of experience on this wing.
J.J. Peterka is the most exciting prospect on this wing and he also happens to be on the cusp of breaking into the NHL. The 2020 second-round pick was the talk of development camp with Michael Peca saying, “he has no idea how good he can be yet, which is scary.” It may take him time to get acclimated to the NHL game, but once it clicks he should see significant NHL minutes.
“It’s the blend of power and speed and the skill set, his hands and his shot and his ability to play in a physical game,” Peca said of Peterka. “Like, he can play in any environment and he can dominate in any environment.”
Rasmus Asplund also established himself in the NHL last season, so Peterka will have to compete for ice time. But it seems like he’s ready to have a role.
Beyond those players, Arttu Ruotsalainen recently signed to play in Switzerland, but the Sabres will retain his rights. They signed 2021 first-round pick Isak Rosen to an entry-level contract, but there’s a chance he ends up back in Sweden. He could also play in Rochester and still needs to add size before he’s ready to compete for a spot in the NHL.
The team also has some interesting depth potential at this spot. Linus Weissbach had 37 points in his first AHL season last year. Lukas Rousek got positive reviews from coaches at development camp. Prokhor Poltopov, Jake Richard and Stiven Sardarian all have long-term upside but will need time to develop. Meanwhile, this season looks like an important one for Aaron Huglen, who has overcome a significant back injury to regain a big role at the University of Minnesota.
Starting the organizational depth chart on defense with two No. 1 picks is nothing to complain about. Rasmus Dahlin is coming off his most productive season as a pro with 53 points and it looks like he could be the player Buffalo was hoping for with that pick. In a small sample size, Owen Power looked great debuting in the NHL last season. If those two pan out, that will make life easier for Adams as he builds out the rest of the defensive core. Mattias Samuelsson is another left-shot defenseman who is on the cusp of earning a major NHL role.
Adams rounded out the defensive depth by bringing back Jacob Bryson and signing Kale Clague, Jeremy Davies and Lawrence Pilut. The biggest question among the team’s left-shot defensemen is whether the organization can get Ryan Johnson under contract. Johnson is likely heading back to the University of Minnesota and could hit free agency next offseason. He was a first-round pick, so the Sabres would receive a compensatory selection if he left in free agency, but the preferable scenario is to get the promising defenseman under contract.
Right-shot defense was a sore spot entering the offseason, and Adams signed Ilya Lyubushkin to address that at the NHL level. The Sabres also drafted Vsevolod Komarov in the fifth round as a long-term development option. This group is lacking the same prospect pedigree as other positions on the team, but Casey Fitzgerald, Chase Priskie and Oskari Laaksonen all have the ability to provide depth at the NHL level and in Rochester.
By the sounds of it, the Sabres didn’t sign Eric Comrie to be a backup. He came to Buffalo because he saw an opportunity to be a starter after years of grinding away first in the AHL and then as a backup goalie. Given Craig Anderson’s age and recent injury history along with Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen being still unproven at the NHL level, Comrie has every chance to command the net for the Sabres this season. He was hoping for that opportunity in free agency, and he thinks he found it in Buffalo.
If Anderson stays healthy, he’ll be a valuable backup and leader in the locker room. Luukkonen is the wild card. He could spend another year in Rochester if the Sabres decide more patience is needed. Or he could do enough to earn a role in Buffalo. That remains to be seen. He’s still unsigned as a restricted free agent. Malcolm Subban will also get minutes in Rochester.
This position has become a strength in the organizational pipeline with the play of Devon Levi and Erik Portillo in college and the addition of 2022 second-round pick Topias Leinonen. The caveat is it’s not a guarantee the Sabres will get Portillo under contract. Levi looks like a much stronger bet in that regard. And the Sabres plan to take the long road with Leinonen’s development.
(Photo by Andrew Lahodynskyj / NHLI via Getty Images)