NHL.com is examining where each team stands in preparation for the 2021-22 regular season, which starts Oct. 12. Today, five questions facing the Buffalo Sabres:
1. How will the Jack Eichel situation be resolved?
Eichel said there has been a “disconnect” with the Sabres regarding treatment for the herniated disk in his neck. The center has said he believes surgery is the best course; the Sabres have remained opposed.
Given that, and the contentiousness from each side, it has appeared Eichel would be traded in the offseason, but he remains with the Sabres.
There has been no news on Eichel’s status since agents Peter Fish and Peter Donatelli released a statement July 30 that said, “The process is not working. As previously stated, we fully anticipated a trade by the start of the NHL free agency period (July 28).”
Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams has said that they would be comfortable with Eichel on the roster this season. With training camp less than two weeks away, the Sabres will need to either trade Eichel or find a way to proceed with him.
2. How will Don Granato fare in his first full season as head coach?
Granato, who replaced Ralph Krueger as coach March 17, will be tasked with building on the young core and pushing them past the tough times they almost inevitably will go through. Buffalo finished with the fewest points in the NHL last season (37) and subsequently traded defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen and forward Sam Reinhart, and lost goalie Linus Ullmark in free agency.
“The demand of the challenge is what excites me,” Granato said. “I fully believe we have a huge opportunity right in front of us.”
3. Who will be in net?
Craig Anderson and Aaron Dell each signed a one-year contract with the Sabres on July 28. Neither goalie played much in the NHL last season, with Dell playing seven games (1-5-0, 4.14 goals-against average, .857 save percentage) for the New Jersey Devils and Anderson playing four games (2-1-0, 2.13, .915) for the Washington Capitals.
Buffalo also has Dustin Tokarski, who played 13 games (10 starts) for them last season (2-8-2, 3.54, .904), and 22-year-old prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (1-3-0, 3.88, .906 in four games).
Is Luukkonen ready to be a full-time starter? Can Anderson make roughly half the starts at age 40? The Sabres have decisions to make and questions to answer.
4. Who plays center on the top line?
If Eichel is traded or cannot play, the top choices for first-line center are 20-year-old Dylan Cozens or 22-year-old Casey Mittelstadt. Though it’s possible the Sabres could get back a center in any possible trade for Eichel, there’s also a chance they go with one of their young building blocks.
Cozens scored 13 points (four goals, nine assists) in 41 games last season, and Mittelstadt scored 22 points (10 goals, 12 assists) in 41 games. Playing center on the first line would be a big ask for either one, but the Sabres may have no choice other than a trial by fire for players they hope will be a big part of their future.
5. Can the young players make progress?
The Sabres are looking to the future this season, with the plan to build around a core that includes Cozens, Mittelstadt, Luukkonen and defenseman Rasmus Dahlin.
That was part of why the Sabres kept Granato, who seemed to mesh well with the emerging players at the end of last season. It’s also why they signed veterans Anderson, defenseman Mark Pysyk and forward Vinnie Hinostroza to mentor them.
But now the onus shifts to those players. They will be afforded the minutes and the situations to make strides, and the question is whether they’ll run with it.