The 2021-22 NHL season starts Oct. 12. With training camps opening this week, NHL.com is taking a look at the three keys, the inside scoop on roster questions, and the projected lineup for each of the 32 teams. Today, the Buffalo Sabres.
Coach: Don Granato (second season)
Last season: 15-34-7; eighth in MassMutual East Division, did not qualify for Stanley Cup Playoffs
[RELATED: Complete season preview coverage]
1. Growth and development
The Sabres are counting on young forwards Dylan Cozens, 20, Casey Mittelstadt, 22, and Tage Thompson, 23, and defensemen Rasmus Dahlin, 21, and Henri Jokiharju, 22, to take the next step in their development, especially if 24-year-old captain Jack Eichel is either traded or not ready to start the season because of a herniated disk in his neck.
Mittelstadt took notable strides after Granato replaced Ralph Krueger on March 17, scoring nine of his 10 goals in 28 games, earning nearly four minutes more in ice time per game (17:04) and playing his natural center position after skating on the wing. Dahlin also said he had renewed confidence following the coaching change. He also remains a restricted free agent.
2. Scoring more
The Sabres were tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets for 28th in the NHL last season with 134 goals, an average of 2.39 per game. They need to make up for trading Sam Reinhart to the Florida Panthers on July 24 after the forward scored a team-high 25 goals, and for Jeff Skinner to get untracked. The forward scored 14 points (seven goals, seven assists) in 53 games, two seasons after scoring an NHL-career high 40 goals.
3. Goaltending changes
The Sabres signed goalie Craig Anderson to a one-year contract July 28 following the departures of Linus Ullmark (signed with Boston Bruins) and Carter Hutton (signed with Arizona Coyotes). The 40-year-old played four games (two starts) for the Washington Capitals last season and two (one start) in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Buffalo also has Aaron Dell, Dustin Tokarski and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, a 22-year-old who made his NHL debut and was 1-3-0 with a 3.88 goals-against average and .906 save percentage in four games last season.
Eichel’s injury creates an opening at first-line center. Mittelstadt and Cozens are atop the depth chart and each will be given an opportunity. The Sabres weren’t shy about playing either one against top opposition last season, including Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby and Bruins center Patrice Bergeron.
Most intriguing addition
Will Butcher should give the Sabres offense at defenseman and a potential quarterback for the second power-play unit after he was acquired in a trade with the New Jersey Devils on July 28. With a more prominent role, Butcher could return to the form that saw him score 44 points (five goals, 39 assists) in 2017-18 and 30 points (four goals, 26 assists) in 2018-19, his first two NHL seasons.
Biggest potential surprise
Vinnie Hinostroza said one of the reasons he signed a one-year contract with the Sabres on July 28 was because of a phone call he had with Granato, an assistant for the Chicago Blackhawks for two seasons when the forward played there. His speed and relentlessness will add to a Sabres team looking to play with pace and attack, and with the potential of a middle-six role, he could add to some much-needed scoring depth.
Ready to break through
Arttu Ruotsalainen made a strong first impression during his first season in North America last season when the 23-year-old forward scored five goals and 13 points in 13 games for the Rochester of the American Hockey League. He scored five goals in 17 games for the Sabres and the hope is he can take another step this season.
Mittelstadt scored 22 points (10 goals, 12 assists) in 41 games last season but finished with 17 points (nine goals, eight assists) in his final 22 games while averaging 17:17 in ice time. He could keep his role on the top line with wings Skinner and Victor Olofsson if Eichel misses time or is traded. Mittelstadt will be relied on to be one of Buffalo’s top point producers, making him worth a late selection in fantasy from an overlooked team. — Rob Reese
Jeff Skinner — Casey Mittelstadt — Victor Olofsson
Anders Bjork — Dylan Cozens — Tage Thompson
Rasmus Asplund — Arttu Ruotsalainen — Vinnie Hinostroza
Zemgus Girgensons — Cody Eakin — Kyle Okposo
Rasmus Dahlin — Henri Jokiharju
Will Butcher — Colin Miller
Robert Hagg — Mark Pysyk