Welcome to the Five-Year Plan. In this summer exercise, we forecast the rosters for all 31 current NHL teams for the 2023-24 season. Are we bound for folly? Sure, but the point of the exercise is to give some sense of where an organization is heading based on current long-term contracts and the prospects they have in the system.
Some ground rules: No trades will be made and no future draft picks will be included – so you won’t see the likes of Alexis Lafreniere or Quinton Byfield on any roster, even though they will certainly be NHL stars in 2023-24. All current contracts are honored and most restricted free agents are projected to stay with their teams, unless it is determined the player will lose his spot or move on in the future. Some future unrestricted free agents will be kept on if the players are deemed integral and likely to re-sign. The Seattle expansion draft is not considered. With all that established, let’s take a look at Buffalo.
Difficult as it might be to imagine at the moment, the Sabres’ five-year timeline gives Buffalo something of a logjam down the middle. Jack Eichel, who will be right in the thick of his prime come the 2023-24 season, is the no-doubt No. 1 center, but who takes the second-line center spot is anyone’s guess after that. Casey Mittelstadt had a disappointing rookie season, but we’re operating under the assumption that Year 2 is going to be much better. We’re also assuming that that he and Cozens will split the workload in the early days of the 2019 seventh-overall pick’s NHL career, but there’s the distinct possibility that one or the other shifts to the wing to find a better fit. From there, the Sabres feature plenty of fresh faces. Admittedly, the roster is likely to look much different than the one above, but that speaks more to Buffalo’s lack of locked-in players – only four forwards have contracts beyond 2019-20 – than anything.
Having Rasmus Dahlin, who finished third in Calder Trophy voting this past season, gives the Sabres a leg up on a number of teams when it comes to projecting a defense corps five years into the future. Add to it the acquisition of Henri Jokiharju in a summer swap with the Chicago Blackhawks and suddenly the Sabres have reason to possess high hopes for a legitimate one-two punch on the blueline. As part of this exercise, Buffalo retains RFA-to-be Brandon Montour and then fills out the rest of the back end with up-and-comers. Mattias Samuelsson has stood out in the college game, first-round pick Ryan Johnson has oodles of upside and Will Borgen’s debut AHL campaign went well.
No goaltender cracked the top 20 in The Hockey News’ Future Watch 2019, but the closest was Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who is the 21st-best NHL prospect according to a panel of scouts. That’s fairly high praise and it puts Luukkonen ahead of a few notable goaltending prospects, including Ilya Samsonov, Thatcher Demko and Ilya Sorokin. Luukkonen, who was named the OHL’s top goaltender, top player and backstopped Finland to World Junior Championship gold last season, will start his AHL career in 2019-20 and it might not be long before he’s in the Sabres’ crease.
If nothing else, this is a window into the state of flux the Sabres find themselves in. With only nine players under contract beyond the 2019-20 season, there’s room for plenty of change, particularly as 10 players will be able to walk as unrestricted free agents next summer. Buffalo’s prospect pipeline is chock full of talent and the Sabres possess bright young players down the middle, on the blueline and in the crease, which are the three pillar positions. That is promising for the franchise, particularly if Buffalo’s front office can surround those players with productive veterans and quality supplemental talent in the years to come.
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