While it's been a lean...well, decade, for the Buffalo Sabres, there is a lot more optimism around the franchise right now, a phenomenon that began with a positive second half in 2021-22. With Don Granato stabilizing the team behind the bench and the roster settled after the Jack Eichel trade with Vegas, the Sabres found somewhat of a groove and ended the campaign strong, earning points in 14 of their final 20 games.
"There were some good steps taken," said veteran left winger Jeff Skinner. "We have a lot of young guys and a lot of them took a big step forward. It's important when you're coming down the stretch and the games become tighter and tougher to win to try to build off that success for next year."
Skinner, who was in Toronto for the charity ping-pong tournament Smashfest, was a big part of that success, too. After cratering with a career-low seven goals and 14 points the season before under coach Ralph Krueger (who was replaced mid-year by Granato), Skinner bounced back big-time this past season, sniping 33 goals and tying a career-high with 63 points.
If the Sabres are going to start making noise in the Atlantic Division, they'll need veterans like Skinner and the kids to all have an impact. Luckily for the Sabres, youngsters such as Owen Power, Peyton Krebs, Jack Quinn and J.J. Peterka are just beginning their pro journeys and even Rasmus Dahlin (22 years old) and Tage Thompson (24) are only now hitting their prime years.
"You see young guys coming into the league and make an immediate impact and that can turn things around in a hurry for an organization," Skinner said. "A lot goes into it; you have to execute at the draft and execute in development and they've done a great job of that so far. Obviously we're not where we want to be so we have to keep building and continuing to grow as a group. But it's exciting to have those young guys come in and feed off their energy."
Skinner got a taste of Power's skill on the back end this past season when the 2021 first overall pick made his NHL debut with Buffalo, and he has also seen the 6-foot-5 defenseman skating in the Toronto area over the summer. There's also center Dylan Cozens to consider; a player I'd bet on for a big breakout in 2022-23.
"He's one of those guys who has continued to grow and every season he has taken a positive step forward," Skinner said. "He's still extremely young and super-talented. I know he works hard in the summer and he'll be a huge piece of the puzzle for us."
As for the veteran side of the equation, the Sabres got a boost when right winger Alex Tuch came over from Vegas in the Eichel package. Along with his offensive skills, the New York State native also brought great vibes to town with him.
"He's a big personality," Skinner said. "He ties a lot of things together in the room and brings a lot of energy. He's a fun guy to be around and on the ice he's a great player. Off the ice he brings intangibles that fit in well with our group and on the ice, his blend of speed, size and skill is a nice combination for us on the right side."
Now, everything still needs to line up for the Sabres if they hope to make the post-season for the first time in more than a decade, of course. The team will be relying on 41-year-old Craig Anderson as their starting netminder and the blueline corps is still very inexperienced.
The Atlantic Division seems to have three pre-ordained playoff teams already in Florida, Tampa Bay and Toronto, while Boston has been a perennial post-season fixture since 2016. If the Bruins (who will start the year with injury issues) wobble, there might be a crack of light for teams like Buffalo, Ottawa and Detroit - but you also have to consider a packed Metropolitan Division that could steal away a playoff berth from the more top-heavy Atlantic.
Either way, the Sabres will have to continue coming together and continue to add skill and finish from their roster. At the least, they're coming into the next season with a good attitude.