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2021-22 Buffalo Sabres Preview: Yet another rebuild year

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We kick off season previews with last season’s biggest losers, the Buffalo Sabres.

May 8, 2021; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Buffalo Sabres center Rasmus Asplund (74) takes the ice to warm up against the Pittsburgh Penguins at PPG Paints Arena. Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Things are not well in Buffalo, NY, and it doesn’t appear to be getting any better. The embattled Buffalo Sabres are in the throes of yet another rebuilding season, and there appears to be no end in sight.

Where they left off

2021 was a tough pill to swallow for Sabres fans. The team went 15-34-7 in the 56-game shortened season and finished 31st out of 31 teams. In other words, dead last.

What’s sadder is that the team’s best player, Jack Eichel, wants out, and he’s airing his grievances publicly. Our friends at Die By The Blade are following the entire Eichel saga here, but the bottom line is Eichel doesn’t like the Sabres’ plans for his health. He wants a disc replacement surgery, and the team’s doctors want him to get a disc fusion.

Eichel is demanding a trade to a team that will let him get the surgery he wants. The Sabres aren’t willing to sell their top asset for pennies on the dollar. As of this publishing, there’s still no resolution.

Things also changed for the Sabres behind the bench, sort of. The Sabres named Don Granato as interim head coach after firing Ralph Krueger on March 17, 2021. They took away the “interim” on June 29.

2021 Entry Draft

The latest Sabres rebuild started with a bang at the entry draft. With the first overall pick, the Sabres selected big defender Owen Power. While Power will likely head back to the University of Michigan to play out his sophomore season, Sabres fans have to be happy knowing he’s part of their prospect pool.

But wait, there’s more. During the draft, the Sabres moved Rasmus Ristolainan to the Philadelphia Flyers for 26-year-old Robert Hagg, a first-round pick in the 2021 draft (14th overall) and a second-round pick in 2023.

With the 14th pick in 2021, the team selected Isak Rosen, a young winger from the Swedish Hockey League.

On day two of the draft, the Sabres made another move. The team sent Sam Reinhart to the Florida Panthers for a first-round pick in 2022 and goaltending prospect Devon Levi.

The Sabres also drafted:

  • Left Wing Prokhor Poltapov (33rd overall)
  • Left Wing Aleksandr Kisakov (53rd overall)
  • Right Wing Stiven Sardarian (88th overall)
  • Left Wing Josh Bloom (95th overall)
  • Right Wing Olivier Nadeau (97th overall)
  • Left Wing Viljami Marjala (159th overall)
  • Left Wing William on Barnekow-Lofberg (161st overall)
  • Left Defense Nikita Novikov (188th overall)
  • Center Tyson Kozak (193rd overall)

Adding a boatload of prospects and a pool of picks is the best way to start off a rebuild. The Sabres gave their franchise a fresh reboot in the span of a weekend.

Roster

Building on that rebuild narrative, the Sabres don’t look like they want to spend a lot of money this season. They let goaltender Linus Ullmark sign with the Boston Bruins during free agency. Then the Sabres went out and got a few cheap replacements. They signed Craig Anderson and former Sharks’ goaltender Aaron Dell each to a one-year, $750,000 deal.

Sticking to the affordable deals, the Sabres signed defenseman Mark Pysyk to a one-year, $900,000 contract; forward Drake Caggiula to a one-year, $750,000 contract; forward Vinnie Hinostroza to a one-year, $1.05 million contract; defenseman Brandon Davidson to a one-year, $750,000 contract; forward Sean Malone to a one-year, $750,000 contract; defenseman Jimmy Schuldt to a one-year, $750,000 deal.

They traded for defenseman Will Butcher ($2.83 million cap hit with $1 million retained by the New Jersey Devils) along with a fifth-round pick in 2022 in exchange for “future considerations.”

They also locked up restricted free agent Casey Fitzgerald. The defenseman has yet to suit up for the Sabres, but is expected to compete for a bottom-pairing role in training camp. Fitzgerald is signed for two years at a $750,000 AAV.

Other news of note, forward Kyle Okposo is questionable for the start of the season. He ended last season on the injured reserve list after dealing with a concussion.

All told, CapFriendly reports that the Sabres have $52,897,763 tied up in contracts.

Of course, the biggest story for the Sabres is still playing out. No one knows where Jack Eichel will be next season.

Here’s how Daily Faceoff believes things will shake out roster wise with the idea that Okposo is injured and Eichel is trade bait:

Forwards
Jeff Skinner — Casey Mittelstadt — Victor Olofsson
Anders Bjork — Dylan Cozens — Tage Thompson
Arttu Ruotsalainen — Rasmus Asplund — Vinnie Hinostroza
Zemgus Girgensons — Cody Eakin — Drake Caggiula

Defense
Rasmus Dahlin — Henri Jokiharju
Robert Hagg — Colin Miller
Will Butcher — Mark Pysyk

Goaltenders
Craig Anderson
Aaron Dell

What can we expect in 2021-22

The Sabres appear to be destined to battle it out for the last spot in the league. The good news is that if they finish last or in the bottom five, they have a shot at Shane Wright, a dynamic forward who is expected to go number one in 2022.

Expect the Sabres to continue their rebuild and continue to acquire assets in 2021. When the Eichel deal finally happens (and it will happen), the Sabres will have more draft picks and young players in their system. For Buffalo, that’s what they really need right now.

That said, don’t imagine the Sabres will be an easy out. There’s pride on the line, and of course, the team still has some quality players. Okposo and Eakin are still under contract. Anderson and Dell are a respectable, though not overwhelming, tandem in goal.

The Sabres will visit SAP Center on Nov. 2, 2021.