The Buffalo Sabres will not make the NHL playoffs this year and won’t be considered a strong threat in New York sports betting for a spot next year, either. Even so, with less than two weeks to go in the regular season, 2021-22 has to be viewed as a success for the Sabres, and their fans can look ahead with optimism and hope.
The season seemed doomed from the start. Former captain Jack Eichel was at odds with Buffalo management and spent the start of the year on the injured list and the trading block. He awaited a move to a team that would allow him to have the neck surgery he desired, a decision the Sabres strongly opposed.
Sam Reinhart was traded in the offseason, so a formerly promising core of Eichel, Reinhart and Taylor Hall (traded the deadline before) was now gone. Buffalo opened the season at +20000 on DraftKings, tied for the longest odds of any team in the NHL with Ottawa, Columbus, Arizona and Anaheim.
Buffalo started the season better than expected, beating Montreal and Arizona in its first two games. The Sabres stayed ahead of in the standings for the entirety of the season.
For a team that was supposed to be dead last in the league, this was already a success. Buffalo had five wins in its first seven games before finally falling into a losing streak.
The Haul from the Eichel Trade
The Eichel cloud hung over the franchise for the first month of the season, but on Nov. 4 he was finally moved to the Vegas Golden Knights for a first-round pick, prospect Peyton Krebs and forward Alex Tuch.
Tuch didn’t make his season debut until Dec. 19 after having shoulder surgery in the offseason, but he had a big impact on the second half of the season for Buffalo.
The reasons for optimism going forward are many.
Tage Thompson had an excellent season, scoring more than 35 goals and establishing himself as a legitimate top-line center in the NHL. One of the tallest players in the league at 6 feet 7, Thompson finally seemed to grow into his body and fulfilled the potential that made him a first-round pick in 2016.
Thompson, Jeff Skinner and Tuch formed a great top line that had several scoring outbursts in the second half of the season.
Tuch also stepped to the forefront as a potential captain for the Sabres moving forward. The lifelong Buffalo fan seemed to relish the move to his hometown team and showed great leadership in addition to providing offense after his season debut.
For NHL betting purposes, Krebs leads a group of promising young forward prospects who should provide Buffalo with goal scoring upside for years to come.
On the back end, Rasmus Dahlin, the first overall pick in the 2018 draft, had an excellent season, eclipsing 50 points and improving his all-around game. There are still questions on the defense corps, but Dahlin is an excellent start and the Sabres also have Owen Power, the 2021 first overall pick who made his NHL debut late after finishing his college season.
Defensemen seem to take longer to develop into positively contributing NHLers, so expectations should be tempered for Power’s first full season. Still, he will be an anchor on the blueline over the coming years.
Goaltending was a big issue all season long and is definitely not solved, but there is potential in Ukko-Pekko Luukkonen. The big goalie from Finland only started nine games for the Sabres and dealt with injuries for much of the year but played well and gave them a chance to win every night.
His AHL numbers weren’t great, but he looked excellent in his limited NHL starts. He should be on the opening night roster to start 2022.
Craig Anderson and Dustin Tokarski both looked good for moments, but they were too inconsistent. Neither profiles as a starting goalie for a quality NHL club.
In 2023, Buffalo again will be an underdog to make the playoffs for the first time since 2011 (the Sabres have the league's longest current streak of non-playofrf seasons at 11). That is partially because they aren’t quite at the stage in the rebuild but also because the Atlantic Division is extremely top-heavy with Florida, Toronto, Tampa Bay and Boston ahead of them in the pecking order and likely to retain that status next year. In fact, all four are among the top seven contenders to win this year’s Cup, per current BetMGM New York odds.
The Sabres still will be a longshot to win the Stanley Cup next season, but they won’t be last on the odds board like they were this season.