For a franchise that has failed to qualify for the playoffs for a decade, and has had 14 first-round draft picks in that time, one would think this would be a team loaded on their main roster and a flush pipeline on the cusp of a dynasty run.
The reality is, they are hitting the reset button and embracing the rebuild with designs on another lottery selection in hopes of drafting Shane Wright, Matt Savoie, or Brad Lambert.
How can this be?
Much like the Arizona Coyotes, it starts with ownership and poor drafting and developing. The Sabres front office has been in turmoil for years now and they recently cleaned house with their scouting staff.
The Jack Eichel situation remains unresolved and destined to end in a trade.
The return Buffalo gets for Eichel will have a massive influence on their future. If they acquire a return similar to what Quebec/Colorado received for Eric Lindros, and not the poor haul Boston got for Joe Thornton, things could turn around quickly. Otherwise, it could be another long decade.
2021-22 Top 10 Buffalo Sabres Prospects
- Owen Power, D – University of Michigan (NCAA)
Drafted: 2021 round 1, first overall by Buffalo Sabres
In Power, the Sabres lock up their top pairing defensemen for a generation with Dahlin and Power. Both are workhorse studs with size, skating, smarts and impactful two-way play. The Sabres player development decisions have at times been highly questionable, but credit to them for bucking the trend of forcing first overall draft picks straight to the NHL.
Allowing Power to return to the NCAA on a loaded Wolverines roster with teammate Erik Portillo is the right move for his development. There he can play top minutes on an elite team, dominate at that level, and play a prominent role for Canada at the World Junior Championship as well.
- Jack Quinn, LW/RW – Rochester Americans (AHL)
Drafted: 2020 round 1, eighth overall by Buffalo Sabres
Buffalo turned heads when they selected from the Ottawa 67’s, not Marco Rossi, but jack Quinn. Time will be the ultimate judge if this move was genius or insanity. In his D+1 year with no OHL to return to, Quinn made his rookie debut in the AHL. Playing through a sports hernia injury, the 18-year-old struggled offensively and with consistency. The injury limited Quinn to just 15 games as he opted for surgery in April.
This will not qualify him to return to the AHL as he played less than 20 games forcing Buffalo to play him in the NHL, or return him to the OHL. Quinn scored 52 goals in 62 games in his draft year and would be a dominant player in the OHL should he return. While he is ready to return to action healthy and hungry, the NHL is not a developmental league and it would serve the organizations best interests to allow Quinn to see maximum ice time after playing only 15 games last year.
- John Peterka, C/W – EC Munchen (DEL)
Drafted: 2020 Round two, 34th overall by Buffalo
The German forward turned some heads in his draft year posting four goals and six points with Germany at the World Juniors. In his D+1 year he was forced to start in the ICEHL before returning for a sophomore season in the DEL where his point per game totals more than doubled. He again made noise at the WJC with Germany as the team was direly undermanned due to COVID and he logged massive minutes playing with Tim Stutzle and Florian Elias and was outstanding.
Peterka finished the year making his international debut at the mens level at the World Championship and recorded a goal in a more limited role. He is slated to return to the DEL again and could finish the season in the AHL for a preview before making the transition full time next year. Peterka has a motor that drives his play and his skill level continues to develop on a rate that projects to a top-six NHL player.
- Isak Rosen, RW/LW – Leksands IF (SHL)
Drafted: 2021 round one, 14th overall by Buffalo Sabres
With the Sabres second first-round pick in the 2021 NHL draft they selected the elite skating forward Isak Rosen. Rosen has underwhelming counting stats with only two points in 24 career SHL games, but playing within his age group his production matches his skill level. His point per game at the J20 level and his performance at the U18 WJC of a goal-per-game tells a more accurate story. The fact the 18-year-old struggled to produce in a limited role in a mens league in one of the top leagues in the world is hardly a red flag.
Rosen is a duel threat player with his skating ability and his shot. The release is NHL ready but his game away from the puck and lack of physical strength need development. Rosen will play the upcoming season back in Sweden, likely in the SHL where he will need to prove he can handle a bigger role and round out his game. The wait time for Rosen could be upwards of three to four years, but the upside is a top-six winger.
- Ryan Johnson, D – University of Minnesota (NCAA)
Drafted: 2019 round one, 31st overall by Buffalo Sabres
In his D+1 year as an NCAA freshman with the Golden Gophers, Johnson was slow to adapt offensively and after 37 games was still searching for his first career goal. His sophomore season was significantly improved with two goals and 14 points in 27 games. That was good enough to earn a roster spot with USA at the WJC where he notched a goal and four points in seven games helping USA to a Gold Medal.
Johnson is an elite skater, a skill that is highly coveted at the NHL level. He lacks a dangerous shot and his offense is driven by his skating and transitional play. Johnson will return to the Golden Gophers for his junior season and Buffalo could sign him following this year. Johnson would need a season of pro adjustment at the AHL level before making a push for a NHL roster spot where he will be an excellent supporting player behind the top pairing of Owen Power and Rasmus Dahlin.
- Oskari Laaksonen, D – Rochester Americans (AHL)
Drafted: 2017 round three, 89th overall by Buffalo Sabres
After several successful seasons with Ilves in the Liiga, Laaksonen started last year in Finland, but made his North American debut once things got going in the AHL. In 28 games with Rochester he finished fourth in team scoring as a rookie defenseman with 17 points.
Laaksonen is a smooth skating, lanky defender that could improve his strength and physical game. His shot is not very heavy or dangerous or even accurate. His offensive game is driven by his passing and puck distribution abilities. Defensively he is very sound and uses his reach to his advantage positionally.
With Jacob Bryson having graduated to the NHL, Laaksonen became the Americans top defender ahead of other contenders such as Mattias Samuelsson and with Will Borgen off to Seattle he should see top minutes again in Rochester. Laaksonen would be a favorite for a NHL recall during the season as he has become one of the organizations fastest rising prospects.
- Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, G – Rochester Americans
Drafted: 2017 round two, 54th overall by Buffalo Sabres
Last season ended on a downer note for UPL despite making his NHL debut. UPL has had a lot of momentum in his development in the past few years. He sported the top GAA in both regular season and playoffs in the U20-SM-Liiga in 2017 leading HPK to a Championship. In 2019 he won the Red Tilson Award as the OHL Most Outstanding Player, was the Goaltender of the Year, and lead Finland to a WJC Gold Medal as an All-Star in the tournament. UPL had offseason hip surgery and delayed his pro debut in the ECHL, but he still played well enough to be the goaltender of the month in November.
Last year he started strong on loan to TPS in the Liiga before games in North America resumed. His individual stats were underwhelming (3.6 GAA, .888 SV%) but his record of 7-5-3 was solid enough to earn a recall to the NHL. He spent some time on the Taxi squad but made four regular season starts, giving up 14 goals and a 1-3-0 record before an ankle injury ended his season.
With the Sabres planning on being a lottery team, UPL should spend the season starting in the AHL unless injury force him into the NHL in relief. He has the size, athleticism and composure to be a starting goalie, but injuries are becoming a concern.
- Erik Portillo, G – University of Michigan (NCAA)
Drafted: 2019 round three, 67th overall by Buffalo Sabres
The big Swedish net minder will returning to the Michigan Wolverines with teammate Owen Power for their sophomore seasons. As a freshman, Portillo was limited to just seven starts as the backup to veteran Strauss Mann who has since turned pro, leaving the keys to the crease and the starting role to Portillo. Look for Portillo to raise his stock considerably as the starting goalie for a loaded Wolverines roster where he should post an impressive stat line and winning record.
Portillo has the size NHL teams covet in goaltenders but is also a highly athletic goalie with a high draft pedigree. In his draft year he played 27 games in the USHL for Dubuque Fighting Saints posting a 19-5-1 record and a 2.11 GAA. His numbers in the NCAA were even better despite the small sample size with a sparkling 1.67 GAA and .935 SV%. Portillo has all the ingredients to more than challenge Luukkonen for the future starting position.
- Arttu Ruotsalainen, C – Buffalo Sabres (NHL)
Drafted: Signed as a free agent in 2019
The undersized winger has been a force in the Liiga to the tune of 43 points in 44 games in 2019-20 and then 27 points 19 games last year before coming to North America. His adjustment to the smaller ice was seamless as he recorded at a point-per-game pace with Rochester with five goals and 13 points in as many games. His production earned him a call up to the NHL and he continued to produce, scoring five goals in 17 games with the Sabres. If that was not impressive enough, he played for Finland at the World Championships and scored four more goals in that ten game tournament winning a Silver Medal.
The 23-year-old looks to have secured himself a full time roster spot to start the season and could easily find himself in a top-six role. His NHL sample size is small, and while he scored some goals, there is some development required in his ability to process the pace of the NHL. He could crack the top-six, or find himself back in the AHL.
- Brett Murray, LW – Rochester Americans (AHL)
Drafted: 2016 round four, 99th overall by Buffalo Sabres
The Hulking winger is a late blooming player who has exploded in the past few seasons. Drafted from the USHL, Murray played the following two seasons in the NCAA with Penn State where he only managed to produce one goal and seven points in 33 total games. H
e spent the next season back down in the USHL, a step down but regained his confidence with a 41 goal and 76 point season in 62 games. Following that, Murray turned pro playing 55 games in the AHL and scoring 24 points as a rookie. Last year he lead the Rochester Americans in scoring with 20 points is 27 games and made his NHL debut playing in two games.
The Sabres love his size and physicality and he could easily find himself in a bottom-six role. Often bigger players take some time to blossom and Murray looks to be another example of that. At 23-years old he could find himself as an NHL regular.
Linus Weissbach has left the Wisconsin Badgers to begin his pro career. His production at the NCAA level has been somewhat inconsistent and he may require some AHL development before competing for a NHL roster spot.
Lukas Rousek signed his ELC and will making his North American debut in the AHL unless he is loaned back to his native Czech. His development would be best served coming to the AHL.
Prokhor Poltapov, and Alexander Kisakov are a pair of Russian wingers selected by Buffalo in the second round of the 2021 draft each have intriguing upside.
Mattias Samuelsson has been slow cooking nicely in the AHL. The big defender lacks some offensive punch, but the son of long time NHL’er Kjell Samuelsson has size and is a monster in his own end.
Devon Levi had a coming out party with Team Canada at the WJC and was a key part of the return for Sam Reinhart. Made expendable in Florida with the emergence of Spencer Knight, Levi can compete with UPL and Portillo for the future starting role.