Sabers Organizational Depth Chart: How Draft 2022 Revamped the Pipeline
Over the past two years, the Sabers have tried to rebuild themselves by drafting and developing players within the organization. This forced general manager Kevyn Adams to make high profile trades with the likes of Jack Eichel, Rasmus Ristolainen and Sam Reinhart to collect players and picks. A quick look at the pipeline shows that the results are starting to show. The coaching staff still needs to develop players, but there’s more talent to work with in Buffalo, Rochester and beyond than there has been in a long time.
Not only does this give the Sabers reason to be optimistic about the future with high-profile prospects flowing through their system, but it also gives Adams options as the team moves closer to becoming a legitimate contender. The stress of re-signing every player dissipates if you trust the players behind them in the organization. The need to spend aggressively on veterans in free agency is mitigated when you can develop players internally. And the more attractive prospects you have, the more attractive you are as a trading partner when you are a competitive enough team to become a buyer by the trading deadline.
Here’s a look at how things stand with the Sabers org chart. The Prospects Training Camp and Tournament should further clarify the pecking order at each position.
All of a sudden, the Sabers have a deep pipeline of centers in the organization. Buffalo has used all three picks on players who have played center in their careers, although the team has acknowledged that the chances of all three remaining in the middle are slim. The organization prioritized the flexibility of playing both center and wing in their young prospects. The result is a team with plenty of options on the road.
At the NHL level, Tage Thompson’s breakout season has been a boon to the depth chart. The 24-year-old looks like a legitimate top center after a 68-point season a year ago. The Sabers will have to pay Thompson, who will become a restricted free agent next summer. But for now, it’s a steal with a cap of $1.4 million.
Behind Thompson, the Sabers would benefit from Dylan Cozens taking another step in his development. The team’s 2019 first-round pick has enjoyed a promising second season in the NHL and has already won over the organization with his leadership and tenacity. Casey Mittelstadt has begun to develop a two-way game that could make him a center of the last six in the long run, depending on how other prospects on the team develop.
The Sabers will use training camp to figure out what to do with the fourth-line center spot. Zemgus Girgensons has the ability to play in the center but could also switch to the wing if one of the younger centers in the squad steps up and earns a place. Sean Malone and Brandon Biro both had their best AHL seasons last season and could play NHL minutes if needed. It’s also a place the Sabers could look to add before the start of the season.
What’s most exciting about this position is the long-term potential of prospects. Matthew Savoie could be a spark plug on offense given his play, speed and tenacity. Noah Ostlund impressed with his hockey sense and ability to play in development camp. Jiri Kulich has the best shot of the bunch. Having those three prospects, along with players like Jakub Konecny and Tyson Kozak, gives the Sabers something to be optimistic about going forward.
The Sabers have reinforcements arriving on the wing as several young prospects are ready to break into the NHL. Jack Quinn, Buffalo’s 2020 first-round pick, had a monstrous season in the AHL last year and should earn an NHL spot next season. The 20-year-old had 61 points in 45 games for Rochester last season and was called up to the NHL for getting his feet wet.
“It was just a great experience to see what it was like and mentally know what to expect,” Quinn said. “It just helps to be confident and to train and know what you’re getting into, know what you’re preparing for in September and October.”
Quinn should break the lineup to some extent this season. He’s part of the reason the Sabers didn’t want to be too aggressive in adding expensive free agents to the forward. They wanted players like Quinn, who earned a chance to compete for minutes, to have a path to the roster.
The first two spots on the left wing should be locked. Jeff Skinner bounced back last season under Don Granato, and Victor Oloffson just signed a two-year extension. If they’re healthy, they should both be in the top six unless Quinn really bursts onto the scene as a rookie.
The Sabers will have to figure out the best combination on the fourth line and how Girgensons fits in. Does he offer the most value on the wing or in the centre? It could depend on how those around him in those two positions play during camp and pre-season.
Buffalo also has a few potential NHL players further down the organizational depth chart. Alexander Kisakov, a recent second-round draft pick, is on his way to the United States. Josh Bloom had 61 points in the OHL last season. Filip Cederquist has developed enough to earn an entry-level contract. And Viktor Neuchev, Russia’s 2022 Third Round is worth watching. Sabers director of amateur scouting Jerry Forton said the team’s analytic staff had a first-round mark on him.
The Sabers shouldn’t have much of a short-term or long-term problem on the right wing. Alex Tuch was the perfect addition to Jack Eichel’s trade. He’s a productive player, he’s locked in for the long term and is really excited to play a few hours away from his hometown. He’s everything Adams is looking for to try to build this team. The same could be said of Kyle Okposo, who is in the final year of his contract but is receiving rave reviews from the front office and coaching staff. He has a chance to be captain this season and could play in Buffalo beyond this season. The Sabers also brought back Vinnie Hinostroza after a 25-point season, so they have plenty of experience on that wing.
JJ Peterka is the most exciting prospect on this wing and also happens to be on the verge of breaking into the NHL. The 2020 second-round pick was the subject of development camp discussions with Michael Peca saying, “He has no idea how good he can be, which is scary.” It might take some time for him to acclimate to NHL play, but once that clicks, he should see some big NHL minutes.
“It’s the mix of power and speed and the skill set, his hands and his shooting and his ability to play in a physical game,” Peca said of Peterka. “Like, he can play in any environment and he can dominate in any environment.”
Rasmus Asplund also established himself in the NHL last season, so Peterka will have to compete for ice time. But it looks like he’s ready to play a role.
Beyond those players, Arttu Ruotsalainen recently signed to play in Switzerland, but the Sabers will retain his rights. They signed 2021 first-round pick Isak Rosen to an entry-level deal, but there’s a chance he could end up in Sweden. He could also play in Rochester and still needs to gain ground before he’s ready to compete for an NHL spot.
The team also has interesting depth potential there. Linus Weissbach had 37 points in his first season in the AHL last year. Lukas Rousek received positive reviews from coaches at development camp. Prokhor Poltopov, Jake Richard and Stiven Sardarian all have long term advantages but will need time to develop. Meanwhile, this season promises to be important for Aaron Huglen, who overcame a serious back injury to return to an important role at the University of Minnesota.
Starting the defensive organizational depth chart with two No. 1 picks is nothing to complain about. Rasmus Dahlin is coming off his most productive season as a pro with 53 points and it looks like he might be the player Buffalo was hoping for with this pick. In a small sample, Owen Power looked great on his NHL debut last season. If these two are successful, it will make Adams’ life easier as he builds up the rest of the defensive core. Mattias Samuelsson is another left-handed defenseman who is on the verge of landing a major role in the NHL.
Adams completed the defensive depth by bringing back Jacob Bryson and signing Kale Clague, Jeremy Davies and Lawrence Pilut. The biggest question among the team’s left-handed defensemen is whether the organization can get Ryan Johnson under contract. Johnson is likely returning to the University of Minnesota and could become a free agent next offseason. He was a first-round pick, so the Sabers would receive a compensatory selection if he left for free agency, but the preferable scenario is to get the up-and-coming defender under contract.
The right-wing defense was a sore spot early in the offseason, and Adams signed Ilya Lyubushkin to fix that problem at the NHL level. The Sabers also drafted Vsevolod Komarov in the fifth round as a long-term development option. This group doesn’t have the same prospect pedigree as other positions on the team, but Casey Fitzgerald, Chase Priskie and Oskari Laaksonen all have the ability to provide depth at the NHL level and in Rochester.
Apparently, the Sabers haven’t signed Eric Comrie as a replacement. He came to Buffalo because he saw an opportunity to be a starter after years of working first in the AHL and then as a backup goaltender. Considering Craig Anderson’s age and recent injury history and the fact that Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen is yet to prove himself at the NHL level, Comrie has every chance of dominating the net for the Sabers this season. He was hoping for that opportunity in free agency, and he thinks he found it in Buffalo.
If Anderson remains healthy, he will be a valuable substitute and a leader in the dressing room. Luukkonen is the joker. He could spend another year in Rochester if the Sabers decide more patience is needed. Or he could do enough to earn a role in Buffalo. That remains to be seen. He still hasn’t signed as a restricted free agent. Malcolm Subban will also get minutes in Rochester.
That position has become a force in the organizational pipeline with the play of Devon Levi and Erik Portillo in college and the addition of 2022 second-round pick Topias Leinonen. The caveat is that it’s not a guarantee the Sabers will get Portillo under contract. Levi looks like a much stronger bet in that regard. And the Sabers plan to take the long way with Leinonen’s development.
(Photo by Andrew Lahodynskyj/NHLI via Getty Images)