BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — The Buffalo Sabres enter the 2023 preseason with a good problem to have: plenty of youthful talent without many roster spots to make them NHL regulars.
The team begins its training camp Thursday featuring a roster loaded with young, skilled players. While most veterans already have their spots penciled in, questions remain about a number of prospects and some new faces at every position.
Here are four things to keep an eye on as the Sabres begin their preseason:
Who will start in net?
The hype surrounding Devon Levi is so palpable that it’s difficult to remember the Northeastern product has just seven games of NHL experience.
Levi shined in his late-season cameo, helping keep the Sabres’ playoff push alive longer than most expected before it ended in a loss to New Jersey with two games remaining. However, between his successful yet brief NHL stint and NCAA excellence, there is a strong belief the 21-year-old could make a fairly unprecedented leap from playing college hockey six months ago to being Buffalo’s No. 1 goalie this season.
Competing with Levi for the starting spot is Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who started the most games of any Sabres netminder last season. The 24-year-old finished 17-11-4 with a .891 save percentage and -10.7 goals saved above expected, according to Evolving-Hockey. Additionally, veteran Eric Comrie, who finished with a .886 save percentage after an inconsistent first year with the Sabres, will look to prove he can be a starting-caliber goalie in Buffalo.
It’s likely one of the three will be sent to Rochester to be the Americans’ starter or potentially even traded. However, Luukkonen or Comrie would have to go through waivers to reach the minors, meaning another NHL team could claim them.
The Sabres could also opt to trade for a veteran netminder to pair with Levi, but that appears unlikely at this stage.
Prospects push for roster spots
The Sabres have a fairly set top-12 forward group, but one or possibly two extra forward spots will be up for grabs in the preseason.
Arguably the two most exciting players in the Sabres prospect pool who could make the jump are 2022 first-round draft picks Matt Savoie (No. 9 overall) and Jiri Kulich (No. 28 overall). But, with Savoie’s injury at the Prospect’s Challenge keeping him out “week-to-week” according to general manager Kevyn Adams, attention will largely be on Kulich.
The Czechia native excelled in his first season in North America as an 18-year-old, posting 24 goals and 46 points in 62 games with the Amerks. While Kulich’s health and AHL brilliance give him a slight edge over Savoie, the Canadian cannot be overlooked after a strong 2022-23 campaign with the Winnipeg Ice while playing on a line with fellow Sabres prospect Zach Benson.
Buffalo faces an interesting decision with Savoie: if he plays 10 games or more this season, he will burn a year of his entry-level contract. He can stick with the Sabres if he plays well enough, but if management opts to prioritize his development in a lower league, he will have to return to his WHL team instead of Rochester. An agreement between the NHL and CHL makes players suiting up for their junior clubs ineligible to play for AHL and ECHL teams until they are 20 years old (with the cutoff date for a player to turn 20 being Dec. 31). Savoie was born on Jan. 1, 2004, missing the cutoff by one day.
Another prospect who could make the jump is Lukas Rousek, the 2019 sixth-round pick who also became an integral piece for Rochester last season. The 24-year-old appeared in two NHL games last season and had a memorable debut against Montreal, tallying a goal and an assist.
Lastly, a dark horse who could become a full-time Sabre is Isak Rosén, the 2021 first-round selection who is coming off his first full season with the Amerks and an eye-catching showing at the Prospect’s Challenge.
New signings look to slot in on defense
The Sabres didn’t make a ton of noise in free agency this offseason, but they added much-needed help on defense by signing Connor Clifton (three years, $3.33 million AAV) and Erik Johnson (one year, $3.25 million).
Clifton, 28, joins the Sabres after spending the past five seasons in Boston and brings a physical presence the team lacked at times in previous seasons. He posted five goals and 18 points with the Bruins last season. Johnson, a 15-year NHL veteran and former No. 1 overall pick, comes to Buffalo with ample experience after spending 13 seasons and winning a Stanley Cup in Colorado.
The two new signings will undoubtedly play regular minutes in the top six, but their roles and partners will likely be figured out during the preseason. If the Sabres elect to keep Mattias Samuelsson and Rasmus Dahlin together, Clifton could partner with Owen Power while Johnson would then line up on the third pair with Henri Jokiharju. With both new Sabres possessing right shots, either could naturally pair with Dahlin and Power, as well.
Buffalo enters training camp with eight NHL defensemen on the roster, with Riley Stillman and Jacob Bryson joining the six mentioned above after Ilya Lyubushkin was traded to Anaheim for a 2025 fourth-round pick in August. The Sabres have to decide whether they want to carry all eight defensemen into the regular season or shed one in favor of having 14 forwards. In all likelihood, the odd man out would be either Stillman or Bryson, both of whom would have to clear waivers to be sent to Rochester.
Who steps up in Jack Quinn’s absence?
The hope for Jack Quinn to make a significant leap in his second full season as a Sabre took a hit when the 22-year-old suffered an Achilles injury in June during offseason training. The injury is expected to sideline the Canadian until December or January.
Quinn put together a solid rookie campaign with 14 goals and 37 points and had chemistry playing with Dylan Cozens and JJ Peterka, a trio dubbed the “kids line.” When Alex Tuch went down with an injury in February, Quinn even moved up to the first line, where he played well alongside Tage Thompson and Jeff Skinner.
Needless to say, losing Quinn for an extended period hurts, but it presents an opportunity for another Sabre, either a prospect or veteran, to step up.
The most likely Quinn replacement on the second line is Casey Mittelstadt, who tallied a point in 10 of the Sabres’ final 11 games last season. The 24-year-old had a breakout campaign with a career-high 59 points and looks poised for a payday if he stays consistent.
After rumblings he might get dealt this offseason, Victor Olofsson is still in Buffalo and could potentially slot in at Quinn’s right-wing position. The 28-year-old in the last year of his contract fell out of favor late last season and was a healthy scratch on multiple occasions, but a role like this could be what he needs for a resurgence — or to increase his trade value by March.
Then there are the more uncertain, but potentially fun options: Kulich, Savoie and Rosén. All three performed well in their respective lower leagues a year ago and could be poised to make the leap to the pros, but slotting in rookies with no NHL experience into such a critical role has its risks.
While there may be hints at who will feature prominently in the lineup throughout the preseason, it’s important to note that lines will be scrambled from one game or practice to the next, meaning every move may or may not have significance.