BUFFALO – The deepest and most talented Sabres team since the rollicking post-lockout days of the mid-2000s will hit the ice today shouldering the expectation it can end the franchise’s embarrassing 12-year playoff drought.
Coming off a season in which they fell one win short of the postseason, the Sabres begin training camp with three sessions at KeyBank Center.
They have a whopping 64 players on their camp roster: seven goalies, 21 defensemen and 36 forwards. Still, most of their opening night lineup was set months ago.
Over the past two and a half years, general manager Kevyn Adams has refused to take any shortcuts while reconstructing the Sabres and implementing his plan. His vision has brought them stability and infused talent.
Now, one of the NHL’s youngest teams appears ready to contend in the crowded Eastern Conference.
Adams, who’s scheduled to address the media this morning, clearly believes the team he built has matured enough to take another step. He added just two notable pieces during the offseason, signing defensemen Connor Clifton and Erik Johnson.
Camp should be quiet as the Sabres prepare for their most anticipated season in years. There are, however, some storylines to follow.
Who’s the No. 1 goalie?
It’s not a given rookie Devon Levi, who started seven critical late-season games after leaving Northeastern, will be the Sabres’ No. 1 goalie.
Yes, considering the immediate trust coach Don Granato showed in Levi, 21, he might have the inside edge. But the Sabres also have Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and Eric Comrie, both of whom spent time as the starter last season, competing for the job.
Goaltending, of course, is their biggest question mark.
Levi, Luukkonen and Comrie have combined to play 100 NHL games. The most experienced goalie in the organization, veteran Dustin Tokarski, 34, will likely begin the season as the Rochester Americans’ No. 1.
The Sabres relied heavily on Luukkonen, 24, last year, playing him a career-high 33 games. Despite struggling at times behind a porous defense, he won 17 times. Not long ago, the Finn was considered their goalie of the future.
Meanwhile, Comrie, 28, was sometimes relegated to No. 3 behind Luukkonen and veteran Craig Anderson, who retired. Comrie, however, stole some games early in the campaign and recorded a late-season shutout.
Considering their ages and the potential each possesses, the Sabres might utilize Levi and Luukkonen as their netminders. Comrie, who has one season left on his contract, could be traded. It seems unlikely he would clear waivers, having been claimed four times earlier in his career. He has just a $1.8 million salary cap hit.
The Sabres appeared to prepare for Comrie’s departure by bringing back Tokarski, who served as their backup two years ago.
Can a rookie or two crack the lineup?
There are perhaps two forwards spots up for grabs. Twelve regulars from last season are back. Winger Jack Quinn’s Achilles injury has created an opening high in the lineup.
Right now, prospects Jiri Kulich, Isak Rosen and Lukas Rousek are the likeliest candidates to fill those slots. Matt Savoie, another young forward expected to compete for a spot, suffered an upper-body injury in Monday’s Prospects Challenge finale and will miss at least the beginning of camp.
The Sabres have recently promoted some top prospects after outstanding rookie seasons in Rochester. Last year, Quinn and winger JJ Peterka both cracked the big club out of camp.
Kulich, 19, scored 24 goals for the Amerks as a rookie last season. He might be ready to graduate.
Victor Olofsson’s place in the lineup
While discussing winger Victor Olofsson’s future in June, Adams acknowledged that, yes, the Swede knows he could’ve been better last season. The Sabres, however, understand they must put him in better situations to excel.
Olofsson, 28, endured an odd year. Despite scoring a career-high 28 goals, he sat out seven late-season games as a healthy scratch, including five critical contests down the stretch.
It was believed the Sabres would try to trade Olofsson during the offseason. Adams said in June he was exploring the market for him.
But Quinn’s injury changed everything. They need Olofsson’s offense.
Quinn often played on the second line with Peterka and center Dylan Cozens last season. Olofsson would be a natural to take that spot.
We discuss the Week 2 win, Josh Allen’s superb effort, the Washington game, Sabres training camp, roster battles and more in our third episode:https://t.co/0VZhrdfaRv
— Bill Hoppe (@BillHoppeNHL) September 20, 2023