Sabres depth chart reset: Where Buffalo improved and what needs are left

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Are the Buffalo Sabres a better team now than they were 12 months ago?

After the first day of free agency, general manager Kevyn Adams confidently stated the Sabres were a “much better” team than they were a few days ago, but that was inevitable because the Sabres had open roster spots to fill.

The real question fans should be asking is whether the Sabres are taking substantial steps forward under Adams as the general manager. Has he made them a better team over the last two years as their competitive window opened? How much has this offseason pushed the team forward?

Here is the NHL talent who came to Buffalo this week:

Defenseman Dennis Gilbert, one year, $825,000
Defenseman Jacob Bryson, one year, $900,000
Forward Nicolas Aube-Kubel, one year, $1.5 million
Forward Sam Lafferty, two years, $2 million per year
Forward Jason Zucker, one year, $5 million
Goalie James Reimer, one year, $1 million

The signings were all low-risk moves, with only Lafferty getting a two-year contract. None of these moves will harm Buffalo’s long-term salary-cap outlook. The Sabres avoided big mistakes on July 1, and that’s half the battle in free agency. But the lack of risk also leaves a lingering question about the upside of these changes. Throw in the addition of Bowen Byram at the trade deadline, and those are the additions Buffalo has made since the start of last season. As a reminder, these are the players who have left Buffalo since the start of last season:

Center Casey Mittelstadt (traded to Colorado)
 Winger Kyle Okposo (traded to Florida)
Defenseman Erik Johnson (traded to Philadelphia)
Winger Victor Olofsson (Vegas)
Winger Zemgus Girgensons (Tampa Bay)
Winger Jeff Skinner (Edmonton)
Center Tyson Jost (Carolina)
Winger Eric Robinson (Carolina)
Goalie Eric Comrie (Winnipeg)

With that in mind, here is the current estimated depth chart:

JJ Peterka – Tage Thompson – Alex Tuch
Jason Zucker – Dylan Cozens – Jack Quinn
Zach Benson – Peyton Krebs – Jordan Greenway
Beck Malenstyn – Sam Lafferty – Nicolas Aube-Kubel
Extra: Lukas Rousek

Bowen Byram – Rasmus Dahlin
Owen Power – Henri Jokiharju
Mattias Samuelsson – Connor Clifton
Extras: Jacob Bryson – Dennis Gilbert

Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and Devon Levi

And here is last season’s opening night lineup by comparison:

Jeff Skinner -Tage Thompson – Alex Tuch
JJ Peterka – Dylan Cozens – Victor Olofsson
Jordan Greenway – Casey Mittelstadt – Zach Benson
Zemgus Girgensons – Peyton Krebs – Kyle Okposo

Mattias Samuelsson – Rasmus Dahlin
Owen Power – Henri Jokiharju
Erik Johnson – Connor Clifton

Devon Levi – Eric Comrie

Extras: Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Tyson Jost and Jacob Bryson
Injured: Jack Quinn

Where have the Sabres improved?

Physicality/competitiveness: Buffalo’s fourth line is definitely a more physical group than it was a season ago. Last season, Girgensons, Krebs and Okposo combined for 204 hits. Malenstyn, Lafferty and Aube-Kubel combined for 542 hits. Those three also play fast and direct, which are attributes the Sabres targeted. Zucker also had a career-high 197 hits two seasons ago, so that’s an element he can bring, too. This will be a much stronger team on the forecheck than it was a season ago. Gilbert brings some of that edge to the blue line after averaging just under two hits per game for the Calgary Flames over the last two seasons in a limited role.

Speed: Not only are the fourth-liners the Sabres added willing and able to hit, but they’re also all fast skaters. This will be a noticeably faster team than the one Buffalo iced last season. Based on NHL Edge data compiled by JFresh, Aube-Kubel, Lafferty and Malenstyn all ranked in the top 50 in 20-mile-per-hour speed bursts per 60 minutes. The Sabres want to play faster under Lindy Ruff and got some players who can help them do that.

Lineup flexibility: One of the themes that emerged after the season was players felt they needed more accountability. That was used as reasoning for a coaching change. That felt like a convenient narrative, considering Don Granato demoted Skinner and healthy scratched Olofsson, two players who weren’t their best away from the puck. The real problem was there wasn’t enough internal competition on the roster. It’s hard to bench players when there aren’t other capable players ready to take their jobs.

That started last summer when Adams didn’t add a single forward from outside the organization. There were no players added on professional tryouts during training camp. The Sabres ran back the same group that got 91 points the year before and didn’t try to upgrade, even after Quinn got injured during summer training.

Now the Sabres at least have some experienced players who can create natural competition in camp and throughout the season in practice. With that comes lineup flexibility for Ruff.

“You have some high-end skill we feel can play against anyone in the league when it comes to the skill, and now we have some physicality, some compete on some more veteran players that, I think, really give Lindy some ability to move things around a little bit,” Adams said.

Where haven’t the Sabres improved?

Scoring: Skinner was a top-end point producer over the last few years in Buffalo, but he tailed off considerably at the end of the 2023-24 season. Still, replacing his production in the lineup with another 32-year-old in Zucker might not be enough. As constructed, the Sabres are banking on bounce-back seasons from Thompson, Tuch, Cozens, Krebs and Quinn along with continued improvement from players like Peterka and Benson. Maybe a prospect like Matt Savoie or Jiri Kulich could emerge and provide more scoring punch to this lineup. As things stand, though, the Sabres did not become a more skilled team this offseason. The assumption that they already have enough skill isn’t rooted in the production from last season.

Third center: Trading Mittelstadt at the deadline for a high-upside defenseman like Byram was a fine move. But the Sabres haven’t yet replaced him as the third-line center, unless Lafferty ascends to that role. The Sabres are putting a lot of faith in Krebs, who had four goals last season while bouncing between the third and fourth lines.

“I think he showed a lot of signs over the last year of starting to understand the defensive side of the game,” Adams said. “He’s a very, very competitive kid, getting better and better in different areas. He’s got great vision. He has offensive skill. We know that from his track record before we traded for him, and now he’s gonna find his way. I think there’s a chance for him, an upside of being a player that can play higher up the lineup, whether that’s a center, which we believe he is, or maybe eventually could he slide to the wing? Yeah, we’re open to that.”

That’s not a guarantee from Adams, but it’s another endorsement of a player who hasn’t yet realized his NHL potential. There aren’t many other options in the organization, either, unless a prospect makes the jump to the NHL. Kulich would be the most likely candidate because Savoie looks like he might have a future on the wing. So Lafferty and Krebs look poised to be the bottom-six centers without another addition.

Power play: The only addition the Sabres made that could potentially impact their power play is Zucker. Over the last two seasons, Zucker has combined for 19 power-play points, so he won’t be a transformative presence. But Ruff wants the Sabres to score goals in different ways, including getting to the front of the net. And Zucker brings that mentality to a team that desperately needs it. Is Zucker and a coaching change enough to get the Sabres’ power play back to where it was in 2022-23?

Where did the Sabres stay the same?

Defense: The Sabres added Gilbert, a hometown product who hopes to provide some added muscle to Buffalo’s blue line. He’s a good depth piece, but the Sabres are counting on internal development from Power and Byram, along with better health for Samuelsson, as the driving factors toward improved defense in 2024-25. Ruff implementing a better overall team structure in the defensive zone should help, too. There’s also a case to be made for another move here. Jokiharju isn’t yet signed, so maybe the Sabres could still add another piece.

What’s left to be done? 

The Sabres have just under $19 million in cap space before they sign restricted free agents Luukkonen, Krebs, Jokiharju and Malenstyn. Setting aside $10-11 million for those contracts still leaves the Sabres with roughly $8 million in cap space with which to add to the roster. That’s about what the team saved by buying out Skinner. It could be enough to make another move for a top-six forward or a third-line center. Maybe both. But options on the free-agent market are starting to run out.

(Photo of Rasmus Dahlin, Devon Levi and Sam Lafferty: Jeff Vinnick / NHLI via Getty Images)

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