September 32-in-32: Buffalo Sabres

Kevin Wong

2021-09-05

Welcome to the September 2021 edition of the DobberProspects 32-in-32 Series. This month, we are diving into the depth of each organization, looking at their recent graduates, risers, fallers, and top-20 prospects.

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By: Kevin Wong

Despite the Buffalo Sabres’ disastrous regular-season performance in 2020-2021, their campaign featured some exciting glimpses into the organization’s future. A philosophical shift occurred within the Sabres’ management group once it became clear that the team was headed again towards at the bottom of the NHL standings.

Our Sabres feature last month covered the radical changes that took place during the latter half of the 2020-2021 campaign, including the dismissal of head coach Ralph Krueger as well as numerous trades. The vacancies created as a result of these transactions led to numerous ice-time adjustments for other players in addition to alterations to the team’s style of play under interim coach Don Granato. The team began to focus more heavily on the development of its younger players, resulting in an influx of prospects and expanded opportunities for existing players. Casey Mittelstadt, Dylan Cozens and Jacob Bryson were among those tasked with filling the void. Meanwhile, amidst the exodus of veterans, new positions became available for Rasmus Asplund, Arttu Ruotsalainen and Mattias Samuelsson among others to audition their talents. In total, 10 players aged 23 or under made appearances for the Buffalo Sabres during the 2020-2021 campaign, nearly twice as many as in the previous season.

Not all of these players looked comfortable or ready to compete in the National Hockey League despite logging so many games with the team last season, however. One might express some concern that a few of these players have been pushed into the high-pressure NHL environment without having been developed enough as of yet at lower levels. In the case of Rasmus Asplund, for example, the 23-year-old played 28 games with the Sabres but struggled to influence the flow of his line’s performance. The Sabres opted not to develop him further in Rochester, although based on his previous season’s contributions, it may have been more ideal for him to continue his development in the AHL. Mattias Samuelsson and Will Borgen also played a handful of games with the Sabres. The Seattle Kraken selected Borgen in their 2021 Expansion Draft while Samuelsson is slated to make his case to stay in Buffalo next season.

Due to the team’s apparent lack of a competitive short-term future, it remains to be seen whether the Sabres will continue to rely on their prospects to fill roster spots or if a more patient approach will be taken.

Graduating Players

Jacob Bryson

23-year-old rookie Jacob Bryson stood out as perhaps the most impressive prospect among those who debuted with the Sabres in 2020-2021. In 38 games with the team, he tallied nine points. More notably, as a first-year NHL player, he averaged 19:03 minutes per game and demonstrated an immense degree of maturity and hockey IQ. Prior to joining the Sabres, he showed a high-level ability to quarterback the Rochester Americans’ powerplay and to transition the puck up the ice in the AHL. His sense of intuition allowed him to seamlessly transition his two-way game to the NHL even while playing alongside other, less-refined prospects in Buffalo.

Bryson is both shifty and crafty with the puck, and he possesses the composure to carry it up the ice on his own. However, he is also tactful, and he refrains from trying to force it past defenders or putting himself in a situation where he might be under pressure from the opposition. He moves the puck quickly out of danger and does not over-handle it. For instance, upon receiving the puck in his own crease, he might chip it into a safe position along the boards.

There remain times when he is too hasty to move the puck, though. As a result, throughout the season, he was sometimes guilty of committing unnecessary turnovers.

Thus far, he has been more of a distributor than a puck carrier. In the offensive zone, he can walk the line laterally with poise. In fact, poise is one of the more noteworthy attributes about this player. He does not force the puck on goal and prefers to instead dump it down low from the point when he sees no lane to the net. Sometimes, he will pinch low to support his team’s forecheck.

He must continue to improve his sense of timing at the NHL level, although some of his mistakes may be attributed to his inexperience against such high-level competition. After his performance as a rookie last season, there should be much excitement about his future as a potential mid-pairing defenceman in the NHL. The Sabres need as many of their prospects to pan out, and Bryson appears to be on that path.

Dylan Cozens

The team’s other high-profile rookie, Dylan Cozens, also had a strong first year in the NHL. Following his completion of the 2021 World Juniors as the tournament’s leading goal scorer and Team Canada’s leading point producer with eight goals and 16 points, there were high expectations in January for the team’s 2019 seventh-overall selection.

He made his debut at just 19 years of age and became increasingly effective at utilizing his sturdy frame and two-way skill set as the season progressed. In 41 games, he scored four goals and thirteen points. His season was unfortunately marred by numerous upper-body injuries as well as by the Sabres’ COVID outbreak in early February. In spite of his -15 plus-minus rating, though, Cozens showcased his strong defensive intuition and adapted quickly to the pace of the NHL.

His offensive game remains unrefined. He is neither shifty nor agile, although in a straight line he possesses a powerful stride and can bulldoze his way up the ice. He needs to improve his offensive positioning to elevate the play of his line in transition, as well as learn to create space for himself with the puck. In tight spaces, he lacks elusiveness, which can cause trouble for him when he is under pressure with the puck. He also might not possess the high-end puck skills required to be a dangerous one-on-one attacker in the National Hockey League.

For such a young player, Cozens is already both assertive and comfortable on the defensive side of the puck at the NHL level. Although his offensive upside remains a question, the foundation exists for him to develop into a strong and dependable two-way center for the Buffalo Sabres.

Casey Mittelstadt

On September 2, 2021, the Sabres re-signed 22-year-old Casey Mittelstadt to a three-year, $2.5 million AAV contract. Four seasons removed from the 2017 NHL Draft, it seemed increasingly improbable that this boom-or-bust type would become an established NHL scorer. With this contract, the Sabres have expressed their belief that he can meet their expectations as a full-time performer with the club.

Throughout the 2020-2021 campaign, Mittelstadt was often somewhat passive, playing at a relatively low-intensity pace and contributing little towards his team’s forecheck. This has always been among his main criticisms — his inability to control the direction of his team’s attack despite his refined puck skills. Last season, he often played alongside fellow prospects Rasmus Asplund and Tage Thompson, and the trio frequently seemed ineffective at possessing the puck. In his first 19 games of 2020-2021, Mittelstadt recorded just one goal and five points with a -14 plus-minus rating and a 5.3% shooting percentage.

In the final 22 games of the campaign, he caught fire. In that span, he scored nine goals and 17 points with a shooting percentage of 21.4% and an average TOI of 17:17 per game. Under new coach Don Granato, Mittelstadt experienced a scoring surge in April, although it remains to be seen whether he can continue to produce at a rate that would justify his new contract.

 

Arttu Ruotsalainen

Offensively, 5’9” Finnish center Arttu Ruotsalainen has already proven to be a highly-capable scorer at lower levels. Last Fall, just prior to joining the Sabres, he led the Finnish Liiga with 16 goals and 27 points in 19 games. He subsequently scored five goals and 13 points in 13 games with the Rochester Americans. Thus, on April 9, 2021, Ruotsalainen made his NHL debut with the Buffalo Sabres.

In 17 games with Buffalo, the 23-year-old scored five goals and six total points while averaging 13:59 of ice time.

There are numerous strengths but also a host of deficiencies to consider with this player as of now. Ruotsalainen’s grit is one of his standout attributes. His tenacity in traffic and around the net, as well as his motor on the backcheck are indicative of a high work ethic and a desire by him to develop into a multi-faceted contributor at the NHL level.

Although he has been a commanding presence in other leagues, he has yet to become acclimated to the high pace of the NHL. There were too many times when the speed of his puck movement was inadequate. Furthermore, his decisions with it suggest a lack of creativity and vision. For example, he would regularly default to forcing the puck on net whenever he saw no other available options. In transition, he also experienced a degree of difficulty maneuvering the puck past his opposition through the neutral zone.

He must learn to apply pressure more effectively and to recognize plays more quickly, both of which can come with additional experience.

At the 2021 IIHF World Championships this past May, he scored four goals and five points in ten games with Team Finland.

This season, he is scheduled to enter the final year of his current $925,000 AAV contract, after which he will be 24 years of age. Having shown that he can produce effectively in other leagues, the Sabres will want to give him an extended look this season. With more games under his belt, it will soon become apparent whether he can adapt and become a reliable middle-six option for the Sabres, or if the NHL pace is simply too much for him.

Tage Thompson

Four years removed from the 2016 NHL Draft and with two previous NHL stints on his resume, it seemed uncertain prior to last season whether 6’7” winger Tage Thompson would have any more chances to prove he could be an effective bottom-six player with Buffalo.

He spent much of the 2019-2020 campaign rehabilitating a shoulder injury. Prior to that, he was able to score 12 points in 16 games with the Rochester Americans in late 2019. At the AHL level, he was often able to use his frame and long reach to protect the puck and to play a physical style. His passes are crisp, and he handles the puck well for a player of his size, hence his 26th-overall selection in 2016 by St. Louis.

Thompson’s skating, however, is one of his weaknesses. In particular, his acceleration is below average, and he can appear sluggish compared to other NHL players. In defensive situations especially, this can cause him to become overwhelmed by the opposition’s pace, leading to scrambly, unsound positioning in his own end. He also can be a passenger in transition due to his lack of mobility. His skating is a hindrance that restricts him in numerous ways. Additionally, he must learn to shield the puck better along the boards against NHL opponents.

Last season, Thompson scored eight goals and 14 points in 38 games with the Sabres, mostly on a line with Casey Mittelstadt. The majority of those points — seven goals and 11 points — were scored in his final 21 games, coinciding with Mittelstadt’s offensive breakout. Prior to that, Thompson contributed just three points in 17 games to his team’s overall scoring.

Unless Tage Thompson can either become quicker or more efficient from a positional point of view, there may be some limitations to his effectiveness in the NHL.

Rasmus Asplund

In the AHL two seasons ago with Rochester, Rasmus Asplund served primarily as a defensive presence for his team, scoring 19 points in 33 games. NHL-caliber offensive prospects tend to score at a rate closer to a point-per-game. Even without the offensive acumen, Asplund was given an opportunity this year to play alongside Casey Mittelstadt and Tage Thompson in the NHL.

In this scenario, it seems likely he was expected to be the defensive member of his unit, and in that he regard he delivered. Before joining the Sabres, he was on loan with Vasteras IK of Sweden’s second-tier professional league, the HockeyAllsvenskan, where he managed a sum of nine points in 14 games.

He spent much of the early part of the Sabres’ campaign on the team’s taxi squad, and briefly spent time in Rochester again.

Upon being called upon to play a regular shift with the Sabres in April, Asplund demonstrated that while he was not an ideal offensive option for last year’s Sabres, he was a sufficient defensive contributor.

One of the biggest drawbacks of Asplund’s game is his lack of forechecking. His passivity remains an issue. Also, when he is in possession of the puck, he tends not to be strong enough to overcome the pressure of his opponent, nor quick enough at its distribution to deliver it out of harm’s way. Although he handles the puck skillfully, he creates very little with it on his stick at this point.

Asplund is a conscious backchecker, however, and he will regularly put his body in the path of the opponent to disrupt their transition into his defensive zone.

At 23 years of age, this was his second campaign in the NHL. In 28 games, he scored seven goals and eleven points, an improvement over his previous year’s totals of one goal and three points in 29 games with Buffalo. There may certainly be a stable role for him with the Sabres going forward if he