Sabres mailbag: Playoff chances? Goalie situation? What to do with Casey Mittelstadt and Victor Oloffson?


The Sabres are 30 games into what has been a whirlwind season. They started off hot, winning seven of their first 10 games. Injuries contributed to the team hitting a roadblock in November and losing eight straight games without even collecting an overtime point. Since that streak ended, the Sabres are 7-3-2 and have worked themselves back to 14-14-2. They’re the highest-scoring team in hockey and are starting to slowly inch up the standings in the Eastern Conference.

But questions still linger — both short and long-term — about the Sabres’ path and the decisions they have to make about their roster construction. That was a theme of the mailbag this week, so let’s dive into some of your questions.

What is the deal in goal? Sabres waiting on Portillo and/or Levi? Do they need to pursue another goalie on the market or when Comrie comes back he will play better? — Iain M.

The Sabres are in a tough spot in goal. Kevyn Adams attempted to trade for Matt Murray in the offseason, but Murray blocked the move. The free-agent goalies available either didn’t fit the Sabres’ exact timeline in terms of cost and term or they didn’t want to come to Buffalo. That left them to take a calculated risk on Eric Comrie, who had never been an NHL starter but had shown promising results in a small sample size. Prior to getting hurt, Comrie had moments where he looked capable of being a consistent starter and other moments where he struggled. He’s been hurt since November but did return to practicing with the team this week.

Because of that injury, the Sabres were forced to bring up Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen earlier than they wanted to. The 23-year-old has struggled to find consistency in his game, and he’s playing more often than he probably should because he’s sharing the net with 41-year-old Craig Anderson. Anderson is having a solid season. His most recent outing was a 40-save shutout against the Kings. The problem is the Sabres have been closely monitoring his workload. He’s started 11 of the team’s 30 games. That was fine when Comrie was able to provide solid performances, but Luukkonen hasn’t been consistent enough for Anderson to be sitting that often.

That’s the short-term problem. The long-term outlook isn’t set in stone either. Anderson is likely done after this season. Comrie and Luukkonen haven’t yet established themselves as options to become the permanent starter next season. Devon Levi and Erik Portillo are quality prospects, but it seems unlikely that Levi would jump right into the NHL after college. He’ll need time in the AHL. Portillo has the option to hit free agency after this college season, and he may take it. If he doesn’t, he would likely require some AHL time as well.

That’s why it’s important for the Sabres to figure out exactly what they have in both Comrie and Luukkonen. If they aren’t confident in one of them heading into next season, Adams needs to find a reliable veteran goalie to help what should be a playoff-contending team next season. They can’t yet bank on Levi to solve all of their problems immediately. I still want to see more of Comrie before making a determination on what he can be for the Sabres beyond this season. Luukkonen hasn’t consistently looked like he’s ready to handle more minutes, but he did have a quality outing against the Avalanche on Thursday. Either way, this seems like a problem that will be more realistic to solve in the offseason unless a goalie comes available via trade.

What is the story with Casey Mittelstadt? How much longer can they keep playing him with such awful analytical results? Is the locker room going to turn on him and Victor Olofsson anytime soon? — Kevin S.

Naturally, we got plenty of questions about Casey Mittelstadt and Victor Olofsson, who have both struggled at five-on-five this season. I’ll start with Mittelstadt, who has started to show some life while playing on the top line with Tage Thompson and Alex Tuch. Naturally, it’s easier to perform and produce when you’re playing with the team’s two best forwards. The hope would be he’s found some confidence and can be a positive contributor to the third line with Olofsson and Tyson Jost, who has had an encouraging influence on Olofsson. As much as Mittelstadt and Olofsson have struggled at times, they do have 17 and 18 points, respectively, in 30 games this season. Special teams has helped boost that production. At five-on-five, Mittelstadt and Olofsson are ninth and tenth on the team in individual expected goals. They are both among the bottom three skaters in expected goals percentage at five-on-five.

All of that said, I wouldn’t expect the locker room to turn on either player. For starters, they are both nice people and seem well-liked in the room. They don’t have poor attitudes along with poor results. That’s also not the type of locker room environment I’ve observed this season.

As far as the issue of possibly trading one or both of Mittelstadt and Olofsson, I understand the impulse. At the moment, Olofsson seems like he would be easier to trade than Mittelstadt. He has 13 goals and is clearly still a dangerous player on the power play. A team looking for a power play specialist with a goal scorer’s shot might be willing to take on Olofsson’s $4.25 million salary next season to make that deal. Mittelstadt might benefit from a change of scenery and has a modest $2.5 million cap hit, but he wouldn’t be more than a throw-in on a larger deal given his contract. Granato has expressed optimism about both players. There’s no doubt the Sabres need more consistency from both at even strength, but unless there’s a strong offer on the table, moving them for the sake of it may not be the solution to Buffalo’s problem.

Any serious thought given by the organization to make the new black and red goathead jersey the primary again? A ton of social media talk about it, not to mention we keep winning with them lol. — Dev K. 

This seems really unlikely, even though the Sabres are now 3-0 in the black and red jerseys. It’s been great to see them back in the rotation. Clearly, the fans are loving it, and I’m surprised by how enthusiastic the players have been about wearing them. I think part of their charm is the fact that the Sabres haven’t worn them in so long and they are so different from what they have been wearing. But I think they have the right balance right now, wearing the black and red a dozen or so times per season and leaning on the clean, classic royal blue and gold uniforms. The reverse retros haven’t been a big hit, so that could open up more opportunities for the red and black alternates in future seasons.

Kyle Okposo (L) and Rasmus Dahlin. (Photo: Joshua Bessex / Getty Images)

Do you see Kyle Okposo coming back on a one-year deal next year or is it time to use the roster spot on a young guy like Isak Rosén? — Josh H.

My feeling on this has been that the Sabres would be willing to bring Kyle Okposo back if he wants to come back. That’s a decision Okposo will need to make, and he may not want to think about it until the end of the season. It’s a complicated situation because he’s valuable to the team as its captain. He’s also shown his on-ice utility in spurts this season. But if the Sabres see serious progress from players like Isak Rosen, Jiri Kulich or Matt Savoie, they may want to have a roster spot ready for those players. It’s also possible they could find an upgrade for Okposo outside of the organization. There’s a chance Okposo decides to retire and takes the decision out of the Sabres’ hands. But it’s going to be a tricky decision otherwise.

One thing the Sabres have going for them is an emerging core of young leaders who appear ready to fill the captain spot whenever the time comes. Dahlin is an obvious candidate as a current alternate captain, but Thompson, Tuch, Mattias Samuelsson and Dylan Cozens are all among those showing the necessary qualities to earn letters down the road.

Are you seeing signs that the Sabres are playing better defensively lately? Based on my subjective eyes last night, Anderson got peppered, but there were not many of the high-danger chances that this team has been allowing to happen so far this season. — Bob F.

Against the Kings this week, the Sabres allowed 10 high-danger scoring chances, the fewest since they allowed nine in a 7-2 against the Canadiens on Nov. 22. They allowed 16 high-danger chances against the Avalanche on Thursday, but it was another cleaner game defensively in which Luukkonen had a clear look at most of the 42 shots he faced. I’d say getting Mattias Samuelsson back has been the biggest boost to Buffalo’s defense. But in these recent games, staying out of the penalty box has helped, too. The Sabres were putting too much pressure on their penalty kill for a stretch of games and have been better about not taking careless penalties. They’ve had better luck consistently limiting chances as a result.

Is it realistic for the Sabres to have 2 All-Stars this year (in a loaded Atlantic) with Thompson and Dahlin? — Lou V.

It’s absolutely realistic. As tough as it is to crack the All-Star roster, Thompson and Rasmus Dahlin are absolutely worthy. The Sabres have other players who aren’t far behind, but Thompson and Dahlin have undeniable production at this point in the season. Thompson is among the top five in the NHL in points per game. Dahlin is averaging more than a point per game as a defenseman. If those two aren’t All-Stars, I don’t know what an All-Star looks like.

First Dahlin, then Cozens, now Tage. Which Sabre is next up to nab a star of the week honor? — Ben C.

I’ll go with Alex Tuch. He’s on pace to have the most productive season of his NHL career, and he’s done so quietly given Thompson’s ascent into stardom. If there’s another player on the roster capable of racking up the points necessary to get a star of the week honor, Tuch seems like that guy. He’s already had some big nights this season with a hat trick and a four-point game. Granato recently said he thinks Tuch has even more upside to his game, so maybe a big week is on the horizon.

Alex Tuch celebrates a goal (Photo: James Guillory / USA TODAY Sports)

Any idea of who the Sabres were targeting at No. 7 if they were able to pull off the Matt Murray trade? — Luke L.

Marco Kasper seems like a reasonable guess. I don’t know for sure, so it’s possible Savoie would have been the pick anyway. But Kasper was highly regarded and center seemed to be Buffalo’s first-round focus. Kasper is a bit bigger than Savoie and has 13 points in 25 SHL games this season. It’s early to say which player will be better, but the more interesting part of that potential trade is how well Matt Murray has played in Toronto this season. Had he been interested in coming to Buffalo, Murray could have been a nice addition to the Sabres’ crease. That’s some evidence that Adams was willing to be creative and aggressive to address the goalie situation.

When does the GM make a move in free agency to add to the top 9 and get a RHD? They have plenty of cap space and it’s now apparent who the future core players are. — Jim F.

It feels like next offseason has to be the time to be a bit more aggressive. They have more young players rising through the system, but supplementing the roster with impact veterans or other rising young players seeking a new environment is going to be a necessary step for Adams to take. You could argue he should pursue an in-season deal, but it would need to be a deal that doesn’t only yield a rental player who the Sabres need to fight to re-sign. The Sabres also need to get to the point where they are once again a destination free agents are ok pursuing. That has been a roadblock for them at times, and winning is going to solve it more than anything else can. When Adams says he wants players who want to be in Buffalo, he’s not just paying lip service. If a player needs to be coaxed into signing in Buffalo or cajoled with a contract well above market value, that’s not going to be a prudent way for Adams to build the team. He needs the development of young players to take precedence. Once those players start to win, it will become easier to attract outside free agents.

Any sense if ownership has the finances to give Adams the green light and budget to accelerate the plan? Aren’t those who say the next big challenge for Adams is how he does as a buyer right? — Fred D.

Actions are going to speak louder than words when it comes to finances. After Terry Pegula spoke about creating a more efficient operation during the pandemic, he invited speculation that he will limit spending on the Sabres. It’s tricky to determine how much that will apply to what the Sabres are willing to spend on players. Right now, there are reasons to limit that spending beyond being cheap. It makes hockey sense to preserve future cap space for players on the roster and to keep spots open for young players to step into the lineup. Eventually, though, the Sabres will have to supplement their young core with the right veteran additions. If they stay on the path to being a competitive team and aren’t spending closer to the cap, that will give you your answer on the budget.

Your second point about Adams is correct. We’ve yet to learn how he’ll handle the next step of the rebuild. I remember talking about this with Bills general manager Brandon Beane back in 2019. Tearing down a team and starting a youth movement is the easier part of a rebuild. You can preach patience and move players out. Replacing those players with ones you have drafted, signed or traded for is harder. The first part, which Adams has executed as well as anyone could have asked for, is often screwed up. But the second part is how outsiders often judge a general manager. That’s the fun part about this Sabres team. Whatever they accomplish this season is a bonus, and the moves that follow will help determine how quickly they can reach their potential as a team.

I can hear Jim Mora’s voice in my head as I’m asking this but still, what do you think the odds are the Sabres squeak into the playoffs this year? — Ben M.

According to Money Puck, there is a 16-percent chance the Sabres make the playoffs this season. Bump that up a few percentage points and you could say the Sabres have a one-in-five chance of sneaking in. That seems fair to me. The eight-game losing streak is going to sting when this team is chasing points in the second half of the season. To go that long without a point is detrimental to hanging around in the playoff race. That the Sabres are only five points out of a playoff spot even with that losing streak shows that they have the potential to go on a run. The Sabres were 7-3 before the losing streak and they are 7-3-2 since snapping it. They need to stay healthy to have any chance, but they’re the highest-scoring team in hockey. That should keep them interesting deep into the season.

(Top photo: Timothy T. Ludwig / USA TODAY Sports)


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