The Buffalo Sabres enter the 2023-24 NHL season with more expectations now than they've had in recent years. Buffalo emerged as a true up-and-coming team last year. In fact, they nearly made the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Had they earned two more points, they'd have faced the Boston Bruins and not the Florida Panthers.
Sabres fans won't have to wait long to catch their first glimpse of this team. They begin their slate of preseason games on September 24 against the Washington Capitals. The games officially count on October 12 when the Sabres welcome their intrastate rival New York Rangers to town.
All of that is still a little ways away, though. Let's take a look at the Buffalo Sabres ahead of one of the most anticipated seasons in recent memory for their fans.
Living up to the hype
Of course, the biggest storyline heading into the new season regards the hype around them. The Sabres last made the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2011 when they finished on 96 points. Last season marked the first season in which Buffalo reached the 90-point plateau since the 2010-11 campaign.
The Sabres have not had a ton of luck during that stretch. And this isn't necessarily the first time this team has been expected to finally take that next step. However, the pressure is so much higher than it's been in a long time.
Simply put, one has to wonder if the Sabres can live up to these heightened expectations. They are a relatively young team, and this core hasn't been here before. They have all the potential in the world, but it is worth noting that it is only potential at this stage.
The duo in net
The Sabres had issues with their goaltending a year ago. Those issues are arguably the reason they didn't make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. However, Buffalo certainly hopes this season will be much different.
The team are likely riding with stud prospect Devon Levi as their primary starter in 2023-24. Behind him is fellow young puck-stopper Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and journeyman Eric Comrie. On paper, this should be an improvement over last year, but there's one interesting aspect of this group worth talking about.
Comrie is the most experienced member of this tandem. He's 27 years old and was drafted way back in 2013. That said, he has just one more career game played than Lukkonen. Furthermore, he has no experience as a primary option or even as a backup option in the NHL.
The overall point is that the Sabres are rolling with an incredibly inexperienced group of netminders. None of these goalies have played more than 50 games in their career. Levi is seen as a potential franchise goaltender, but he has just seven NHL games under his belt. It's a big gamble the Sabres are taking, and this is a position that all Buffalo fans should monitor as the season moves along.
Stars eyeing major goals
The Sabres have two star players on the verge of becoming true superstars. Forward Tage Thompson enjoyed an incredible coming-out party last season. He scored 47 goals and 94 points last season, smashing previous career highs. Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin showed the makings of a solid two-way game last year while also enjoying a career-year offensively.
Thompson came so close to reaching the 50-goal plateau in 2022-23. Four players have scored 50 or more goals in a season while wearing a Sabres sweater. If he can do so next season, he'll join Rick Martin, Danny Gare, Pat LaFontaine, and Alexander Mogilny in that rather exclusive club.
For Dahlin, his goal is rather simple. The 23-year-old wants to win the Norris Trophy as the best defenseman in the NHL. It's a lofty goal for sure, but certainly not an unattainable one. Dahlin can provide enough offensive punch to at least get him into the conversation. He just needs to tighten his defensive play and contribute more in his own zone.
If Thompson and Dahlin reach their goals, the Sabres should be in great shape. With a tough Atlantic Division ahead of them, both players will need to bring the best versions of themselves if they want to give Buffalo a shot at postseason hockey.
Potential odd men out
We've already covered one potential odd man out. Comrie has some experience in the NHL and there is some value in that. Especially given how inexperienced the other goaltending options are. However, both Lukkonen and Levi serve as improvements over him. If the 27-year-old wants to make this team, Comrie has a lot of work to do in training camp.
One other player worth mentioning is defenseman Riley Stillman. Stillman came over via trade back in February. That said, the Sabres added Connor Clifton and Erik Johnson through NHL Free Agency this summer. Both players are going to make the NHL roster, and that could leave no room for Stillman.
Final roster projection
Forwards: Jeff Skinner, Tage Thompson, Alex Tuch, JJ Peterka, Dylan Cozens, Casey Middlestadt, Jordan Greenway, Tyson Jost, Kyle Okposo
Defenseman: Owen Power, Rasmus Dahlin, Erik Johnson, Connor Clifton, Mattias Samuelsson, Henri Jokiharju
Goalies: Devon Levi, Ukko-Pekka Lukkonen