2023-24 Florida Panthers Divisional Opponent Preview: Buffalo Sabres

Feb 24, 2023; Sunrise, Florida, USA; Buffalo Sabres center Peyton Krebs (19) and Florida Panthers left wing Matthew Tkachuk (19) fight during the first period at FLA Live Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 24, 2023; Sunrise, Florida, USA; Buffalo Sabres center Peyton Krebs (19) and Florida Panthers left wing Matthew Tkachuk (19) fight during the first period at FLA Live Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports /
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The Buffalo Sabres were only one point shy of the Florida Panthers in the standings last season, and a win away from denying them the opportunity that led to a Stanley Cup Final appearance. This season, they will try to go a step further.

2022-23 Record: 42 W | 33 L | 7 OTL | 91 Points

2022-23 H2H Record: 3-1-0

Scheduled Games

  • February 15 @ Buffalo Sabres
  • February 27 vs. Buffalo Sabres
  • April 13 vs. Buffalo Sabres

Key Losses

No team in the Atlantic Division is emerging from the offseason with less key players lost than the Buffalo Sabres. But still, there are names worth mentioning.

Craig Anderson was one of the steadiest goaltenders on the team last season in the 26 games he played, but the 42-year-old called it a career this summer after a 709-game career. Regardless, he realistically was not going to be the goalie that brought Buffalo back to playoff relevance.

On defense, Ilya Lyubushkin was traded to the Anaheim Ducks in August. The 29-year-old defender only saw third-pairing minutes last season but was the second most used defender on the penalty kill. His absence should open the door for Rasmus Dahlin and Owen Power to take on more responsibility.

Temporarily, the Sabres will be without their 2020 first-round pick Jack Quinn after he sustained a Achilles injury early in the offseason.

Coming off a rookie season in which he scored 14 goals and 37 points, Quinn would have been expected to surpass those numbers this season.

The Panthers will not directly benefit from Quinn’s absence as his current timeline to return will see him back with the Sabres before their first game against the Panthers in February.

However, any standings points that Buffalo misses out on due to Quinn’s absence could factor in if the two teams are once again neck-and-neck in the standings leading up to the playoffs.

Key Additions

In the same way that Buffalo did not suffer many significant losses, opportunities to add key players to their roster were seldom. Their hopes for moving up the standings will rely on the young players already in the lineup continuing to develop.

However, for the full season this year, they will add goaltender Devon Levi — a former 2020 Panthers’ draftee that was included in the 2021 Sam Reinhart trade.

Levi, 21, will be classified as a rookie this season but played seven games, and won five, for the Sabres late last year after winning the Mike Richter Award, for best NCAA goaltender, in back-to-back college seasons.

While his 2.94 goals against average and .905 save percentage do not stand out by themselves, he was the team leader in GAA and second only to Craig Anderson in save percentage.

Since the Mike Richter Award was introduced in 2014, names such as Connor Hellebuyck, Thatcher Demko, and Jeremy Swayman have won the award. So, the precedent is there for Levi to become a standout NHL goaltender in his career.

The one notable player the Sabres actually added over the summer is defenseman Erik Johnson. Signed in free agency, the 35-year-old spent the last 13 seasons with the Colorado Avalanche. While he is unlikely to produce like the high-30s point scorer he once was, his veteran experience should be of great value in steadying the team’s young blue line.

Line Projections (via Daily Faceoff)

Forwards

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

Defense

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

Goalies

Devon Levi
Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen

Verdict: Buffalo’s 12-year playoff drought is on notice?

Buffalo was only one win from being a playoff team last season. And while on paper they have improved, so have the other Atlantic Division teams looking to exit rebuild and join the playoff field.

At forward, there are no questions. Tage Thompson, 25, certified his status as a star centerman in the league with his 47-goal performance last season. And supporting Thompson, Jeff Skinner and Alex Tuch are both respectable first-line talents.

Behind them an exciting group of U25 players — that are already solid contributors — complete a dangerous group of core forwards:

  • Dylan Cozens, 22, had 31 goals in his third season last year.
  • Casey Mittelstadt, 24, had 59 points.
  • JJ Peterka, 21, had 32 points in his rookie season.
  • Jack Quinn, 22, had 37 points in his rookie season, but as previously mentioned, will begin the season on Injured Reserve.
  • Peyton Krebs, 22, had 26 points.

And mixed in with those young talented forwards are reliable depth options that can also contribute a chunk of goals and points such as Greenway, Olofsson, and the Sabres’ captain Kyle Okposo.

On defense, the wealth of youth riches continues with Rasmus Dahlin and Owen Powe — both former first overall draft picks.

Dahlin, 23, has been solid since he joined the league, but 73 points in his fifth season last year thrusted him into the top tier of defenseman in the league. Power, 20, was solid in his first NHL season with 35 points and likely has a much higher ceiling.

Behind them, the youth trend continues with 23-year-old Mattias Samuelsson and 24-year-old Henri Jokiharju. Samuelsson in particular is already a defensive force eating pucks and leading the team in penalty kill minutes. However, staying healthy has been a concern.

So, what could prevent this team with no shortage of potential from challenging the established contenders in the division? Inexperience.

Their forward core is predominately made of 25 and under players, and the only players over 30 are Skinner and Okposo. The defense is no different with only Clifton and Johnson being over 25. And we have already mentioned the goalie situation with Levi.

With relatively little experience, I do think the Sabres will struggle to string together consistent performances and thus experience significant highs as wells as extremely low lows this season.

And if that is the case, they probably do not beat Boston, Florida, Tampa, or Toronto over an 82-game season.

However, looking at the individual games, all three meetings with the Sabres are scheduled after the All-Star break, so they will all be held in crunch time, when both teams will clearly understand the importance of what they are playing for.

The Florida Panthers got the better of the Buffalo Sabres in their regular season series last year, but with another year of experience in the bank for the Sabres’ young talent, a tougher challenge awaits the Panthers this season.

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