The NHL has evolved considerably over the years, and so has its style of play. The game of hockey that you watch today is vastly different than what your father saw growing up. Gone are the days of rugged grit and physicality, and in their place have come skill and finesse.
Given that, a lot of modern players bear little resemblance to those of olden times, but some similarities still shine through. In the case of the Buffalo Sabres, there are a few players on their roster today who have something in common with someone who came before them, regardless of how much time was in between. Let’s have a look at five players in particular and think of why they bring back memories of someone in particular.
Tage Thompson and Daniel Briere: Stickhandling
Though obviously Tage Thompson and Daniel Briere couldn’t be further apart in terms of physical attributes, they have far more in common than it might seem. Briere’s 5-foot-9 height may have seemed like a mark against him, at least on paper. But it was more than compensated for by his speed and handling. He was often the fastest skater on the ice, and this gave him the ability to blow by opposing defenders while skating to the net.
And if that didn’t work, he could just as easily deke his way around thanks to his terrific hands. It made him the team’s most vital offensive piece, and he improved the performances of everyone around him. The Sabres were a goal-scoring force during their back-to-back runs at the Eastern Conference Final in 2006 and 2007, and their co-captain was perhaps the biggest reason. In 225 games in Buffalo, he recorded 230 points, and it’s no coincidence that the team regressed significantly after his controversial departure in the summer of 2007.
And while Thompson is nearly a whole foot taller than Briere at 6-foot-6, he’s proven to be quite similar. His newfound deking ability has taken the NHL by storm and made him a near-constant presence on highlight reels. Skill of that caliber isn’t often seen in players of his immense stature, and it helped establish him among the league’s most elite scorers almost overnight. Though they missed the playoffs yet again, the Sabres featured one of the top offenses in the NHL last year, and the hulking 25-year-old was at the center of it, literally and figuratively.
Thompson chased 50 goals for the majority of the season and perhaps would have reached the mark had injuries not hampered him down the stretch. He finished with 47, another new career-high after he recorded 38 the year before. His 94 points were the most in a season by a Sabre since (fittingly enough) Briere’s 96 in 2006-07, and he might reach 100 this season if he can keep it up.
Mattias Samuelsson and Jay McKee: Shutdown Defense
Rasmus Dahlin has garnered numerous comparisons to Hall of Famer Phil Housley since his debut, but his partner resembles a notable former player as well. Buffalo has a number of offensively-oriented blueliners but has lacked those with a stay-at-home approach. But Mattias Samuelsson has earned a permanent spot for himself by helping balance the field.
Much like his father, Kjell Samuelsson, the first-generation American focuses on playing his position above all else and rarely appears on the score sheet. Though the Sabre defense struggled heavily throughout last season, the 23-year-old emerged as their go-to guy in shutdown situations and posted a plus-14 rating that tied for second-best on the team. With youngsters Devon Levi and Ukko-Pekka Luukonen likely to be the team’s top goaltenders this fall, Samuelsson’s presence will be more needed than ever. The addition of veteran Erik Johnson should take some of the pressure off him and allow him further growth.
His style is reminiscent of that of Jay McKee, who was the kind of defenseman that goaltenders loved throughout his decade in Buffalo. He also wasn’t a big offensive contributor, never scoring more than 17 points in a season. Then again, offense simply wasn’t his MO. A rugged and physical yet durable player, he consistently put himself on the line to block shots and recorded 11 in a single game on April 15, 2006. His presence helped both Martin Biron and Ryan Miller develop into elite goaltenders in the mid-2000s, and the Sabres saw vastly improved fortunes as a result.
Though his playing style did result in many a trip to the penalty box, McKee is one the best pure defensemen in Sabres history and posted a negative plus/minus rating only twice in 10 seasons. A leg injury sidelined him in the 2006 Eastern Conference Final, and the team had to play Game 7 without its most important blueliner. It proved to be too much to overcome and what turned out to be his final season in Buffalo ended with him on the sideline. He was not re-signed that summer and departed as a free agent, a move the team probably regrets in hindsight.
Jeff Skinner and Gilbert Perreault: Skating
Comparing the legendary Gilbert Perreault to anyone might seem ridiculous at first. Even though he retired almost 40 years ago, the center of the famed French Connection line still stands out as the greatest forward in Sabres history. Some have come close, but no player to don a Buffalo uniform since has been able to recreate the all-around magic that he was capable of. There is one player on the Sabres currently that resembles his playing style in one very specific way, however.
While Jeff Skinner is something of an offensive wizard in his own right, likening him to a player of Perreault’s caliber still would be a stretch. However, the small and shifty forward’s skating is remarkably similar to that of the Hall of Famer. Perhaps Perreault’s greatest attribute was his footwork, particularly his lateral movement. It gave him the ability to effortlessly evade opponents and led to 512 goals and 1,326 points in his career, all in the blue and gold.
Though Skinner is nowhere near as fast, he’s every bit as shifty, and his slick maneuverability affords him all kinds of opportunities. This past season, he began using this to create opportunities for others in addition to scoring for himself, making him all the more of a threat. There’s no reason to believe that won’t continue this year as he chases his 1000th game.
Victor Olofsson and Ales Kotalik: Shooting
Victor Olofsson has become a polarizing figure for the Sabres and fans alike. His upside is undeniable, but his inability to find any kind of consistency has been a major source of frustration, and it remains to be seen if he’ll get moved in the final year of his contract. At the moment, it appears that he’ll be in the lineup come Oct. 12, and coach Don Granato will continue to use him as best he can.
Though he’s become a one-dimensional power-play specialist over the past few years, it’s hard to deny his excellence in that role. Olofsson’s powerful shot and exceptionally quick release make him tailor-made for the man advantage, and he gives the Sabres a second viable threat alongside Thompson. Of his career-high 28 goals last season, seven came on the power play, and five were game-winners, showing that he’s more than capable of coming through in the clutch. You might not get much use out of him in other scenarios, but he’s proven he has value as a finisher.
The Swede’s shooting ability is highly reminiscent of a player who seems to have been forgotten over the years. Ales Kotalik was one of the better Sabres of the 2000s and something of a draft steal, given he was a sixth-round pick in 1998. Though he was a much better all-around player than Olofsson, he too was a go-to guy on the power play and could easily blow the puck past opposing goaltenders thanks to a blistering slap shot that reportedly once clocked at 105 MPH. However, Sabres fans best remember the Czech for his shootout mastery, and his 11 career game-deciding goals are 12th all-time.
Kotalik always gave the Sabres a boost when they needed it, and the team foolishly parted ways with him at the 2009 trade deadline in order to make room for Dominic Moore in one of the worst all-around trades the team has made. If Olofsson is also to leave via trade, let’s hope the team chooses better this time around.
Alex Tuch and Tim Connolly: Playmaking
In the scope of the Sabres, Alex Tuch is something of a spiritual successor to Tim Connolly, and in more ways than one. He grew up next door to the Connolly family in Baldwinsville, NY, and idolized him as a result. But in addition to that, his career has had an uncanny similarity to that of his former neighbor. Both came to Buffalo in exchange for a disgruntled former captain (Michael Peca and Jack Eichel, respectively), and both have helped rejuvenate the team in the aftermath. And if that wasn’t fitting enough, they look almost exactly alike on the ice.
Connolly was one of the most gifted players in Sabres history, and few others were as fun to watch as him. A smooth skater at a time when the NHL was emerging from the slow and sluggish 1990s, he combined that with sharp vision and terrific stickhandling. With a seemingly unlimited bag of tricks, his natural affinity for playmaking always put him among the team leaders in assists over his eight seasons. However, he could just as easily do it himself and scored a number of highlight reel goals as well. Injuries (particularly concussions) spoiled what could have been a Hall of Fame career, and he was limited to just 697 career games, retiring in 2013 at 32.
It’s unclear if Tuch modeled his playing style after Connolly or if the resemblance is merely coincidence, but it would be tough to tell the two apart if they were on the same team. Despite being three inches taller at 6-foot-4, Tuch is also a fast skater, a key part of his breakout this past season. Playing alongside Thompson and Skinner on the team’s top line, he recorded a career-best 43 assists and 79 points. Though he scored 36 goals as well (also a career-high), he has always oriented himself toward playmaking and has proven to be quite skilled in his own right. It helps that both of his linemates are capable finishers, but Tuch has made it quite easy for them at times.
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With captain Kyle Okposo potentially at the twilight of his career, there’s a good chance that Tuch could be his successor, and he’s already become akin to a leader in a very brief time. Should that be the case, he’ll have made his neighbor very proud.
It’s interesting to think of what players could come along that we’ll one day compare to those of this generation. What other Sabres of today do you think have commonalities with a past player?