Buffalo Sabres, Casey Mittelstadt, Jeff Skinner, Tage Thompson, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen

Grading Sabres Through the First Quarter of the Season

Through the first 22 games, the Sabres boast a record of 10-10-2, sitting sixth in the Atlantic Division. They came into the season as a young team with legitimate playoff aspirations, looking to build upon what fans would consider a successful 2022-23 season. Let’s take a look at how the Sabres have been performing on an individual level:

#1 – Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen: A-

Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen should be the frontrunner for garnering the most starts for the remainder of the season, especially considering that he has posted above a .920 save percentage (SV%) in his five most recent appearances. He’s the only Sabres’ goaltender to boast a SV% of over .900, and his .918 SV% ranks at sixth-best in the NHL for goaltenders with at least 10 games played. He’s also the only Sabres goalie to have a positive goals-saved above expected (GSAx) with a plus-1.4 on the season. His recent heater will — or should, at least — place him above Devon Levi and Eric Comrie in the depth charts, so hopefully we’ll see more of Luukkonen moving forward. He deserves continued looks in net to build his confidence even more.

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The only negative to his game this season has been a couple of stinkers, but that’s par for the course for any goaltender. Just the other night, reigning Vezina winner Linus Ullmark allowed seven goals against the Rangers. Still, it’s been a surprisingly successful season for a previously unassuming goaltender.

#6 – Erik Johnson: D-

There’s no skirting around it — Erik Johnson has inarguably been the least impressive regular in the Sabres’ lineup. He’s appeared in all 22 games this season in a third-pair or seventh-defenseman role, and his numbers are less than impressive.

Johnson sports the worst expected goals share (xG%) of any Sabres player with more than five games played, with Buffalo controlling just under 40% of expected goals at 5v5 with Johnson on the ice. He was brought on to the team for veteran leadership and sturdy defense. I can’t speak to the former of the two, but his defense has certainly been suspect at best. He’s second worst on the team in expected goals against per-60 minutes (xGA/60) at 5v5, and his penalty killing has been lackluster at best. The Sabres would be wise to let him walk in the off-season.

#9 – Zach Benson: B

Selected 9th overall in last year’s draft, Zach Benson burst onto the scene, drawing into the opening night lineup after an incredible development camp and preseason. He hasn’t disappointed, scoring one goal and five points total in 12 games in a middle-six role. He’s been moved to the top line at times, but he’s been a sturdy second-and-third-liner for the Sabres. His lone goal was this absolute beauty just over a week ago.

Zach Benson Buffalo Sabres
Zach Benson, Buffalo Sabres (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The biggest knock on Benson’s game, to me, is his lack of discipline at times. Through his 12 games, Benson has 10 penalty minutes. That’s likely just a result of some immaturity in his game — he’s just a few games into his NHL career and that’ll likely smooth out in time; but it’s also a part of his game. He’s a grinder with a non-stop motor, and his ceaseless hard work on the boards sometimes results in a penalty.

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Still, he’s going to be a damn good player for this organization for years to come.

#10 – Henri Jokiharju: B+

Henri Jokiharju’s start to the season has been pretty under the radar. He’s not a flashy player, nor is he in a particularly big role with the team. Still, he’s had a quietly excellent first quarter of the season. Playing in a bottom-four role, and sometimes slotting in as the seventh defenseman, Jokiharju has the third most points on the Sabres’ blue line with two goals and six assists in 19 games despite logging just over 16 minutes per game.

His underlying numbers are equally as impressive relative to his teammates, too. His xG% of 50.68% is third best of any Sabres defenseman, and fifth best on the team as a whole. He boasts the tenth highest expected goals for per-60 (xGF/60) on the squad — third best among defensemen. In my opinion, his play warrants more ice time per game; I think he’s been exactly what the Sabres need him to be.

#12 – Jordan Greenway: A

Jordan Greenway has arguably been the Sabres’ second-best player this season, playing all over the top-nine and finding success in each role. With Tage Thompson out, Greenway hasn’t seen much time on the top line, but he was a staple on Thompson’s wing for a good portion of the early goings of the season.

Jordan Greenway Buffalo Sabres
Jordan Greenway, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

He’s continually been one of, if not the Sabres’ best defensive forward this season, which is really why he was brought in in the first place. Among players with at least five games played, Greenway sports the lowest expected goals against per-60 minutes (xGA/60) on the team, meaning that the opposition is struggling to score much, much more when Greenway is on the ice. He’s been equally as phenomenal on the penalty kill, which is part of the reason that the Sabres’ penalty kill sits within the top-10 in the league.

#13 – Lukas Rousek: D

Lukas Rousek, who is now in the American Hockey League (AHL) with the Rochester Americans, looked well out of place on NHL ice in his short five games with the main squad. Playing in a bottom-six role, he had zero points and an xG% of just 39.48%. He’s been great in the AHL, with 10 points in 12 games, but it’s fair to say that he needs to marinate a bit more before making the jump to full-time NHLer.

#15 – Brandon Biro: D+

Brandon Biro’s two goals in two games are pretty misleading. In his two games, he played in the top-six with the likes of Thompson, Dylan Cozens, and Jordan Greenway. Despite this, he posted just a 16.93% xG%, getting caved in in both games he played this season regardless of what the scoresheet might say. He was recently recalled from Rochester after potting four goals and two assists in five games since Nov. 13, so he’ll get a shot to redeem these lackluster underlying statistics.

#17 – Tyson Jost: C-

The Sabres’ bottom-six has received some rightful criticism for their play in the team’s first 20-plus games, and Tyson Jost is certainly a reason why. He has an xG% of 45.39% and has been subject to a couple of healthy scratches due to his poor play. His compete level has never been in question, but the results are suspect at best, resulting in a time decrease of almost three minutes per game from last season.

The lone bright spot in Jost’s game this season has been his work on the defensive side of things. Despite his overall xG%, his xGA/60 is the best on the team. He’s found success in a shutdown role, but the offensive side of things has been so bad that the rest of his statistics take a hit.

#19 – Peyton Krebs: C-

Peyton Krebs is a weird one to analyze. On one hand, by the eye test, he looks like a fierce competitor who puts it all on the ice every time he steps out there. On the other, his underlying statistics and box scores say that he has struggled mightily this season.

Peyton Krebs Buffalo Sabres
Peyton Krebs, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Both can be true at once, and I think that’s the case here too. Using the eye test, I think Krebs deserves better linemates than who he’s been with all season. Despite this, his one point in 20 games and xG% of 43.50% are among the worst on the team, so he hasn’t deserved the opportunity to play with better players. For his sake, I hope he figures it out soon.

#20 – Jiri Kulich: B-

Jiri Kulich, who was recently sent back down to Rochester, was the best of this season’s forward call-ups in my opinion. He only played one game, where he lined up with Krebs and Kyle Okposo, and he played well enough for a first-time NHLer. In just over 14 minutes of 5v5 time, Kulich had an xG% of 47.85, better than any other forward call-up who garnered more than four minutes of ice time. He still has a ways to go until he’s as effective on NHL ice as he is in Rochester, but he’s likely more ready than any other prospect to take the leap — his performance in just one game proved that.

#21 – Kyle Okposo: C+

Okposo recently hit 1,000 NHL games played, so the first order of business is to congratulate him on this milestone. With that said, though, he’s been pretty unassuming on the ice. In terms of the bottom-six, Okposo leads the crew with six points. His underlying statistics are also better than anyone else in the bottom-six, but his 48.87% xG% is still subpar. It’s hard to knock the captain, though, because he brings some clean sandpaper that otherwise doesn’t exist on the team. That’s been his best asset this season, and it’s why he’s captain.

#23 – Mattias Samuelsson: C+

Because the pairing of Rasmus Dahlin and Mattias Samuelsson has stuck around for so long, one would think that they’d found legitimate success and have only built more chemistry through the years. Samuelsson’s numbers would indicate otherwise, though. In fact, his xG% of 47.69% indicates that the Sabres get caved in when he’s on the ice. His defensive metrics are somewhat sturdy, and that matches with the eye test, but offensively the Sabres simply cannot get anything going when he’s on the ice. It’s a shame, too, because Dahlin deserves a partner who can back him up on both sides of the ice.

#24 – Dylan Cozens: C

After a breakout 68-point campaign last season, Cozens has struggled to get going in 2023-24, pacing for just 36 points this season. He’s been moved up and down the lineup, which might contribute to his lack of success, playing anywhere from the top line (with Thompson out) to the third line. His underlying numbers aren’t much better, with an xG% of 48.09% compared to 49.91% last season. With Thompson out for a few more weeks, hopefully Cozens will step up and perform as we all know he can.

#25 – Owen Power: A-

I would argue that Owen Power has been the Sabres’ best defenseman this season. He might not show up on the scoresheet as much as fellow stud Dahlin, but he’s been eating up heavy minutes and finding incredible success in doing so. Averaging almost 23 minutes per night, second only to Dahlin in that regard, Power boasts the best xG% of any Sabres’ rearguard with a 52.27% share.

The major concern regarding Power entering 2023-24 was his defensive play — no one doubted his offensive abilities but the defense left quite a bit to be desired. He’s taken these rightful criticisms to heart and amended them this season. His xGA/60 is second best in terms of regular Sabres defenseman. If he keeps it up, he should have no issue drawing into the Norris conversation later in his career. He won’t be there this season, but it’s important to remember that he’s only 21 and will only get better with time.

#26 – Rasmus Dahlin: B

Points-wise, Dahlin is far and away the best defenseman on the team — he’s scored four goals and 18 points through his first 22 games, six of which have come on the power play. Still, the underlying statistics with Dahlin leave a bit to be desired, especially considering the expectations heading into this season and the fact that he just got extended to a near-$90 million contract.

Rasmus Dahlin Buffalo Sabres
Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Last season, Dahlin posted an xG% of 52.72%. Compared to this season’s 47.24%, it’s been a disappointing start for the 23-year-old Swede. Again, the points are there, but for a player with sky-high expectations — coming into 2023-24 after an incredible breakout season in 2022-23 — it’s been a disappointing go of it for Dahlin.

#27 – Devon Levi: D

Devon Levi came into the season with the expectation of being the Sabres’ full-time starter. Despite initially playing in this role, he has been relegated to AHL duties for his lack of success in net. On the season, he has a SV% of just .876, a goals-against average (GAA) of 3.73, and a GSAx of minus-1.9. It hasn’t been all him — the defense has legitimately left him out to dry on more than a couple occasions. Still, it’s been nothing but disappointment for the young netminder. It’s a testament to goalie development and how long it takes to turn a highly regarded goalie prospect into an NHL-ready starter. Let’s hope he finds his game sooner rather than later.

#28 – Zemgus Girgensons: C-

I don’t have a whole lot of opinions on Zemgus Girgensons’ performance this season. There are times where he’s used his underrated speed to create quality chances, but his xG% of 45.13% is third worst among regulars. He, much like many of the bottom-sixers on the Sabres this season, has been adequate from a defensive point of view, but has been pretty much a black hole on offense.

#31 – Eric Comrie: D+

Much of the Sabres’ story this season has been goalie-centric, with Levi and Eric Comrie struggling mightily in the early goings. Comrie has only drawn into five games, but his GSAx per 60 minutes is easily the worst of the three Sabres’ netminders this season. He, like Levi, sports a .876 SV%, though his GAA is slightly better at 3.45. I’m all for Levi being brought down to the AHL for playing time, but if we’re going strictly on performance this season, Comrie would be in his spot in Rochester with Levi being the NHL backup — Comrie has legitimately been that bad.

#33 – Ryan Johnson: A-

Since being called up from Rochester in early November, Ryan Johnson has forced the Sabres’ hand into keeping him with the NHL squad and continually graduating to garner more ice time every game rather than sending him back down to the AHL. He’s seemed to find his place alongside Power, with the pair combining for an astounding 56.13% xG%. His time has been split between Power and Dahlin, but more so Power as of late — something that the Sabres should keep up if they want Johnson to find as much success and blossom into the smooth-skating, sturdy puck-moving defenseman that we’ve seen thus far into his career.

#37 – Casey Mittelstadt: A+

Casey Mittelstadt, in my mind, has without a doubt been the Sabres’ best player this season. He leads the team in points, with 20 in 22 games, as well as leading the team in xG% with a legitimately incredible 53.13% share. Among regulars, he’s fourth on the Sabres in xGF/60 as well as placing in third for xGA/60. His confidence with and without the puck is incredible, and seeing him blossom into a legitimate two-way play driver has been an absolute pleasure. He’s been moved to the top line with Thompson out, though he was performing at this clip on the second line for the vast majority of the season. We saw this player at the end of last season, but I don’t think anyone thought he would keep it up into 2023-24. Boy, did he prove us wrong.

#53 – Jeff Skinner: B

Good things first: Jeff Skinner leads the team in goals, power play goals, and is second in total points. He’s been the most consistent player on the scoresheet that isn’t named Mittelstadt. He’s followed up his career year thus far into 2023-24 with practically equal production.

The bad news is that his underlying statistics at 5v5 and by the eye test are pretty lackluster. He sports an xG% of just 47.73%, putting him only above Benson, Jost, Girgensons, and Krebs in terms of mainstay forwards on the team. In particular, oppositions are having a much easier time getting chances of their own when Skinner is on the ice, which is shown by his team-worst xGA/60 of 3.27. Sure, his xGF/60 of nearly three somewhat makes up for it, but his lack of effort in the defensive zone shows in the metrics, too. He needs to step it up.

#63 – Isak Rosen: D-

Isak Rosen only played in two games this season, but if we’re being honest, he should have stayed in Rochester. Sure, his production there probably warranted the call-up, but his game was visibly too immature for the blistering fast pace of the NHL. His xG% is an impossibly low 6.26% in 18 minutes-plus of 5v5 time. With how he played in his first game, I’m shocked that he was brought in for a second game rather than immediately being sent back down. There’s obviously a talented player there, he’s just simply not ready to take it to the next level — it’ll take another year or two of marination for him to be an NHLer.

#71 – Victor Olofsson: B-

Entering the season amongst a whirlwind of trade rumors, Victor Olofsson has been pretty impressive this season, particularly since Thompson went down with an injury. He has been a healthy scratch for six games this season, which was warranted considering his slow start.

Related: Sabres: Trade Destinations for Victor Olofsson

Since Nov. 14, the first Sabres game sans-Thompson, Olofsson has eight points (two goals, six assists) in seven games despite playing in a third-line or lower role for most of that time. There’s still an argument to be had that he should be traded come March, but I can’t help but think he might still be a worthwhile member of the Sabres’ forward corps.

#72 – Tage Thompson: B

Thompson had a rollercoaster-esque season up until his injury. To start the year, Thompson was as snakebitten as anybody else in the league. He began to heat up offensively just in time for him to go down with a wrist injury for the foreseeable future. With six goals and 12 points in 16 games, there was a fair bit to be desired from his game.

Tage Thompson Buffalo Sabres
Tage Thompson, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

That’s not the full story, though, as Thompson has legitimately been one of the best defensive players on the team. He sits in sixth in terms of xGA/60 among forwards who have played at least 10 games this season, and he’s become a staple on the penalty kill. Despite his astronomical expectations and the points not being there, this sudden development in Thompson’s game prevents me from giving him any lower grade. If he comes back and the offense returns without his defensive game taking a step backwards, the league is in trouble.

#75 – Connor Clifton: D-

Next to E. Johnson, Connor Clifton has been unequivocally the Sabres’ worst defenseman. He, much like Johnson, was brought in to provide some veteran leadership and sturdiness on the backend, and to me, he hasn’t done either. On the first account, his lack of discipline has cost the Sabres, with 32 penalty minutes and a two-game suspension already this season. In terms of his defensive viability — or lack thereof — Clifton has the worst xGA/60 of any Sabres defenseman and sports an xG% of just over 45%. For a player who had found legitimate success in Boston, he’s been nothing but disappointing in Buffalo.

#77 – JJ Peterka: B+

JJ Peterka has reaped the benefits of playing alongside Mittelstadt, with the speedy forward collecting nine goals and 17 total points in the team’s first 22 games. His xG% of 49.84% is good for fifth best among Sabres forwards, and he’s done most of his scoring at even strength — a byproduct of being on the second power play unit. After a successful first step towards being a meaningful contributor to the Sabres’ middle-six last season, Peterka looks like he’s breaking out in a big way in 2023-24. Should he continue down this path, Buffalo will have to answer some tough questions about where forwards will line up in the future.

#78 – Jacob Bryson: C

Jacob Bryson is another weird case. In terms of xG%, he’s third worst on the team with an abysmal 37.55%. With that said, though, it’s not as bad as it looks when you break it down. The offensive part of it is, unsurprisingly, black hole-ish. Defensively, though, oppositions were legitimately stymied with Bryson on the ice.

Jacob Bryson Buffalo Sabres
Jacob Bryson, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

He has by far the lowest xGA/60 of any Sabres’ defenseman at 1.79 — roughly 0.65 xGA lower than second best. It’s a small sample size, but he proved that there might be something there, albeit nothing offensive. He might not be as bad as initially expected, and may become useful down the stretch.

#89 – Alex Tuch: B+

Alex Tuch‘s story this season mirrors that of Thompson and Cozens; he’s underperformed compared to his expectations, and it’s cost the Sabres wins in the early goings of the season. I must admit, Tuch’s numbers are much better than Cozens’, but they still don’t hold a candle to his previous seasons. Since joining the Sabres in 2021-22, Tuch has posted xG%s of 52.12% and 51.28%, both of which are significantly better than his 50.12% this season. He’s been better of late, with five points in his last three games, but there’s still work to do considering the expectations coming into the year.

#93 – Matthew Savoie: N/A

I know I’ve graded several players who have played one or two games this season, but it feels unfair to give Matthew Savoie and his 3:55 of ice a grade. He should have garnered more time on ice at the very least, and if it were up to me, he’d have gotten the full nine games that so many prospects get before getting sent back down to not waste a year on the entry-level contract (ELC). He should be a staple in this lineup sooner rather than later.

Overall Sabres’ Grade: C+

The Sabres have subverted expectations so far this season on pretty much every facet of their game. Despite this, the team still finds themselves in a fight for a playoff spot, and on an individual level, there have been incredible seasons from the likes of Mittelstadt, Power, R. Johnson, and Luukkonen.

Moving forward, I’d like to see more from the Sabres stars — Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens, Tuch, and Skinner all have more to prove considering their expectations for this season. I would be shocked if most, if not all of them didn’t find their game by the end of the season, and if they do, the Sabres can easily find themselves in a position for a postseason berth come season’s end.

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