Why the Sabres are the best of the NHL’s bubble teams

Why the Sabres are the best of the NHL’s bubble teams

The Buffalo Sabers’ brimming potential is finally being realized, but until recently there has been a tendency to attach qualifications to this year’s team. They are exciting but they are a year away. Owen Power looks like a perennial All-Star in a few years. Rasmus Dahlin should have been named All-Star, if the NHL really knew what it was doing with its annual showcase. Tage Thompson is expected to be a Hart Trophy contender, but Buffalo’s team record will ignite his bid.

Throw away all qualifiers. Buffalo is rocking with a 6-2-2 record in its last ten games and is poised to make the playoffs, hovering just outside of a wild card spot heading into Friday’s action. There are few teams that have been more fun — we’ll put the New Jersey Devils in one class — and after converting a slew of first-round picks, the Sabers arrived ahead of schedule. They’re the funniest team in the playoff bubble and it’s time to give them their no-holds-barred flowers.

To be clear, Buffalo’s offer hinges on the health of Tage Thompson. Thompson left Wednesday’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes with an upper-body injury and did not return, ruling him out of an All-Star Game appearance (Dahlin will represent the Sabers in his place).

If you want to call this season Thompson’s breakout year, go for it. Last year, Thompson had 68 points, but he catapulted himself into the NHL’s top flight in the 2022-23 campaign, posting 34 goals and 68 points in 50 games. Thompson has been an absolute monster and he’s firmly in contention as one of the most fun-to-watch players in the league.

Using his 6-foot-6 frame to full advantage, Thompson has become a spectacular playmaker. He can fend off defenders with ease and is ready to weave in and out of traffic with his nearly unrivaled reach. If Thompson has a steam head, watch out. It’s just unclear where he’ll distribute the puck, if he’ll get a shot, or in what becomes his signature, make a hard cut and throw a ball to his body, the rough equivalent of a no-look pass. while playing European basketball.

The story continues

This is just an example. Going into overtime, at 4-4, Thompson is simply impossible to watch. He could have shot from a prime location, but instead went to his backhand to find an open Owen Power for the overtime winner against the Dallas Stars on Jan. 23.

Thompson used his size, reach and flair for the spectacular to become one of the NHL’s top scorers. Look what he did to the St. Louis Blues. After receiving a feed from Alex Tuch, Thompson so easily dragged around his defender, before casually beating Jordan Binnington on his backhand. He makes it look so easy.

The 25-year-old ranks seventh in shots, 11th in expected individual goals and second in 5v5 points via Natural Stat Trick. It’s a chance to score on foot. And when he can contort his body like a gymnast, with a soft set of hands that could fool any goalkeeper, he’s a real nightmare.

Although the Sabers are rather unbalanced on points, they are not a one-man team. Rasmus Dahlin was one of the biggest omissions from this year’s All-Star Game (until he replaced the injured Thompson) and he’ll likely end up as a Norris Trophy finalist. Dahlin, the former first overall pick, scored 14 goals and 55 points in 49 games, smashing his previously set career highs, while logging more than 26 minutes per game.

Dahlin has an absolute cannon of a slapshot and just like Thompson, he uses the threat of his shot, as well as his ability to box smaller opponents to create space for his teammates. He won’t always make the flashiest plays defensively, but he’s an offensive powerhouse. A few years ago, I compared Tampa Bay Lightning star Victor Hedman – who in many ways is Dahlin’s prototype – to Manchester City midfielder Kevin de Bruyne, on the merits of their excellence in long distance passes.

The 22-year-old has embraced those same qualities. Just look at that illuminating pass from a mile away to spark Dylan Cozens for a breakaway goal against the highly structured New York Islanders defense.

Dahlin also becomes a folk hero in Buffalo. He penned a personal essay to the Sabers fan base in January and with the Bills out of the NFL playoffs, he knows his team is the new darling of Western New York.

“Now we’re almost at All-Star break, and we’re in the hunt. We all know where we stand in the standings and what these games mean,” Dahlin wrote. “But the only way to reach our objective is to keep the same state of mind. Keep improving, one day at a time. Win it.

“We’ll see where it takes us, but we’re excited to be on this journey together. I’m so proud to play here – to call the guys in this room my brothers and to call this city my home.

Dahlin’s rise naturally leads to an optimistic path for Owen Power. Like Dahlin before him, Power was the No. 1 overall pick in 2021. And just like Dahlin, Power is an imposing figure on the blue line, with high-end offensive skills that need to be cultivated and furnished. A popular preseason contender to win the Calder Trophy, Power shows why he could quickly join Dahlin and Thompson as the franchise’s next face.

Power is a terrific skater for his size, with terrific vision and a booming shot. He outright dominated the first iteration of World Juniors 2022 where he looked like a man among the boys, and now playing against the best competition in the world, Power seems to be improving fast and joining the elite fast. Power is mainly associated with Henri Jokiharju and this duo has produced lackluster results. When Power is paired with Dahlin, they control a 52% share of expected goals at 5v5 – not a spectacular number, but it’s by no means bad, and considering both players are at about four years from hitting their primes, the Sabers should be salivating.

Cozens has emerged as an escape talent for the Sabers with a frontline skill set. It’s taken Cozens a while to blossom, but the 21-year-old has 17 goals and 43 points in 49 games, and it doesn’t seem risky to suggest he could be a point-per-game player. here the next. season. Cozens has soft hands, inventive playing skills, a poor outing and natural goal-scoring instincts. He absolutely flies in the offensive zone and is relied upon to lead the Sabers offense due to his blistering pace. If you think of the Maple Leafs as a team full of former top-10 picks that transformed into an elite team in the regular season, Cozens works like the parable of William Nylander.

With veterans like Jeff Skinner and Alex Tuch rounding out a young and improving offense, the Sabers should scare other teams on the bubble. Dahlin, Power, Cozens and Jack Quinn are all former top-eight picks still nearing their respective bounties and everything is starting to come together for the talented but inexperienced upstart.

The goaltender is always the final domino and the Sabers have put together a pretty odd pairing. Craig Anderson, the NHL’s oldest active player, has formed a unique partnership with Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, the 23-year-old Buffalo prospect who is becoming a real asset. Luukkonen, in particular, has been nearly unbeatable since Dec. 4 and while his scoring stats won’t blow anyone away, he’s done exactly what was asked of him: keep a young and unstable Sabers team in the game.

Buffalo is not going to have a Cinderella run. He’s not expected to knock out Boston, Carolina or New Jersey if he makes the playoffs. Better days are ahead for a young and extremely talented core. But all the talk around the 2022-23 Sabers has been about their limits, and they’re starting to kick down the door. If we embrace a limitless future for the Sabers, they are instantly the best – or at the very least, the most fun team in the bubble.

More from Yahoo Sports

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *