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

The Sabres are buzzing and giving starved Buffalo hockey fans a lot to cheer for.

The Buffalo Sabres, propelled by young stars like Tage Thompson and Rasmus Dahlin, are heading towards their first playoff appearance since 2011. (Getty Images)

The brimming potential of the Buffalo Sabres is finally being realized, but until recently, there has been a tendency to attach qualifiers to this year’s team. They’re exciting but they’re a year away. Owen Power looks like a perennial All-Star in a few years. Rasmus Dahlin should have initially been named an All-Star, if the NHL actually knew what it was doing with its annual showcase. Tage Thompson should be a Hart Trophy candidate, but Buffalo’s team record will inflame his candidacy.

Throw all the qualifiers away. Buffalo is rocking with a 6-2-2 record in its last ten games and is on the verge of the playoffs, hovering just outside a wild card spot prior to Friday’s action. There are few teams that have been more fun — we’ll place the New Jersey Devils in a class alone — and after converting on a multitude of high first-round picks, the Sabres have arrived ahead of schedule. They’re the most fun team in the postseason bubble and it’s time to give them their flowers without any reservations.

To be clear, Buffalo’s bid is contingent upon Tage Thompson’s health. Thompson left Wednesday’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes with an upper-body injury and did not return, ruling him out of an appearance at the All-Star Game (Dahlin will be representing the Sabres in his stead).

If you want to qualify this season as Thompson’s breakout year, have at it. Last year, Thompson posted 68 points, but he catapulted into the NHL’s elite during 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 league’s most fun players to watch.

Using his 6-foot-6 frame to his full advantage, Thompson has developed into a spectacular playmaker. He can fend off defenders with ease, and is willing to weave in and out of traffic with his nearly unmatched reach. If Thompson gets a head of steam, look out. There’s simply no telling where he will distribute the puck, if he’ll get a shot off, or in what’s becoming his signature, make a hard cut and toss a bullet pass across his body, the rough-equivalent to a no-look pass while Euro-stepping in basketball.

This is just one example. In the overtime period, at 4-on-4, Thompson is simply unguardable. He could’ve shot from a prime scoring location, but instead he went to his backhand to find an open Owen Power for the overtime winner against the Dallas Stars on Jan. 23.

Thompson is using his frame, reach and flair for the spectacular to become one of the NHL’s preeminent goal scorers. Just look at what he did to St. Louis Blues. After receiving a feed from Alex Tuch, Thompson so effortlessly toe-drags around his defender, before casually beating Jordan Binnington on his backhand. He’s making it look so easy.

The 25-year-old ranks seventh in shots, 11th in individual expected goals and second in points at 5-on-5 via Natural Stat Trick. He’s a walking scoring chance. And when he can contort his body like a gymnast, with a set of soft hands that could fool any goalie, he is a veritable nightmare.

Although the Sabres are rather imbalanced when it comes to scoring, they’re not a one-man team. Rasmus Dahlin was one of the biggest omissions from this year’s All-Star Game (until he stepped in for the injured Thompson) and he’s likely going to end up as a finalist for the Norris Trophy. Dahlin, the former first-overall pick, posted 14 goals and 55 points in 49 games, shattering his previously established career highs, while logging over 26 minutes per game.

Dahlin has an absolute cannon of a slapshot and much like Thompson, he uses the threat of his shot, along with his ability to box out smaller opponents to create space for his teammates. He’s not always going to make the flashiest plays defensively, but he’s an offensive dynamo. A few years ago, I likened Tampa Bay Lightning star Victor Hedman — who in many ways is the prototype for Dahlin — to Manchester City midfielder Kevin de Bruyne, on the merits of their long-range passing excellence.

The 22-year-old has adopted those same qualities. Just look at this seeing-eye pass from a mile away to spring Dylan Cozens for a breakaway goal against the New York Islanders’ highly structured set defense.

Dahlin is becoming a folk hero in Buffalo, too. He wrote a personal essay to the Sabres fan base in January and with the Bills out of the NFL postseason, he knows his team is the new darling of Western New York.

“Now we're almost at the All-Star break, and we're in the race. We all know where we are in the standings and what these games mean,” Dahlin wrote. “But the only way we can reach our goal is by keeping the same mindset. Just keep getting better, one day at a time. Earn it.

“We'll see where it takes us, but we are excited to be on this journey together. I am so proud to play here - to call the guys in this room my brothers, and to call this city home.”

Dahlin’s ascension naturally leads to an optimistic pathway for Owen Power. Like Dahlin before him, Power was the first-overall pick in 2021. And much like Dahlin, Power is a towering figure on the blue line, with high-end offensive skills that need to be cultivated and furnished. A popular pre-season candidate to win the Calder Trophy, Power is showing why he could join Dahlin and Thompson quickly as the next face of the franchise.

Power is a tremendous skater for his size, with tremendous vision and a booming shot. He outright dominated the first iteration of the 2022 World Juniors where he looked like a man amongst boys, and now playing against the best competition in the world, Power appears to be rapidly improving and is quickly joining elite company. Power is primarily paired with Henri Jokiharju and this duo has produced middling results. When Power is paired up with Dahlin, they control a 52 percent share of the expected goals at 5-on-5 — it’s not a spectacular figure, but it’s not bad by any means, and considering that both players are about four years from hitting their primes, the Sabres ought to be salivating.

Cozens has emerged as a breakout talent for the Sabres with a first-line skill set. It took a while for Cozens to blossom but the 21-year-old has posted 17 goals and 43 points in 49 games, and it doesn’t seem like a risk to suggest that he could be a point-per-game player by next season. Cozens has soft hands, inventive playmaking skills, a nasty release and natural goal-scoring instincts. He absolutely flies into the offensive zone and is counted upon to drive the Sabres’ offense due to his blistering pace. If you look at the Maple Leafs as a team full of former top-ten picks that actualized into an elite regular season team, Cozens works as the William Nylander parable.

With veterans like Jeff Skinner and Alex Tuch to supplement a young and improving offense, the Sabres ought to scare the hell out of the fellow teams on the bubble. Dahlin, Power, Cozens and Jack Quinn are all former top-eight picks who are still approaching their respective primes and it’s all beginning to come together for the talented yet inexperienced upstart.

Goaltending is always the final domino and the Sabres have put together a fairly odd pairing. Craig Anderson, the NHL’s oldest active player, has formed a unique partnership with Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Buffalo’s 23-year-old prized prospect that is becoming a genuine asset. Luukkonen in particular has been nearly unbeatable since Dec. 4 and though his counting stats won’t blow anyone away, he’s done exactly what’s been asked of him: keep a young, volatile Sabres team in the game.

Buffalo isn’t going to go on a Cinderella run. It isn’t expected to knock off Boston or Carolina or New Jersey if it makes it to the playoffs. Better days are ahead for a young and supremely talented core. But all the discussion around the 2022-23 Sabres has been about their limitations, and they’re beginning to kick down the door. If we embrace a limitless future for the Sabres, they’re instantaneously the best — or at the very least, the most fun team among the bubble.

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