Are you ready? We’re back to the 82-game regular season format, which means more joy and also more pain. It’s a roller coaster of emotions every season because there are always surprises, and the good ones can make us feel like geniuses while the bad ones feel like belly flopping into an empty pool.
But we’re all gluttons for punishment, so we might as well stay as informed as we can to later rationalize why the fantasy hockey gods hate you. Yes, they specifically hate you.
2021-22 Fantasy Outlook: Buffalo Sabres
Last season: A last-place finish with just 15 wins was the nail on the coffin for what was supposed to be a very promising young core with Rasmus Ristolainen, Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel, who were taken in consecutive years during the great tank-a-thon of 2013-15. It’s a shame we never got to see this core reach its potential because it was truly a talented bunch, but now it’s the ultimate cautionary tale of what happens when the lottery picks don’t pan out like you think they would. The Sabres extended their playoff drought to 10 seasons, the longest active streak in the league. Only the MLB’s Seattle Mariners (19 seasons) and the NBA’s Sacramento Kings (15 seasons) have longer active streaks among the big four North American leagues.
Best option: Jack Eichel, C.
Eichel will not be ready for the start of the season and as of this writing remains a Buffalo Sabre even though he’s been expected to be traded for a few months now. That aside, you can’t discount Eichel’s ability, and when healthy, he’s a terrifying offensive player who can go end-to-end at any moment. During the 2019-20 season when he scored 36 goals and 78 points in 68 games, Eichel ranked ninth in G/GP (0.53) and 14th in P/GP (1.15). Even if Eichel plays 50 games, his scoring will still probably outpace even the best second-line players who play 82 games, and he’s talented enough to perhaps warrant a keeper spot. Eichel’s future is uncertain, but he’s well worth the risk for fantasy managers if he can get back on the ice this season.
Hidden gem: Casey Mittelstadt, LW/C.
Mittelstadt was the sharpest Sabre down the stretch, scoring 16 points in his last 21 games and reminded everyone why he was the eight overall pick in 2017. In retrospect, he should’ve stayed at the University of Minnesota for another season, but he’s certainly ready for a full-time NHL role now. Only Eichel, Reinhart and Victor Olofsson had a higher P/GP than Mittelstadt (0.54), who will fill a very important offensive role; he’s just one of two returning Sabres who finished with a double-digit total in goals. Mittelstadt and Anaheim’s Trevor Zegras are two of the most talented young playmakers who will be playing top-six roles for their clubs, giving them more fantasy value compared to similar players on better teams laden with quality depth.
Goalies: It’s “avoid at all costs” with Craig Anderson and Aaron Dell. Anderson is chasing 300 career wins and needs just nine victories, but he played in just two full regular-season games last season and started against Aaron Dell and Alex Lyon. For Anderson, he needs the other guy at the end of the ice to be worse than him to win games, but Arizona is the only team who may have a worse tandem with former Sabre Carter Hutton and rookie Josef Korenar.
Outlook: If you ever hear someone say the Sabres look good, they’re talking about their jerseys. Asides from Taylor Hall and Brandon Montour, who were traded during the season, an additional three of their top eight scorers will not return; Eichel is injured, and Reinhart and Ristolainen were traded over the summer. Mittelstadt, Cozens and Rasmus Dahlin have to carry the team out of necessity, and on most nights, they’ll be overmatched through no fault of their own. Olofsson is definitely worth a low-round pick if he’s available because he’s a high-volume shooter who will likely lead the team in shots and goals. Excluding Eichel’s 83-point projection in the Pool Guide, Olofsson will be the Sabres’ top scorer with 56 points, but barely among the league’s top 100.