By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The Buffalo Sabres are off on a three-game road trip now that a 4-3 loss to Washington on Friday night at the KeyBank Center is in the books. The entire team will be off to Philadelphia for a Sunday afternoon game. The more interesting question, though, is this: Who exactly will be on the team when it comes back?
As you’ll be reminded a few dozen times in the near future, the NHL trading deadline is 3 p.m. on Monday. Buffalo already has dealt Eric Staal to Montreal, where he scored an overtime winner in his first game as a member of the Canadiens. (Sometimes the hockey gods look down on Buffalo and laugh.)
Then on Friday, the Sabres claimed Drake Caggiula off waivers from Arizona. He has one goal and six assists in 27 games this season. His time of arrival is uncertain because of quarantine rules, but he’ll be appreciated whenever he arrives in Buffalo. A forward with some NHL experience is welcome around these parts, especially if other players are dealt.
General manager Kevyn Adams isn’t done, of course. Taylor Hall has been sitting and watching the last few games. The Sabres don’t want to risk getting him hurt by playing him in the games before the deadline. It’s understandable under the circumstances, although the way his season has gone, perhaps a few goals this past week could have upped his value.
The other major unrestricted free agent on the roster besides Hall is Brandon Montour. The defenseman’s game has picked up recently, and he’s talked like a veteran leader in some of the media interviews during the past few weeks. I suppose Tobias Rider and Riley Sheahan also could go somewhere as UFAs, although they might not fetch too much in the open market. Therefore, what would be the point?
As Adams ponders what the roster is going to look like going forward, he may see a reason to think that all of that losing and hardship in the past several weeks has had an unexpected benefit. Some of the team’s young players have thrived – relatively speaking – when given a chance to play some important minutes.
Exhibit A is Casey Mittelstadt, who had been something of a disappointment since arriving as a first-round draft choice late in the 2017-18 season. Mittelstadt had been considered one of the top junior forwards in the world, but had been frequently invisible in the three years since then. But with openings at center because of the Staal trade and Jack Eichel’s injury, the 22-year-old moved over from right wing and looks like a much better player.
“I just think I’ve had time to grow up,” he said Friday night. “That’s it more than anything. I don’t know if it‘s on the ice more than off the ice – getting ready to play, taking care of my body. You get in what you put out, and I’m trying to get better at that. It’s part of growing up.”
Coach Don Granato noticed Casey’s competitive level has improved. “That’s what he needed to raise,” he said. “He’s done that. He’s made that step, and his skill is seen. We knew he was a skill player, highly skilled player, and now you jump to this level and it’s a competitive environment.”
Then there’s Tage Thompson, the former No. 1 pick of the Blues in 2016. Granted the winger has been plagued with injury issues during much of his time here, but he has been involved in the play more often lately.
“The nice thing is, you can only push a guy in accordance to his confidence,” Granato said. “You’re the coach, so the other team is pushing the player. He lines up with an accomplished NHL player. If the player is not confident, and you start pushing him, they may break. With Tage, he’s at a place that he can be pushed hard, and he’s responding. He shot the puck more, he had a drive to the net. That’s the difference.”
Both Mittelstadt and Thompson had a goal on Friday night. You probably can add someone like Rasmus Asplund to the list of developing prospects. He demonstrated some serious hockey skills when he turned up in the Sabres’ rookie camp, but they never seemed to translate into play on the ice in Buffalo. Now, it looks like he has a chance to be an NHL player.
We don’t know if these players will be flash bulbs with a burst that fades away, or if they can display real, sustainable growth. But if the Sabres can add that improving group to some other veterans who are known quantities, then maybe, just maybe, there’s some hope in the relatively near future. That might make a difference when Adams takes calls from other GMs in the next few days.
As for the game …
Do you believe in moral victories? No? No one in the NHL does.
Still, the Sabres could have crumbled against a very good Washington team. The Capitals never trailed in the game, taking a 2-0 lead in the first 12 minutes and never losing it. Buffalo kept close, scoring three different times when down by two goals to make the game at least interesting. Both teams had 33 shots.
It certainly was a better performance by Buffalo than its showing on Thursday, a loss to the Devils.
“The effort had to be better and I was happy to see the players had a bad taste in their mouth,” Granato said. “This morning the mood was quiet but very businesslike. They wanted a little redemption. They showed effort and resolve despite trailing early and late. You’re not going to get better if you don’t compete that hard. We pushed it hard. The outcome – we’re not happy about that. But the other components were where they should be.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)