Matt Savoie’s early return to juniors underscores Sabres’ depth issues at forward

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Matt Savoie had a long windup to his NHL debut Friday night. The Buffalo Sabres’ 2022 first-round pick spent last season in the WHL and came into training camp hoping to win a roster spot. Instead, he injured his elbow and shoulder in the final game of the rookie tournament and missed the entirety of the preseason.

The silver lining was that he was eligible for a conditioning stint with the Rochester Americans. Under the CHL’s agreement with the NHL, Savoie was otherwise ineligible to play in the AHL this season because he’s one day too old. The Sabres weren’t able to get a special exemption for him the way the Seattle Kraken did for Shane Wright, in part because Savoie played one season in the USHL during COVID-19, so he didn’t have as many CHL games as Wright did.

The Sabres were glad Savoie got those AHL games, though. He had five points in six games. Then, because of injuries, the Sabres had a roster spot available to call Savoie up and get him into a game this week. Savoie’s parents took the red-eye flight from Alberta to be there for his debut on Friday night against the Wild.

But that’s when the Sabres gave the clearest indication of how they felt about Savoie’s readiness for the NHL. Savoie played just 3 minutes, 55 seconds across five shifts and didn’t play for the last 24:56 as the Sabres beat the Wild 3-2. Less than 24 hours later, the Sabres announced they had assigned Savoie back to his WHL team in Wenatchee.

Don Granato said the Sabres felt fortunate that they were able to get him that experience, especially after he missed most of camp and all of the preseason. He wishes Savoie could develop in the AHL this season, but the rules are what they are. He believes that Savoie will benefit from the time he spent around the Sabres, even if most of it was in a practice setting.

The timing of the move was curious, though, given how shaky the Sabres’ bottom six forwards have been. Savoie going back to juniors cleared the way for the Sabres to activate defenseman Mattias Samuelsson off of injured reserve. Granato elected to use 11 forwards and seven defensemen for the second time this season in a 4-0 loss to the Penguins on Saturday. That helped them ease Samuelsson back into action while limiting Erik Johnson’s workload on the second half of a back-to-back.

But the result was a forward group that was thin. The Sabres didn’t have Alex Tuch in the lineup as he missed his second straight game with an upper-body injury, though he’ll likely be back next week. Tuch’s absence began when Dylan Cozens returned from missing two games with injuries he sustained in a fight a week earlier. They haven’t been in the lineup together since the Sabres’ loss to the Flyers more than a week ago.

Peyton Krebs was scratched from the lineup, but Granato said it wasn’t a case of Krebs needing a reset after his ice time dwindled in recent games. Granato told reporters after the game, “There’s more to it. I’ll follow up on that later.”

Krebs has one point in 14 games this season and had fewer than nine minutes of ice time in three straight games before coming out of the lineup on Saturday. Whatever the reason for his absence, it added another wrench to the forward situation.

Even when Tuch returns, the Sabres have questions to answer about how they’re going to fill out their forward lineup. If Savoie isn’t going to be a possible solution, who is? Victor Olofsson was back in the lineup Saturday, but he’s done little to change the Sabres’ mind about him. He has one point in nine games, has been a healthy scratch six times this season and once again played less than 10 minutes against the Penguins.

Lukas Rousek doesn’t yet have a point in his four games since getting called up from the AHL and is a minus-two in those games. The Sabres began their game Saturday with Rousek on the second line with Casey Mittelstadt and Jordan Greenway. Rousek doesn’t project as a top-six player, especially at this stage of his career. Brandon Biro, who came up from the AHL before Rousek, landed on injured reserve after two games. Zach Benson, who is a year younger than Savoie, grabbed a roster spot with a strong training camp and had two assists in six games, but he’s also on injured reserve with a lower-body injury.

What the ice time trends show is that Granato is having trouble finding enough forwards that he trusts. Zemgus Girgensons, Tyson Jost and Kyle Okposo have formed a solid fourth line lately, but because of the Sabres’ forward situation, Granato is using them as a third line in terms of minutes played. And that group isn’t generating enough offense to be playing that often.

Which brings us back to Savoie. The Sabres don’t have enough answers in their forward group, and still, they only gave Savoie 3:55 in one game before sending him back to the WHL. He looked sharp in his brief stint in Rochester, but Granato and general manager Kevyn Adams don’t yet view him as an answer to their current problem.

“He’s so young,” Granato told reporters. “He doesn’t have any real experience yet. And he had to deal with that injury which is really tough when a guy that age is injured in training camp. You know our prospect pool. We have Rosen and Kulich and on and on in Rochester right now. (Savoie) is progressing and we wanted to do what we could to help that progression. I believe the longer we were able to keep him around here the more insight he could get and the more hindsight he could get as well. He took a lot of hindsight from camp last year and came back better. And I’m certain this will help him every day he was here just knowing his personality.”

That’s not an indictment on Savoie or his development, but it still leaves the Sabres with a problem. Maybe the aforementioned Isak Rosen and Jiri Kulich could be close to a call-up. Both have 13 points in 12 games in the AHL after strong debut seasons in North America last year. Rosen is only 20 years old and still adding strength, while Kulich is 19 and showing signs of establishing his all-around game. Neither would help the youngest team in the NHL get more experienced scoring in the lineup, but the offensive potential is tempting for a team that is still trying to find its scoring touch.

The Sabres are 27th in the NHL with five power-play goals this season. At five-on-five, they have the ninth most goals and are 17th in expected goals, according to Natural Stat Trick. But getting shut out by the Penguins on Saturday underscored the offensive inconsistency this team is dealing with. After finishing top three in goals last season, the Sabres have been average offensively to start the season. This was the risk Adams ran when he brought back the same forward group from last season unchanged.

They’re still 7-7-1 and firmly in contention in the eastern conference, but this is the time when the Sabres should be forming their identity as a team, not figuring out which players will be on the team. Injuries are part of this and will resolve. But Tuch won’t solve every issue. And if the Sabres can’t find answers within the organization soon, Adams will need to show the urgency to look outside to bolster this lineup.

(Photo: Bill Wippert / NHLI via Getty Images)

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