3 Sabres Players Poised for Breakouts in 2023-24

The Buffalo Sabres have a lot of young talent still running rampant on their roster, and with so many of them having breakout years in 2022-23, there are a number of candidates to do so this season. With the offense being their bread and butter, there are bound to be a few forwards that put up career numbers, while some others continue the scoring pace of the previous year. Defensively, they have some work to do, and the goaltending is still the biggest wild card, so there is a lot of potential there for career years.

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Players like Tage Thompson, Rasmus Dahlin, Jeff Skinner, and Alex Tuch are the stars of this team. They all put up the best numbers of their careers last season, so the likelihood of them all having such inflated numbers again is possible, but unlikely. On the flip side of them, are a handful of players that had good years, but still have the potential for far more given their likely increased roles with the team. While some possible players like Casey Mittelstadt or Owen Power feel like the obvious choices, I feel that Mittelstadt will be on a similar points pace as he was last season and that Power will only bump his point totals by around 10, so that wouldn’t be much of a breakout just yet.

Connor Clifton, Defenseman

One of the Sabres’ best offseason moves was acquiring a physical defender in Connor Clifton via free agency. He had a solid season with the Boston Bruins scoring five goals and 23 points in 78 games, as well as putting up a rock-solid 208 hits and 120 blocked shots. His defending style should mesh perfectly with someone like Power on the Sabres’ back end, so he will be put in a lot more scoring scenarios. With his willingness to play a two-way physical game, he has the ability to put up some personal records this season.

Connor Clifton Boston Bruins
Connor Clifton, Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

So far, Clifton has been a good third-pairing defender, but Buffalo needs someone like him to round out their top-four. Given the right opportunities and ice time, he could easily eclipse the 40-point mark. On top of that, given the Sabres’ offensive style of play, he has a big shot from the point he can use, and he could also break the 10-goal mark. If he plays with him, Power will be more of a playmaking defender rather than a shooter, so Clifton will be the one putting the puck on goal, and that will be a huge reason for his breakout in 2023-24.

Devon Levi, Goaltender

With goaltending currently being the biggest question for the Sabres, there ultimately needs to be a player who steps up and claims the starting position. The battle between Devon Levi and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen will be tough all the way through, but I feel that Levi has the advantage. He had an amazing stretch of pressure games last season, and he looked like he had the confidence of head coach Don Granato. There is still room for improvement, but ultimately, Levi has the right attitude and skills to have a breakout rookie year. It isn’t often that there is a legitimate opportunity for a 21-year-old goaltender to win a stater position right out of training camp, but general manager Kevyn Adams did not get any new goalies via free agency this offseason, so that leaves the two youngsters to fight for the crease.

Devon Levi Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen Buffalo Sabres
Devon Levi and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen of the Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Levi had an amazing season in college last year (despite his team being average) posting a 17-12-5 record and a 2.24 goals-against average (GAA), along with a .933 save percentage (SV%). His season granted him a contract with the Sabres and he was brought in to play a couple of weeks later. While Buffalo was in a playoff hunt, he posted a 5-2-0 record along with a 2.94 GAA and a .905 SV%. While his NHL numbers haven’t been staggering just yet, he passed the eye test better than every other goalie the Sabres had who wasn’t named Craig Anderson. Levi is poised for a huge year, and he will be one of the better Calder Trophy candidates by the end of the season. I think he could put up a 27-15-4 record in his rookie year along with a 2.56 GAA and a .912 SV%.

JJ Peterka, Winger

JJ Peterka had a lot of hype surrounding him going into the 2022-23 season, as he had a dominant season in the minors the year prior, and he showed a lot of promise in international play. When the season came around, he had a hot start but fizzled out at other points in the season. By the end of the year, he had some respectable numbers (77 games, 12 goals, 20 assists, 32 points) but it was visible by his demeanor towards the end of the season that he expected more out of himself. Since then, Peterka went on to play in the World Championship for his home country Germany, and he was arguably the best player in the tournament. He scored six goals and six assists in 10 games and was the most noticeable player on the ice for Germany in every game.

Continuing that momentum, Peterka has been shown in a slew of videos throughout the offseason displaying the work he has been putting in for this season. Combining his work ethic with his determination as a player will produce some awesome results for both him and the Sabres. Last season he primarily played on the Sabres’ “Kid Line” with Dylan Cozens and Jack Quinn. This season he will likely continue his role in the top-six group alongside Cozens but with additional experience under his belt. This invaluable NHL and international experience will be what projects Peterka to be a huge breakout candidate. I genuinely believe that he will be a 60-point player this season, effectively doubling his points from 2022-23.

Sabres Have A Lot Of Potential Breakout Candidates

These three are the players that I believe have the biggest breakout potential of all the roster, but Buffalo has a lot of others that have the capacity for big years in 2023-24. Power could possibly become an assist machine and throw up a 60-point season himself, Cozens could become a 40-goal scorer and point-per-game player, Jack Quinn could come back from injury and go on an absolute tear in the second half of the season, and Victor Olofsson could bust out of his shell and be a 30-plus goal scorer for the first time.

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Between Levi, Clifton, and Peterka there is a lot of potential for high-end play, but it will ultimately come down to how well the team performs as a whole. Each of them will have the chance to influence the team’s success in their own way, and each will give the Sabres a boost in the areas they needed help last season. Peterka adding to the primary scoring that isn’t named Tuch, Skinner, or Thompson, Clifton adding to the hit totals, and Levi stabilizing the goaltending will make a world of difference. Now it is up to them to show they can build on last season and become the players they need to be. Expectations may be high, but all of them have the right talent and work ethic to meet them so the Sabres can finally make it into the playoff race.

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